By Patricia Keegan
County Kerry has more drama in every square acre than any of Ireland’s other 32 counties. If I were mother of Ireland, instead of daughter, I would probably say each county has its own particular beauty, declining the notion of having a favorite. Admittedly fickle, for years I loved Donegal, but a multitude of recently built, little white holiday homes have disrupted its former expanse of untamed glory.
On a visit to Northern Ireland one springtime, I toured County Antrim for the first time and was constantly jumping out of the car, chasing across stone walls with my camera, trying to capture images of baby lambs frolicking alongside rippling streams. Antrim is heart-stoppingly beautiful.
Then there is the rugged landscape of proud Connemara -- its storm torn face seems to say, like the kings of old:
‘I, bold Connemara can withstand the savagery of life; never defeated, each challenge adds more beauty to my soul.’
North, South, East or West, there is hardly a place in this tiny island of Ireland that has not been blessed by the gods.
Feasting at the banquet table of landscapes in the Kenmare Bay, Beara Peninsula, and West Cork areas is like finding an infinitesimal corner in this immense world where peace has flourished since ancient times.
Springtime in Tousist
Tousist is a small rural area on the Beara Peninsula. Outside of its distinctive beauty, it has only a post office and a phone booth to mark its existence. We arrived at our rented cottage in the evening.
In Tousist, as Ireland sleeps, the sea spreads like a shimmering satin sheet under a star-studded sky. From the encircling land, dark as the night, comes the sound of animals -- the baa-aa of sheep echo and re-echo against the silence. There is the intermittent bleat --a goat trying to get a word into the conversation. Right next to our doorstep, I hear horses munching on the rich, green pasture. Although hidden behind the bushes, I can feel their presence. Sally, Molly and her 3-day-old foal -- just christened Shola. Since arriving at the farmside cottage, I have found great delight in watching the three horses. Sallie, a dazzling white, solidly strong, Irish draught horse was peering curiously over the fence when we arrived. I went to say hello.
At first she didn’t respond; I waited, she gradually moved closer. I reached out to stroke her nose and immediately sensed the combination of power and calm of her inner world. Her huge eyes looked at me from shining pools of gentleness. This creature of elegant and noble bearing was no ordinary horse -- she seemed to have stepped straight from Celtic mythology. She could have been the reincarnation of Niamh’s white, enchanted steed of the Sidhe, upon which Oisin traveled from the otherworld of Tir Na Nog, (The land of Youth) back to Ireland.
As dawn comes to Tousist, I emerge from dreams to hear the sound of birds singing, and hoof beats like heartbeats thumping rhythmically on the grass outside our window. Sally, Molly and Shola are already awake and on their morning jaunt. With a cup of coffee, I observe from the kitchen window. The young foal Shola is growing stronger each day. Her gangly legs are like long, white stilts holding up a short body. Her ears and both eyes are brown-splashed. An unusual, dappled brown and white coat ends in a puffy black tail. Her cute face has a mischievous look.
Dan and Kathleen, the proud owners, tell us that she is a valuable horse who is destined to be a great jumper. Now, after only five days of life, she lies sleeping in the sun. As she awakens she looks first to the security of her mother, then struggles to her knees until she is standing. Then, as though to confirm her physical boundaries, she stomps a back hoof. Reassured of her balance, she moves closer to Mollie to suckle. Sally hovers nearby. Fascinated by the foal, she would like to play, but as she moves near Shola, Molly is alerted and immediately steers Shola away. Trust comes only after the seventh day when the distance between Mollie and her foal begins to widen. Now Sally is not isolated from the playful baby anymore.
Kenmare -- The Axis of Beauty
The bustling town of Kenmare, with 2,000 inhabitants at the mouth of Kenmare Bay, is situated only 10 miles from Tousist and is one of the prettiest and classiest towns in Ireland. With its busy streets and gaily painted facades, its exudes brightness and optimism. This dynamic town has at least five gourmet restaurants, two silversmiths, arts and crafts shops, pubs offering nightly entertainment and some of the best accommodations one can find in Ireland. The Park Hotel at the top of the main street, like the town, has won numerous awards for originality and excellence. Kenmare sits on a pot of gold at the center of one of Ireland’s most spectacular destinations.
Looking at a map of southwest Ireland, you see two peninsulas jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, the well known Ring of Kerry and, just below, the smaller Beara Peninsula. On this trip my husband and I decided to explore the Beara Peninsula, where we visited caves and reveled in unspoiled, rugged beauty with waves crashing on steep cliffs. The entire area is rich in dolmens, pre-Christian forts, ogham stones, and sacred wells. The first Celtic finds in the Kenmare area date to 1800-2000 BC. It is accepted that Christianity reached Ireland’s southwest before the arrival of St. Patrick, and there are artifacts as evidence in the National Museum. Beara Island, just off the coast, is an idyllic paradise filled with birds, wildflowers and a few houses.
Epiphany on a Mountain in Ardgroom
It is only May, and too cold to swim, but hiking in Kerry is the epitome of being in touch with nature. Springtime in Ireland comes with the vigor of a repressed artist pouring color across the land. Green fields are filled with a profusion of bluebells, the blazing yellow gorse appears on country lanes; it climbs hills and seems to replace the sun when it disappears behind a cloud.
Hiking mountains and visiting sheltered lakes along the dramatic Healy Pass brought me an unexpected surprise. At 6 p.m., the sunlight, like a lantern held in the hand of an angel, began to spotlight perfection. With a sense of being lighter than air, I climbed to the top of a mountain near Ardgoom. Stopping to rest, I sat in the grass looking down on the plains of the valley I had just crossed. In the distance, the central point of the sunrays illuminated a dark, green field filled with grazing sheep and baby lambs. The southwest sky was cloudless. Climbing higher, and finally reaching the top of the mountain, I fell onto the soft grass, exhausted. From there I could see all the features that make this island of Ireland so distinctively beautiful. Pink streaks in the sky were beginning to give hints of sunset.
As I sat there surveying the world, I thought of the Jungian theory of the “Collective Unconscious.” It was as though I was on the threshold of immense wealth, reaching for a connection to some distant memory. This nostalgia was apparently bubbling up from the reservoir accumulated in the long lineage of my Irish ancestry.
A flock of small birds flying in circles and loops seemed to be rejoicing in the advent of spring. On another mountain a far-off lake mirrored the sky. All was at peace. Gradually, I began to feel the joy of intimacy with this land, which has always seemed to speak to me. Now it was telling me: ‘This is your land, the land of your forefathers. You are wrapped in the spirit of this land of Ireland. You may forsake, but it will never forsake you.’
In that moment, had I been some creature in Celtic mythology, I would have sprouted wings and soared. Instead, being a mere mortal, I looked down the other side of the mountain and perceived that the challenge was not over. I was facing a rocky descent with a flowing river at the bottom. Undaunted, with total trust in the land and a new sense of exuberance, I resorted to my skiing experience. After a few slips and slides, I gradually traversed the steep, rocky slope until I reached the bottom. There I stood for a moment, looking back with reverence and awe at my mountain. The scent of the grass, the rippling river, and the dancing wildflowers had all reconnected me with the freedom of childhood and renewed a great sense of belonging.
For those who have always promised themselves a trip to Ireland, the southwest coast, including the Kerry and Beara Penninsulas, have all the attributes of drama and history that make this corner of Ireland choice number one.
Getting There: From Shannon Airport, its a comfortable 3-hour drive to the charms of the Beara Peninsula. Check out Dooley Car Rentals, a friendly, service-oriented company, with all-inclusive weekly rates, including tax and insurance, priced in dollars! They have 15 Irish locations, a wide selection and competitive rates. Tel: 800-331-9301.