It is surely no coincidence that I choose to take my Irish holidays in a place that is as far away from Northern Ireland as one can get. Kerry is simply the most beautiful and fascinating (and peaceful) county in Ireland, and for this lifelong hill-walker it is about as close as one gets to paradise on earth. In this I am at one with the greatest Kerryman of them all, Daniel O’Connell (see his idealised view of his home at Derrynane in Robert Havell’s painting in the National Gallery).
Earlier this month I returned to Kerry to complete the Kerry Way, which I walked for five days a year ago via the Black Valley, Glencar, Glenbeigh, Cahersiveen and Waterville.1 This year I took the southern leg and walked for three days from Killarney to Caherdaniel, via Kenmare and Sneem. The first day took me in pouring rain along the spectacular Old Kenmare Road (not a road at all, but a cross between a cattle track and a rough and wild upland path), past Torc Mountain (the home of Ireland’s largest red deer herd), through the sylvan Esknamucky Glen and up to the bleak pass between Peakeen and Knockanaguish mountains. Until 1823 this was the main route linking Killarney to the sea. It was being tramped in the historic year of 1815 by British soldiers (up to 90,000 Irishmen served in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars) – there is even a graffiti from one of them on a rock in Esknamucky Glen: James Neill of the Tipperary Regiment.
Kenmare is a classic landlord town, with its distinctive triangular street plan. As you enter it from Gowlane on the Old Kenmare Road you pass a handsome if shabby residence which was once the Kenmare workhouse, described by the town’s medical officer in the famine year of 1847 as “an engine for producing disease and death.” In one July day in that year over 63% of the population of the Iveragh peninsula received famine rations (mainly porridge made from Indian meal).
These days Kenmare is a charming place, much frequented by the Dublin bourgeoisie (of which I am now one, although a little unusual in that I entered it on foot). It was developed by the absentee landlord, the Marquess of Lansdowne, in the 1770s when he instructed his agents to turn its two streets into four by crossing each other at an angle, with a triangular market place at its centre. I met my wife Doireann for dinner in the Lime Tree restaurant, which in the 1840s served as an office to hand out free passes to allow starving people to emigrate, mainly to North America (over 4,600 people received such papers in this building alone), before becoming a school for 110 years.
The following day I headed for Sneem, starting with an easy tramp up Gortamullin hill, which gives splendid views over the town, Kenmare Harbour and the Beara peninsula. I am a huge admirer of the people who designed and developed the 210 kilometre Kerry Way, which I count as one of the finest long distance walking routes in Europe. But something went wrong around Templenoe, west of Kenmare. Here it takes the walker on a six kilometre deviation around inland country roads, and then for two and a half kilometres, with no footpath, on a perilous perambulation along one of narrowest and fastest-driving tourist roads in Ireland, the N70. I assume that the long diversion is to avoid the Ring of Kerry golf club – a ‘must play’ course for wealthy American visitors, complete with plutocratic bungalow-style residences for them to rent. It was obviously easier to persuade local farmers to allow walkers across their land than the people who run upmarket golf clubs!
On the third day I walked from Sneem to Caherdaniel. Sneem is one of the prettiest villages in Ireland, beloved of President Charles de Gaulle, who chose it as his hideaway after his 1969 resignation following the ‘events’ of May 1968 in Paris and the loss of a referendum which was effectively a vote on his years in power. Another highly unusual aristocratic figure buried there in the Church of Ireland graveyard there is Gobnait Ní Bhrudair, born Albinia Broderick, the sister of the Earl of Midleton, leader of the Southern unionists during the War of Independence. In her middle age, Albinia trained as a nurse, became a fluent Irish speaker (changing her name into Irish), and joined Sinn Fein and Cumann na mBan (she was to become a Sinn Fein councillor on Kerry County Council). She was a fanatical anti-Treatyite during the Civil War and cycled all over Kerry in her blue nurse’s uniform to treat wounded republicans, until in May 1923 she was shot in the leg when she refused to stop at a Free State army roadblock. Despite her injuries, she joined a hunger strike of republican prisoners in Dublin until she was released. She was horrified by the poverty she saw in Cork and Kerry and her dream, never fully realised – despite starting a hospital in Caherdaniel during the 1910 smallpox epidemic – was to establish a hospital for the poor people of Iveragh.
Half way between Sneem and Caherdaniel, just off the Kerry Way, is the imposing Staigue Fort, a large circular rampart at the head of a river valley, built entirely of dry stone walls, whose date is uncertain but probably goes back at least 1600 years to the Iron Age. It may have been the defensive citadel of a petty king or tribal leader. Kerry is an archaeological treasure trove for such remains from the Bronze and Iron Ages (for example, the largest concentration of prehistoric rock art in Ireland is found close to the remote and dramatic Ballaghbeama Gap north of Sneem).
Maybe it is a false comfort, but as I proceed into my eighth decade on this earth, I am greatly comforted by these rich remnants of Irish people and civilisations who existed thousands of years before me. It is the same in the North, where in the words of the Ireland-loving Welsh archaeologist E. Estyn Evans, people from different origins learned to live and mix together with the result that Ulster had a “brilliant Bronze Age.” It makes me hope that – if global warming spares us – the small, if often bloody, colonial and sectarian conflicts of the past few hundred years will inevitably pass, and with good fortune and good leadership (the latter never a given!), we will one day come together peacefully as a somewhat united people on this most beautiful of islands.
Another thing I have come to believe is that it is simplistic and foolish to think that the British presence on the island (now personified by the Ulster Unionists) is the cause of all our ills. There are many English, Scottish and Welsh people who have contributed enormously to the well-being of Ireland. In my walks through Kerry I have come across the works of one of them, a remarkable Scotsman called Alexander Nimmo. Nimmo was an engineer who was charged in 1811-1812 with mapping Kerry and parts of Cork for the Bogs Commissioners, established by the British government to explore the practicality of draining and cultivating Irish bogs. Nimmo’s brilliant and detailed map of Iveragh has been described by the UCD geographer Arnold Horner as “arguably one of the most elegant ever produced for any part of Ireland.”
But Nimmo was not just a mapmaker. He was a designer and builder too. Among the Irish roads and buildings he surveyed and/or designed after his mapmaking in Kerry were roads in Connemara, Cork harbour and city quays, the village and harbour of Roundstone in County Galway, the harbour in Dunmore East in County Waterford, the Wellesley bridge and docks in Limerick, bridges at Poulaphouca in County Wicklow, fishing piers and harbours throughout Ireland (including at Cahersiveen, Ballinskelligs, Kenmare and Valentia), and the railway between Dublin and Dun Laoghaire.
So the next time you are driving the Ring of Kerry road from Glenbeigh to Foilmore, with the picturesque Kells Bay harbour below you and Drung Hill above, spare a thought for this virtuoso Scottish engineer – because he surveyed and designed that road over 200 years ago. It was to replace the old ‘butter road’ that rose to 850 feet along the shoulder of Drung Hill, which is now part of the Kerry Way (and which I walked last year). 2
1 Walking the Kerry Way to happiness, 2 Irelands Together, August 2020
2 The factual elements in this article are largely taken from a marvellous book called The Iveragh Peninsula: A Cultural Atlas of the Ring of Kerry, edited by John Crowley and John Sheehan (Cork University Press, 2009)