The Kingdom of Kerry, Ireland

Back in the first century AD when the O’Connor clan took over the tract of land between the Shannon Estuary and the Maine River, the area was known as Ciar Riagh – Ciar’s Kingdom. In today’s English, we know it as Kerry.

I grew up with Kerryman jokes. Emerging in the early 1960s and disappearing by the 1980s, Kerryman jokes were Ireland’s blason populaire, a genre of folklore that makes use of stereotypes. At that time, Kerry was enjoying inordinate success on the playing field, much to Dublin’s dismay. No opportunity was lost to make a joke at the Kerryman’s expense. Today, there’d be no getting away with it.  Then, I reckon the Kerryman knew what it was all about: jealousy.

The county is gobsmackingly gorgeous.

Rolling green hills with sheep grazing in the mid-ground, and yellow gorse bushes in the foreground. All set against a blue cloud sky

We had Healy Pass pretty much to ourselves. It runs across the Caha mountains from Co. Cork to Co. Kerry. We hit it from the Cork side, having stopped briefly in the colourful village of Glengariff, the gateway to Garnish Island. It’s a tourist mecca and they know it.

Row for terraced buildings in vibrant colours - the nearest is a cafe/pub called the Black Cat. It's in terracot with a lime green trim. There's also on in yellow, one in mint green, and a larger one in red

The village is on the route between Cork’s Bantry and Kerry’s Kenmare, through the tunnels. That first glimpse of Bantry Bay is poignant. And again, a song from my youth came to mind. I know we’ve stepped across the border into Co. Cork, now, but bear with me – we’ll get back to Kerry shortly.

A view from one stone tunnel into another driving aong a narrow road with no meridian.

View to the right of a road looking down over an expanse of water - Bantry Bay

As we drove along the Bay, we spotted an island that looked like it had something going on. My geography was never great and while the songs of my youth were flooding back, names of rivers and islands were still untethered. So, I stopped and read the sign.

Of course!

How could I not have known it was Whiddy Island?

I remembered it for its oil. Those older than I might remember it for the US Navy Base. But now, with the old schoolhouse providing accommodation and the Bank bar providing sustenance, it seems the place is a regular day/overnight trip on the ferry for visitors to Bantry.

View over at Whiddy Island - 3 x 5 km island in Bantry bay

A sign reading WHIDDY ISLAND VIEW with text in Irish and English. What can be read of the English text reads: After America entered the First World War.. the US Naval Air Service built a base on Whiddy Island in the remote Bantry Bay to combat increasing German U-Boat activity in the Atlantic Forty five men moved into their barracks in April, 1918. Seaplane patrols began five months later with the crews of five flying boats monitoring suspicious activity and escorting shipping convoys. The Armistice was declared only weeks later. One young airman never returned after his plane crashed at sea. He features as the airman on the memorial to First World War Fighters in Laurence County, Missouri. BRINGING THE OIL ASHORE Oil tankers have ben a regular sight since 1969. Whiddy Island was chosen as the site for Ireland's major oil terminal because of its deep water anchorage

Back to Kerry.

The road through Healy Pass, all 12.7km (7.89 miles) of it, was built in 1847, the year of the hard frost. It’s a famine road, built to give work to people who would otherwise have starved. Known at first as the Kerry Pass, it was later renamed after the first governor-general of the Irish Free State, the controversial Timothy Michael Healy.

Spectacular view of a winding road cutting through a moutain pass

We took our time. You can’t but take your time, the narrow road has that many twists and turns. I can only imagine what it’s like at the height of the summer. Without stopping, it’d take the bones of half an hour to get through the nearly 13km. But of course, we stopped. We couldn’t not stop. The scenery is breathtaking and the sheep are placid. I swear some of them posed for photos.

Sheep grazing on the side of a mountain - two sitting one behind the other are looking straight at the camera. Another in the back is standing, looking to the left.

We met one other car and one cyclist. That was it. Blessed! No one was dying to get in, by the way – it was me forgetting to change my watermark after the cemetery in Kenmare.

Apart from wanting to drive over the pass, we were on a mission to find a stone circle, of which there are many. We were headed for Ardgroom. Offroad. Over styles. Through marshy fields. And we found it. A magical spot, and again, we had it to ourselves.

Except for the sheep.

And the body buried in the cist under the altar stone.

Considering these neolithic circles are thousands of years old, it’s amazing that there are so many still standing in Ireland. Mindie Burgoyne has a lovely post on other sites in Ireland that’s worth a read if stones are your thing  . And here’s a short narrated video of the circle at Ardgroom.

Nine stones standing in a circle in a field looking out over a tract of water with mountains on the horizon

Orangey-brown plaque with the following inscription: Ardgroom Stone Circle - Beara_breifne Way - Slí Bhéara0Breifne Stone circles consist of an uneven number of freestanding spaced stones. The number of stones varies from five to seventeen and the size of the circles ranges from 2.5 metres to 17 metres in diameter. Characteristically, the stones are symmetrically arranged with the two tallest stones marking the entrance to the northeast side. The stones then reduce in height on either side of the circle. The axial stone set directly opposite the entrance in the southwest arc is usually the lowest stone in the circle. Stone circles were constructed as ritual and ceremonial sites during the Bronze Age and are about 3000 years old. Studies have shown that a line drawn from the entrance to the axial stone will orientate on significant solar and lunar events and on some of the brighter stars. There are over 100 examples of stone circles in Ireland most of which are concentrated in mid-Ulster and in southwest Munster. The stone circles of the southwest have many features in common with the stone circles in northeast Scotland. The stone circles at Ardgroom has a diameter of 7.25 meters and once consisted of eleven stones. One stone is now missing and one has fallen. A tall standing stone 6 metres to the east appears to draw attention to the stone circle. Text by Connie Murphy then follows some logos the only readable one is that of Fáilte Ireland - the Irish tourist board

In search of food, we hunted down the famous Helen’s Bar on Kilmackalogue Pier in the hamlet of Tuoist. It, too, is off the beaten track, but worth every twist and turn on the road to get there. We spotted the mussel farm and knew we were heading in the right direction. Since I was introduced to them in France eons ago by the inimitable CM, I’ve most recently enjoyed them in Bordeaux and Albania. I was more than happy to try some more, as an appetizer, before my fish and chips.

Fishing boat standing in a mussel farm with mountains in the distance on the horizon

wall of an old white stone cottage on which is written The Mussel House in black - there's also a drawing of some mussel shells and to the left, barely visible, an image of woman

One young lad behind the bar was holding court, Kerry style. Everyone who entered was served with a smile and a bit of banter. It was all very homely.

Offseason, it’s a dream.

In season, I’d imagine the place is rammed.

It’s worth going out of your way for…It went viral a couple of years back for its reasonable prices and at a tenner for fresh fish and chips, I was in heaven.

A collage of three food photos - 1. fish plate with mussels, smoked salmon, fresh salmon, and crab meat with a slice of brown bread and a pat of butter, a wedge of lemon, and a pot of an orange-coloured sauce 2. battered fish and chips with a little salad 3. a bowl of mussels in their shells topped with a wedge of lemon

Kerry thrives on stories. It seems that everywhere you stop, there’s a story. I’d love to know the one behind the bright paint jobs. There’s a theory that coastal towns painted houses in vibrant colours to welcome visitors. I can buy that. But some of the colour combinations are what make you stand back, hold up your hands to shield your eyes, and wonder about the person behind the paintbrush. There’s an economic logic to it – and not just bargain basement colours no one else wants.

It’s about vibrancy, as Tanya Sweeney’s piece in The Irish Times has it. The grey paint of suburbia has a lost feel to it. A dead feel even. There’s a sameness about our housing estates, too. I’m all for white walls myself but I’ve been experimenting (inside) with feature walls in blueberry blue and nectarine red. I can see the attraction.

A collage of street scenes featuring colourful houses 1. four in a row - purple, mauve, green, and amber 2. red (MacCarthy's bar) and blue 3 Turquoise blue - MUSIC COFFEE SANDWICHES with seven pints of guinness underneath 4. pink residential house 5. terrace of green, pink, blue, grey and navy houses 6. terrance of violet ad bright yellow with a red trim.

Shops have stories, too; those aimed at capturing the tourist dollars that flood this part of Ireland every summer. Some do it better than others – like Molly Gallivan’s.  It offers an insight into days of yore, along with a café, and sure while you’re at it, there’s a fine spread of crafted Irish products on sale, too. They’ve done a good job.

The 20-ft wooden carving of a druid over the road looks down over the valley. Carved from a pine tree that stood there for hundreds of years, the druid is a nod to the first settlers in the area some 6000 years ago. Behind it, had we known, is a cairn burial on the summit of Barra-Bui, where one of the ancient chieftains is said to be buried.

Wooden carving (tall) of a hooden man holding a staff. Stone house in the background with red trim on windows and door

Most of all though, the big attraction about Kerry is the people, their sense of humour, and their quirky take on life. No one seems to take themselves too seriously and while there are plenty who are milking the Yanks and other tourists for all they’re worth, that milking is done with style.

We’re long past the days of the Kerryman jokes; the Kerryman is having the last laugh.

If I had to pick just one of the 32 counties of Ireland to recommend to visitors, it would be the Kingdom of Kerry. It has it all.












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