Hiking Ireland: The Kerry Way
A mere walkabout is an adventure along the southwestern coast of this tiny isle, where merriment, storytelling, and holy ghosts are a part of the Celtic tradition.
On a spring morning, my band of 10 embarks on a five-day hike on western Irelandís Kerry Way. Open to the pubic year-round, this Waymarked Walking Route passes sheep farms, wildflower meadows, and other unspoiled rural tracts. Tarred by-roads often link portions of this still developing, 135-mile-long trail. Signage on this track and throughout Ireland is in English and Gaelic.
We start by being transported by van to Dooks Beach, a sandy, rocky stretch where horse riders, joggers, and fishermen congregate. The air is brisk, fresh, and sweet. Chaffinches and other birds call from pastures while American Oystercatchers stage on sandbars. Stone Age monuments, castles, and ruins characterize the diverse landscape. Fourteen of the nationís highest peaks, spectacular Atlantic seascapes, and some of the last primeval oak and yew forests in Europe are here in County Kerry.
Our initial jaunt is a gentle one over a dune, country road, and freshwater streams. We laugh as several of us slip unscathed into a bog. A subtle dewy haze caresses our skin signaling a shower. We zip our rain jackets and carry on for this is the norm. How else would Ireland stay so green?
Windswept cliffs, stony mountaintops, and lakes cloaked in a ghostly mist cast a setting for myths, legends, and traditional homespun Celtic sagas. During respites, our guide Nathan Kingerlee spins tales and truths about his emerald domain.
The Kerry Way is a trail that explores the most beautiful landscape in Ireland and also leads you through Ireland's history he begins. A Celtic Standing Stone above the Black Valley, a Penal Mass Path in Glencar - every onward step of the Kerry Way is a step backwards in time. Much of this footpath served as medieval routes, droving paths, and Mass Roads. Cryptic rock slabs, and graves crop up at various junctures.
We set out the following morning from Derrycunnihy to Killarney. An overcast sky forebodes an eerie trek as we slipshod over stiles, slippery rocks, and muddy tracts. This leg of our journey leads through aged oak woods. Nathan spots priest ferns and spurge or Druids stem flourishing in a grassland edge. It is said that this religious order, from which the plant is named, concocted a potion from the succulent stem our guide says.
After lunch by a small waterfall, we inspect the remains of a roofless sheebin almost lodged against a hillside. Standing inside this camouflaged rock structure, we imagine Irish drinkers huddled together taking a nip during the prohibition. A tangle of vines now claim this former surreptitious meeting place.
The ever-present sound of the cuckoo keeps us company as we climb toward Old Kenmare Road. Early saints traveled this same path and witnessed some of the same sights and sounds we detect. Shortly, we descend beside the impressive Torc Cascade and revel in its cooling spray.
A short underpass reveals a lovely stretch of wetlands in Killarney National Park. A lone Asian Elk or Sika Deer, an exotic species from Japan, grazes on prolific golden gorse. A few strides more and we stand above the gardens of Muckross House, a 19th century mansion with an exquisite tearoom and museum. A half-mile hop discloses the ruins of the 15th century Muckross Friary.
Another day we walk from Kells to the seaside village of Glenbeigh. An almost impenetrable fog belies the narrowness of our rock-laden path. We are particularly cautious while stepping along a lengthy precipice. This segment follows a middle ages coaching road. Detours lead to archaeological artifacts and views across Dingle Bay. Embedded at Rossbeigh Beach near our daily terminus are shell middens.
One of our most memorable hikes was past the dramatic ice-carved Black Valley to the Gap of Dunloe. Dotted with rocks, sheep, and rolling hills, this verdant land seems endless. Midway the Gap we perch on a rocky knoll for lunch. A few cyclists and jaunting cars (horse-driven carriages) roll by. One driver leaps off a buggy to slowly guide his animal up the sharp incline.
We end this walk, like the others, at a pub to enjoy delectable mussels and Guinness. Afterwards, we jig as Irish musicians sing and strum Celtic tunes.
Skellig MichaelWe divert a bit off the Kerry Way and pay for a van ride to the fishing village of Cahersiveen. Then, we pay more Euros, and board a small vessel for a 2.5-hour jostling ride.
Eight miles off the coast of County Kerry are Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, two intriguing islands which shoot up majestically from the Atlantic Ocean. In the sixth or seventh century, monks colonized Skellig Michael. In this remote paradise, they fished, gardened, and lived until the thirteenth century. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Skellig Michael draws thousands of visitors annually. To preserve its environmental integrity, only 150 persons are allowed on the island at once.
After walking a half-mile or so, we climb 600 steep unrailed stone steps which lead to the apex. There one can duck inside six low-ceilinged beehive-shaped cells where the monks dwelled. An unexcavated graveyard overlooks Little Skellig. Sweeping vistas, clean air, and the cacophony of seabirds instill an inexplicable feeling of spirituality. One can almost understand why these holy men chose such a unique, pristine home.
The heavens blessed us with three consecutive days of uninterrupted sunshine, a rarity in this verdant land of sparkling rain. Although not absolved of our sins, we reflect on the pleasure of our walks and the haunting splendor of western Ireland.