Friday, 4 April 2014

Jaunting Through Killarney, Going Round The Ring of Kerry

We went on a Jaunting Car ride first thing in the morning, taking part in a two century-old tourist tradition of soaking in the sights of Killarney from a horse-drawn carriage. It looked as though all the chanting we did the evening before hadn't helped to clear the weather, so it was a good thing the horses and carts were parked right on our doorstep. While everyone else piled into the waiting carriages, as one of the three people on the tour under 30, I got to clamber up the wheel and sit up front with our jarvey (Carriage Driver) Johnny. Oh, the benefits of being young and sprightly! 

Jaunting Cars Killarney

Our Jaunting Car was pulled by Samson, who trotted along at a sedate pace, paying no mind to all the cars that shared our road and were desperately trying to overtake us. I realized very quickly that unless I got a bit creative about my picture taking, every single one of my shots would invariably feature Samson. Johnny gave us a quick rundown on Killarney National Park before we entered via a gate specifically built for Jaunting Cars, but between his thickly-accented murmur and the rain, I was possibly the only person in the carriage who even realized he was speaking. 

No dedicated Jaunting Car path

Samson marks out the same route nearly every day, and apparently could bring us around even without a jarvey, but Johnny's soothing commentary was informative, even if everyone in the back could only make out a third of what he was saying. The rain eased up as we entered the 10236 hectare park, with the clouds slowly dissipating to give us teasing glimpses of McGillycuddy's Reeks. The mountain range's name means the Black Stacks, and it includes the only peaks taller than 1000 m in Ireland. The rain had kept out the early morning hikers and the other Jaunting Cars had sped away, so it often felt like we were the only people in the vast park, which thrilled and terrified in equal measure. 

Jaunting through Killarney National Park

Killarney has been inhabited by humans for at least 4000 years, with evidence dating back to the early Bronze Age. Since then the ownership of the lands changed hands depending on the political climate of each era, and whether the families had enough money to maintain their estates. The heart of the park today is Muckross House and its attendant lands, which were purchased by an American couple from Philadelphia as a wedding present for their daughter in the early 20th century (And here I thought My Super Sweet 16 had inured me to splashy, over-the-top gifts). The lands were donated to the Irish government in 1932 after her tragic early demise from pneumonia. We didn't get to see the house, but by all accounts the 19th century Victorian mansion is quite a stunning place to visit. 

Lough Leane

The lakes of Killarney are magnificent, even if they mostly seem to have rather insipid names. There's the Upper Lake, then Lake Muckross which just means Middle Lake. There's no Lower Lake however (Thank goodness): Lough Leane means the Lake of Learning, probably to do with the monastery that was situated on Innisfallen Island. The Abbey had been founded by Saint Finian the Leper in the 7th century, and it became widely known as a seat of learning, with the Annals of Innisfallen were written there mainly between the 11th and 13th centuries by the monks of the Abbey, chronicling the Medieval History of Ireland. The Abbey was continuously occupied for a good number of centuries, before eventually falling into disuse - today it's an important archaeological site.  

Killarney National Park

It's also, apparently, a good place to live after the honeymoon. As we rounded a bend and the island came into view, Johnny turned to me and said "When we are wed, that island would be a cozy place for two. You'll have half, and I'll take the other." As proposals go, it was terribly sudden, but it still seemed a step up from the time D was offered a dozen camels if he'd consent to me becoming the fourth wife of a perfume seller in Cairo. I told Johnny I'd consider it, but gently turned him down at the end. This was (Alas!) the closest I got to a whirlwind Irish romance. 

Innisfallen ruins

Between Singapore and London, I'm used to very manicured parks, but there was something wild about these woods. Johnny showed us a Leprechaun swimming pool but said it was too early in the day for a sighting. We wouldn't see any until we'd had at least two pints each. He also pointed out various kinds of plants of note as we passed them, including native oak and yew, bracken ferns, mountain ash trees and a hundred year old scotch pine, as well as patches of yellow wild iris, not yet in bloom. 

Irish Flora

We'd seen a herd of deer galloping across the plains earlier, and managed to stumble across a few more lurking in the woods. (More accurately, I spotted them and screamed "OH LOOK AT THE DEER!" and made Johnny stop the carriage so we could take pictures. It was only right to give the poor man fair warning about my high maintenance nature so he could reconsider his proposal.) Killarney National Park is home to two species of deer, Sika Deer that had been introduced from Japan in 1865, as well as native Red Deer, special given their status as the last remaining wild herd in Ireland, as well as their continued presence for over four millennia since the last Ice Age. Hunting, camping and fires aren't allowed in the National Park, and the deer regarded us for a while as mere curiosities before going back to the serious business of grazing. 

Red Irish Deer Killarney National Park

By the time we emerged from the woods, the sun was out and the clouds were beating a hasty retreat over the mountains. It was really quite magnificent. 

Killarney National Park McGillycuddy's Reeks

There was some time for us to make a quick stop by St. Mary's Cathedral, which was just across the road from where our coach was parked. It's a very elegant grand building, and the Gothic Revival Cathedral has been considered some of the best work done by its architect Augustus Pugin. Work started on it in 1842, but the Great Famine hit a few years later and the half-built cathedral was used as a hospital and a shelter for famine victims before finally being completed in 1855. With a 12 by 4 feet spire, it's the second tallest cathedral in Ireland. 

The Second Biggest Cathedral in Ireland

The great Redwood outside the cathedral stands over a mass grave for children who died during the Great Famine

Great Famine Graves

Sunlight flooded in through the stained glass windows on our visit, painting the interior of the cathedral in rosy hues. We enjoyed the peace of the building before filing out and getting to the bus to go on our journey round the Ring of Kerry. 

The baptism of Jesus stained glass window

As we drove through Killorglin, we were regaled with tales of the Puck Fair, an ancient tradition where a wild goat is captured from the mountains and crowned the King of the He-Goats as part of the festivities for Ireland's oldest fair, which officially occurs from the 10th to the 12th of August each year. Initially when our guide Pat told us the story, we thought he was pulling our leg again, but he sent round heaps of newspaper clippings for us to peruse, and got our coach driver Eugene to slow down as we passed the statue of the Puck Goat. 

Killorglin Puck Goat

The Fair's origins lie partially in oral tradition which says a goat warned the town of Oliver Cromwell's imminent arrival thus saving its inhabitants, inspiring the townspeople to hold a festival in his honour ever since. Other stories claim that it's part of an older pagan fertility ritual. Whatever its roots, the Fair today holds the record for the longest bar exemptions, with pubs allowed to operate later than regulations usually allow over the course of the festival, usually up till 3 am. 1967 was apparently a special year, which was 72 hours of non-stop drinking. 

View from Killorglin

Our tour was named Country Roads of Ireland, and it wasn't long till we encountered bumpy, winding terrain. To settle our nerves and stomachs, a quick stop for Irish coffee was arranged at The Red Fox Inn, which was located next to the Kerry Bog Village. We were to see actual peat bogs and visit another heritage site later on in the tour, so a trip round the Bog Village was deemed superfluous. The only thing unique to the location were the Kerry Bog Ponies, and within the Inn itself we were able to read all about the saving of this breed of compact ponies from certain extinction since the 1990s.

Kerry Bog Village

Apart from whiskey, Baileys was offered to spice up the coffees, and after explaining my coffee-averse condition, I was able to get a pure shot of Baileys with double cream. M was appalled at the sheer indulgence, but I once saw a sign that said "GO BIG OR GO HOME", and it seemed applicable in this situation. I sipped at the mixture while examining the decor, which was interesting in its own right. Apart from the various stuffed foxes and pheasants on display, which seemed in keeping with the name of the pub, there were also possibly antique knick-knacks lining the shelves. 

Baileys and Cream

Nerves and potential nausea settled, we progressed further on. The Ring of Kerry isn't so much a location as a 179 km long route that circles the coastline of the Iveragh Peninsula, following the contours of the rugged landscape and showcasing a range of wildly differing views. On our trip, the gorse bushes were in bloom, splashing streaks of yellow across the countryside. 

Travelling with Insight Vacations

With the sun up, the riveting scenery seemed endless, and everything looked more deeply saturated. The Ring of Kerry website says you can see a million shades of green across the rolling landscape, but there wasn't enough time for me to catalogue what I saw and test their claim. 

Views of the Irish Countryside

The road eventually took us to the sea, where we could see the Dingle Peninsula on the other side, where we were due to visit the next day. One of the biggest things I miss living in London is the sight of the sea, and my poor land-locked soul rejoiced to be close to it again. After an entire morning of excellent weather, the clouds amassed overhead once more, and the rest of the way was decidedly more gloomy, if no less dramatic. 

The Irish Coast

We enjoyed another generously portioned lunch, this time in the town of Sneem. With all of us piled into the same pub, the food took a while in arriving, so there wasn't much time for us to explore the place. M and I took a stab in the dark, and wandered over to The Way the Fairies Went, a collection of stone buildings which would have looked far more eerie if someone hadn't left a beret on the naming stone that left it rather comically jaunty-looking. 


The weird and otherworldly structures didn't turn out to be Ireland's answer to the pyramids, but a public art piece that was built with money from the Irish Arts Council after Sneem won the Irish Tidy Towns competition in the late 1980s. 

Irish Fairies Built Pyramids

The most terrifying part of it was perhaps this sign - I followed the instructions, and promptly started sinking into the muddy remains of what used to be the walkway. I trailed dirt for ages afterwards. 

Please Stay on Walkway

The best known views of Sneem are chiefly of the river that runs through it. The pedestrian bridge that spans the width of it seems to be be made up of nothing more than glorified grilles, and standing on them, you can look down and see the water rush past at a dizzying pace. 

Even mostly grey, the scenery remained interesting as we wound our way towards the last leg of the Ring of Kerry. 

Ladies' View

Our last stop on the drive was the Ladies' View, so named because Queen Victoria and her entourage appreciated the view of the mountains and the lake below tremendously. Maybe they'd viewed it with the sun out, or I'd already been overwhelmed by a whole day of beauty, but I didn't feel very moved by it.  

Queen Victoria Went Round the Ring of Kerry on Her Visit to Ireland

The lakes of Killarney are pristine, thanks to a strict policy against boating in them which serves to prevent pollution. I looked out over the still waters while Pat regaled us with stories of Ireland's problems combating invasive rhododendrons, a serious horticultural issue to be sure. 

No boating in the Lakes of Killarney

Like all rings, the Ring of Kerry began and ended in the same place, and we were given the rest of the afternoon and evening free in Killarney. This meant serious shopping for M & me while D took a snooze. The two of us also managed to find an ice-cream parlour during our spree, which was so brilliant I'm going to need a separate post to properly expound on its many virtues. 

Stags fighting statue Killarney

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