Our two-week sojourn along Ireland’s Atlantic coast was all about land and heritage.
As we explored the southwestern part of the country — from County Kerry to County Clare — we saw an amazing variety of landforms: rugged sea cliffs, windswept beaches, limestone mountains, fertile farms, chains of lakes, hidden valleys, and beautifully austere barrens. The area also is home to dozens of ancient and medieval ruins.
While traveling only about 100 miles (as the crow flies) from Kerry in the south to Clare in the north, progress was slow. Not only did we have to drive a five-speed standard on the left side of the road, but we also had to navigate many narrow local routes, like this two-way road along the coast.
County Kerry — The Dingle Peninsula
Our meanders brought us to many beautiful spots like this area along Slea Head Drive on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry. There, the southwesterly winds bring in lots of rain from the Atlantic, and vivid grasslands slope down toward dramatic sea cliffs.
Off-road, there were many stretches like this along Slea Head Drive — viewing spots above the building surf and rugged coast. Unusually, the area in the foreground of this particular image is a sinkhole, with a hidden sea cave forming beneath the plateau.
A fascinating ethnographic museum in the village of Dunquin tells the story of the Blasket Islands just off of the Dingle Peninsula.
Not populated since 1953, the islands once were home to a small but hardy community of subsistence fishermen and farmers who relished island life. The islanders had rich oral traditions, folklore, and customs, and several of them became famous as authors and storytellers whose Irish language tales have been translated into many languages.
From the museum in Dunquin, there’s a beautiful, four-mile cliff walk past wildflower-covered turf and limestone outcrops.
Of special note: much of the film Ryan’s Daughter was shot in this village in 1969-70, and the cliff walk passes by ruins from the film set, including a “schoolhouse” built for the movie.
Eventually, that same path dips down by the water, with great views of nearby islands.
County Kerry — Killarney National Park
Killarney National Park, one of Ireland’s six national parks, has a great mix of hiking trails and biking paths along three glacial lakes ringed by mountains, old growth trees, limestone caves, and occasional ruins.
Just outside the hotel where we stayed in the park, we could visit the ruins of a castle from the 1200s that command the site of a small nearby peninsula.
On one of our outings in the park, we took a natural history boat ride from the Dundag Boat House on the shores of Lake Muckross. Until we boarded, we had no idea that the boat skipper — amazingly! — was born in Boston in the 1960s and grew up in Upham’s Corner in Dorchester.
The skipper’s parents lived in Boston for nine years, returning to Ireland in 1972 after they were disillusioned by “all the turmoil of the ‘60s there.” His story reminded us of others we heard during our trip about the many close ties between this part of Ireland and the United States — ties that go back to well before the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.
The ride brought us to the part of the park where three lakes come together, the area known as the Meeting of the Waters. The Old Weir Bridge with its twin arches spans the gap between two of the lakes and is believed to date to the 1500s, perhaps even earlier.
The ride also gave us great close-up views of limestone caves being formed by erosion.
County Kerry — The Black Valley
Just outside of the national park, the Black Valley is sometimes thought of as a hidden valley, as it sits away from more touristed areas. Of special note: it was the last part of Ireland to receive electric service in 1976.
The local guide who showed us around the area, George Jackson of Dingle Darkroom, is a delightful free spirit and professional photographer with a passion for teaching people how to make strong photos in off-the-beaten path places that he’s found along the Atlantic Coast.
We spent quite a while with George in the Black Valley, which we never would have found on our own. It’s a remote area of scattered small farms and glacial lakes, surrounded by rugged mountains.
We learned from George that, given how remote the valley is, local farmers receive government subsidies to raise sheep and till the hardscrabble soil there.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the barely-settled valley has some isolated ruins that speak to the difficult lives of small farmers who lived there in the past.
In quiet parts of the valley, we crossed paths several times with sheep as they grazed on grass and searched for food.
County Clare — The Burren
Before we went to the Burren, a guest at a hotel in Killarney warned us that “the Burren is barren.” While some people may think of it that way, we thought that it had a rugged kind of beauty that was distinctly different from the other areas we visited on the trip.
Much of the topsoil in the Burren has eroded away over time — partly due to nature, but mainly due to over-farming and over-grazing. As a result, the underlying limestone is exposed in many places, like here at Black Head, creating what’s called “limestone pavement.”
The Burren is one of the few places in the world where Arctic-Alpine and Mediterranean plants grow near one another. Also, the warmth in the “grykes” — the spaces in between the limestone pavements — can support even fragile plant life. For these reasons, some people call the Burren “the land of the fertile rock.”
In the Burren National Park, a loop trail goes through some old farmland and looks out to Mullaghmore, a major outcropping of limestone that’s the highest point in the park.
After hiking on our own, we had the pleasure of touring part of the park with Tony Kirby, a local guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of history, botany, poetry, and more.
As we walked around, Tony told us about human settlements in the area going back thousands of years, dating to the late Bronze Age.
Even some of the freestanding drystone walls in the area are hundreds, or thousands, of years old — it’s amazing that they’ve lasted all that time without mortar or cement holding them together.
Depending on the location, the walls mark the boundaries of land once tilled by struggling tenant farmers, the one-time wildlife “parks” where wealthy gentry once hunted game, former pilgrim sites or small churches once managed by monastic orders, or other forms of divided land. In that sense, the Burren landscape “tells many stories” of power and inequality that might not be so obvious at first glance.
Before we left the Burren, we made a point of visiting some local ruins. Perhaps the most impressive one was the portal tomb at Poulnabrone, which contains the remains of more than 30 people from several thousand years ago. The rock balancing on the stone pillars weighs over 1.5 tons. Scholars say that this is arguably the best-preserved ancient tomb of its kind in all of Ireland.
Reflecting on Our Trip
As much as we enjoyed hiking and biking amid a variety of landforms, we also marveled at southwestern Ireland’s rich cultural heritage. Humans have left behind traces of their homes and communities in this region for thousands of years: communal tombs, pagan religious sites, stone forts, medieval churches, old stone walls, and more.
In hindsight, we didn’t anticipate how much we would enjoy experiencing and learning about Ireland’s southwest coast. Its distinctive blend of natural, cultural, and historical features — not to mention its warm and friendly people and its relaxed way of life — were thoroughly enticing. As you may have guessed, we’re already figuring out how and when to set up a return trip there!