The Wild Atlantic Way – Part 5
A series of articles about locations along this 2500km marked tourist route, which runs from Derry in the north to Kinsale in the south
The County Kerry Coastline
by Ian Middleton
If you thought the rest of the Wild Atlantic Way was wild and rugged, then you’ve yet to check out the Cork and Kerry Peninsulas. Jutting out into the wild Atlantic Ocean are the five giant claws of the southwest. This series of peninsulas are jam-packed with rugged mountains, wild jagged coastline and scattered with hundreds of ancient historical monuments. County Kerry is home to two of these: the Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry.
The Dingle Peninsula
Home to Ireland’s second highest mountain, at 3000 feet, Mount Brandon is not only a spectacular site to behold, but also home to a fascinating story. Legends don’t only come from Ireland’s ancient history, but there are many that come from the early Christian period too.
St Brendan is the patron saint of County Kerry. He was born near Tralee in AD484 amid a flurry of angels reputedly hovering over his birth house. He earned the name Saint Brendan the Navigator, due to his passion for travel and exploration. He embarked upon many journeys in his life, but his most famous and legendary was charted in his book called Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, Latin for ‘Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot’. The book tells of how he embarked upon a journey west from right here on the Dingle Peninsula. Through his writing and descriptions many believe that he had discovered America 1000 years before Columbus.
Brendan climbed alone to the top of Mount Brandon, known back then as Slieve Dagda, linking it to the father god of the Tuatha dé Danann. There is a pilgrimage trail known as the Saints Road that starts near Ventry on the southern side of the peninsula, and passes through the interesting Kilmalkedar Church. From here is one of many trails up Mount Brandon that ends at the ruins of a beehive oratory on the summit. The oratory boasts views of up to 100 miles on a clear day. This is where the saint fasted for forty days and dreamed that an angel came and promised to guide him to a beautiful island.
St. Brendan built a small, sturdy oval-shaped boat from willow trees and covered in animal skins, known as a coracle, and set sail with a small group of monks in search of this land. The journey lasted seven years and the book recounts a number of tales, such as landing on an island which turned out to be a sea monster. But ultimately he reached his destination.
In 1976 his journey was successfully recreated by Tim Severin, explorer and Oxford graduate. He used the exact kind of boat described in the Navigatio. This proved that such a voyage was possible, but did he really did reach America? I guess we’ll never know for sure.
Slea Head Drive
The town of Dingle is the capital of the peninsula, and from here the magnificent Slea Head Drive starts and ends. The R559 passes around Brandon Mountain and runs along this magnificent windswept and rugged coastline dotted with beautiful beaches. While Ireland isn’t known for its sunny days, it does get plenty of them and when it does, this peninsula, and in fact the whole of County Kerry, is magically transformed into a sea of emerald green hills, and rolling terrain running off into craggy inlets with golden sandy beaches sandwiched between them. There are also plenty of great historical sites to see along the way.
The Gallarus Oratory is possibly the most amazing and well preserved stone structure in Ireland, and the most famous. Access is via the visitor centre. It’s a small house shaped like the upturned keel of a boat. It’s built entirely from carved stones, and has a corbelled roof with nine capstones. The entrance is topped by two long lintel stones each with a hole, which may have been used to attach a door upon. Inside is a single window at the rear. The actual hole itself is quite small, but then splays at a 45 degree angle on the inside. The large stones used have been perfectly cut to create this effect.
The observatory was built around the 7th century. It’s so solid that it has withstood 1400 years of being ravaged by the elements. The Dingle peninsula is constantly exposed to the Atlantic storms, so it is true testament to an incredible feat of engineering for a so-called primitive people.
At Slea Head itself there is a stone commemorating the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, which was filmed in many locations across County Kerry. If you can withstand the ferocious winds that often batter this exposed promontory, you’ll get an excellent view of the Blasket Islands, the most westerly point in Europe. These six islands were once home to a number of famous Irish writers. Nowadays they are uninhabited, and boast acres of unspoilt mountainous landscape. To visit you can take a boat trip that starts in the town of Dingle.
Dingle: The Legend of Fungie.
During medieval times Dingle’s popularity was due to it being a departure point for Spain, to visit the grave of St James in Santiago de Compostela. The first church in Dingle is believed to have been built by the Spanish, and the modern church is built on that spot.
Dingle’s tourism popularity soared in the mid-80s due to the arrival of a single bottlenose dolphin, who decided to make the bay area its home and was named Fungie by the local fisherman. Since then people have flocked from miles around to see Fungie, and boat trips run daily from the pier. Apparently the chances of seeing Fungie are so high that if you don’t, you will get your money back. When I first arrived here back in 1999, I decided to investigate this.
Rather than pay for the boat, I had learned that you can walk out to the harbour and view Fungie from there. So I set out on a long walk along the coast to a spot near a disused lighthouse and waiting for Fungie to appear. I waited for ages, but he didn’t show.
Then the tour boats came out. I watched as they drew near to the bay entrance and, almost miraculously, a solitary dolphin leapt out of the sea and began encircling the boat. The people cheered as, for the next ten minutes, Fungie jumped and chased the boat around in circles. Then, as soon as the boat headed back in, Fungie vanished.
I remained there for a while longer, but the ocean had calmed and there wasn’t a single ripple, or sign of Fungie.
The next day I returned to the harbour and watched exactly the same thing occur as it had on the previous day. No sign of the dolphin, until the tour boats appeared. My suspicions were immediately aroused.
Fungie is said to have appeared one day in 1984, and remained ever since. I rather suspect that either Fungie left shortly after, or has died since. The local council deduced that their prime attraction having gone could spell the end of tourism in the town. So they contacted a local inventor who fabricated an electro-mechanical dolphin and programmed it to respond to a signal transmitted from the tour boats. This way the legend of Fungie would live on, and locals could continue to line their pockets with the proceeds.
The Ring of Kerry
The next peninsula down is the Iveragh Peninsula (Uíbh Ráthach), known better as Ring of Kerry. However, the Ring of Kerry actually refers to the coastal road that sweeps you around this popular peninsula, packed with tour buses in high season. This is the largest of the five peninsulas that make up Ireland’s rugged southwest corner. It’s centred by the majestic mountain range of the Macgillycuddy’s Reeks; more often than not providing a magnificent backdrop to this wonderful road. Hence the reason it is packed with tour buses in summer, so the best time to visit is out of season if you can.
The best place to start is the town of Killarney, possibly the most touristy town in the whole of County Kerry. The N71 takes you out through the Killarney National Park. This road twists and turns through unrivalled beauty and over stunning mountain passes. The Lakes of Killarney make up this national park, and the largest, at 8 square miles, is Lough Leane.
It is here while hunting with the Fianna that Finn McCool and his son Ossian encountered Niamh, the beautiful fairy princess. Niamh was the daughter of the King of Tir na Nog (Land of Eternal Youth), and had come to Ireland in search of the great warrior Ossian. His deeds and acts of bravery had spread far and wide and she had fallen in love with him. Naturally Ossian fell in love with Niamh from the moment he saw her. Niamh persuaded Ossian to come with her to the Land of Eternal Youth, where they would live together and never grow old. And it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The N70 takes you around the Ring of Kerry. One of the highlights is the town of Waterville, outside of which is a stone circle known as Eightercua.
I visited the stone circle for the sunset. The circle contains four large stones standing ten feet tall, and the remnants of other stones around an earthen enclosure. This mound is the burial place of Amergen, king of the Milesians.
Amergen couldn’t have chosen a better burial spot. The mound overlooks the ocean to the west, and the large and very beautiful Lough Currane to the east. As the sun set over the mountains the other side of town, it cast elongated shadows of the tall stones across the enclosure. A perfect end to a perfect day.
From Waterville the R567 runs around the most fascinating part, known as the Skellig Ring. It visits Ballinskelligs, the departure point for Skellig Michael. Skellig Michael is an island containing a monastic settlement built 700 feet above the sea and contains two small oratories and six beehive huts. It’s the most remote monastic settlement in Ireland and was believed to have been inhabited by the monks until the 12th century. Legend also says that the Viking King Olaf was converted to Christianity here on the island.
Of course, this island has in recent years become famous for a more interstellar reason, when the latest two instalments of the Star Wars franchise were used as Luke Skywalker’s Jedi retreat.
I am the Wind on Sea
The N70 ends at Kenmare town, sitting beside Kenmare Bay. It was here that the Milesians first came ashore and faced the Tuatha dé Danann. They has been held offshore by the dé Danann’s magic, having whipped up powerful winds and huge waves and making it impossible to come ashore. But their leader Amergin uttered a magical poem, I am wind on Sea, which thwarted their magic and allowed his warriors to make it to land. A great battle ensued across the whole of Ireland. Ultimately the Milesians were defeated. In a final truce, it was agreed that the Tuatha dé Danann would retreat into the spiritual world below and forever dwell there as the fairy folk, while the Milesians (known more commonly as the Celts) would rule the physical world above.
And this is how it has been ever since.