Ireland may be modern and vibrant, with a lively social scene, but it is also an ancient country. The first people arrived almost 10,000 years ago, travelling by boat from the continent of Europe. They soon began to leave their mark and today you will find evidence of their communities everywhere. On my recent visit to Ireland I explored the historic places of County Kerry, an area that is steeped in history, with ancient ruins wherever you go.
Bronze Age Stone Circles
Many of the oldest sites in County Kerry date from the Bronze Age. These include megaliths, tombs and even a copper mine in the Killarney National Park. And there are numerous stone circles.
These sites are not always easy to find, but one of the most accessible is the Kenmare Stone Circle, just a few minutes’ walk from Kenmare town centre. Almost 3,000 years old, it contains 15 stones in a circle, with another stone at the centre. The stones were brought here from elsewhere, and the site was chosen carefully, high up with a view of the hills and the river, so it must have been an important monument. However, although we know that the central stone marked a burial place, we are not sure about the purpose of the circle itself. It may have been a calendar, or it might have been a site for rituals (it is still known locally as the “Druid’s Circle”). It is obviously still a significant place; beside the circle is a wishing tree festooned with colourful notes and ribbons.
I also visited the Uragh Stone Circle on the Beara Peninsula. This one is harder to get to, with a few kilometres of narrow, winding lanes, but it is worth the effort. Probably built around 2,500 BC, it consists of five stones and a separate tall monolith. It has a fabulous location on the edge of Lough Inchiquin, isolated and surrounded by hills. Uragh may have been a ritual site, but it was certainly also used as a calendar. When I was there, at exactly midday, I climbed a nearby mound and noted that the shadow of the tall stone fell on a nearby rock (I’m not sure if this was a coincidence or not, but it was certainly awe-inspiring).
The Early Christians of County Kerry
Christianity came to County Kerry in the 5th century, and the area is full of early Christian sites. One of the foremost of these is the monastery island of Skellig Michael. I didn’t manage to get there this time, but I was told that the isolation and beauty of the place make it an incomparable experience.
My interest on this trip was looking for ogham stones, early Christian grave markers inscribed with oghams, or ancient Celtic characters. (I had recently discovered similar stones on the Isle of Man.) There is a single ogham outside Killarney Cathedral and several collections in isolated locations throughout County Kerry. The best ones I found were in the grounds of Burnham House, at Colaiste Ide on the Dingle Peninsula.
My favourite early Christian site was the remote, and beautifully located, ruins of Kilmarkedar Church, not far from Dingle. The church itself dates from the 12th century, and its grounds include an ogham stone, an old stone cross and an ancient sundial. Inside the church is the so-called Alphabet Stone, featuring Latin characters from the 6th century or earlier.
Abbeys and Castles
As you might expect, the Middle Ages in County Kerry were characterised by numerous castles and abbeys. One of the best preserved castles is the 15th century Ross Castle in Killarney National Park (entrance by guided tour only), which is still inhabited by several medieval ghosts! Or you can spot the remains of lesser castles and towers as you drive around. My one tip for exploring County Kerry is never to ignore an interesting looking deviation from the route…
Abbeys were often built on even earlier pagan sites, like the 6th century Derrynane Abbey at Casherdaniel on the Ring of Kerry. This one has a very long history as, although the abbey is ruined, the graveyard is still in use. It is the last resting place of many members of the O’Connell family from nearby Derrynane House. (Although the most famous family member – Daniel O’Connell for whom Dublin’s O’Connell Street is named – is actually buried in Dublin.)
An easily accessible and atmospheric site is Muckross Abbey in Killarney National Park. The first abbey was built here in the 6th century but it was replaced by a Franciscan friary in the 15th century. This one was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s troops in the 1650s but, again, the burial ground is still used.
A Place of Pilgrimage
One thing that intrigued me as I travelled around County Kerry was the number of signposts marked “Kerry Camino” or “Pilgrim Path”. The mystery was solved when I discovered the Church of St James in Dingle. This is said to be the place where medieval pilgrims would assemble before boarding boats to Coruna in Spain, from where they would walk to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela.
St Brendan, one of the most important saints of this part of Ireland, is also associated with this church. He is said to have walked this way before sailing to America in the 6th century. Whether that is true or not, there are other paths in the region where he travelled as a penitential pilgrim, and today walks take place in his memory. Ancient history is still very much alive in County Kerry.
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