Derrynane: Something for Everyone

The famous Ring of Kerry Road whisks visitors around the Iveragh Peninsula in a day long montage of dramatic scenery, twisting roads, ocean views, wandering sheep, and stone ruins. The drive is spectacular, but visitors can better appreciate the real beauty of the area by getting off the tourist path and into the countryside.

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One of the most photographed views in Ireland is at the Coomakista Pass. After driving through some progressively narrower and twistier roads, the large parking area at Coomakista provides a much needed break for the driver, and a chance for all to get out and see the striking views of green fields running down to sparkling water, with the islands of Deenish and Scariff pointing up out of the ocean beyond. It is an idyllic panorama, and for those who can take the time to do more than snap a few photos and drive away, there is much to explore here off the tourist road.

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Derrynane National Historic Park is tucked into a sheltered fold of protected land between the mountain and the ocean, just below the Coomakista path, and is a spectacular spot to explore. Home to the O’Connell family from 1702 to 1964, the Derrynane House is now under the care of the Irish government. The thoughtfully restored manor house turned museum is an excellent destination for those who would like to learn more about Irish history, and particularly about the Liberator of Ireland, Daniel O’Connell.

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The beautifully restored gardens are a draw for horticulturalists. The climate in Derrynane is very mild due to the Gulf Stream just offshore, and tropical plants such as palm trees and tree ferns grace the gardens. There is a South American collection of plants as well as numerous rhododendron, azalea, and hydrangea varieties. A spectacular variety of echium over 12’ high is a real show stopper and a pathway that winds through a gunnera forest delights the kids and grownups alike.

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Kids and grownups also love the woodland paths with the hidden fairy houses throughout the woods. The hardwood forest is a beautiful place to wander, and the pathways lead past several heritage sites. There are the remains of an old stone ringfort and sou’terrain along one path, and another takes you to Daniel O’Connell’s round summer house. Throughout the paths though, are little fairy houses, most placed at the level for the youngest visitors to best enjoy.

The long crescent of Derrynane Beach stretches from sand dunes to historic house to the ruins on Abbey Island far beyond. The brilliant turquoise blue of the water and the wild backdrop of dunes make Derrynane Beach a favorite of all who visit. The Derrynane Seashore Nature Trail leads through the sand dunes and marks areas of ecological significance, the outcroppings of rock make for rewarding tide pool explorations, and the rhythm of the waves advancing to shore in this sheltered bay create a mesmerizing rhythm that may just engrave itself into your soul and pull you back to Derrynane again and again. It has had that effect on me.

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Gardens and Wildflowers of Ireland's Southwest

Primroses flowering atop a stone wall.

Primroses flowering atop a stone wall.

I was raised on those English stories in which primroses dot the woods and foxgloves fill the hedgerows. When I began gardening on my own and tried growing these flowers, it quickly became apparent that in my Vermont garden, those stories were the stuff of fairy tales.

Fuschia along the roadside.

Fuschia along the roadside.

As an avid gardener, visits to Ireland’s southwest coast are always full of spectacular surprises however, as some of those fairy tales blossom before my eyes. Ireland’s Iveragh peninsula (the “Ring of Kerry”) juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf Coast channels warm waters to the region year round. So, while Ireland never gets really hot, it also never gets really cold, which allows for an amazing diversity of flowers and plants, as well as a very long growing season.

Wild orchid.

Wild orchid.

On an early trip to Derrynane, I was amazed to find pale yellow primroses literally dotting the forest floor as I walked through the park, and last year in May I got to see foxgloves flowering in the ditches, on stones walls, and in those hedgerows from the stories of my youth. Tall fuschia hedges grow wild along the roadsides, and I have seen it in flower as early as April and as late as November. Wild orchids can be found in bogs and pasture land.

There are some spectacular gardens in this area that take advantage of the temperate climate. Tree peonies and tree ferns grow here, as well as eucalyptus trees, stands of bamboo, and rhododendrons that grow to tree height. The long growing season means that plants we don’t see flowering together in the Vermont gardens I am accustomed to will be blooming at the same time in Ireland. There is always something new to see and learn when visiting an Irish garden, or wandering a hillside or back road.

Tree fern in the Derrynane Gardens.

Tree fern in the Derrynane Gardens.

Ringforts Revealed

Caherdaniel Ring Fort

Caherdaniel Ring Fort

Since my first visit to Ireland, one of the things that has struck me most profoundly is the visual history to see all around in the landscape. In North America, anything a few hundred years old is considered very old, while in Ireland you can walk among ruins that were built 1500 years ago! There are beautifully restored castles and ring forts and conserved sites throughout the county. I love to visit these, but in many way the unconserved sites just sitting in a field are even more striking to discover.

Cahergal Ringfort

Cahergal Ringfort

Last March, we spent a week in County Kerry not long after I had purchased an archaeological atlas of the Iveragh peninsula. I had poured over the contents for weeks, and then compared the listed sites to satellite images of the area. While I had found the beautifully restored ring forts of Staigue, Cahergal, and Leacanabuaile amazing feats of workmanship well worth the visit, I was surprised to find that I could pick out many other sites from the descriptions in the atlas compared against present day satellite images. I decided I would see what could be seen of these unrestored monuments during our trip.

Our first foray was down the hill from our house. My son and I went out early one morning, and while I had a sense of where I expected to find this ring fort, it took my son’s sharp and unbiased eyes to point out to me what was in front of us. I scanned the distant field where I expected to find it, and he pointed out that just belowe the overlook we had climbed was a round stone wall in a field. Climbing down to examine it, it was obvious that in this pasture was the remains of the ancient ring fort we were seeking. There was a clearly marked round stone wall, perhaps thirty feet in diameter, with an outer ring partially visible through the brambles and holly that had grown up around the stones. It was our first find, and thrilling to realize that this ancient structure, built sometime between 500-1000AD was still discernible if you knew where to look.

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The next one we found was easily seen on the satellite map. It was in a field between two houses, and had newer a stone wall bisecting the old structure. We set out to walk to the area on a beautiful morning, enjoying the stunning greens of the pasture, the young lambs frisking in the fields, the blue of the ocean in the distance. We stopped at one point to watch some rabbits hopping about the pasture, and it wasn’t until we had been staring at them in the distance for several minutes that it occurred to me what we were staring at. This field had a stone wall down the middle, and on either side was the slight outline of a rounded shape, the faint remains of the ring fort we were seeking! Had it not been for the rabbits we might have passed it by without ever noticing the underlying structure that revealed the ancient architecture still faintly visible.

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Our final find that trip was perhaps the most intact structure, but in an overgrown field that made it hard to see all that we were looking at. Though the structure was just off the road, we found ourselves scrambling up a slippery slope, with nothing but brambles to grasp to pull us up. Soaked through, we finally made it to the site of the fort, which was situated with a commanding view out over Derrynane Bay. The entrance to the structure was flanked by two upright slabs. As I explored the inner ring of the fort, my son discovered the remains of a souterrain, an underground chamber, within the thick stone wall. Outside the fort was a second wall, which created a rounded a laneway, partially obstructed by holly trees and gorse. Our explorations were cut short when the skies opened and we were soaked by a spring shower, but I hope to return to this remarkable spot someday.

Susan climbs out of a souterrain.

Susan climbs out of a souterrain.

People have lived on these lands for millennia, and the gentle climate, where the ground never freezes, allows for remarkable stability of the built heritage of the area. If you find yourself in Ireland, I hope you can take some to just wander and allow the countryside to reveal its hidden treasures. There is much to see, whether labeled and marketed or left quietly in a field.

Curative Waters

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In Ireland, many natural springs have been associated with sacred sites and curative properties for much longer than histories have been recorded. Holy wells abound in Ireland, and as with many Christian icons can be traced back through the ages to even earlier times. Some are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, others to local, lesser known saints, and many carry the promise of special curative powers. Traditionally, many wells had special days of celebration and “patterns” or walking rituals that would be performed on the saint’s day to bring about healing.

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One such site is the Dromore Holy well situated in woodland along Kenmare Bay. One misty day we stopped to explore the enticing path that led through a gap in the stone wall. Down through the ivy cover woods we followed the well marked path, and appreciated the stone steps laid out in the steeper areas which made the journey quite easy. Despite the winds and rain along the road, tucked down in the under story of the woods we were quite dry as we made our way among the ferns and fuschia bordering the path.

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The spring trickles beneath the roots of two large trees, with mossy stones bounding the edges. This quiet spot on a wooded hillside seems just the place to come for curative waters, and to leave behind a token in exchange for the restoration you receive here. Some visitors leave a rock,a shell, or a coin on the stone ledge. Others tie a small piece of cloth to a tree branch. Whether you place your faith in the Christian saints, the Goddess, the fairies, or mother Nature you are likely to leave here feeling closer to your own inner peace.

In Which a Flexible Itinerary Saves the Day

The apartment we were renting overlooked the stunning scenery of Derrynane Harbor with a view out to Deenish and Scariff Islands and the Atlantic Ocean beyond. On this March morning that straight shot out to the Atlantic also meant buffeting winds and driving rain that had us trapped at the kitchen table discussing our plans for the day. Weather is very changeable in Ireland, and the rugged geography in County Kerry also contributes to different weather in areas that are not too far distant. We decided that we would drive inland and see if the weather was better for outdoor explorations once we got to the Killarney National Park, and if not maybe we would explore Killarney town.

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We made a mad dash for the car and set off on our travels. Over the Coomkista Pass to Waterville the road was exposed and the rain continued to lash at the car, but soon we turned inland following the road up to the Ballaghisheen Pass. This was a new road for us, and since today was a day of exploration it seemed like a good day to try a new route. This road follows the Inny River up a fertile valley between encroaching mountain ridges. The road wound between fields filled with sheep and we remarked on the plight of these very wet animals. Soon the Inny River was showing its wild side as it overflowed the banks and spread out over the surrounding fields. The sheep in these fields now faced more than just drenching rain as the river waters rose around them, and we passed by wondering how these sheep would fare if the rain did not let up.

The road was beautiful, passing through a wooded glen and then crossing the river via an arched stone bridge. Soon after the bridge a small stream had leaped its bed and was instead surging down the middle of the road and bubbling off to the other side some thirty feet downstream. We pulled over and contemplated our next actions. While we wondered about the safety of crossing this gushing water, a farm truck approached from the opposite direction, paused, and then plowed through. Clearly, the right vehicle could make it through without trouble, but was our rental vehicle the right vehicle? We decided that on a sparsely traveled road we didn’t know, heading up into the mountains, perhaps was not the time to see how much water the little car could drive through. Our plans aborted, we turned around, and decided instead to explore a side ride leading off past Knockroe Bog and on to Cahersiveen. We’d stop in for a meal at Fertha’s Bar, and then decide whether to take another route to Killarney or strike out in a different direction.

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Many of my favorite discoveries have not been planned excursions but just slow wanderings that allow us to take in whatever we pass by. Today was one such day; as we made our way down towards town, we passed the remains of a church and a small burial ground. We pulled over and despite the rain we got out to explore. This being the land of the O’Connells, we found many headstones bearing our name, as well as rows and rows of small stone markers with no engraving at all. It was a beautiful place and exploring the burial ground and then the medieval church ruins was all the more atmospheric for the rain that soaked us.

Now thoroughly wet through, we were grateful for the warmth of the snug at Fertha’s Bar, and soon were happily sipping Irish coffees and hot cocoas. We watched the world go by our window as we packed away a hearty meal, and as we were finishing our food, the skies cleared! Off we went to take advantage to the break in weather, first driving over to Valentia and stopping at the car park for the path to Bray Head. The wind was brisk, and as we considered whether to walk up to the tower the weather grew more severe, with gusts of wind and rain that kept us from traipsing off across the pastures.

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Our next stop was at the Kerry Cliffs, where luck was with us as the rain held off. We walked the short walk up to peer over the fence at the steep, stunning cliffs and the sea birds wheeling along the air currents. For the rest of the day we dodged the rain as we traveled along the Skellig Ring, a small road that leads over the mountain from Portmagee to St. Finian’s Bay then along to Ballinskelligs. We enjoyed the beautiful scenery, visited with locals out walking their dogs, stopped to view the Coom Wedge Tomb which is situated in a boggy field looking out to Ballinskelligs Bay. Our last stop of the day was at Ballinskelligs Beach, where we walked out to the ruins of the McCarthy Castle and up to the abbey beyond.

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Our wanderings took us nowhere near where we had planned that day, but the day was filled with surprises and delightful discoveries. I find that our best times in Ireland come when we have done the research to know about many places we might like to visit, but carry the flexibility to switch plans as needed to accommodate the weather, the interests of the group, and the surprises we pass along the way.

In Search of the Canglass Blow Hole

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It was a day of intermittent showers when I set off with my husband, son, and sister to see if we could find the Canglass Blow Hole. I’d seen photos, and I had a pretty good idea from satelite maps where I thought we would find it, but our quest was far from a certain one. We poked along a tiny road beyond Cahersiveen, but we pulled over in a turnout when another car overtook us on the road.

Instead of driving past, the driver stopped as he drew alongside, rolled down his window, and asked us, “Do ye know where you are? Do ye know where you’re going?” We explained that we did know where we were, and we thought we knew where we were going, but the hesitation in our voice must have been clear. When we revealed we were in search of the blow hole, he told us to follow him, and off he went down the road.

In a few short minutes, our mystery friend pulled in to a small turnout with just enough room for us to park as well. He directed us to head over the fence, across the stream, careful through the bog, and follow the cliff edge until we found our destination, and then he headed in the opposite direction, camera in hand to catch the light on the water by the harbor.

It was slow going. We were not following a pathway, or even a walking trail. We jumped the stream, hopped from hummock to hummock through the bog, and then followed the sheep trails along the cliffside. Our surroundings were stunning, and though the sky was foreboding over the near mountain, and showers passed out to sea towards the Blasket Islands, our luck held and we remained dry. As we picked our way along, we saw our photographer friend coming along in the distance. Since he was a much more direct walker than we were, he soon overtook us, and encouraged us along.

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After about an hours walk, we crested the hill that looked down over a rough patch of ground to where the blow hole could just be made out in the distance. Success was within reach! Some of our group were weary from the difficult trail, and others were wary of walking along the top of the cliff, but soon we made it to the Canglass Blow Hole itself. A wide land bridge separated the bay from a huge hole, over a hundred feet deep, where the ocean waves crashed in. Looking down into the blow hole, we watched sea gulls soaring beneath us, riding the air currents within the massive hole. It was a place of unrivaled beauty.

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Our serendipitous guide, Gunter, gave us several great tips and pointers, and suggested some other beautiful spots to explore. While we appreciated his advice to walk just a bit further on to a beautiful bay with cerulean blue water against stark cliffs, his finest gift to us was that of permission. Before he left he assured us of two things: that any historical site in Ireland is open to the public to explore, and that every tiny road ends with a turn around. Now as we explore unknown corners of the island, we often quote Gunter’s words of wisdom, and explore those back roads with the knowledge that no matter how narrow the lane gets, there will always be a way to turn around if we just go far enough along.

Ballycarbery Castle- Family Tale to Favorite Haunt

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I grew up hearing tales of my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Geoffrey O’Connell, Lord of Ballycarbery Castle. My imagination filled in the details of an imposing stone castle with drawbridge and gate, men on horseback, and grand halls, and my ancestor, ruling over it all. As I researched my family history I found that some of the details were embellished over time, such as Geoffrey O’Connell’s title. Rather than being a lord of the castle, he and many other generations of O’Connells served the McCarthy chieftain of the area. While my ancestors were only stewards of the castle and lands, this did not detract from the family story for me.

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I grew up well before the internet age, but my children did not. While they were learning about our family history, my oldest son asked if Ballycarbery Castle still existed. I had never considered this possibility! In my mind, the geography of this family tale was as disconnected from reality as Camelot or Narnia. Before I could register it as a possibility, my son had pulled up a photo of the present day Ballycarbery Castle on the computer, and was reading all about the history of the Ballycarbery Castle.

It was several years later that I was able to travel back to Ireland and I was determined to see if I could find Ballycarbery Castle. I was delighted to find it well marked and easily accessible. We parked the car and walked through the cow field up to the castle. Walking through the bawn, the outer wall, we found the building remains were open and easy to enter. Soon I was scrambling up an inner stairway, to emerge onto the ruins of the second floor of this amazing building. While the road-facing side of the castle is relatively intact, the back side is not, the result of cannon fire by Cromwell’s troops in the 1600’s. The upper story is open to the elements: grass grows over it, ivy covers the walls, rooks nest in the highest tower. And yet the structure of the building remains, with beautiful stone arches, arrow slit windows, and even the channel in the front wall where the portcullis once slid down over the gate.

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Since that first discovery of the real life Ballycarbery, I have returned many times. I have brought my own family members to stand in the place where our ancestors stood, and I have brought friends and tour participants. While it is understandable that it resonates with our family, I am always struck by how it affects everyone who visits it. Perhaps it is the way this ancient castle structure is clearly visible despite the centuries of abandonment, which allows the ivy and rooks to reign supreme. Whatever it is, I feel a magic in this place, and I hope some day you too will get to experience this very special spot.