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Travel: A road trip in Ireland's Ring of Kerry

This 179km route along the south-west coast of Ireland is a treasure trove of experiences and sights, with stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean

Ross Castle, located in the Killarney National Park in Ireland’s County Kerry, is one of the most interesting stops on the Ring of Kerry, a 179km driving route on the south-west coast of Ireland.
Ross Castle, located in the Killarney National Park in Ireland’s County Kerry, is one of the most interesting stops on the Ring of Kerry, a 179km driving route on the south-west coast of Ireland. (Anita Rao Kashi)

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Even though it is mid-afternoon, it is dull and grey under an overcast September sky. But rather than being merely dreary, the gloom only adds to the mystery and magnificence of the gigantic square tower rising into the sky in front. It is perched on the edge of a lovely lake, its hazy reflection moving constantly on the rippled water, surrounded by acres of lush greenery and winding paths. Together, these elements seem to exist to add a bit of softness to the solid and imposing Ross Castle, located in the Killarney National Park in Ireland’s County Kerry. It’s one of the most interesting stops on the Ring of Kerry, a 179km driving route on the south-west coast of Ireland.

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The air of mystery the castle exudes just heightens inside. A small wooden bridge leads into the tower, built of massive greyish-white stones stacked with the help of mortar, surrounded by a thick wall with smaller round towers, some of them in ruins. Built in the late 15th century by the Irish chieftain O’Donoghue, it typifies the Irish strongholds of the Middle Ages. It changed hands later but was reportedly so strong it was virtually unconquerable. It was among the last bastions to fall to the forces of Oliver Cromwell during the mid-17th century Irish Confederate Wars (Irish and Scottish Catholics fought English Protestants to establish supremacy, with the latter winning ultimately).

The story, narrated dramatically by a guide, feels particularly melancholic against the sheer majesty of the tower. Each of its five levels has a designated task, be it cooking, living, or entertaining by the master. The walls have prominent defensive mechanisms, such as gaps to throw stones and hot oil on attackers.

Like all ancient monuments, Ross Castle has its share of stories. The one that has me transfixed is of Old Man O’Donoghue, who supposedly jumped into the lake and slumbers there for eternity, rising every seven years on the first morning of May on a stunning white horse to circle the lake. The best part—anyone who catches a glimpse of this apparition is assured of good fortune for life.

As fascinating as the castle and the story were, it was the leitmotif on the Ring of Kerry. I am constantly astonished by the sheer variety of sights and experiences that dot the circular driving route that hugs Ireland’s Iveragh peninsula in County Kerry. It is packed with pretty towns and fishing villages, enigmatic castles, mysterious islands, quirky museums, ancient circular houses, churches and countless cycling and walking paths that wander off into the distance, promising adventure. A substantial part of the route offers breathtaking panoramic views of the North Atlantic Ocean and scenic beaches. A part of it overlaps with the even more spectacular Wild Atlantic Way, the 2,600km trail along the west coast of Ireland, from Derry in the north to Cork in the south, that has “1,000 sights and 2,500 activities”, according to one brochure.

I had started on the Ring of Kerry route a couple of days earlier at Sneem, a village so tiny it seemed to end as soon as it began. The curving main street is lined with closely packed colourful buildings housing cafés, restaurants and boutique shops. What makes it dramatic and memorable is the eponymous river, a creek really, running through the village with a moss-covered stone bridge over it. Its bed is filled with rocks and boulders over which the yellowish-brown water, taking its colour from minerals, jumps and tumbles with a mild racket.

Sneem’s colour and quiet exuberance are a far cry from the stark solemnity and mysteriousness of Ballinskelligs, an hour’s drive to the west. A Gaeltacht (where Irish/Gaelic is the predominant language) village by the sea, its most arresting sight is by the beach. Standing on a promontory on the water, seemingly cut off from the land, is the 16th century Ballinskelligs Castle built by the McCarthy clan (local chieftains), both as a deterrent to pirates and an outpost to collect tariffs from trade vessels. Unlike Ross Castle, it is in ruins, surrounded by an air of desolation. Nevertheless, it has a fierce beauty about it.

Even more haunting is the sprawling Ballinskelligs Abbey, also in ruins. A 12th century Augustine priory, it is dedicated to St Michael and was built by and for monks who abandoned the stunning but bleak monastery on Skellig Michael, a tiny island off the coast. It is a complex of several buildings whose roofs have fallen in, leaving the bare stone structures silhouetted against the sky. In the middle is the elongated cloister with tall walls facing each other, surrounded by the church, walkways and rooms for stay and prayer. At one end are scores of beautifully etched and designed gravestones and tomb vaults.

I stop for the night at Portmagee, a little seaside village with colourful buildings and lovely views of the sea. It is a little off the Ring of Kerry but is part of the Wild Atlantic Way. Heavy overnight rains and rough seas mean I have to skip a trip to Skellig Michael and the sixth century monastic stone settlement built out of reach of marauding Vikings. A winding path with over 600 steps leads to the top and a set of ruined structures, including a chapel and living quarters. Used for 600 years, it was abandoned in the 12th century, with the monks moving to Ballinskelligs. Now the abandoned monastery is home to puffins. The island shot into the global limelight in 2017 with the release of the Star Wars movie The Last Jedi, for several of its scenes were shot on it.

A fine drizzle kept me company through the day, so I opted for indoor and sheltered experiences. At the Skelligs Chocolate Factory, a local initiative, watching chocolate being made turns out to be an ASMR experience, heightened by such delectable flavours as gin and tonic, chilli, champagne and whiskey. At Kerry Bog Village Museum in Glenbeigh, I wander around a model village recreated from 18th-19th century Ireland, with thatched houses, period furniture, farm implements, peat extraction demonstrations, bog ponies and Irish wolfhounds.

The next day, however, is bright and sunny. Along the route, I see rolling meadows, thickly forested hills and valleys, panoramic sea views...something interesting around every curve. In between are pretty towns such as Kenmare, a typical market town founded in the late 17th century that has retained its original design and takes you back in time with its undulating streets and shady avenues where horse carts vie with cars.

It is fun to browse through the Main Street stores selling original woollens, traditional garments, jewellery and souvenirs. It is also something of a foodie paradise, with restaurants such as No.35 serving delicious rabbit ballotine, Kerry lamb rump, pork tasting plates and sole fillets.

It is from here that I head to Ross Castle, the last stop on my list. As I wander through the castle grounds and stand on the lake’s edge, what little evening light there is vanishes, leaving everything steeped in deep grey. The wind has picked up and it is nippy. The park’s tall trees throw thick shadows and paths are shrouded in a haze. The crowds are gone, everything is still. In the silence, the distinct clip-clop of a horse startles me.

For a moment, I wonder if I have somehow conjured up Old Man O’Donoghue, even though it is the wrong month and wrong time of day. Soon, though, an old- world jaunting car (a one-horse open carriage with seats) comes into view and the romance is lost.

For me, the Ring of Kerry experience itself has been my good fortune.

Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.

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