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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
Frederic William Burton
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The Kingdom of Kerry

killarney lakes

Killarney Lakes courtesy Rick Mullin

by Suzanne Barrett

Munster has a long and varied history. Early Bronze Age metal prospectors searching for materials to craft weapons and implements left ring forts and relics as did later Iron Age settlers. Their homes were earthworks and stone fortifications, often used for pagan ceremonies, but also as defensible residential compounds which remained in use for decades following the rise of Christianity.

Until Tudor times, the valleys and hillsides of southwestern Ireland were dense with oak woods. But around 1600 that began to change. The woods were hewn down for timber export, market towns were established, bridges built to span rivers, and new settlements began to spring up throughout the province. The end of the seventeenth century saw arable farmland in a patchwork of hedgerow-enclosed fields, further refined by the mid eighteenth century and including dairy farming developed in areas of rich grassland.

With the conquest of the Normans and the Treaty of Windsor in 1175, Henry II was recognized by the Irish High King as Lord of Ireland. He parceled out much of the land of Munster to his knights. Raymond Le Gros, also known as Raymond FitzGerald, received land grants in southern Limerick and Kerry. Tralee, in Kerry, was established as a Norman town and like other Munster towns achieved a high degree of independence because these areas were administered by a few families. By the fourteenth century, these Norman families had become hibernicized, intermarrying with the native Irish, adopting the Irish language. The FitzGeralds in particular resisted Henry VIII's attempt to Anglicize the country, clinging to the old faith. The power of the family was broken only when the Earl of Desmond, a FitzGerald, was killed in 1583 and FitzGerald lands in Counties Cork, Limerick, Kerry, and Waterford confiscated.

In 1642 the people of Munster rose and attacked the settlers. All the land except an area around Cork City was controlled by Catholic Confederates. But when Cromwell marched through Ireland, he confiscated the land and allotted portions to English adventurers and soldiers. Thus at the beginning of the seventeenth century, about ten percent of the land was in Protestant hands; by the end of the century that number had increased to eighty-six percent, establishing the pattern of Protestant landlord and Catholic tenant.

Many of these Anglo-Irish landlords proved poor administrators, and in the nineteenth century Kerry Catholics lived in deplorable conditions. Illiteracy was as high as seventy percent. During the famine years, many landlords spent the time abroad. Cecil Woodham Smith said of these landlords in her book The Great Hunger, "few classes of men have had so much abuse heaped on them ... and with justification."

Kerry, located in Ireland's southwest, has two contrasting types of terrain - the mountainous southern part with its three large, hilly peninsulas of Beara, Iveragh and Dingle, and the smaller area of undulating plain in the north that stretches as far as the Shannon Estuary in the north. Along the coast, sandy bays alternate with cliffs and rocky headlands; inland are regions of sandstone hills, glens and river valleys, and areas of outstanding scenic beauty such as the Ring of Kerry and Killarney. Kerry is a delightful patchwork of green, from the bright green grasslands to the deep green-brown boglands, the roads flanked with fuchsia-clad hedgerows, and the expanse of rhododendron, higher than a man's head.

In Killarney there are three main lakes and numerous tarns nestled into mountain folds. The three lakes, Lough Leane (or Lower Lake), Torc or Muckross (Middle) Lake, and Upper lake. On the western side of Lower Lake lies the gap of Dunloe, a deep rift separating the McGillicuddy's Reeks from the Purple Mountain group and running for some four miles. On the north side of the Reeks is Carrantuohill, at 3, 414 feet, Ireland's highest mountain and famous for climbing and as a ridge walk. Firm red sandstone and grit make up the Reeks' mass, while volcanic rock similar to that at the Giant's Causeway in the North is found around Lough Gitane, another of the Killarney lakes. The Upper Lake is considered to be the most beautiful with wooded shores and small islands.

The Iveragh Peninsula stretches southwest for thirty-six miles and is approximately fifteen miles wide. It contains fine mountains, and the coastal strip around the peninsula is the world famous Ring of Kerry. Starting at Kenmare and ending at Killarney is a journey of ninety miles. Waterville (the little whirlpool) is situated on the eastern shore of Ballinskelligs Bay, not far from Cahirciveen, another peaceful and charming town. The Skelligs Rocks lie nine miles off Valentia Island. The precipitous rock of Great Skellig rises seven hundred feet out of the sea. Here are the ruins of a settlement by early Christian monks.

The Dingle Peninsula, the most northerly of the hilly promontories of County Kerry is been covered in another extensive feature. Suffice it to say that the area near Tralee is low-lying country, while just thirty miles away the terrain is mountainous. Western Dingle is part of the Gaeltacht, or the Irish-speaking region and a Mecca for tourists wanting to immerse themselves in Irish culture.

Flora and Fauna
Kerry flora is among the most interesting in Ireland, a paradise for the botanist said Lloyd Praeger, who declared it as "the area where the special features of the Irish climate and vegetation attain their most pronounced expression". It is estimated that approximately one quarter of all the rare Irish plants are to be found in Kerry. One factor is the mild Gulf Stream climate which gives moist winters and a year-round growing season. Another is the variety of habitats: coastal regions, blanket bogs, marsh lands, and mountain ranges which allow for a broad number of different plant species. Soil type is a third factor. Apart from the coastal area, much of Kerry contains a lime/acid soil mix.

Kerry is home to a variety of Mediterranean-Lusitanian plants which flower from May until early July, some found nowhere else in Ireland, others nowhere else in Europe. The strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo)is perhaps the most interesting because it is the most noticeable large plant. A member of the heather family, it is found around the Killarney woods. Frost-tender, a few exist near Lough Gill in Co. Sligo but it thrives in Kerry, then not again until one reaches the shores of Brittany and Southern Europe. In autumn the tree is covered with rough, red, strawberry-like berries. Other Lusitanian plants common to the area include the Greater Butterwort (Pinguicula grandiflora) with deep purple hooded flowers leaning forward on four to six inch stems and a yellowish rosette of leaves. These sticky leaves curl up at the edges to devour insects. Some botanists feel the Greater Butterwort is the most beautiful of the Irish flora.

Saxifrage (saxifraga rosacea), an Alpine plant, loves mountainous regions as well as walls and rocks in lowland areas, its tiny white flowers standing out against red stems. Interestingly, it does not grow in Britain. One variety is the St. Patrick's cabbage (Saxifraga spathularis), sometimes called "Wild London Pride," with small pink flowers spaced out on nine-inch stems and leaves deeply serrated. It grows in the sun but is more vigorous in shady settings. The Kerry Lily (Simethis planifola) is found only in one small section of rocky heath on the Ring of Kerry. It is graceful with a distinguished white flower which opens in mid-June and is gone by late July.

The Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) was introduced to Kerry in the 1880s and, though beautiful, has become something of a nuisance plant. The magnificent pink flowers that fill the Killarney Lakes region for three weeks each June are spectacular to look at, but the plant chokes out every other plant in its path, including the oak woods. And it is poisonous to cattle.

The fuchsia (Fuchsia magellacina) was planted for hedges about one hundred years ago. It runs rampant in the frost-free West Cork and Kerry climate and is a part of nearly every hedgerow in the Southwest. In Kerry, it is already in bloom by the end of May.

Sessile Oaks (Quercus petraea) comprising much of the ancient Irish oak forests, were in demand for ship-building, bridges, houses, and fences, and grow in poorer earth than Common Oaks (Quercus robur). Both yew and hawthorn were sacred trees in Ireland. The Common Yew (Taxus baccata) spreads outward bushily from a central trunk, while the Irish Yew (Taxus baccata "Fastigiata") has upward pointing branches and an architectural form. The latter are often found in formal gardens and churchyards, perhaps owing to their longevity and evergreen needles symbolizing eternal life, a significance pre-dating Christianity.

The Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), an insignificant little tree with deeply toothed leaves, tiny white May flowers and red berries in autumn, fills hedgerows in the West and Southwest. The symbolism in Ireland is intense, particularly for single hawthorn trees. Often they stand out in fields with tractor tracks swerving around them. Hawthorn trees often stand on raths, which makes one wonder if they were symbolic of ancient worship or burial sites.

Kerry fauna is equally fascinating. Bears existed until around 800 B.C., and the mighty Irish Elk died out over six thousand years ago. According to the Kerry Gems article on fauna: "Wolves were also common here and were probably one of the reasons for the building of the many stone forts around Ireland. Torc Mountain in Killarney gets its name from an enchanted boar that was killed there by legendary hero, Fionn Mc Cumhail. Many of the stone forts built in Kerry were built as protection from wolves. The last wolf in Ireland is said to have been killed in the McGillycuddy Reeks in 1710. Still, Red Deer and Sika Deer roam the woods and parkland around Killarney, and Kerry Cattle, said to be the oldest breed of cattle in Europe have the distinction of being the first breed developed primarily as a milk producer, history's first real dairy cow. Ireland's largest herd of these all-black cattle can be seen in Killarney National Park.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Kerry Blue was favored as an exceptional watch dog. Kennels sprang up for breeding these animals, and Irish Patriot Michael Collins owned Kerry Blues.

Since Victorian times Kerry's magnificent scenery has attracted visitors with its dramatic landscapes, prehistoric and early Christian sites, and wild, mountainous terrain. Killarney is a popular tourist base where busloads of visitors may be found on any given day from spring until autumn. The woodlands still offer a pleasant escape, if one is willing to walk the paths. Expect a friendly welcome from the locals, good food and ample opportunity for hiking, cycling, pony trekking. A car is essential if you want to set out on your own away from the more heavily trafficked venues.

Ardfert Cathedral, north of Tralee, is a complex of churches linked to Brendan the navigator, born nearby in 484. He founded a monastery here, however, the ruined cathedral dates back only to the twelfth century. Nearby is a ruined Franciscan friary founded by Thomas FitzMaurice in 1253 with cloisters and a south chapel dating about 1500. Northwest of Ardfert lies Banna Strand, a lonely strip of beach where Roger Casement landed in 1916, bringing German rifles for the Easter Rising. A memorial marks the spot. The beach was also used for David Lean's film Ryan's Daughter.

In Tralee is the Kerry Museum (Open daily mid-March - December. Closed Dec. 25 & 26) with an audiovisual show and a series of archaeological finds. There is even a time travel experience through Anglo-Norman Tralee, complete with medieval sounds and smells! Just outside Tralee is the Blennerville Windmill, built in 1800 and Ireland's largest working mill (Open daily April - October). Tralee is also famous for the annual Rose of Tralee competition in which a young woman of Irish heritage is selected to represent the Rose of Tralee for the coming year.

The Gallarus Oratory near Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula is a miniature church, built between the sixth and ninth centuries. It has been described as the apogee of dry-stone corbeling: the outside stones laid lower for water runoff. At Ballyferriter, a village of pretty pastel-colored cottages, there is a pottery shop and a cultural heritage museum.

Heading from Kenmare to Killarney on the N71 is a breathtaking view above Upper Lake. Called Ladies' View because of the delight it gave to Queen Victoria's ladies-in-waiting when they visited in September 1861, it still delights today. Torc Waterfall, part of the Owengarriff River, drops sixty feet into Muckross Lake at Friars Glen. A lovely path winds up to the top and offers a not-to-be-missed view of Torc Mountain. Muckross House in Killarney is situated on Muckross Lake. No visit to Kerry is complete without a tour of the house and gardens. Built in 1843, the Victorian house upstairs portrayed the elegance and style of the landed gentry, while rooms below showed the working conditions of the servants. Muckross is an ideal base for touring the National Park and Dingle Peninsula.

Killorglin, near the mouth of Dingle Bay, hosts the Puck Fair each August. The fair is one of Ireland's oldest and longest celebrated and is held without fail on 10th, 11th and 12th August every year with twelve hours of free family street entertainment.

Until next time.

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