Killarney is one of those tourist towns whose name triggers images of check-trousered Americans in buses and leprechauns dancing at the crossroads. And as a native and resident of Heaven’s Reflex (yes, seriously, it’s in the promotional literature), I can confirm that summers in my town are distinguished by an overwhelming presence of unwieldy tourists rolling through the streets and snapping beauty spots off their guidebook to-do lists: Muckross House, Ross Castle, Ladies’ View, the Gap of Dunloe (Word of caution: emphasis on the first syllable marks you out as a foreigner). What I can also tell you (but am slow to do so because of my selfish desire to keep this information to myself) is that there are wonderfully neglected corners of Killarney just off the tourist trail that are among the most breathtakingly beautiful and soul-soothing in the world. Here are a handful of my favourites:
Squeeze through the clusters of camera-wielding tourists on the bridge at Ross Castle and slip past that 15th-century sentinel into the woods, where a disused mining trail offers a jaunting car-free escape into the heart of Ross Island. The path meanders through broad-leaf woods, pungent with wild garlic and bluebells in spring, offering occasional breath-taking glimpses of Loch Lein and its islands, before looping back on itself and bringing you back to Ross Castle.
Step off the loop and follow the signs to Governor’s Rock, officially one of my top three favourite places in the world. The path rises between wind-bitten arbutus (also known as the strawberry tree) and fragrant bay before stopping right at the edge of that lucky governor’s lump of limestone. Lean against the barrier and feel the wind sweeping down from Tomies and Purple mountains, the lake rolling into the distance and lapping hypnotically against the base of the rock.
Water is not something we are short of in this part of the world: It floats in great drizzly mists from the mountains and pours from the sky on a regular basis, giving the landscape a technicolour palette of luminous greens and tucking waterfalls and gushing streams between every crag and precipice. One of my favourite waterfalls is O’Sullivan’s Cascade in Tomies wood, just off the Ring of Kerry road between Killarney and Killorglin.
To get there, follow the N72 as far as the national school and Catholic church in Fossa. Look for the road on the left for the Gap of Dunloe, cross over the River Laune via the Ferry Bridge, and take the next road on the left. The road eventually peters out to a section that has been widened for parking and access to the wood is through farmland (so no dogs or bicycles!). The route to the waterfall is signposted on the forest trail. Apparently, it ran with whiskey until the English invaded Ireland. Not that we’re bitter…
Unless you have a boat, getting to Glena Cottage will require a bit of sweating and grubbing around in the undergrowth. It is most definitely worth the three-hour hike, however. Take the same directions as you would for O’Sullivan’s Cascade but remain on the trail until you’re close to the highest point. You will need to go with somebody who has been here before, as finding the spot where you go off-road and start negotiating the underbelly of the ancient oak forests takes some experience (I’ve got lost here before, but then I have difficulty finding where I’ve parked my car).
You will plunge down through tunnels of rhododendron in the direction of Killarney before you come to the ruins of Glena Cottage, right on the shore of Loch Lein. This is where Queen Victoria’s party came ashore to have a lunch during a jolly afternoon of deer hunting in 1861, and it is believed that Lord and Lady Kenmare virtually bankrupted themselves preparing for the royal visit. Glena Cottage was burned down during the Civil War of 1922, but the remains whisper of a time and the woods have reclaimed the ruins, making an atmospheric (if slightly eerie) spot to stop and breathe in the beauty.
Lord Brandon’s Cottage
Or more specifically, the trail to the cottage (which is less of a cottage and more a convenient place to linger over the view with a tuna and cucumber sandwich). In effect, the drive from Killarney to Kenmare a real-time promotional video on the sheer beauty and epic scale of the national park, skirting billowing oak forests, glinting lakes, rhododendron-canopied crags, and gushing streams.
Park a few miles after Muckross House and just before Ladies’ View at the picturesque abandoned chapel. Cross the road and you’re in God’s country. Raised railway sleepers form steps into a pristine world of crystalline streams, jewel-toned dragonflies and brazen red deer. It’s an easy hour’s walk to Lord Brandon’s cottage, where you can sit at picnic benches and look out across the rustling, golden grass to the upper lake and its clustered islands, layers of mountains stretching back to McGillycuddy’s Reeks, and swathes of slender birches. Then you can either amble back the way you came, or take a boat trip. (They leave at 2pm).
Harry Clarke Windows
I can’t understand why Harry Clarke is not a household name, as to my mind he should be up there with Morris, Tiffany, Beardsley and Gustav Klimt in the pantheon of Art Nouveau giants. Undoubtedly the finest Irish stained-glass artist of the 20th century, Clarke also worked as an illustrator, but his genius is best showcased in his stained glass.
The Geneva Window, commissioned by the Irish government for the International Labour Court in Geneva was never exhibited by the state due to its sensuous content, but it has since been hailed as an artistic masterpiece and only rightfully returned to public view in Ireland (at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin) in March 2015.
One of the advantages of Clarke’s relative obscurity, is that you can travel the country seeking out his works and enjoy them in virtual solitude. The Franciscan Friary in Killarney (beside the train station) is an unassuming building, whose exterior gives no hint of the delights within, and even when you enter, there is no indication that you are in the presence of a masterpiece. Turn around, however, and look above the choir balcony and you will be rewarded with a vision of six slender panes topped by three trefoils of jewel-toned glass depicting scenes from the bible, centring on the birth of Christ.
Now, shhh…don’t tell anyone!