Rounding the Riveting Rings of Kerry and Skellig Ireland –
After reveling in high-spirited Dublin, Rick and I aim “Peacock” (our startling turquoise Peugeot rental car) southward toward the famed ring roads promising spectacular scenery, with a planned stop at Blarney. Or, rather two stops…as Rick insists we visit Kilkenny Castle. “Perhaps I’m a long lost descendant,” he says, “and this will become our summer home.” You see, the Kilkenny Castle, is also known as the Butler Castle, stronghold of the powerful Butler clan for over 500 years!
I’ll admit being impressed with Kilkenney Castle’s grand towers, and the elegant décor of the interior. The legendary Richard de Clare, a.k.a. Strongbow built a wooden structure here in 1172. His daughter’s marriage to wealthy William Marshall resulted in the construction of this stone edifice between 1195 and 1213.
Enter the Butlers….James Butler, 3rd Earl of Ormond, bought the castle in 1391, beginning the family’s rule of the surrounding areas for centuries. The Butlers smoozed with British royalty; notable was Lady Margaret Butler (1454-1539) daughter of the 7th Earl of Ormond, who married Sir William Boleyn and was the paternal grandmother of Anne Boleyn, the 2nd wife of Henry VIII of England.
Our Ring of Kerry and Skellig Ring Photos
Over the years, the Butlers clung to the castle through financial ups and downs. Alas, after massive economic upheaval post-WWI they went broke, abandoning the castle in 1935, its contents sold by auction. After years of unpaid taxes, Arthur Butler (24th Earl of Ormond) sold the caste in 1967 to the city of Kilkenny for a mere 50pounds. Thus…no pot of gold for Rick.
Arriving at Blarney for our over-night stay, we take a late afternoon walk to Blarney Castle. “You really want to kiss the greasy mark where a zillion lips have been before?” Rick spouts. “Then I’ll be a zillion-and-one.” We climb spiraling narrow stone stairs. At the top we relish the view and read the historical placards.
Built as a medieval fortress, the Blarney Stone is one of its “machicolations” – a floor opening between supporting corbels through which stones or other objects could be dumped on attackers at the wall’s base. Once called “the Stone of Eloquence” legends abound as to the origin of its power. My fave is about an old woman casting a spell on the stone “for sweetly convincing speech” if kissed, as a reward to a king who saved her from drowning.
It’s my turn. Two fellows man the stone. One gets me into position while the other is camera-ready. The first guides my backwards lean so I face the stone and holds me from slipping past the point of no return. Not to be outdone, Rick follows suit. Photos can be picked up at the exit for 10 pounds each. Rick questions, “Why didn’t the Butler’s think of this?”
The next morning we gas up Peacock for the Ring of Kerry, the 179km circuit around the coast of Iveragh Peninsula. The muted blue of distant mountains drapes the horizon. Each hill crest reveals patchwork-quilt fields of sensational greens –olive, jade, emerald, lime – outlined by dark forest green shrubbery, bush covered berms and mossy stone fences – no two field shapes are identical. Sheep and cattle appear as white and earth-toned polka dots on green fabric. The winding roadway often opens to breath-catching views of white capped waves on aqua seas, glimmering lakes and rivers, and passes through busy towns and sleepy villages.
Our first ring-road stay is in Killarney at the grand Ross Hotel. Only the brilliant sunshine could cajole us to take to the trails of Killarney National Park for the lake-side 15th century ruins of Ross Castle, then it was back to our haven of luxury at the Ross.
At one point in the next day’s drive we exit the Ring of Kerry for the Skellig Ring and head southwest to the small fishing village of Portmagee, and snuggle into The MooringvGuesthouse. That evening after our fill of a superb medley of cod/turbot/sole at The Moorings restaurant, we waddle into the adjoining pub for a Guinness and to clap along with the regulars for the Friday night set-dancing – a local mix of young’uns and grey power. We applaud their feat (and feet) stomping, stepping and swirling for over an hour, the participants not even breaking into a sweat.
It is up with the sea-gulls the next morning to partake in a hearty breakfast, which we feel we’ll need. Our boat, the Shelluna departs with a full capacity of 12 people. Captain Patrick Joseph Murphy (Pat Joe for short) is a crusty dog who knows his way around the sea, after 30 years of taking folks to Skellig Rocks. The sky is a thick grey canvas of cloud spiting its contents in a light rain, and with the added splash from the waves, we are thankful for the supplied canary yellow slickers. In less than an hour we step onto Skellig Michael, the 218m high rock island, where monks clung to life between the 6th and 12th centuries.
We look up at the almost vertical rugged cliffs, then give our full attention to climbing over-600 rain-slicked steps to the monastic settlement. Luckily there are periodic widened portions to stop for a photo and to catch our breath. At the top I walk in awed silence between the 1000-year-old beehive-shaped stone dwellings, trying to imagine living in this most unlikely place to sustain life. A guide tells those gathered what is believed to have been a day in the life of the monks. Prayer in the oratory at dawn, and four more times throughout the day – the remainder consumed in chores to exist. A small garden on the only other flattened area grew cereals and vegetables. Two small stone reservoirs collected rain water. Some would have climbed down daily to fish. A few goats and sheep suited this terrain, but how they got a cow to climb the steep steps is beyond me. The monks traded feathers, bird’s eggs and seal steaks for tools and vellum with passing ships.
I pass the cemetery with crude stone slabs for markers. A great stone cross stands close to the church named St Michael, honoring the Archangel Michael, apropos for these men who were warriors of the spirit. This is one of those times when something must be seen to be believed – a worthy UNESCO site.
On our boat trip back our Captain veers close to Little Skellig, a bird sanctuary. The ledges are packed with thousands of gannets, gulls and numerous other squawking seabirds – most seem reticent to move for fear of losing their place.
Continuing the next day around the Skellig ring, then back onto the Ring of Kerry with more verdant countryside, outcrops of cliffs, white sandy beaches, and roadside trees forming enchanting leafy arches, we arrive at Kenmare. After a walk around the town’s centre with store-fronts of every Crayola colour, it is to Shelburne Lodge, the perfect place to cozy-up by a crackling wood fire on our last night in Ireland.
In the wee morning hours we drive to Kerry Airport, bid farewell to Peacock, fly to Dublin then home – overflowing with memories of fine traditions, hospitable people and some of the most sensational scenery in the world.
Murphy’s Sea Cruise to Skellig Rocks