By Jim Ferri
I arrived by train in Killarney, Ireland, after a three-hour train ride from Dublin that took me across some pretty Irish countryside. It was a comfortable ride, during which time I got to enjoy the wit and wisdom of my fellow Irish passengers.
I was one of the very few Americans on the train (if there were any others) since most travelers approach southwest Ireland via rental car from the capital, or from Shannon Airport, about a 1½- hour drive from the north. I wanted to experience the Irish trains, however, which I found quite comfortable, though a bit crowded on this route.
Killarney, Ireland: More Than a Tourist Town
During the short walk to my hotel it was evident why so many Americans fall in love with Killarney. With its brightly painted buildings, flowers cascading almost everywhere, horse-drawn jaunting cars, and small-town charisma, it oozes Irish charm.
That charm endures in Killarney’s many pubs where both locals and tourists come for helpings of traditional Irish food and ale, and music. In fact, you can walk down just about any street in Killarney and you’ll find ample pubs and restaurants catering to both locals and visitors.
But despite its postcard-perfect appeal, the reason most travelers come to Killarney is two-fold and lies outside the town. The first is spectacular Killarney National Park; the second, the enthralling drive about the Ring of Kerry, a 100+ mile road around the Iveragh Peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic.
If you’re ever in southwest Ireland, you’ll regret missing either. I intended to see both.
Killarney National Park
26,000-acre Killarney National Park is Ireland’s first national park. It’s a great place for hiking or just wandering about admiring the sights. After entering the park I headed to nearby Muckross House, a 19th century Victorian mansion in the National Park, and immediately fell in love with the place.
Reigning over gardens and fields and a vast forest and lake, Muckross is a national treasure of Ireland, that looks like it’s been plucked off the cover of a romance novel.
Queen Victoria stayed at Muckross in 1861, after giving six year’s notice of her intention to visit. That gave plenty of time to redecorate the place before she arrived, accompanied by a large entourage and all the trappings of the peripatetic royal household, including her own bed.
I went out there early and had the place to myself for an hour or so, when I could enjoy the beauty and serenity of the estate in the stunning quiet of the early morning. I wandered about the gardens for a while but decided to drive over to 15th-century Ross Castle, the other popular draw for tourists in the park, when the first tour bus arrived.
Sitting on the edge of Killarney’s lower lake, Ross dominates the lake and forest about it. The very first moment you see it you can’t help but think it’s the way an Irish castle should look.
You can take a tour of both Muckross and Ross (the Muckross tour is more extensive and popular), but even if you don’t plan on a tour, you’ll want to see them if you visit Killarney.
That Famous Drive: the Ring of Kerry
I would have stayed longer but I wanted to get on the road and drive the Ring of Kerry, which I hadn’t seen in about 20 years.
“Drive it counterclockwise,” the guy at the tourist office told me. “You’ll get a much better view.” I decided to heed his recommendation and set off in the direction of Killorgling.
It was a beautiful time to drive since it was not quite autumn yet and wildflowers were cascading onto the roadside. Driving with the window open, every once in a while, I’d smell peat burning in a small house nearby.
Wanting to avoid the tour-bus cavalcade that I knew was behind me, I didn’t make any stops, although I had planned to stop in Waterville, a little coastal town loved by Charlie Chaplin (there’s a bronze statue of him there), which I had once visited.
Ever since that visit to Waterville, a mental picture had stuck in my mind of the three Irishmen I had seen sitting in dark pub nursing their pints, and I wanted to revisit the place and take a photo. I also wanted to stop by a local golf club to say hello to the girlfriend of my cousin in the U.S.
As things turned out though, the pub was gone and I got so far behind timewise I couldn’t make the stop at the golf club either.
Beyond Waterville the road soon became even more serpentine and every once in a while, an oncoming lorry hugged the center line just enough to give me pause. But the scenery was beautiful, and cutouts were set along the way so you could pull over and take pictures of the spectacular view.
When I got to the highest point in the road there was a parking-lot size cutout big enough for the tour buses. I stopped and found an itinerant musician, sitting with his pet ewe and dog, serenading those who stopped by. I listened for a few minutes before continuing on towards Sneem, another colorful little town, and then on through Moll’s Gap on my way back towards Killarney.
The countryside soon turned more mountainous and the beauty of its rugged hills and valleys contrasted starkly with the softer beauty of the coast. I was surprised to find a lot of free-range sheep there and more than once came around a turn and found one standing in the middle of the road.
But the best surprise came after I got through the Gap and the road weaved back into the far side of Killarney National Park, the side many tourists never get to see.
I stopped when I saw a beautiful meadow, and on the far side near the forest saw a stag and a herd of deer grazing peacefully among the grass and wildflowers. There wasn’t a sound except the sound of the breeze in the trees. No cars, no planes overhead, no cell phones…nothing.
Sort of made up for not finding that pub in Waterville.
If you go:
Tourism Ireland http://www.ireland.com