If I had to choose Ireland's most scenic location I'd be hard pushed to beat Killarney. The Burren is beautifully rugged, Connemara wistful and rural, and West Cork is rimmed by stunning coastline, but when it comes to sheer beauty, the lakes, valleys and peaks of Killarney take the crown.
The Killarney National Park covers over 10 hectares encompassing miles of dense and ancient woodland, the graceful waters of Lough Leane, Muckross Lake and the thickly wooded Upper Lake as well as the mighty peaks of the Mangerton, Torc, Shehy and Purple Mountains which overlook this splendid scenery.
Besides the park is the inviting and bustling town of Killarney, which has welcomed and entertained visitors for 250 years, and this year, Killarney is celebrating this illustrious anniversary in fine. Since St Patrick's Day 2004, the town has held a huge range of events and now the festivities are due to culminate with the Killarney Summerfest in July this year, with live music, comedy, street theatre and a whole host of family fun, and later the grand finale to Killarney 250 in October with a terrific firework display over the waters of the lakes.
Killarney and its surroundings have long held a place in Irish folklore. In legend Killarney is linked with the mythical land of Tir na N'og, the Land of Youth. One story tells of how Ireland's ancient warriors the Fianna, where hunting on the shores of Lough Leane, when Oisin, the son of the leader Fionn, instantly fell in love with a beautiful blond riding a white horse; Niamh Cinn iir (Niamh of the Golden Hair). She invited him to her land of Tir na N'og under the waters of Lough Leane, where nobody grew old and spring was eternal.
Though Oisin was very happy in Tir na N'og with Niamh, after what he thought to be three years, he wished to visit his family. But Niamh warned him that in the land of mortals he had been away 300 years and that if he touched the land again all those years would return to him. So Oisin set off on horse back careful not to step on the ground. He discovered the land much changed, there was no trace of the Fianna anywhere and all around the island, Saint Patrick was converting people to Christianity and churches were being built. On his return to Lough Leane, Oisin came across a group of men trying to clear a boulder from the path, along what is known locally as the Bealach Oisin Pass in the mountains close to Killarney. As one of the mighty Fianna, Oisin claimed he could move it with one hand and took up the challenge from the men. Oisin remained on his horse and to the wonder of the mortals began moving the huge rock with one hand. But as he did so, the stirrup on Oisin's horse broke sending Oisin falling to the ground and the mighty warrior was instantly transformed into an old man.
Killarney was once a subkingdom of the MacCarthy Mor and O'Donoghue clans and their stronghold since the 14th century was Ross Castle beside the lake. During the wars with Cromwell, Ross Castle was the very last place in Munster to fall and now stands as a romantic ruin, restored as a visitor centre from which, regular boat trips run across the waters to another of Killarney's romantic ruins, Inishfallen Abbey.
Situated in Inishfallen Island in the centre of Lough Leane, the abbey was established by St Finian in the 7th century. Why St Finian chose such an isolated, yet beautiful location, is perhaps explained by his nickname; St Finian the Leper. It was here that in the 13th Century the Annals of Inishfallen, chronicling the history of Ireland and the world in Irish, were written, but you'll have to go to Bodleian Library in Oxford, England to read them.
From the 17th Century much of what now makes up the Killarney National Park was under the ownership of the Earl of Kenmare. Successive earls are to thank for the preservation and conservation of the national park and the development of the town. But it was Thomas Fourth Earl of Kenmare, who had the vision of Killarney as a tourist attraction and he set the ball rolling in 1754. He built walkways around Inishfallen Island and a house for visitors to dine in, he allowed boats on the waters for local tours and improved the infrastructure of the town and the local roads for greater accessibility and a coaching Inn, now Muckross Hotel, was built in 1790.
Killarney began to attract people from all over, including some famous names. Poets like Tennyson and Wordsworth were drawn by the romance of Killarney's scenery and writers like Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austin also eulogised about their visits. Dignitaries from around Europe followed and in 1861 Queen Victoria of England capped Killarney's crowning moment with a royal visit.
Queen Victoria stayed in Killarney for four days during which time, the Royal party where entertained by the Earl of Kenmare and the Herberts at Muckross House. During their stay the Royal party visited a number of Killarney's landmarks, with trips to Dinis Island, Torc Waterfall and a Deer Hunt in the grounds of Muckross Park and today many places retain their names from Queen Victoria's visit, such as Queen's Road leading up to Torc Waterfall and Ladies View overlooking the lakes, from a sight much enjoyed by the Queen's ladies in waiting.
Killarney today remains a hub of activity and the place is bustling all year round. If you're looking for somewhere quiet and quaint, Killarney isn't really the place for you. This town is the country capital of Irish tourism with all its emerald green, leprechaun souvenirs, coach tours, boat trips, jaunting cars and camera flashing tourists. But if you're put off by all this mass tourism, don't be, the magical scenery more than makes up for it and Killarney provides an excellent range of top quality accommodation, good restaurants and pubs renowned for their live entertainment.
Things to see & do in Killarney - well if you have time and energy you should take to the park on foot, with the proper outdoor attire of course. There a plenty of fabulous walks varying in degrees of difficulty through the hills and along the banks of the lakes in the national park. One of the most popular sights along the way is Torc Waterfall, a fabulous stairway of cascading water and around 3km from Killarney you'll find Carrantuohil, which at 1041m is Ireland's highest peak. However for something less strenuous, a leisurely horse drawn jaunting car ride, with one of the local ‘jarvies' is the perfect and most romantic way to enjoy the scenery of the national park and the famous Gap of Dunloe, while your guide fills you in on the local lore of the land.
One of Killarney's most popular visitor attractions is Muckross House, a must see for fans of Victoriana. This exquisite country house represents Victorian design in all its pomp and indeed entertained Queen Victoria herself during in her visit to Killarney. This stately sprawl was built in 1843 for local landowners The Herbert Family, in later years the property was owned by Lord Ardilaun, a member of the Guinness family before it was bought by wealthy Californian, mining magnet William Bowers Bourn, as a wedding gift to his daughter and her husband Arthur Rose Vincent. In 1932 he donated the entire Muckross Estate, house and all to the nation and now Muckross House is open to tours of the rooms decked out with lavish Victorian fittings. You get to see everything from the rooms in which Queen Victoria slept, to the downstairs quarters of the staff and the Kitchens, a real portrayal of life in the 19th Century. Also on the estate are the Muckross Traditional Farms with early 20th century reproductions from Kerry farmhouses and a 3km walk or jarvey ride will bring you to the Meeting of the Waters, the scenic point at which the three lakes of Killarney meet.
Killarney is a place with an excellent blend of beauty, tradition, history, folklore and charm and its popularity stems from Killarney's ability to tap into its natural talents and resources to present a destination, which pleases, enraptures and captivates. In celebrating its 250th year of welcoming visitors, Killarney promises to continue its warm welcomes for 250 more to come and you can be sure that the craic will always be mighty in Killarney.
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this time next month...
Conor B & Seamus.