On the Road in Ireland
It’s that time of year again when (belatedly in 2013) Spring has arrived and Ireland is at its greenest. The air is redolent of new shoots, the hedgerows aglow in the sunshine, the birds competing with each other in the trees. This is the time of year when I feel the urge to get into the car, pack a bag, point south and see where I can get to before dark – and dark comes dropping slow at this time of year!
Trying to shake off our recent winter – which has lasted nearly two and a half years (yes, really) is a requirement that must be fulfilled or be forfeited until next Spring. This series will look at my favourite road trips in Ireland and will hopefully encourage you to get off your backside and get out and explore this wonderful, multi-faceted island of ours.
The Kindgom of Kerry
It’s called this for a reason. There are few places on this island, or in Western Europe for that matter, that have the appeal of County Kerry. Sitting at Ireland’s far western fringe, it has been shaped over millenia by ice, by the sea and by man. From stunning jagged peaks puncturing the horizon to hundreds of miles of Atlantic-battered coastal beauty, Kerry had always been the first port of call for visitors – from these shores and beyond.
Most visitors however are drawn to the infamous Ring of Kerry, the circuitous road that winds its way for over one hundred miles around the coastline of the Iveragh Peninsula. Yes, it is lovely but the traffic is horrendous, the coaches veer dangerously towards you on every tight bend and there really are too many Amercians (sorry Americans!).
Ireland’s south west is unusual in that your journey only begins when you actually reach towns like Tralee, Killarney, Kenmare or Bantry. Getting to these towns from Northern Ireland has been made no less convenient by Ireland’s recent Motorway investment unless of course you travel via Belfast and Dublin and head west across the country. Back in 2012, my nephew and myself decided to travel this ‘long road’, mostly just to marvel at the sheer level of investment in the roads infrastructure in the last 15 years. It took us 8 hours, with two stops, even with the motorway system, to reach the outskirts of Killarney, gateway to the Iveragh Peninsula, Killarney National Park and Valentia Island.
The Dingle Peninsula
But we decided the next day should be spent discovering the lovelier and far quieter Dingle Peninsula to the North. On any map, these jagged peninsula’s, jutting out into the Atlantic, look small and many a stranger has therefore been caught off-guard trying to take them in on a morning. Nope. Maybe had motorways been extended outward from the key westward towns (this will never, ever happen by the way), the journey would be quick, but unadventurous. It is the roads themselves that make the Dingle peninsula such a singular Irish journey, particularly when you leave the main road (the ubiquitous N56) at a hole in the hedge call Knockglass More, that the adventure actually begins. This narrow, paved track takes you up over the infamous Connor Pass, Ireland’s highest mountain road and on a clear day opens up the vastness of this western jewel from the car park at the top – but only after you have braved the road which clings to a steep cliff-side with a huge vertical drop of some 500m to your right. Nervous drivers avoid, please!
But the journey is worth it. From the summit you can really enjoy the views eastward towards Tralee, with the deep valleys of the Brandon Mountain range tempered here and there by huge mountain tarns (glacial lakes), pond-like from the summit but positively huge close up (I only know this having reached them on foot in 1995).
This is landscape on a huge scale. Those who reach this wondrous spot can only stand in awe at the spectacle before them – relieved also by having survived the road to the top – and you are joined by others from all of the world taking stock, and probably congratulating themselves inwardly for having made the trip.
But you’ll not linger long here as the cold wind whips up from the Atlantic that surrounds the area on all sides and only those dressed for the climate or the foolhardy will stick around. The road then takes you on a bit of a lopsided, but infinitely less harrowing, journey down into the town of Dingle – one of the country’s culinary destinations at Ireland’s farthest west.
Slea Head and the Brandon Range
Yet Dingle itself is not the end of the road. That honour belongs to Slea Head, another twenty miles of narrow lanes that hug the coastline, giving great views south across Dingle Bay to the Iveragh Peninsula and Magillicuddy’s Reeks (but only on a clear day). When you reach the bend in the road at the very end of Ireland, the disjointed Great Blasket Island shimmers in the Atlantic Ocean to the west, unreachable from here only by trawler or private boat. But turn the corner eastward on a good day and the sheer size of the place will take your breath away.
This is not the end of the trip, but unless you’re stopping over in Dingle, it’s a good 2 hour drive back to Tralee and 3 to Killarney, so don’t leave it too late into the evening to head back to civilisation! It’s a nice enough drive along the southern R561 and remember to stop off at the amazing Inch Strand – a curved finger of golden sand stretching for over three miles into Dingle Bay itself.
Hopefully this has whetted your appetite for this lovely corner of our island and that you will be encouraged to visit, or indeed revisit, one of the world’s most spectacular destinations.