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Into Ireland's West, Part 2: A little longer in Galway and then south to County Kerry and Killarney Town

Published
May 5, 2023
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FOLLOWING on from last week, when I was in Galway City, I stayed at the Kinlay Hostel in Eyre Square: a park that is regarded as the centre of the city. The Kinlay Hostel was absolutely fantastic, with the best breakfast of any hostel in which I have stayed. What they had for breakfast was amazing: I couldn’t get over it.

Downtown Galway City. Map data ©2023 Google, north at top. The name of Eyre Square has been added for this post.

I met an American woman who had lost her bags on Air Canada, just as I had once, so she had been in the same clothes for three days. We walked around and went to the canal area. We went to a restaurant and bar called the Caribou where the food was quite good.

We saw traditional music and a young band playing in the street. I didn’t take pictures or videos because I was enjoying the moment.

The city of Galway is close to one of the few remaining areas where most of the population still speaks Irish daily, including the Aran Islands and the nearby Connemara Gaeltacht, or officially recognised Irish-speaking area.

‘The percentage of respondents aged 3+ who said they spoke Irish daily outside the education system in the 2011 census in Ireland.’ Map by SkateTier, 7 April 2014, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Map of the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland, collectively known as the Gaeltacht’. Map by Angr, now Mahagaja, 10 November 2006, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

This area was hard-hit by the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, and one thing you see quite a lot of in the west of Ireland is walls along the roads built by local people in exchange for famine relief, called poverty walls, famine walls, or blight walls.

A Wall said to be a Famine Wall in Co. Clare. Photograph by Joseph Mischyshyn, 23 May 2012, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons (originally at geograph.org.uk).

There are also some old castles in the area, including Dunguaire, which I managed to visit.

Signs at Dunguaire Castle, with the Wild Atlantic Way indicated as well.

Dunguaire Castle

There is another you can’t get to as it is currently falling down, called Leamaneh, the stronghold of a woman called Red Mary, whose husband was killed fighting against Oliver Cromwell and who was said (in some accounts) to have hastily married one of Cromwell’s officers, so as not to lose her estates.

Leamaneh Castle. Photograph by Tony Webster, 14 October 2013, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Along with old castles and touristy lookouts, anyone travelling along the Irish coast will probably soon come across one or more of the 81 signal towers erected around Ireland between 1804 and 1806 to warn of a possible French invasion. The French had invaded Ireland at least once, in 1798, viewing Ireland as England’s back door. This vulnerability is one of the reasons the English dominated Ireland for so long, figuring that if they did not rule the Irish either directly or as a vassal state, the French or the Spanish would.

In earlier times, signal fires may have been lit on the tops of hills, as they were across England when the Spanish Armada was sighted in 1588.

County Clare also contains the largest hydroelectric station capable of sustained electricity output in Ireland, at Ardnacrusha on the River Shannon.

Unfortunately, Ardnacrusha only generates 86 MW, which is very modest by New Zealand standards.

Not only is there not much scope for hydro in a mainly flat island, but hardly any coal or oil either. After the island was largely deforested, the Irish famously turned to burning peat, soggy half-rotted plant matter dug up from bogs and stacked to dry out.

Peat Stacks and Cutting near Westhay, Somerset, England. Public domain photograph by A. E. Hasse, September 1905, via Wikimedia Commons.

Until the last one closed in 2020, Ireland even had peat-fired power stations!

Because of the island’s long-running energy crisis, Ireland largely missed out on Great Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

A shortage of energy to power new industries that would have provided jobs for town-dwellers was probably the main cause of the emigration that continued to depopulate Ireland once the Famine was over, even as the population of Great Britain continued to increase, from 10.5 million in 1800 to 37 million in 1900 and 67 million today.

Nuclear power has also been banned in the Republic since 1999. These days, though, there is increasing interest in the clever use of renewables, including a bold scheme called Spirit of Ireland, in which onshore and offshore wind farms in the windier and more mountainous west would generate electricity and pump seawater up into valleys in the hills, with the seawater being used to generate hydroelectricity when the wind drops.

After Clare, I decided to crack on, as the Irish say, to the county of Kerry in the southwest.

Killarney, indicated by the orange pin. Map data ©2023 Google. North at the top.

I caught a train from Galway to Kerry’s second-largest town, Killarney. Here’s a photo of Killarney’s High Street, including Quill’s Woolen Market. Doubtless, you’ve heard of Aran Sweaters, knitted on the wild Aran Isles. Well, Quill’s is one of the places where you can get the genuine article. No doubt, it’s possible to do so in Galway as well.

High Street, Killarney

I’ve been to the coastal fingers of Kerry in the past, including the Blasket Islands, and wrote about that trip also in A Maverick Pilgrim Way. But this time, I wanted to visit the Killarney Lakes National Park, further inland. Here’s a nineteenth-century map which shows the lakes in relation to the town of Killarney. The lake called Lower Lake is now known as Lough Leane, and the one called Turk Lane is now Muckross Lake or Middle Lake.

Map of the Lakes of Killarney, by Alphonse Dousseau (sketched between 1830 and 1969), public domain image from the National Library of Wales via Wikimedia Commons. West is toward the top in this map.

A campsite by an incredibly rocky river, In the Killarney Lakes area

One of the Killarney Lakes, in a brooding landscape

Here is a short video, in three scenes:

The Ladies’ View to which I refer is one that Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting used to hike to when Queen Victoria came out to Killarney in 1861. Though, by and large, Victoria seems to have preferred Scotland as a place to get away from it all.

I saw Irish wolfhounds, an ancient and gigantic breed of dog bred by the Irish some two thousand years ago to hunt wolves, boars, and elk.

And when I say gigantic, I mean gigantic!

There’s a great tale of one of the lords of Dunguaire Castle in Clare, the king or chieftain Guaire after whom it is named, who had to fight an epic war against a pack of wolves that “moved as one and thought as one,” with eyes “as yellow as molten gold and fangs the length of a maiden’s hand.” Love these old tales! Who knows, some of them might be true.

There were even brown bears in Ireland until the time of the Greeks and early Romans. Brown bears are one of the most fearsome types, known as grizzly bears in America, and the kind of bear that we associate with Russia as well. Apparently, the Irish name McMahon means ‘son of a bear’. But I don’t know if the wolfhounds were game to take these on.

I took a bus tour on a scenic coastal route called the Ring of Kerry.

The Kerry Coast

The visitor information sign at the village of Sneem, on the Ring of Kerry, states that Kerry is a UNESCO Geopark as well.

A finger sign points to the local part of the Kerry Way, another of Ireland’s popular walking trails.

Here’s a sign about the Kerry Way that I photographed at Waterville, further around the coast on the Ring of Kerry. You can see that the Kerry Way is fairly up and down.

Much of the western, more coastal part of Kerry is inside an International Dark Sky Association Dark Sky Reserve. The Kerry Dark Sky Reserve holds a Gold Tier Award for being especially dark, the only one in the Northern Hemisphere: though it is not quite a Dark Sky Sanctuary, the darkest of skies, which in the Northern Hemisphere are only found in very out-of-the-way places such as the middle of a desert.

There is also a Gold Tier Dark Sky Park north of Galway, in County Mayo. A Dark Sky Park is the next one down from Reserve, it seems. But I suspect the average person probably would not notice the difference, which probably applies more to users of scientific instruments affected by light pollution.

One thing you see everywhere in Ireland, incidentally, is the New Zealand cabbage tree or tī, as in the background of this shot of Dan Murphy’s bar in Sneem. The megalithic spiral design is also a touch of home in a way, insofar as it looks a little bit like Māori carving.

Dan Murphy’s Bar, Sneem

The main street of Sneem

On the beach

Selfie on the beach at Ballinkelligs Bay

At the town of Killorglin, further round on the Ring of Kerry from Sneem and Waterville, there is an annual Puck Fair honouring a goat called An Puc Ri, meaning King Puck. The fair is ancient and there is probably something druidic or pagan about it, some connection to a local version of the ancient god Pan.

Puck Fair, Killorglin, around the year 1900. Public domain image from the National Library of Ireland on the Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

The goat-like character of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is based on the same myth.

Here’s a song sung by the famous Irish folk musician Seán Ó Sé called An Poc ar Buile, meaning the mad or furious puck-goat.

The tune, which originally had different lyrics, sounds more Spanish or Arabic than anything we are used to thinking of as Irish music. Seán Ó Sé says this is the most ancient form of Irish folk music. All these old traditions are stronger in the west of Ireland than in the east.

I returned to Killarney town for the night and did some urban sightseeing the next day.

The day before, I had visited the Muckross House Gardens and Traditional Farms, close to the town of Killarney.

Here’s a video showing scenes from the Kerry coast and villages, and the Muckross House Gardens and Traditional Farm:

In 1860 there was a hit song called The Irish Jaunting Car, based on Queen Victoria’s two previous visits to Ireland, in 1849 and 1853.

You’ve probably heard the tune. It was soon borrowed for American Civil War songs played in the movies, such as The Irish Volunteer (North) and The Bonnie Blue Flag (South). In today’s Killarney, you can still ride in Irish jaunting cars of the traditional type.

Irish Jaunting Cars

And walk local trails.

And explore the alleys.

Here’s the old town hall, with a pedestrian alleyway underneath. What a good idea! I wish more buildings were like that.

And here are a couple of photos I took inside St Mary’s Church of Ireland, a beautiful little church of the Anglican or Episcopalian faith, known as the Church of Ireland in Ireland.

Here’s a video I made of Killarney street scenes, including Killarney House.

Killarney is also an important seat of the Roman Catholic church, the predominant one in the Republic. I saw a plaque honouring the Killarney-born Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who helped to rescue six and a half thousand Jewish people, partisans, and prisoners of war while serving with the Vatican during World War II. “God has no country,” said O’Flaherty.

Here conclude my Irish blog posts. Next week, I’ll be writing about a more recent visit to Samoa.

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