The Ring of Kerry

I’m back in Ireland again this week and I regularly do a standard 4 day route which starts by meeting a group at Shannon airport and then spending 2 nights in the south west before heading to Dublin for 2 nights, and eventually taking the ferry from there to the UK.  But for many years now I’ve been taking groups following this itinerary on a day trip around the famous sightseeing route of the Ring of Kerry, and I thought a description of this spectacular tourist trail would make a great blog entry.

The Ring of Kerry is simply the name of a scenic drive which lasts for most of a day, around the Iveragh peninsula in the west of County Kerry, and which is very accessible from Killarney.  To do it you’d need to have your own transportation or be part of a bus tour, but there are local tour operators who will also offer this route as a day trip (check out Killarney tourist office for details).  It’s a circular route starting in the north east at Killarney and heading out of town to the west.

After passing through suburban Killarney and the edge of the National Park, you get a great view of the Killarney Mountains (the range is known as MacGillycuddy’s Reeks) which includes Ireland’s highest peak – Carrauntoohill.  Eventually you’ll come to Killorglin full of pastel coloured houses and shops, and a statue of King Puck on the left next to the bridge over the river.  The Puck Fair takes place in Killorglin every year and celebrates an event when a herd of goats stampeded into the town in the 17th century warning the townsfolk of the approach of Oliver Cromwell’s invading army .

Our first stop on the Ring of Kerry though, is at the Red Fox Inn, and the Kerry Bog Village.  This is an open-air museum with a collection of buildings reconstructed from a time when people who lived in villages like this lived of the trade of peat and peat farming, which is still a very popular domestic fuel in Ireland today.  There are also 2 Irish wolfhounds in a pen just beyond the entry gates – very placid dogs, regardless of their size!  There is also normally a peat fire burning inside one of the buildings and although peat burns with a very powerful yet sweet smell, it always somehow makes a place somehow feel very homely.  The Red Fox pub next door to the village, serve great Irish coffees – a good opportunity to warm up if your visiting on a bad weather day!

The next stop we usually just make for a photo opportunity at a spot on the roadside overlooking Dingle Bay.  The Dingle peninsula is the northernmost of County Kerry’s three finger-like land masses which reach out from the south west of Ireland into the Atlantic ocean (Beara peninsula being in the south) and Dingle has a tourist route around it which is similar yet slightly more rugged than the Ring of Kerry.  The Dave Lee movie “Ryan’s Daughter” was filmed on Dingle, as was the Tom Cruise & Nicole Kidman movie “Far & Away”.

Yesterday, our stop after looking over Dingle was at Kells Sheepdog centre, which I have stopped at for many years.  There’s an admission fee of 5EUR but it’s well worth it for the 30-minute demonstration by Brendan who is the shepherd here, and he’ll show you various different breeds of sheep before demonstrating how he works his amazing border collies to herd up the sheep.  By the time we leave here it’s almost time for lunch, and there are a few options but not many that can accommodate groups so I tend to book somewhere in order that we can all get in and get served.  Heading towards Cahersiveen though, we first pass a particularly important and famous site of Irish pilgrimage – the birthplace of the Great Liberator, Daniel O’Connell who campaigned for Catholic Emancipation in the early 1800’s which was eventually achieved in 1829.  The house is on private land today, and is in a field at the left hand side of the road before you cross a bridge over a river, but it’s preserved as it’s been left without a roof and very little of it still standing especially given the vegetation growing in and on the remaining stonework, but still a sight worth seeing for what it means to the Irish Nation alone.

Cahersiveen is a colourful town with the Daniel O’Connell Memorial church standing at the heart of town and a few shops and small tea rooms, but we tend to pass through on the way to Waterville for our lunch stop.  Waterville, on the edge of Ballinskelligs Bay, has strong connections with Charlie Chaplin, of whom there is a copper statue on the promenade.  The Butler’s Arms hotel makes Waterville a good place to stay if you’re travelling independently, otherwise groups will find one or two places to lunch here (notably The Lodge) before having a quick stroll on the sandy beach where you can paddle a little in the water if it’s not too cold!

A short drive down the road brings us to Coomakista pass which is the most southerly spot we reach on the Ring, and which is a good viewing point over Ballinskelligs Bay and the Loher Ring Fort about a mile away below the car park, and in the opposite direction a beautiful view over a series of small islands with the Beara peninsula in the background.

Our next drive takes us through changing landscape with views of the sea, sandy beaches and crystal blue bays, all beyond countryside littered with deserted and ruined houses and cottages abandoned since the potato famine of the mid 19th century, before our afternoon stop in Sneem.  This village makes a good bathroom break as there a public toilets available for free and a couple of shops selling baked produce, ice cream, and other confectionary, as well as an Irish music store.  But Sneem was the home of the legendary Casey family, and in the village square there is a statue of Steve “The Crusher” Casey who was the undisputed world heavyweight-wrestling champion for many years.

We’re almost back in Killarney now but there’s still a couple more stops, following a drive to the highest point on our journey overlooking MacGillycuddy’s Reeks again, but this time from the south, and across the beautifully green valley which carry the Jaunting car road up towards the back of the Gap of Dunloe.  The highest point we reach is Moll’s Gap where there is a shop run by the Avoca weavers, and a café, and it’s from here you continue straight on towards Kenmare, or down to the left to get to Ladies View.  From here there is an amazing view across Killarney’s Lakes towards the town.  It’s named after Queen Victoria’s Ladies-in-waiting who stopped here to admire the view when the royal party visited in the mid 1800s.

Look out for the Leprechaun crossing as you leave Ladies View – we often have to break very suddenly as they run under the bus… they move so fast as they cross the street in front of us!!!  The Leprechaun café is just beyond it too!

It’s a winding road now which leads us ever downward through tree filled woodland, full of sparkling streams and emerald groves, a couple of very interesting tunnels, and masses of Rhodendron bushes (come in May when they’re full of colourful flowers!), towards Killarney National Park.  There’s a small car park from where you can walk to the magnificent Torc Waterfall – spectacular especially after a heavy rainfall – and you’ll also pass the entrance to Muckross House and Gardens.  The house now belongs to the Irish nation and is open to the public by guided tour, but Muckross is a full day visit rather than a quick stop as there is so much to do there.  The house had a huge amount of money spent on it in preparation for the royal visit by Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their entourage in the mid 1800s, but sadly Prince Albert died shortly thereafter and subsequently the owners of the house received no recognition for their hospitality and quickly went bankrupt and having to sell the house.

By now it’s normally after 5pm and we’re only a few minutes away from Killarney so we head back to our hotel after what is normally a truly spectacular day.  The Ring of Kerry, is very much a get-on-the-bus-get-off-the-bus tour but the stops we make all offer something very different, and many are quite magical.  In fact, even after many years of journeying around this famous tourist route, I’d still love to do it independently one day as there really is so much here worth seeing and spending time to visit under my own steam, but a group tour like ours is definitely worth it as the highlights make for a really great day.