Ireland, to me, feels like that old friend that you don’t see more than once every year or two but with whom there’s never any awkwardness or unfamiliarity. I can feel at home within 5mins of landing, and without a doubt that is down to the people I am so lucky to see whenever I go. My extended family live in one of the most breathtakingly beautiful areas of the world, and it’s so easy to take that for granted.
Everyone I know in Ireland lives in the southwest, in Co. Kerry. It’s a solid 5h drive from Dublin, and until not that long ago didn’t have an international airport, so while towns like Killarney and Dingle have always attracted intrepid tourists, the masses didn’t start flocking until more recently. That being said, there is still a huge amount of untouched, rugged, natural beauty all around the county.
My experience of Kerry is skewed from the norm – not everyone is lucky enough to have their own personal tour guides there, so for that I apologise, because everyone deserves to. The tourist path is now very well-trodden, but there are so many hidden gems that it’s difficult to keep count. My cousins own a bus company there so some of my earliest memories are of my great uncle driving us around Slea Head and the Ring of Kerry, with some of the best views I’ve ever had in my life to date, and with a full running commentary! I think that was probably the first experience I had that sparked any sort of love for history, and it is so evident in Kerry. There are ruins of stone walls on the hillsides that landowners ordered to be made during the Great Famine in the 1850s, just so that they had a reason to give people money. Once the walls had been made, they paid the same people to take them apart, which goes a way towards showing the sheer desperation at the time.
The islands off the west coast are called the Blaskets, and they’re a really humbling example of our ability as a civilisation to make do. Well into the 1900s they were inhabited by natives who lived off the land, hunting seals and farming everything they needed. The Dingle market was a week-long trip over the sea and relied heavily on good weather, so it was a rare treat, but the community lived sustainably and peacefully for decades. There’s a museum on the mainland overlooking the islands with a wealth of info, and I’d say it’s worth a quick stop at least. You read about these people and you realise not just how incredibly plentiful our world is in comparison, but how little we need to be content.
As a kid no one really takes stock of how lucky they are to be away from home, which is okay. Even years later, telling people where my family are from to be told “I wish I had family there”, it was tough to make that connection, because it’s so easy to take things for granted – besides, there are hundreds of places around the world that I would’ve loved to have family, and so when I was younger it never occurred to me that I should be grateful for what I already had. Now still I find myself thinking that, but I’ve realised that there’s a difference between knowing a place as a home and knowing it as a destination, so I’ve grown to appreciate the fact that Kerry is home at the same time as being able to discover new places at my own pace, in my own way.
On the Slea Head peninsula, there’s a beautiful café called the Dunquin Pottery Café, which sits overlooking the coastline and until not too long ago made all it’s own pottery for sale in the shop. We all got mugs with our names on, and they’ve since stopped but there’s still stock available if you get there in time! Even if you’re too late, the relaxed seats by the window are reason enough to stop. The food isn’t other-worldly, but some of my earliest memories of travel are based around that shop, and that’s so powerful.
In my very biased view, I’d say Kerry alone needs at least a solid week, but if you’re pushed for time, make it at the very least 3 days. Slea Head and Dingle deserve a day of their own, and there’s a reason that Dingle has been voted as the world’s most photogenic place more than once. A walk along the high street peering into endless streams of gift shops will take more time than you bargained for, and after a stop for seafood chowder and a Guinness, there won’t be much time left for the Slea Head drive. Top tip: drive clockwise, from Dingle via Ventry to Dunquin, and be ready for the odd head-to-head battle with an opposite direction 4×4 who obviously hasn’t read this article.
The first time I went to Ireland without my family, I was 18. A friend had asked me to go with her as a post-exam present, and I am so glad I took her up on it. There’s something about being a tour guide for a change that send the message home as to just how stunningly beautiful the place is. I found myself rethinking my nonchalant attitude to Killarney town centre, and the National Park on the outskirts, and it gave the whole place new meaning for me. I would highly recommend renting a bike from the town and cycling the Gap of Dunloe, a 60km round trip with over 500m of climb (so it requires a small amount of physical fitness, of which I was lacking) – but the view from Moll’s Gap at the end of the climb, added to the beauty of Torc Waterfall on the ride down, makes it absolutely worth it. And this is why I love Kerry – the frequency of those awe-inspiring moments, the ones that make you want to pinch yourself, is just astonishing.
Ireland reminds me how much I’ve changed over the past 15 years or so. One year I was there, I vividly remember about 4 days into the trip being miserable because I’d just got a Nintendo Wii for my birthday and I wanted to play with it, but now that seems so absurd. Again, as a kid no one expects that appreciation for the world around you, because that takes years to develop, but it’s not often that you get such a clear reminder of the change that’s taken place. If someone offered me a week in southwest Ireland without technology now, I’d probably bite their hand off!
Hopefully you weren’t expecting this to be a travel journal with hundreds of tips, because if so I’m a huge disappointment – it’s just taken me a long time to realise how amazing Ireland is, and how incredibly lucky I am to have the connection I have with it. I was born in the UK, I have a UK passport and an English accent, but whenever I’m asked where I’m from, I at the very least mention Ireland, and that will hopefully never change.
Co. Kerry Top 10
- Bridge Bar, Portmagee – best Guinness in Ireland
- Valentia Island, Ring of Kerry – Mediterranean-esque views
- Dunquin Pottery Café, Slea Head Peninsula – warm and cosy tearoom
- Killarney National Park, Killarney – incredible walking and cycle routes
- Harbour House B&B, Fahamore Point – easily the best seafood chowder I’ve ever had
- Murphy’s Ice Cream, Killarney/Dingle – try the sea salt ice cream
- Quill’s Woollen Market, Killarney – traditional handmade woollen clothes
- Clogher Head, Slea Head Peninsula – powerful waves and an incredible vantage point for the Blaskets
- Torc Waterfall, Killarney National Park – heavily tourist-laden but for good reason
- Molls Gap Café, Killarney National Park – pricey but the views are worth it