Earlier this month I took my annual long summer walk for five days along the Kerry Way. I left Killarney on a sunny Monday morning along the Old Kenmare Road and passed through the ancient, boulder-strewn oak forests above Derrycunnihy Church – like something out of The Lord of the Rings – and along the wooded western shore of the Upper Lake into the Black Valley. In that long-forgotten mountain glen (the last place in Ireland to get electricity) I enjoyed a surprise Thai meal courtesy of the proprietors of the Black Valley Lodge guest house, Limerick mountaineer Trevor Lysaght and his lovely Thai wife Nana.
On the following day I climbed the rocky pass under Carrauntoohil into the Bridia Valley – stopping for lunch at the amazing Cookie Monster café (surely the remotest café in Ireland) – and then up over another rainswept pass under Caher Mountain and down to Lough Acoose. While I stayed in Mary Healy’s cosy B&B, it rained hard for 18 hours, and the next day I crossed the Caragh River in terrifying spate at Blackstones Bridge. From there it was an easy walk over the Windy Gap in the Glenbeigh Hills, with breathtaking views of Dingle Bay, and into the pretty holiday village of the same name.
From Glenbeigh I headed inland again over Drung Hill, and criss-crossed glens and streams and farmland and past the splendid GAA ground at Foilmore to arrive in Cahersiveen by the ‘back door’, Daniel O’Connell’s birthplace at Carhan. I then took a day’s break with my wife Doireann Ní Bhriain on Valentia Island, and finished on the Saturday with a dramatic coastal walk from Waterville to Caherdaniel, guided by our friends, the poet Paddy Bushe and his wife Fíona, founder of the Tech Amergin Arts Centre in Waterville.
This must be one of the finest mountain and coastal walking routes in Europe, one which is surprisingly little known in Ireland. It is as well-signposted as any French Grande Randonnée or high Swiss Alpine route. Yet in my five days I encountered just four other people walking the Way: a man from Kildare, two young women from Belfast and a valiant Dublin primary teacher, Éadaoin Eusa , walking the whole 210 kilometres to raise money for motor neurone disease research. The café owner in the Bridia Valley, John Heppell, told me he usually sees 50-60 people coming through every day in the summer, the great majority of them from abroad, from Germany, France, the US and Britain – all missing this year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Irish people just don’t seem interested in this most magnificent of Irish walks. What a marvellous experience they are missing – this is the unspoilt Irish wilderness at its most sublime.
And Kerry never ceases to surprise. At the farthest, loneliest end of the Black Valley is a meticulously restored farmhouse which is the home of the European head of the Japanese construction machinery manufacturer Komatsu, whose family are originally from the valley. Locals say he keeps at least one helicopter in an adjoining large shed! At Kells Bay, west of Glenbeigh, the charming hotel is surrounded by 19th century gardens full of exotic tree ferns from the southern hemisphere which flourish in the area’s warm micro-climate, interspersed with fallen tree trunks sculpted into fearsome-looking dinosaurs by a Dutch artist, Pieter Konig. On Valentia Island we came across the ‘Tetropad trackway’, footprints of an amphibian creature left around 370 million years ago, discovered by a Swiss geology student in 1993. These tracks across a seaside rock represent a momentous leap forward in evolution: the oldest reliably dated evidence of a four legged vertebrate emerging from the sea onto the land.
On a summer’s day and with a heart lifted by nature and walking, it is easy to forget the poverty-stricken history and continuing problems of this remote and disadvantaged area. But the signs of a bleaker past are everywhere: the shattered gable ends of miserable long-abandoned cottages on the slopes of the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks; the heart-breaking disappearance of the Irish language from so-called Gaeltacht areas like Ballinskelligs; the absence of children’s voices from rural townlands.
Kerry, like most beautiful places in the west, is full of contradictions. On the final day we walked past Derrynane House outside Caherdaniel, home of the ‘Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell. In the bright sunshine, the house, the garden, the sheltered harbour and the sandy ring of surrounding beaches make this one of the most heavenly places on the island – one can see why O’Connell pined endlessly to get back here from Dublin and London.
At the high point (900 feet above the sea) on the old ‘butter road’ (now the Kerry Way) between Waterville and Caherdaniel is Coomakista (Cúm a’ Chiste) where tradition has it that that O’Connell held a large, celebratory meeting in the summer of 1828 on his triumphant return from being elected as MP for Clare. O’Connell had “signalled his intention to refuse to take the oath that had in effect made it impossible for a Catholic to take a seat in Westminister,” writes Paddy Bushe in a chapter about O’Connell in a forthcoming book about the relationship between landscape and the creative imagination in Iveragh. “It was a political earthquake that would lead to Catholic emancipation the following year, and the first step in the politicisation of the cosmhuintir (the lower orders), a step which still echoes in the corridors of power in Ireland and abroad.”
This was a favourite spot for O’Connell to go hunting, his preferred pastime when at home in Kerry. In The King of the Beggars, Sean Ó Faoláin describes both his lordship over his home place and his impressive cosmopolitanism:
“There he was, as somebody said, like a petty German king, with his hounds, his early morning hunting, his red-coated men with their long staves hallooing from glen to glen. One would like to dally with him there, especially when we find him seated high up on the mountainside greeting the postman from Caherciveen who comes clambering up with his heavy postbag. He would breakfast on the hills, going quickly but intently through his letters, strewing the grass with the Times, the Universe, letters from France or America, reports from Dublin, the Oxford and Cambridge magazine that contains some article of interest to him, begging letters, appeals from poor folk in trouble…while, far beneath him, all Kerry sends its hills falling to the vast sea.”
His deep love for this place brought out the romantic poet in him. In a letter in 1833 he wrote:
“After nearly seven months of the most close and unremitting labour, I want the calm and quiet of my loved native hills – the bracing air, purified as it comes over ‘the world of waters’, the cheerful exercise, the majestic scenery of these awful mountains, whose wildest and most romantic glens are awakened by the enlivening cry of my merry beagles; whose deep notes, multiplied one million of times by the echoes, speak to my senses, as if it were the voice of magic powers commingling, as it does, with the eternal roar of the mighty Atlantic, that breaks and foams with impotent rage at the foot of our stupendous cliffs. Oh, these are scenes to revive all the forces of natural strength – to give new energy to the human mind, to raise the thoughts above the grovelling strife of individual interests – to elevate the sense of family affection into the purest, the most refined and the most constant love of country.”
Daniel O’Connell is, for me, simply the greatest Irish political leader of the past two centuries, not least for his commitment to entirely peaceful methods of parliamentary pressure and mass popular mobilisation to achieve his goals: Catholic emancipation and the end of the union with Britain. As the inscription on the stone tablet in the church in Rome where he is buried reads: “Who by his splendour of intellect, and extraordinary fluency of speech, preserved and fought for life, religion, civil rights and liberty.”
It was his tragedy – and Ireland’s – that his legacy was overtaken first by the Famine and then by the violent Fenian tradition, which saw ‘physical force’ as the sole means of achieving the goal of independence, leading to the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence and Civil War, and the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. That tradition remains powerfully present two centuries on: its inheritors, Sinn Fein, will probably be the largest party in the Republic of Ireland after the next election.
O’Connell was also an internationalist and a champion of human rights. The great American abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass said his voice was “enough to calm the most violent passion, even though it were already manifesting itself in a mob. There is a sweet persuasiveness to it, beyond any voice I ever heard. His power over an audience is perfect.” The French writer Honoré de Balzac said on his death in 1847 that for 20 years his name had filled the press of Europe as no man since Napoleon. The young William Gladstone described him as “the greatest popular leader the world has ever seen.” In contrast, he was virtually written out of Irish history for many decades as post-independence official Ireland canonised lesser revolutionary republican leaders like Padraig Pearse and Michael Collins.
But enough of politics. We get plenty of that in the other 11 months of the year. Let me finish with an exhortation: if you want to cleanse your soul of the urban clutter (and Covid-19 anxieties) of daily life in Dublin or Belfast, take yourself to the Kerry mountains and coast, and in particular to the wondrous beauty of the Kerry Way – because that way lies happiness. I am no rock climber, but as I watched the sun chasing the showers in the rocky passes below Carrauntoohill, I had a glimpse of what climber friends have told me about: that feeling of being totally and blissfully alive and at one with nature on a vertiginous Alpine ascent.