Kenmare, Co. Kerry, Ireland

Kenmare, with its iconic hotels, colourful facades, and thriving restaurant/bar scene, is a gem of a town in the southwest of Ireland. It’s giving nearby Killarney a run for its money.

Street scene with a row of colourful three storey buildings - purple, lical, mint gree, and butter yellow. Bottom storey is taken up by Quills gift shop.

The famous five-star Park Hotel Kenmare is a popular destination for visiting Americans. Sold recently (Nov 2023) by the Brennan brothers to California-based Irish businessman Bryan Meehan, Park Hotel Kenmare is transitioning. Modern art is on its way in; the heavy oils are on their way out (perhaps).

A purpose-built hotel, it opened its doors over Easter in 1897 as The Great Southern Hotel. Its clientele were passengers of the Great Southern Railway Company; the new hotel was an effort to attract tourists to this part of Kerry.  The bickering between it and the older Lansdowne Hotel directly across the road makes for interesting reading.

Large grey stone building overlooking manicured lawns

It’s a lovely spot, spread over three floors, some 46 rooms in all, no two the same.

Set on 12 acres on the shores of Kenmare Bay, the gardens sweep down to the water, offering fabulous views that take you back in time.  We availed of the guided garden tour with the hotel’s head gardener. A master of his subject, we got a potted history of the gardens, peppered with anecdotes and trivia. I hadn’t realised that the Beech, Sycamore, and Horse Chestnut were all brought into Ireland over the centuries. I hadn’t given much thought to native vs non-native when it comes to trees, but as Shane explained, the non-native Sycamore sustains about 12 forms of life; the native Oak, about 360. Mosses. Birds. Bees. Ferns. All sorts of life depend on trees. And I didn’t know that the Tulip Tree doesn’t flower for the first 25 years. Nor did I know that the Rhododendron was such an invasive species.

Rhodendron roots - huge things - crossing a wooded path

Or that Japanese Samurai made arrows (Ya) from the Pseudosasa bamboo. Or that the Ginkgo Biloba breathed the same air as the dinosaurs. Or that the needles of the Scots Pine have 40% more vitamin C than a lemon.

View down rolling laws with water at the bottom and mountains in the distance

Steps and path leading down three levels towards a lake. Top step flanked by palm grees and stone flowerpots, and two canons

The best piece of trivia though was that the Goat’s Willow, a common tree in Ireland, has a plethora of uses. Its bark contains a natural painkiller (salicin) which was refined into salicylic acid in the 1800s and then found its way into drugs such as aspirin.

We walked. We talked. We watched. We listened. It was a glorious way to spend an hour and a wonderful start to our stay in the Kingdom.

Simple bench under a tree looking out over water

Our days quickly found their rhythm. A leisurely breakfast overlooking the gardens (the food is all locally sourced) and an hour of yoga in the Samás Spa with the wonderful Darina O’Shea prefaced each day’s exploration. Evenings varied – a swim in the pool, a cocktail in the lounge, a movie in the hotel’s cinema, a stroll around town. Spoiled we were.

The town itself dates to the late seventeenth century when Sir William Petty settled English, Cornish, and Welsh protestants here. A century or so later, former Prime Minister of England and first Marquess of Lansdowne, William Petty-Fitzmaurice,  (he who built what is now the aforementioned Lansdowne Hotel), decided to put some shape on the place. Under his guidance, the town’s two streets – Henry Street and William Street – crossed each other at an angle creating an X that includes a triangular marketplace. Thus, Kenmare is one of Ireland’s first planned towns.

Lined with colourful galleries, eateries, hostelries, and shops, it’s a lovely spot for a stroll. Renowned photographer Norman McCloskey has a gallery there.

In the aftermath of the famine in the mid-1800s, the Poor Clare nuns arrived in Kenmare in 1861. Ahead of their time, they realised that income is the great alleviator of poverty and that to generate income, something has to be produced. They went about teaching the local women and girls how to make lace – a particular design known as Kenmare lace.

When Abbess Mary O’Hagan first arrived in town with her six nuns in tow, they stayed in temporary digs at Rose Cottage.

Ivy-covered stone wall behind which peeks an iron railing that fronts an old stone cottage - two upper floor windows visible with three chimney stacks on a slate roof. Bluebeels and green grasses in the foreground.

The workhouse is still there, in all its glory, right beside Holy Cross church. The church and workhouse are both beautiful buildings. Inside, the carved roof is quite something – the wood apparently, was sourced from the Black Forest in Germany. One of my three wishes (I am sure it was my first time in the church) was that I might live in Kerry one day.

Collage of four photos - one showing a nineteenth-century church in grey stone, another showing a substanial grey stone building that was once the workhouse. The third shows the inside of a church with an arched stained glass window behind the altar. The fourth is a section of the wooden ceiling with a carved angel.

Side of a church towards the ceiling - five clover shaped stained glass windows each set between wooden beams with carved angels.

Houses around the town are much in demand by the rich and famous. And although an old town full of heritage, the vendors seem to have their fingers on the pulse. Jeweller Paul F Kelly has made use of the famous geographical sobriquet, the Ring of Kerry, in his fabulous rings. Tom Crean‘s granddaughter Aileen and her husband are brewing vegan craft beers at the Tom Crean Brewery. And the Landline restaurant at Park Hotel Kenmare has a note on the tables listing where they buy their produce. Local talent. Local produce. Local sourcing.

Menu card showing a map of on the left with a list of food and producers on the right.

In keeping with the hotel’s move to more modern art, the restaurant gets its name from a painting by Dublin-based artist Sean Scully.

Landline Edge (2017) by Sean Scully is a painting of the meeting of land and sea. As a backdrop, the piece signals an ethos of connection to place. Menus are created out of ingredients that are seasonal, local and fresh.

Collage of four food photos - 1) Kerry Hill Lamb, Rump, Vadouvan Aubergine, Wild Garlic and Anchovy Puree, Lamb Jus 2)Beef Featherblade, Celeriac and Horseradish Puree, Potato Rosti, Bone Marrow and Roscoff Onion 3)Seared Scallops, Lardo, Jerusalem Artichoke, Apple 4) Guinness bread with seaweed butter
Lamb, beef, scallops, and Guinness bread with seaweed butter

I felt sorry for a couple of American guests who avoided the lamb as the cut, rump, wasn’t what they were used to. Because the sheep in Kerry are mainly hill sheep, their diet is more varied – think heather and different types of grass. This gives the meat a stronger, sweeter flavour than, say, lamb from the plains of Kildare.

Down by the water, the one-time suspension bridge built by the Marquis of Lansdowne was replaced by a concrete structure in the 1930s.

Concrete bridge  - road flanked by two tall semi-circles supported by columns. End of the bridge has a green wrought iron railing. Kenmare river flowes underneath.

The three stone music makers by sculptor Dick Joynt stand looking out over the water. It’s a lovely place to watch the sunset.

Stone sculptures of three musicans - one playing a bodhrán, another a bazouik, and a third the accordian. Standing on green grass under a blue sky in the sunshine

View at sunset over Kenmare bay - three stone statues to the left and a picnic table to the right

Kenmare is a very walkable town that attracts all sort of people. The locals seem to have made their peace with tourism and tourists. If you’re the chatty type, you’re in for a treat.

Bench against a stone wall. Yellow plaque reads: Happy to chat bench. Sit here if you don't mind someone stopping to say hello.

Yellow plaque reads: The Happy to chat bench. Sit here if you don't mind someone stopping to say hello.

On the other side of the bay is the newer Sheen Falls Lodge. We’d every intention of taking afternoon tea there but we simply didn’t have the time. It’s a five-star, too, but on a different scale. Its grounds are more manicured and for me, it seemed to be missing both the wildness and the old-world gentility of PHK.

Like many others, we used Kenmare as a base to explore the Iveragh Peninsula and the Beara Peninsula. We stayed in-house more than I would normally do in a hotel so we didn’t take enough time to really see the town itself. I’d have liked to have made it down to the harbour and seen the insides of a few of the galleries.

I wasn’t put out though. Our three nights in the Park Hotel Kenmare were the tonic I needed. It was like living in history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses

  1. It sounds like a wonderful place. Why ‘kingdom’, or more exactly, which kingdom?

    1. It goes back to the 1st century AD when chieftan Ciar O’Connnor took control of the territory. Then it was known as Ciar Raigh – ‘Ciar’s kingdom’ – that’s the Irish for Kerry: Ciarraigh. Kerry people have been known to say@ “There are only two kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Kerry.”

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4 Responses

  1. It sounds like a wonderful place. Why ‘kingdom’, or more exactly, which kingdom?

    1. It goes back to the 1st century AD when chieftan Ciar O’Connnor took control of the territory. Then it was known as Ciar Raigh – ‘Ciar’s kingdom’ – that’s the Irish for Kerry: Ciarraigh. Kerry people have been known to say@ “There are only two kingdoms, the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Kerry.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.