If wedges, ring forts, inscribed crosses, ogham stones and oratories interest you, then you should go west to the Dingle Peninsula. As well as having some of the most beautiful and rugged coastal scenery in the country, it has an exceptional variety of prehistoric and Early Christian remains.
Dunbeg Fort, 3 km west of Ventry, is a fort built by early settlers to Kerry. A kilometre further on at Fahan is a marvellous treasure chest of Beehive Huts, eighteen Standing and Inscribed Stones, two Sculptured Crosses and seven Earthen Ringforts. As you round Slea Head there are fine views of the Blasket Islands, deserted since 1953 but remembered for its famous writers, such as Peig Sayers who is buried in the nearby graveyard of Dunquin. It was here in the Blasket Sound that several hundred men lost their lives when the Santa Maria de la Rosa, one of the ships of the Spanish Armada, sank on October 1st 1588. Items recovered from the ship can be seen at the very interesting heritage centre in Ballyferriter.
Continuing on through the village is the ancient monastery of Riasc, worth visiting to see the Inscribed Cross Slabs. Gallarus Oratory, 3 km further east, is regarded by many as the ´jewel in the crown´. Built of unmortared stone it is still dry inside after over a thousand years. Our last stop Kilmalkedar has a 12th century Hiberno-Romanesque church, an Alphabet Stone close to the chancel door, Sundial Stone and 7th and 8th century stone crosses. Across the road is Saint Brendan´s House which dates from the 14th or 15th century.
The Ring of Kerry is equally rich in archaeological remains. Fine example of Iron Age forts can be seen at Staigue near Caherdaniel and Cahergal and Leacanabuaile at Cahersiveen. There are also fine examples of medieval castles and monasteries. The jewel is Kerry’s crown are the 7th century monastic remains on Skellig Mhichíl, a world heritage site.
Killarney has the oldest copper-mines in North West Europe at Ross Island in the Killarney Lakes. The stone circle at Lissivigeen is also worthy of none. In North Kerry the fine ruins of Ardfert Cathedral and the castle at Listowel town and Carrigafoyle near Ballylongford are worth a visit.
A good place to start exploring Kerry’s archaeology is at Kerry Museum in the Ashe Memorial Hall, Denny Street, Tralee, County Kerry.
© 2009 Kerry Gems
With over 6,000 years of inhabitation, Ireland has a long history of architecture. However, very few traces of the first people to arrive here remain as the structures would have been mostly of wooden construction. In some cases archaeologists have been fortunate to find evidence of pole holes, such as at the copper mines on Ross Island Killarney dating from over 4,000 years ago.
It is not until the coming of Christianity in the 4th century that we see the beginning of what were to be our most decorative buildings. Initially these were basic stone huts such as the beehive huts on the Great Skelligs Island off the Kerry coast but towards the 8th and 9th century the designs become more ornate, such as the beautifully corbelled church at Gallarus on the Dingle Peninsula.
However, it is in the middle of the 11th century that we find our most elegant structures. The introduction of Romanesque architecture inspired the beautiful and highly decorated doorways found in the churches at Inisfallen and Kilmalkedar. This period was short lived as the coming of the Anglo-Normans at the end of the 12th century brought with it the pointed Gothic arches that was to be the feature of the medieval churches throughout Ireland. One of the most interesting examples of this transition is to be see at Muckross Abbey (1340 A.D.) in Killarney. It seems as if the builder of the cloister began with the rounded Romanesque arches and then decided to finish the remaining arches in the new Gothic style.
This is also the period when we see the rise of medieval castles. The coming of the Normans followed by Cromwell’s forces in the middle of the 17th century made fortification a necessity rather than a luxury. Following the defeat of the Irish, the country was divided into parcels of land and given as payment to Cromwell´s soldiers. This was the beginning of a new era in Irish history and Irish architecture – the coming of the landlords and the big houses.
Actually not all the houses were big houses. Some were really just large farmhouses. The really big or Great houses of Ireland belonged to the wealthier landlords or the few well to do Catholic merchants. If we take the Romanesque period as the high point in early Irish architecture then the Georgian period (1714-1830) was the high point for the later period. Rows of beautiful Georgian houses are to be found in all our major cities and in Kerry we are fortunate to have some fine examples in Denny Street, Tralee. Some other fine building from around this period are Muckross House and St. Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney, the former home of Lord Ventry, now Colaiste Ide in Dingle, and Tarbert House in North Kerry.
During your holiday in Kerry why not turn detective and explore Irish architecture? You will find fine examples from every period here – from stone huts to magnificent houses. Useful reference books are the Archaeology Surveys of Dingle, North Kerry and the Iveragh Peninsula, along with Houses of Kerry by Valerie Bary.
© 2009 Kerry Gems
Visitors to Muckross House in Killarney are amazed at the size of the huge antlers hanging in the main hall. This specimen belongs to one of Ireland´s now extinct animals, the Irish Elk. Its huge antlers measured as much as 14 feet (4.3m). It seems to have died out about 6,000 years ago. Bears existed here until 800 B.C., a bear´s tooth has been found in the sandhills at Castlegregory. Wild boar survived until the 1600´s and from excavations of various sites, seems to be have been widespread throughout the country. 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 the 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 Mc Gillycuddy Reeks in 1710.
Kerry´s Special Animals
If all the above animals are dead and gone, what is left? Well Kerry is fortunate in having some animals that are special to the county. For example the Red Deer, a reminant from the last ice age over 10,000 years ago, still roams freely in the mountains above Killarney. A number of animals have been moved to one of the Blasket Islands to ensure their preservation. About 1812 three Japanese Sika Deer were introduced to Killarney. Today they number over 1,000 animals and have become important in themselves as they may be the only pure herd in the world. Another animal we are very proud of is the Kerry Cattle, said to be the oldest breed of cattle in Europe. Its ancestor is thought to be the ´Celtic Shorthorn´, brought by Neolithic man in his migration northwards from the Mediterranean. It has the distinction of being the first breed developed primarily as a milk producer, history´s first real dairy cow. As such these animals are part of our heritage. Ireland´s largest herd of these all-black cattle can be seen in Killarney National Park.
Have you heard of the Kerry Blue? If you were a milkman or postman in Kerry you would certainly know all about this fellow. Although they only grow to about 18 inches, they make excellent watch-dogs. If you happen to jump in over a wall looking for directions and the owner has a Kerry Blue, you could very well break the Irish record for the mile.
In the coming weeks we will be telling you about lots of special fauna found in Kerry – such as the Kerry Slug, the Bog Pony, the Natterjack Toad, and the Killarney rare fish – Shad and Char.
© 2009 Kerry Gems
According to the distinguished botanist Lloyd Praeger the flora of this part of the Emerald Isle “is from almost every point of view, the most interesting region in Ireland for the botanist and is the area where the special features of the Irish climate and vegetation attain their most pronounced expression”. He describes Killarney in particular as “a paradise for the botanist”. Scully, whose work is regarded as the ´bible´ of Irish flora, estimated that about a quarter of all the rare Irish plants are to be found in Kerry.
There are several factors which have made Kerry a joy for the botanist. For example, our climate here is affected greatly by the Gulf Stream, giving us mild moist winters and a year round growing season. This factor is a major contributor to the sub-tropical gardens at Glanleam on Valentia Island and the record number of mosses, lichens and liverworts found in the Killarney oakwoods. The variation of habitats also allows for a greater number of plants species. Kerry has an extensive coastline, large areas of blanket bog, we have Ireland´s highest mountain range and large areas of marsh land. Historical influences have also to be taken into consideration, especially in regard to Killarney National Park. Here we have 27,000 acres of land that has been largely undisturbed for several hundred years. Among its most important habitats are a magnificent yew wood (one of three remaining in Europe), the last of Ireland´s oakwoods and large areas of wet woodland. The final factor worth considering is the variety of soil types within the county. Apart from the coastal areas, the main soil types are lime and acid.
Kerry´s Mediterranean Plants
The special ingredients of habitat make Kerry a unique place for many plants – some of which are found no place else in Ireland, others which are found no place else in Europe. The moist mild climate in Kerry not only ensures that everywhere is green but also enable plants from much warmer climates to feel at home here. Many of these rarities come under the category of Mediteranean-Lusitanian. They flower from May to early July.
St. Patrick’s Cabbage
If you head off the beaten track and take to the Kerry hills you soon find yourself surrounded by the delightful plants of the saxifrage family. The Irish Saxifrage (saxifraga rosacea) which is found in the McGillycuddy Reeks mountains and on walls and rocks in lowland areas is a mass of low lying tiny delicate white flowers which stand out again the mass of red stems. Another saxifrage very common in these areas is St. Patrick´s Cabbage (saxifraga spathularis). Its tiny pink flowers grow on a stem about 9 inches tall.
The Greater Butterwort (pinguicula grandiflora) has been described by many botanists as ´the most beautiful flower member of the Irish flora´ and is special to Kerry´s bogs and moorland. The stems grow to about six inches and produce deep purple flowers. A special feature of this plant is that it compensates for the lack of nitrogen in the moorland soil by trapping insects and digesting insects in its sticky leaves.
Another plant with a fly diet is the sundew (drosera rotundifolia), a small low lying plant with a rosette of green leaves covered with sticky red hairs.
It´s a bit of a mystery how a plant is found in Kerry and then not found again until we travel south to Brittany and then on to southern Europe. If you take any of the nature trails around the limestone peninsulas in Muckross, Killarney then look out for this windswept trees with bark like chocolate flake. In the autumn it is unmistakable with its rough red berries or strawberries as they are sometimes known. Although they are edible it is recommended that you only eat if you are suffering from constipation.
This short section of the Kerry´s Mediterranean would not be complete without mentioning a plant which we were delighted to adopt. The Kerry Lily (simethis planifolia) only shows its tiny white flowers from the middle of June to the end of July. The only area it is found in Ireland is on the Ring of Kerry. Because it is confined to such a small area it is possible to assume it was not always here. The most logical explanation for its presence is that it arrived with the casks of wine and brandy which were smuggled into these remote harbours in the 18th and 19th centuries. The story is made credible by the fact that our lily is also found in the south of France, Spain and Italy.
© 2009 Kerry Gems
The Celtic Legacy
Kerry offers a rare opportunity to encounter the legacy of one of Europe´s great pre-Christian cultures. The Celts were a people originally from southeast Europe. They travelled across the continent before finally settling on its western periphery. By the first century BC an extensive and powerful group, the Eoghanacht, had established themselves around Loch Léin, Killarney´s biggest lake. A wonderful piece of their cultural legacy is found at Aghadoe. Aghadoe refers to ´The Field of two Yews´, a ritual site commanding wonderful views over lakes and mountains. Most importantly, it was in a direct eye-line with The Paps of Anu, two mountain peaks named after a female god of great significance. Her name is found across Europe – for example, the Danube is named after her.
Early Christians in Ireland built churches on Celtic religious sites. This was a typical way for the new religion to establish itself. Examples of this can be seen on the Dingle Peninsula, in south Kerry, and up through North Kerry. Ogham stones, inscribed in a Celtic language but with an alphabet based probably on Roman numerals, are found throughout the county. Also numerous are stone circles and stone alignments, used by the Celtic druids during religious ceremonies. Much of our rich culture we owe to the Celts. Our language, literature, and music all derive from them. Read more about the People of Ireland.
The History of Kerry
The story of Kerry makes for a long and fascinating story. One of the best ways to experience it is at the Ashe Memorial Hall in Tralee town centre. This is Ireland´s largest indoor heritage attraction in Ireland. This ideal family outing is comprised of three parts.
Visitors are first greeted by a unique audio visual show on Kerry. Once you have got a ´bird´s eye´ view of the county you are then ready for Kerry the Kingdom museum. It is strange to enter a room to the sound of the sea, but stranger still to meet a man with flowing black hair dressed in animal pelts, working with a piece of flint. The first Kerryman?
Indeed he is only one of many stunning recreations that make this museum exciting and alive. Be prepared to meet Norman warriors, the court of Queen Elizabeth and even the great man himself, Daniel O´ Connell. Throughout the museum are priceless artefacts of gold and bronze, many returned here from the National Museum in Dublin.
Lastly, the highlight of a visit to the Ashe Memorial Building must surely be a ride on the time car through Medieval Tralee. As you move through the streets, the town is a hive of activity. The blacksmith, the butcher and shoe maker are all busy at their crafts. These lifelike characters go about their daily business as if you were invisible. You are surrounded by smells and sounds of people, animals and poultry. A voice calls and you look up to see a lady at a window. Passing the abbey, the monks can be heard at evening prayer.
As you leave there is a final view of Tralee from the battlements of the old town – a vivid memory.
© 2009 Kerry Gems