There’s Ancient, and then there’s ANCIENT

7 Feb

The sun came up on Day 14 of our trip. On the advice of our innkeeper, Mary, we slept in. She suggested we let the big tour coaches get a head start on the Ring of Kerry so we’d not be stuck with them on the roads or stopping at attractions swamped with tourists. We went down for breakfast a little after 9AM.

Breakfast at Friar’s Glen is a work of art. Traditional Irish breakfast as well as fruit, muffins, scones, butter, cream, oooooooooh just plate upon plate of fabulous food! This was the absolute best breakfast I’ve had anywhere in England, Ireland, or Scotland. Seriously. According to our waitress everything we ate for breakfast was made by Mary’s own hand. Her name was Bridget, and she was incredibly friendly. Bridget, like Mary, was full of helpful hints about the Ring of Kerry, excitedly giving us exact directions to specific locations and suggesting things to see and do that weren’t on the map.

As for Friar’s Glen… our room had what I consider a standard hotel room layout and was spacious and well-suited to our needs. You can control the radiator in your room but be advised that as with other places we stayed in Europe, the heat will shut off overnight during the hours that you are (Presumably) asleep. There was a refrigerator just down the hall in the mud room for guest use. I believe I mentioned in the previous post the common room that had a lovely peat fire burning when we arrived. The room is stocked with books and games and is quite cozy. Friar’s Glen does have WiFi, but I had trouble picking it up on my device.

I highly recommend Friar’s Glen for a number of reasons. It’s out away from Killarney Town and so very quiet and secluded. It is within the Killarney National Park, with a number of pleasant trails just across the road. The price was reasonable for what you get and Mary offered a cash discount. It is a great base of operations for both the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula. Visit their website for information and reservations. 

Armed with Mary and Bridget’s recommendations and fortified by the amazing breakfast we marched out to the car and fired up the GPS. Since you can’t just tell the GPS “Follow the Ring of Kerry” we programmed Killorglin as our destination. This would start us on the Ring in the “Anti-clockwise” direction as per Mary’s recommendation. The tour coaches also travel anti-clockwise. This means that you are unlikely to encounter one coming at you on the very narrow cliff-side roads, and if you do… you’ll not be on the side of the road with the several-hundred-foot drop to the sea. (Having taken Mary’s advice about the late start as well, we hoped not to encounter them at all).

We made our way north through the countryside. It really is unbelievably beautiful. Much of the land is divided into countless stone-walled fields. Each field is often a fractionally different shade of green from its neighbor, making the whole of the landscape seem like a never-ending emerald quilt dotted with cotton-white sheep and golden flowers.

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Dingle Peninsula from the beach at Rossbeigh (You can always click on any picture to open a larger image in another window)

We made it to Killorglin without incident but even with the GPS we got briefly off the track, found our way back on, and proceeded to our next marker, Glenbeigh. Here we left the Ring and followed directions from Bridget to the beach at Rossbeigh. The entire time we were in the southwest of Ireland we were constantly amazed at the deep blue of the water. I’m not sure what I expected… green perhaps? Or maybe the gray of the Irish Sea I remembered from a very rough crossing 20 years before? Dunno. I just wasn’t prepared for the startling sapphire blue of the waters around the Kerry peninsula. It was windy and cold. There were a few whitewashed cottages nearby, and the ubiquitous sheep were scattered about on the far side of some sports fields near the rocky beach.

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It’s hard to capture an incline in a photograph when you’re sitting on top of it. Trust me… very steep, narrow road.

Rather than backtrack, we continued along R564 (A one-lane road over the mountain above the inlet) through the countryside. We hooked up with the N70 (The Ring of Kerry) near a place called Drom and continued on toward Cahersiveen. Once we reached the town we turned north on Bridge Street/Castlequin. There are signs for “Stone Forts” and in a few minutes we’d reached a wide spot in the road, the parking area for Leacanabuile (10º 15′ 43” W, 51º 57′ 30” N, if you took my suggestion and you are using a GPS).

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The interior of Leacanabuile

We’d found the location of the fort by searching Google for ancient sites along the route of the Ring of Kerry. As well as can be determined by the archeological research carried out thus far the small hill fort dates from the 9th or 10th Century. Habitation could stretch back as far as the 500’s, but there’s just no way to be certain. Inside are the low remains of several stone buildings. Day 14 (42)Within the circular structure built against the western side of the enclosure is an entrance to a narrow subterranean passageway that leads to a small chamber built into the outer wall, at least according to the information placard posted near the fort entrance. Day 14 (46)We had to take their word for it, because try as I might, I was unable to get more than my head and the top of my shoulders into the tiny opening. According to the really fantastic website Voices from the Dawn put together by Howard Goldbaum of the University of Nevada, an excavation of the site conducted over 1939-1940 records the passage as being one meter tall.*

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t dream of sticking my head (Or any other part of me) in a hole in the ground. Ah… but this is Ireland! No snakes! Unlike where I grew up, you may tramp through field and over rocky dale, even reach into dark crevasses, without the slightest fear of meeting a Copperhead, or a Water Moccasin, or a Timber Rattler. Nope. Not so much as a garter snake in the grass of the Emerald Isle, and it is a glorious thing! In fact, at breakfast that very morning two women seated next to us remarked upon the great number and diversity of songbirds they’d encountered on a hike through the Killarney National Park. I suggested that this may be in part because there were no snakes. One of the women said “Oh! No we didn’t see any. I didn’t think of that at all, we should have been more careful.” I explained that she’d mistaken my meaning, and that there are no snakes to be found. She had no idea. Neither of them had. I was frankly amazed. How does one grow to adulthood, make the conscious decision to travel to Erin, make arrangements and then actually board a conveyance and make their way to Ireland and not know this single, simple fact? I’m afraid I sat there staring at her with my mouth open for longer than is polite in anybody’s book.

I digress…

As much as I would have liked to make the trek to the wall’s interior it was not physically possible. Even Julia (Who is less than half my size) could not wriggle inside. I’ve learned now (Doing more detailed research almost 3 years after the fact) that had I exited the fort and walked down to the bottom of the western wall, I’d have found the other end of the passage covered by a (Most likely unlocked) gate.

While I was unable to make good a full impression of Darby O’Gill, we enjoyed looking about the interior of the fort, and looking off to the east we saw another. We descended the hill and walked a few hundred yards to Cahergall.

Cahergall

Cahergall

 

Cahergall stone fort is very similar in appearance to the Staigue stone fort on the opposite side of the Ring of Kerry near Sneem. Like Leacanabuile, this type of fortification is difficult to date with precision, one reason being that the naturally defensible sites were built upon again and again over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

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According to a placard at the site the upper portions of the outer walls have been restored.

Again I refer you to Voices from the Dawn for a high resolution photograph of the site as it appeared in the late 1970’s for comparison. While we stood atop the fort we looked to the south and saw…

A castle….

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… as it turns out….

… another McCarthy castle!Day 14 (77)

Ballycarbery Castle sits on a grassy hill on the north shore of the Ferthy River estuary that feeds into Valencia Harbor. There is a gravel parking area just at the bottom of the slope. The lot is at the end of an unnamed road that runs southwest from Castlequin about 100 yards east of Cahergall. There’s a brown sign on the south side of the road.

(n.b. While there are signs leading you to the castle, and a sign at the site giving some of its history, it is also surrounded by a barbed wire fence which you will have to climb over/shimmy under to access the site. Sooooooo, strictly speaking you’re probably not supposed to be in there. Explore at your own risk.)

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Looking out from the ground floor

Ballycarbery Castle was built in the 16th Century and is associated with the powerful Mac Cárthaigh dynasty (My wife’s ancestors), however habitation on the site goes back perhaps as far as the late 12th Century and Tagdh Mac Cárthaigh is recorded as having died in a residence on this site in 1398. Tradition says that the current ruin was constructed by Carbery O’Shea “Using the blood of bullocks to cement the stones.” However, the region was controlled by McCarthy Mor and a constable clan chief from the Clan O’Connell was installed in the castle.Day 14 (88)

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Arrow slit in the curtain wall

The castle was surrounded by a curtain wall but only a fraction of it remains. Even though half of the castle is missing, blown up by Oliver Cromwell’s forces (Curse his name forever) in 1652 during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms , it is an easy climb to the intact sections of the upper floors, and part of a stairway is still passable within the western wall. The weather was gorgeous and it would have been a lovely spot for a picnic had we thought to bring one. We pushed on, hoping to make a creamery and a candle maker on Valencia Island that Bridget had recommended.

We arrived at Portmagee and made a quick stop at the Village Public Facility (Runner Up for Ireland’s Top Toilet Award, 2002 according to the sign) and then crossed the bridge to Valencia Island.

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Keeping watch in Knight’s Town

Valencia is about 6 miles by 2. The modern spelling appears most places as “Valentia” while it is “Valencia” on tombstones on the island. I’m not sure exactly when the spelling changed. We drove to Knight’s Town and had lunch and a pint at The Royal Pier Bar then got back in the car and immediately got lost looking for the Fogher Cliffs. We found a ruined church and parish cemetery on the north side of the island before we found the road leading up to the cliffs.

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Looking north from the churchyard

 

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Many of the stones in the churchyard had a nautical theme

 

 

 

Geokaun Mountain is the highest point on the island. There’s a self-serve parking area where you feed €5 into a machine for a ticket to put on the dash. A short walk leads you to an overlook where you can view the cliffs. The Skellig Islands are visible in the distance, as well as the Dingle Peninsula, the Atlantic, and all of Valencia Island. There was a roaring wind coming off the water as we stood above the 600′ cliffs. Day 14 (115)We weren’t able to stay put for very long, and even taking a photograph was difficult as I could barely hold the camera still. Placards along the path relate the history of the area, along with tales of the Fianna and Fionn Mac Cumhail.

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The Skellig Islands from the path overlooking the Fogher Cliffs

 

We beat a hasty retreat to the warmth of our little rental car and drove back down the mountain. Next up on our list of things to see was a very ancient site… the Tetrapod Trackway.

After seeing it on the local tourist map of Valencia Island I recalled having watched a brief blurb about Ireland’s Tetrapod Trackway on PBS or some similar network not long after the prints were discovered in the 1990’s. It wasn’t something we’d set out to see, but we were in the area and I certainly didn’t want to pass it up.

The Irish just aren’t that interested in naming roads, so you’ll need to rely on your GPS again to get you into the vicinity of 10° 20′ 38″ W, 51° 55′ 51″ N, or ask someone local for directions. As you approach the radio station at the northernmost bit of the island there’s a car park on your right. From there you proceed on foot along a path right down to the shore.

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The Tetrapod Trackway

Back in the Devonian Period the land that would one day become Erin was situated down near the Equator. One day about 385 million years ago one of the earliest creatures to make their way out of the sea and up onto dry land was wandering about the tidal shallows. It was about a meter long, about a third of that length being its tail, and it had four legs lately evolved from fins. As it walked along, or perhaps pushed itself along the bottom in the shallow water just off shore, it left footprints in the soft mud. It’s belly dragged the surface and here and there it’s tail cut an S pattern as it trailed along behind. After these few minutes of activity our Tetrapod friend (Or friends) passed again out of our knowledge to whatever end, leaving behind only those few impressions in the mud. The impressions were filled in with silt and over the eons hardened into rock as the plates of the Earth shifted and Ireland wandered north. Eventually the stone with the prints was again exposed and a geology student discovered them in 1993. They are the oldest known in-situ tracks made by a living thing on earth.

It was getting on in the day and the sun was sliding down toward the sea. We made a circuit of the island looking for the candle maker and the creamery recommended by Bridget but neither were open, either due to the lateness of the hour or the earliness of the month (We were still a few weeks from the start of the high season). We did find a heard of deer and ever more stunning views of the Atlantic and the islands to the west. Day 14 (129)In season you can take a boat from the visitor’s center just by the bridge from Portmagee out to Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastery from roughly the 6th to 13th Centuries. Fun fact: Skellig Michael was used as a location for the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens during the summer of 2014.

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Valencia Island. The white line center-left is the bridge from Portmagee.

 

We crossed the bridge, took a wrong turning, and ended up on the Skellig Ring track over the mountain to the south toward Ballinskelligs, which Bridget was horrified to learn of later and declared us to be “Very brave” for going that way. We survived the trip to the southern part of the peninsula and once we found our way back to the N70 we stopped in Kenmare for supper.

We had dinner at The Wander Inn, where the food and drink was very good. There was live music in the form of two young men playing original contemporary compositions on a guitar and accordion that I didn’t really much care for. We listened to a set and then decided to get on. Julia was disappointed for me that it wasn’t Irish music. Well, it WAS Irish music. They were Irish musicians. We were in Ireland… but her point was taken. Traditional Irish music had been the hope. The food was still good.

We had the last 20 miles to go back to Friar’s Glen. We’d saved the most twisting and mountainous leg to do in the dark. I’d built up a fair bit of confidence over the course of the two days I’d spent driving in Kerry and was feeling pretty good about it as we made our way.. SHEEP!!! All day they’d been fluffy white accents to the landscape but now that it was pitch black the sheep were no longer in the pens but out IN the bloody road! I had this picture in my head of them all looking around at each other once the sun went down and saying, “Farmer O’Connell is down the pub boys, over the wall!” then lacing their front hooves to boost each other over. They were around every 3rd or 4th bend in the road. It was nerve wracking.

We made it back all of a piece. We’d passed a spot with the intriguing name “Ladies View” just a few miles out of Killarney and decided we’d head back in the morning.

We’d spent the day driving back in time. From medieval Ballycarbery Castle and the more ancient Leacanabuile, to just about the deepest pre-history imaginable and the Tetrapod Trackway. For tomorrow there was the Dingle Peninsula, but before that another amazing breakfast!

 

 

*Much of the information for this post I obtained long after the fact. Several of the places we visited on this particular day became destinations only the night before and only the information printed on placards posted at the sites was available to us. We had a great time anyway, but maybe a third of the information in this post I discovered only recently. For ancient sites in Ireland I refer you again to the excellent site Voices from the Dawn. Loads of additional information on Ballycarbery Castle can be found there, as well as on the North American McCarthy Clan website.

 

Take good care.

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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