Sunday, September 26, 2010

In and around Kenmare

Kenmare is a pretty small town located on the southwest coast of Ireland. It was suggested in the Rick Steves guide (by this point in the trip being referred to as "The Book of Steves") as an alternative base to Killarney for exploring both the Iveragh and Beara Peninsulas. Being the ancestral home of many Irish-Americans and the jumping off point for tours of the famous Ring of Kerry, it is a very busy place, jammed with souvenir shops, tour buses and "jaunting cars" as the horse drawn open carriages are called. Preferring somewhere a little more low key, we opted for Kenmare.

With its brightly painted storefronts, a circle of standing stones just outside town, a lovely harbour and a pleasant walking trail through the countryside at the edges of the village not to mention the pubs with live music spilling out the doors, it is a pleasant place to walk about, browse the shops and stop for a pint when fatigue sets in. There are several town and rural B&B's including the lovely five star Park Hotel which overlooks the water, lots of pubs with live music, and a range of restaurant fare from fine dining to pub food. A few recommendations in no particular order of preference:

P.F. McCarthy's - lively pub, great atmosphere, live music
Packie's - great decor, delicious food, good service
The Coachman's - atmosphere leaves something to be desired but food is good and prices reasonable
Foley's - great food, crowded, good service, very hot the evening we were there

On a second floor up a narrow stair from the tourist office is the Kenmare Lace Museum. It documents the work of the Poor Clare order of nuns who came to Kenmare in the 1860's and taught the young women of the town to make lace so they could contribute income to their families in a time of severe unemployment. Kenmare lace, a technique in its own right, was world famous in its day. Queen Victoria purchased a piece and one wealthy American woman bought a coverlet and pillow covers for a price that would buy a very nice house today. The making of the lace is extremely time consuming, a single flower motif from the examples below taking about 20 hours of painstaking work to complete. Needless to say, it is now a dying art although many hobbyists keep the craft alive, including the volunteers at the lace museum who demonstrate the different techniques of Kenmare lace, bobbin lace and Point d'Irlandaise or crochet lace. The museum has many fine vintage pieces of this beautiful work.

Different kinds of lace at the Kenmare Lace Museum

Kenmare Harbour

Circle of Standing Stones

This was one of the few stone circles we saw that was maintained and where we didn't have to skip through cow pies to get to it....not very atmospheric but still worth a stop on an evening walk.

Travelling companion with large stone

Green, red, green - Kenmare back alley


And many months go by, so so quickly! I have excuses but won't bore you with them...suffice to say that there have been some bumps in the road this year which I may or may not choose to share at some point. For the moment, I'm trying to remain positive, not stick my head in the sand but focus on dealing with what is in front of me and burn those bridges when I come to them. And my apologies for the metaphor mangling.

It has been a long time since the Ireland trip but I want to share what ended up being my favourite part of the trip which was the southwest coast of Ireland. First part of this adventure was to equip ourselves with a car. We took the bus back out to the airport to do this, reasoning that on our final day we could drive straight to the airport and drop the car off before our flight - that turned out to be good strategy, by the way. Our trial by fire (especially for my trusty driver) was to be dumped out onto the busy motorway, driving a right hand drive on the left side of the road. It wasn't so bad at first because on a divided highway, driving on the left was not a factor. Of course the traffic was insane as this is pretty much the biggest chunk of modern highway in Ireland.

As the day wore on and we crossed the country, the roads became progressively narrower until, as we approached Kenmare, there was barely room for two cars to pass by each other. There was so little clearance that the wild fuschia and ferns sprouting profusely from the head high rock walls lining the road was ticking against the rear view mirror on my side of the car making me cringe away in fear. Speed limits in Ireland seem excessively optimistic but local drivers weren't hard to spot - they were the ones driving huge SUVs and flooring it. We had a tiny Twingo (doesn't that sound like something that runs off an elastic band?), one step up from the even smaller car we had reserved but which the agent talked us out of as not a good choice for the distance and the roads we planned to travel. Fortunately, we took his advice.

Iveragh side road

Our room at Hawthorn House in Kenmare, booked on the fly earlier that day, turned out to be a separate cottage affair behind the main building and was lovely and quiet and unlike most B&B rooms in Ireland, roomy. After the usual warm Irish greeting from the proprietress, we set out in late afternoon to explore the town. Most of the very colourful buildings were arranged along two long streets set at an angle to each other in a "V" shape. After poking about in a few shops and a very large knitwear store, we passed by a tiny pub and heard strains of "trad" music issuing forth. Without hesitating, we turned and walked in, beguiled by that irresistible sound and found a room jammed full of locals, a few tourists and a pickup group of local musicians who did a session there each afternoon before going on to their paying gigs.

Downtown Kenmare

It was fabulous! We immediately ordered a Guinness and settled in for an hour or so to listen and observe. There was a group of 30-somethings at the bar next to us who were conversing in Irish, some families having an early supper of Irish pub food at the few battered tables and musicians arriving to sit in for a number or two and then take their leave. We couldn't have been happier with our introduction to the pub music scene which we were to experience almost daily during that part of the trip. This tradition seems happily to be very much alive in that part of the world.

Next day dawned reasonably clear so, full to bursting with eggs, sausage and toasted soda bread with jam, we decided to take advantage of the nice weather and "do" the world famous Ring of Kerry, the magnificent circle route of the Iveragh Peninsula. We took Rick Steves advice and set out in the opposite direction to the one the tour buses take, clockwise as opposed to counter clockwise although I see this tactic is discouraged on some "official" websites. With some judicious dekes off the main route to look at archeological sites that are inaccessible to large vehicles, it is possible to avoid getting stuck in a diesel fumed snail of traffic and allow the bulk of the opposing traffic of the day to go by. Since we were in Kenmare and most of the tours leave from Killarney, it also meant that we were dodging oncoming buses at the end of the day but it was still worth it.

Our first stop was the Staigue Fort a few miles out from Kenmare, one of the so-called "faerie forts" or stone ring forts of unmortared stone. The view of the sea and surrounding countryside, stony sheep pasture for the most part, was spectacular and it was not difficult to imagine the strategic value of the site or to admire the engineering ability of the Iron Age people who built it.

Staigue Fort

Sheep pasture & top of the wall at Staigue Fort

The rest of the day was just as sensational...I won't try to describe it all but the photos below will give you the general idea. Unfortunately we didn't have time to take a tour out to the Skelligs, those pointy islands off the tip of the Iveragh with the stone beehive huts where very dedicated (or deeply antisocial) monks lived out their lives. Even if we had not been time challenged, the boat tours that day were cancelled due to rough seas. We gathered this was a fairly regular occurrence, not surprising given how exposed this coast is to the open Atlantic.

Spectacular cliffs near Waterville

Famine houses overlooking the Skelligs

Contented Irish cows