World Facts Index > Ireland > Killarney

Killarney's tradition of entertaining visitors began over two centuries ago. Tales of the legendary lakes and mountains surrounding the town initiated a wave of tourism that continues to this day. The town's charm is retained in the curious old-style shop fronts and brick footpaths, while luxury hotels offer the most modern facilities. There have been many unsuccessful attempts at town planning in Killarney since the eighteenth century; the maze of lanes and oddly angled streets that have resulted lend the town a truly unique flavour, offering the visitor a surprise at almost every corner.

Town Centre

Killarney's town centre sits at a T-junction, which connects New Street with High Street on one side, and Main Street on the other. Shops catering for visitor interests radiate in all directions. The footpath is very wide here with benches and shady trees. It's a popular gathering spot with visitors and locals alike, and there is usually a crowd milling about or listening to a musician busking. Directly behind the junction, the large brick building divided by a high arch was once the Town Hall - it is now home to various businesses. Strangely its clock never seems to tell the correct time, despite the many attempts that have been made to repair it. If you wander through the arch, you will enter Old Market Lane - once the heart of Killarney's commercial quarter. The terraced old cottages are now boarded up, but artists have filled their doorways with colourful painted characters that observe your progress as you walk along the lane.

If you retrace your steps and turn right after the arch, you can venture up High Street. It is filled with shops selling clothing, tourist goods, pottery, and antiques. Several lanes branch off High Street; rushed locals use them as short cuts, but the visitor can indulge and explore them at a leisurely pace. Pleasantly restored in recent years, these lanes have a mixture of housing and small shops. The Old Firehouse stands in Glebe Lane and features pretty, modern wood carving along its porch. On the left-hand side of High Street, three lanes lead to Chapel Place. Fleming's Lane and Barry's Lane are perhaps the most pleasant of the three, with brightly painted houses and shops lending them a cheery aspect.

The second road branching from the town centre is Main Street. Books, clothing, hardware and other goods can be found along here, as well as several restaurants. Built in the nineteenth century in English Gothic style, St. Mary's Church stands at the far end. Just across the road from St. Mary's, and down another lane, is St. Mary's Well. Continuing along Main Street will bring you to Kenmare Place. Jaunting cars with their patient horses are lined up here while their drivers, or jarveys, tout for business. The lovely Killarney Methodist Church stands a few seconds further on.

Past St. Mary's, Main Street veers to the left. There is a concentration of hotels here, with nine in the immediate vicinity. Branching off Main Street, Brewery Lane leads to College Square. This is another area full of shops and restaurants. In the 1780s a Franciscan school for boys was located here, giving the area its name. College Street leads out of the Square towards Fair Hill. Scene of numerous hangings at the hands of Cromwellian soldiers, the Franciscan Friary now dominates the hill. Facing the Friary is the Speir Bhean Monument that commemorates four of Kerry's great Gaelic poets. A more light-hearted sculpture of three gigantic fish sits in front of the nearby Court House.

Western End

At the Western End of the town is a complex of religious buildings. St. Mary's Cathedral, the Old Monastery, and Presentation Convent are grouped together with large grass expanses between them. All date from the nineteenth century and compliment one another. Across the road is the entrance to the Knockeer Estate. Once home to the Brownes, Earls of Kenmare, it is now part of Killarney National Park. There are many pleasant walks through the grounds past Deenagh Cottage, Cloghmochuda, and along the Deenagh River. Those with stamina can follow a path all the way to Ross Island for glorious views of Ross Castle and Lough Leane. Once there, boats to Innishfallen Island and O'Sullivan's Cascade can be hired at the pier.

Southern End

The Muckross Estate dominates the Southern End of Killarney. The estate offers many pleasures for those interested in nature and history. Muckross House, Muckross Abbey, Muckross Nature Walks, and the Kerry Country Life Experience can all be found here. The restaurant and shop in the House's grounds have excellent facilities. If you find the extensive gardens too fatiguing, a Jaunting Car Tour may be the perfect solution. Lying a little beyond Muckross House - Ladies View, Torc Waterfall, and Torc Mountain Walk are three more beauty spots. Coach loads of eager tourists descend upon Ladies View and Torc Waterfall, but Torc Mountain Walk enables the hill walker to enjoy stunning panorama in solitude.

Northern End

No trip to Killarney would be complete without a trip to Aghadoe at the Northern End of the town. In addition to spectacular vistas of the lakes, Aghadoe Church and Round Tower are of major historical interest. Further down the slope is one of the few Norman remains near Killarney. Parkavonear Castle has an unusual circular shape and is known locally as The Bishop's Seat. Aghadoe is also the site of Killarney's famine graveyard, St. John's Cemetery. The full tragedy of how many souls were buried under the undulating ground may never be known.

Beyond Killarney town

Killarney is the perfect base for anyone wishing to explore the many delights of the entire south Kerry region. The 110-mile long Ring of Kerry drive is an enjoyable day's outing with incredible vistas and many archaeological sites of interest. Hill walkers have a wealth of opportunities with the Paps, Devil's Punch Bowl, Old Kenmare Road, Rossbeigh Hill, and Derrynane being particularly popular. Festival goers are also spoiled for choice. Regattas, car rallies, set dancing, and traditional music festivals take place throughout the region, offering visitors a unique look at local culture. Killarney caters for all interests with style and charm, perfectly combining the quaint with the contemporary.

History of Killarney

Prehistoric Killarney

Killarney's unique history began with the last Ice Age. A single ice sheet covered the entire region. As it melted, it sculpted Killarney's magnificent peaks Carrantoohill, Crohane, Tomies, Torc, and Mangerton. Pushing aside huge boulders and gravel, it created the winding passes of Moll's Gap and the Gap of Dunloe. The retreating ice also formed dark, mysterious loughs. The Long Range (Upper Lake, Muckross Lake, and Lough Leane), Lough Guitane, and the Devil's Punch Bowl are all glacial remnants. On the humorous side, it left the geological joke Cnoc An Cappeen, "the rock with a hat", just outside Kenmare.

Erosion over long periods has continued to form other beauty spots. The Upper Lake, Muckross Lake, and Lough Leane briefly combine at the Meeting of the Waters, creating a mass of small ripples before parting again. Water draining from the Devil's Punch Bowl is responsible for the spectacular Torc Waterfall, while mountain streams join and tumble down at O'Sullivan's Cascade. Time brought climatic change and great plant growth as well. Although today Killarney has one of the few remaining oak woods in Europe, the county was once covered with these mighty trees. With ample fresh water, wood, and plentiful animal life, it was only a matter of time before man arrived.

The first residents of the Killarney area were the Bronze Age Beaker Folk, from around 2000 BC. They mined copper on Ross Island and also left the open-air temple at Lissyvigeen. The Beaker Folk led a prosperous life with strong trade ties to the Continent. Beaten gold collars, or lunula, have been found at Mangerton and were common exports at the time. Although substantial finds of bronze weapons have been found in outlying areas, the Beaker Folk were generally peaceful farmers. Beginning in 500 BC, successive waves of invaders culturally changed the Killarney area. Pictish tribes from the north of Ireland were the first invaders. They practised polyandry and had matrilineal succession. According to legend, the ruling tribe in Killarney was descended from Queen Mebh's son Cair and was known as the Ciarraige. It is from this name that 'Kerry' is derived. Despite conquering the Beaker Folk, the Picts soon became subjects to the next invasion group for a number of centuries. The Ciarraige then moved and rose again in the sixth century to rule all of North Kerry. It is believed that St. Brendan the Navigator was desended from the Ciarraige.

In approximately 400 BC, the next wave came with the arrival of the Fir Bolg or Iverni. The name Fir Bolg means, "bag men." One explanation often given for this name is that they exported Irish earth to the Greeks to protect their cities from snakes. Expert stonemasons, the Fir Bolg created the stone forts Staigue, Cahergall, and Leacanabuaile centuries later. They also developed Ogham script, fine examples of which can be found near Killarney. The O'Shea and O'Falvey names are traced to the Fir Bolg. These were a Celtic people, who gave Ireland some of its richest legends. The tales of Cuchulainn, Deirdre, and Curoi are all attributed to them; it is thought that the great Irish saga 'Tain' tells of the Fir Bolg's battles with the next invasion group, the Gaels.

The Gaels - who later called themselves the Milesians - arrived in 100 BC. Although a fierce, warring race, it still took them 500 years to dominate the other two groups and eventually settle their power base around Killarney. From then on, Killarney rulers were called Eoganacht Locha Lein. Centuries later both the O'Sullivan and O'Donoghue families claimed Milesian descent.

The Arrival of Christianity

Until 400 AD, Killarney remained under Eoganacht Locha Lein rule with the Ciarraige and Fir Bolg paying tributes. The first Christian communities were established around this time with St. Abban building a cell at Aghadoe. Christianity was accepted quite readily in Kerry, as in all of Ireland, with the old pagan festivals and rites incorporated into the new faith. By 633 AD, a member of the Eoganacht Locha Lein, Faithliu, established the monestary on Innishfallen Island. Although the Geraldines came as far as Aghadoe and built a castle on the site of Parkavonear, the Eoganacht Locha Lein ruled undisturbed for 200 years until they were overthrown by another Milesian family from Cashel, the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy's. From 1200 onwards, the Anglo-Normans, based at Ballymalis Castle, launched successive attacks on the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy chieftains. The Anglo-Normans were eventually defeated at Callan in 1261. In the relatively peaceful centuries that followed, the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy family built Ross Castle and Muckross Abbey. Then in 1583, the English defeated the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy's, and most of their lands were awarded to Sir Vincent Browne. So ended a long line of Milesian rule in Killarney, and saw the beginning of a new dynastic power.

The Plantation

The Brownes eventually became Earls of Kenmare and had the single biggest influence on Killarney town. As part of the plantation of Munster, English Protestant settlers were given land in Killarney and in 1604 there were 40 English houses. However, this was not a success and by 1642, there were only 17 English men, women, and children left. In 1652, a Cromwellian military post was set-up at Ross Castle. These soldiers then sought out and hung Irish Catholic "revolutionaries." The poet Piaras Ferriter was one victim and the town centre Speir Bhean Monument commemorates him. The priest Thaddeus Moriarty was another, arrested for saying mass at Killaclohane Mass Rock. Remarkably, the Brownes remained Catholic throughout this period and never lost power.

'Destination: Killarney'

Killarney continued as a small market town until 1750. At this point Viscount Kenmare, seeing a great promotional opportunity, decided to capitalise on nature's bounty. He invested in roads, boat facilities, and gave out long leases for new inns. Killarney became the "in place" to be and by 1780, even the Bishop of Kerry had moved there. During this same period, the lands around Muckross transferred to the Herbert family through marriage with the MacCarthy Mors. The Herbert's amassed a considerable fortune by mining copper along the Muckross peninsula. In 1793 Rudolf Erich Raspe, the author of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, was employed as geological adviser for the estate. He died from a fever in November 1794 and is buried in nearby Killegy churchyard.

With the continued encouragement of the Brownes, St. Mary's Cathedral, St. Mary's Church of Ireland, the Presentation Convent, and a new Franciscan Friary were all built in the early nineteenth century. Both the Herberts and Brownes also built grand, new estate houses at Muckross and Knockreer. This prosperity was halted in the autumn of 1845 when a potato blight struck Killarney and the rest of Ireland. The partially built St. Mary's Cathedral was used as a fever hospital. The population of the large workhouse, built in 1845 to house 800, had swelled to 1200 by 1847. The Herberts and Brownes were active in Famine relief, remaining on their estates throughout the crisis. Both families cut personal expenditures in order to supply soup and provide agricultural expertise for their tenants.

By 1850, the ravages of the Famine had faded and Killarney's role as a tourist centre returned. It was confirmed in 1855 that Queen Victoria intended to visit the area. In 1861, with an entourage of over 100, the Royal Party arrived. They sojourned at Knockreer and Muckross during their stay. A panorama on the Muckross estate, enjoyed by her ladies-in-waiting, was dubbed Ladies View, a name it has retained ever since. The Herberts, in particular, spent vast sums in preparation for the visit, bankrupting themselves in the process.

The Muckross estate was sold in 1899 to Lord Ardilaun, a member of the Guinness family, and used strictly as a hunting lodge. In 1910 it was sold to a wealthy Californian, William Bowers Bourn, who gave it to his daughter as a wedding gift. Interestingly enough, Bowers Bourn had the ballroom walls of his California mansion, Filoli, painted with Muckross scenes. Maud Bowers Bourn married Irishman Arthur Rose Vincent and they made the estate their home. After Maud's tragic death in 1929, Arthur Rose Vincent decided to give the estate to the Irish nation. This was finalised in 1932, making Muckross the first Irish National Park. The National Park has continued to grow over the years. With the addition of the old Earl of Kenmare estate, it consists of approximately 26,000 acres. Initiated by Viscount Kenmare in the eighteenth century, Killarney's tourism role has changed very little in the present time. Whether energetic visitors come to hike in the magnificent mountains or the more sedate prefer to drive to the historic sites, Killarney welcomes everyone.


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