Image credit: Nora Baker
When Skellig Michael’s beehive huts were abandoned, their former inhabitants are thought to have helped establish Ballinskelligs Abbey a few miles down the road, with a view out to the mysteriously-named ‘Horse Island’. The walls of the Abbey, within which religious ceremonies would have been held hundreds of years ago, are now crumbling away, but knitted in around and within them is a working graveyard. Just to the left of this aged structure is another: the remains of the 16th century McCarthy’s Castle.
As with the Abbey, you can amble around the castle walls quite freely, and even climb up its ramparts to get a great view of the bay. I was reminded of the old fishing tower walls I’d once visited in Essaouira, Morocco, and it occurred to me that of course, I was looking out on the same ocean. I would always have been inclined to consider the Moroccan coast as far more exotic, but we were blessed with sunny weather, and the sea sparkled that day in Kerry in the way it had off North Africa.
The fact that the McCarthy Castle was completely open for anyone’s use clearly hadn’t escaped the notice of local revellers, as there were several empty sweet packets floating around, and in order to look out of one of the stone windows you had to pick your way through the shards of a smashed Heineken bottle. Maybe it’s my gratification-addicted Millennial sensibilities, but I couldn’t help but feel that there was something kind of nice about drinking and partying in the ruins of a castle – though of course littering is never defensible. Having a beer within the old walls would sort of be like continuing a 500-year-old tradition – for I’m sure the McCarthys must’ve gotten merry themselves on occasion. However, we decided to repair to the beachside café for our refreshments.
The next part of our trip featured a visit to Derrynane House, the former home of Irish politician Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell is famed for his efforts to ensure Catholic emancipation in the 19th century, and for his focus on non-violent methods of opposition to the Anglican hegemony. The grounds are free and open to all, but before exploring them we queued up to join one of the socially-distanced groups visiting the inside of the house. After watching an informational film about O’Connell’s life, we embarked on a tour of the rooms, perfectly preserved as if the family might walk in at any moment.
It was hard to believe that the table and chairs in the dining room were the very same ones used by the O’Connells nearly two hundred years ago: everything was in gleaming condition. It was less hard to believe that the rooms were once used for huge parties. I had a chat with an elderly man who had no interest in keeping two metres away from me about how the view out the window hadn’t changed from O’Connell’s time to ours, and felt a little chill go through me as I gazed on the gun which ended the life of O’Connell’s opponent in his first-and-last duelling match.
How strange to think that an instrument of such violence had now been laid to rest in a glass box, that the deed it had committed had happened so long ago, and that, during busier times, the case around it is probably smudged by people’s fingerprints or drooled upon by babies. Perhaps it was the quietness of the post-quarantine period that led me to such reflections; prior to coronavirus I’d often found myself being rushed through exhibits, intimidated by jostling crowds. Of course I was impatient to get past the supposed ‘new normal’ phase and return to the ‘real’ normal, but back then, I remember thinking to myself that there was something to be said for a bit of space and time, to stand back and contemplate things, every now and then.
“I’d known on some abstract level that Kerry housed an assortment of riches, but actually seeing them, and soaking up their essence first-hand, was more moving than I could have imagined.”
There is a stunning beach behind Derrynane House, and the soaring temperatures meant that crowds were out in full force on the sands, some ignoring the numerous signs which warn against swimming in the upper part of the cove, where currents are stronger. I didn’t notice as it was happening, but I ended up with sunburn all over my face and neck. Despite the heat, I pressed on over the rocks to the ruins of Ahamore Abbey.
I couldn’t see any information outside about the history or nature of the Abbey, unless you count the sign from Kerry County Council telling tourists to watch out for uneven ground. This warning wasn’t an exaggeration – as with Ballinskelligs, the visitors to Ahamore have to contend with a number of protruding headstones, as well as the remnants of the church itself. Among the various graves that now populate the former abbey buildings is that of Mary O’Connell, Daniel’s wife. I spent a few moments reading the epitaph before making my way over to one of the arched windows, dodging nettles and briars as I went.
Looking out at the flat-calm sea below me, I wondered if Mary, and the other inhabitants of the cemetery, used to also enjoy coming here and leaning against the medieval walls when the weather was nice. Then I sat down, snuggling in among the stones, and tasked Google with revealing to me what it could about the ruins’ past. As it turned out, my modern technology couldn’t supply me with many answers.
Legend has it that St. Finan founded a monastic community on the grounds around 700 AD, but the structures currently standing are thought to date from the 10th century. Other than the fact that the O’Connells used the abbey as the inspiration for the chapel in their own house, there was not much information to be found on specific use of the area prior to modern times. I would have to content myself with a bit of quiet reflection instead of chasing facts and answers on my smartphone.
Driving back to Cahersiveen from Caherdaniel, I was struck by how far we were above sea level. Of course, as a child in primary school, I’d learnt that Ireland’s tallest mountain range, the Magillycuddy Reeks, was located in Kerry, but I hadn’t really appreciated how high up the roads which snaked around the coast would be. I was reminded of mountain road trips I’d been on in France and Italy. I’d always thought that driving at such altitudes was a thrill reserved for those living in soft Mediterranean climes; I was wrong.
We stopped at a viewing point called Com an Chiste, a gravel car park perched atop a panorama of lush green pastures. Little islands dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see, and I wondered, briefly, if this was what heaven was like: there was even a statue of the Virgin Mary in the centre of the picnic spot, which helped boost the celestial vibes. Beside this little reminder of 20th-century Catholicism, a busker sat playing a traditional reel. These were elements of Ireland as I knew it, unfolding in surroundings that felt foreign to me.
It turned out that I hadn’t needed to leave the country – or even the province of my paternal ancestors – in order to have a novel experience. I’d known on some abstract level that Kerry housed an assortment of riches, but actually seeing them, and soaking up their essence first-hand, was more moving than I could have imagined. When so much of the year had felt like an exercise in abstinence and seclusion, in a way I suppose I was grateful to the quarantine restrictions, for they gave me the opportunity to realise the wonders of ‘the Kingdom’.
The latest travel advice (from the UK government) for travel to Ireland can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/ireland
Specific COVID-19 travel advice for Ireland can be found at: https://travelhealthpro.org.uk/country/109/ireland#COVID-19