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Under Irish skies
A sojourn in County Kerry’s shimmering green
It’s a blustery afternoon in County Kerry on Ireland’s wild southwest coast, a lonely place of seabirds, storms and tides long regarded as the edge of the world. Visiting scenic, windswept Valentia Island, I’ve reached the end of what has to be Europe’s last road, a country lane that dwindles to a track by the time it crests a high, bare hill overlooking the immensity of the Atlantic. Below me, 180-metre cliffs fall into a swirling grey and black sea the consistency of liquid marble. In every direction, there are views of islands and high treeless peninsulas that rise from the waves like the domed backs of whales, sloping seamlessly up from the ocean to long smooth hilltops gleaming with sheep-cropped grass.
Over the wind, I hear a tractor stopping behind me. A dapper man and his friendly sheepdog emerge from the cab to check on a flock grazing the dizzy edges of the sandstone cliffs. Morrish O’Donaghue is a sixth-generation Valentia farmer, old enough to remember drying peat, the turf dug from bogs that was once Ireland’s principal fuel. While we talk, the sky flits through an operatic show of light and shadow. The interplay of sun, mist and passing storms colour the sea jet black and then copper.
“They say painters go mad here trying to capture the changes,” ventures Morrish as a cloud briefly targets us with pellets of rain that sting like bees and taste of sea salt. “But it’s a bit more interesting than the dullness of sunshine, don’t you think?”
Evidently, many visitors agree with Morrish. This southwest corner of Ireland is a popular destination. Fortified by ample precipitation, County Kerry’s shimmering green landscapes are one of the main reasons Ireland is known as the “Emerald Isle.” Compact and simple to get around, Kerry is also still rustic enough that it’s easy to avoid the high-season crowds and get off on your own to enjoy its secluded beaches and panoramic valleys of misty fields and constant rainbows. No guarantees, but summer is said to be the dry season. “Bring an umbrella,” says Morrish.
Go south, young man
I spend most of my weeklong visit in the county’s south along the bottom of the Wild Atlantic Way (wildatlanticway.com), a tourist trail that runs the 2500 kilometres of Ireland’s western seaboard. Heading off from the lively hub of Killarney, I circle the “loop drive” called the Ring of Kerry, exploring the hilly Iveragh Peninsula and its fringe of islands that include small Valentia.
“Now don’t fret. Kerry’s not a big place and I haven’t lost an O’Connell from Boston yet!” quips the Killarney tour guide at the gateway to the national park of the same name and headquarters for the vacationing Irish-American diaspora.
The stately mid-sized town is a mix of kitsch and character, and the 10,300-hectare park is made for hikers, cyclists, anglers and boaters. Once an estate, it features three picture-perfect lakes in a valley ringed by the rugged high country Kerry folk call mountains — the tallest peaks reach about 900 metres. The park offers peaceful drives in jaunties, horse-drawn carts, which I take to clop past herds of deer and arrive at Ross Castle (ross-castle.com), a 15th-century keep whose turrets look over Lough Léin to the gorse-clad heights opposite.
A rock called Michael
Just an hour west by car, the Iveragh Peninsula seems more remote, its narrow roads weaving along iridescent green ridges that slope steeply to a hazy sea. Thousands of years of history roll by as I pass fields containing smaller versions of Stonehenge called “standing stones” and the ruins of Iron Age forts and early Christian churches.
At the hamlet of Portmagee, I stop to learn about the remarkable Skellig Rocks (skelligexperience.com), 12 kilometres offshore. In the fifth century, Skellig Michael, the larger rock, became the unlikely abode of hermit monks who built still-standing stone huts on its pinnacle among the sea and bird colonies of puffins and gannets.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a truly spectacular item for any bucket list, the Skelligs are reached from Portmagee by a choppy 45-minute boat ride May through September, weather permitting. On landing, visitors climb the 600 vertigo-inducing steps to the monastery to absorb its otherworldly beauty and to photograph the teeming bird life especially the colourful puffins who are in residence until June. The pivotal scene in Star Wars’ latest, “The Force Awakens,” was shot at the apex of Skellig Michael.
Back on the single street of Portmagee, the Hollywood talk is low key except for occasional punning cries in the pub of “May the fáilte be with you,” fáilte being the Irish word not for force but for “welcome.”
Over the rest of the week, I hear more Irish spoken in the villages, a language of hard rhythms that contrasts with peoples’ lilting accents in English. What is constant is the native charm, a quality familiar to those who have met the country’s inhabitants, none of whom have ever heard of a short chat, let alone one without jokes or a drink. Whether you’re in a dark-oak pub sipping a pint of stout that goes down like silk, sitting in a café eating boxty potato pancakes or almost anywhere at all, this is a land where easy conversation and wit always win the day.
Which sheep is which?
I finish my circle of the Iveragh Peninsula at a sheepdog demonstration at the 150-year-old Kissane Farm (kissanesheepfarm.com) in barren Moll’s Gap. After the dogs show off their skills, son Noel gravely explains another tradition. “Local farmers spray paint sheep as a kind of Celtic graffiti; we call it shephart,” he explains. I’d say he was pulling my leg were it not for the four-legged works of art standing about. Clearly the Kissanes have a sense of humour: the farm’s motto is “man can’t live on scenery alone.” There’s sense, though, to this apparent madness — the paint is used to identify ownership.
Further south in the ruin-filled Sheen Valley, another farmer, Stephen “Mike Dan” O’Sullivan, pours me poteen moonshine whiskey from his grandmother Molly Gallivan’s still (“the recipe is based on the kick of her donkey”) and reveals the ergonomic way to dig peat: “As you jam down the spade, think of the wretch who stole your first love.”
But perhaps the last word goes to the softly spoken Jim Kennedy, a kayak outfitter and national champion who takes me night kayaking on Lough Hyne, a saltwater lagoon connected to the ocean by a narrow tidal channel. Well-studied for its unusual marine life, the Lough has a secret ingredient: a tiny species of phytoplankton that is bioluminescent after dusk. I keep dipping my hand into the water to watch the evanescent blue lights trail my fingers like submerged fireflies before their sparkling glow fades away in the current.
“It’s best in July and August, on still evenings with no moon,” Jim informs me. “You come out and it’s like paddling through stars. You can hear the echoes of everything that ever was. Even the noises of the sea are like laughter or music.” He smiles, says, “Irish fairy music, that is,” and then expertly pilots away, the eddies behind his kayak leaving a flickering blue trail in the dark.
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