There are many reasons why you would want to visit Killarney in Ireland. It’s a lovely town, for starters. Busy but with a rural feel, with great restaurants and bars, friendly people. And it’s right next to Killarney National Park where you will find stunning Muckross Abbey, just an easy walk or bike ride away.
But it’s also the gateway to accessing three of Ireland’s most beautiful peninsulas. Dingle Peninsula to the north, for example, is a well-established tourist destination which beckons with stunning sea views and great discoveries. And then there is also Iveragh Peninsula, just to the west of Killarney, which most people will probably recognise as soon as you mention the tourist drive “Ring of Kerry”.
But then there is the third peninsula, the poor relative, the neglected cousin, the slightly overlooked black sheep. That is Beara Peninsula to the south.
Since I’ve always had a weakness for the underrated and the underestimated, the off-the-beaten-track destinations of the world, I wanted to spend my free day exactly there, in this lesser-known part of the Killarney region.
Nature, History and Magic on the Beara Peninsula
Now, in Ireland, there are certain themes you would want to touch on when exploring the countryside.
Nature, of course, as it would come in spectacular scenery, unpredictable weather, and unexpected wildlife encounters.
History of the ancient land. The irresistible pull of abandoned churches and ruined castles, the mystery of prehistoric stone circles.
The tragedy and love of lives lived – the miles and miles of drystone walls, the stories of poverty and famine, the thatched cottages.
Plus, fairy magic to the initiated.
A road-trip from Killarney
The best way to discover Ireland’s countryside is by car, so we set off in the morning on a route down south with the goal of making it all the way to the tip of Beara Peninsula to try out the spectacular Ballaghboy Cable Car. This cable car connected Dursey Island with the mainland. A two-and-a-half-hour drive from Killarney according to Google Maps. More if you plan in stops for visiting shops and taking pictures. The same distance back, so in total a full day of driving. That is when you don’t fall prey to the charms and the magic of the country.
It didn’t take long for us to get completely distracted by the sight of Derrycunihy church, prettily placed right next to a gushing stream and an old stone bridge. We couldn’t help it but had to get out of the car, hear the thunder of the whitewater with our very own ears. Explore the boarded-up church in the middle of nowhere, look for a troll under the stone bridge. Lichen-covered stones and gnarly trees, climbing stones covered in slippery moss, a not-so-shy doe feeding in the ferns.
The sights kept coming. We drove past the forgotten ruins of a castle, stopped at Ladies’ View for a deep look into the valley. Had coffees at the cafe and a slice of lemon cake, browsed the shop. Time flew, it lost importance, didn’t matter to us anymore. Plans for the day we did have, yes, but throwing them overboard to live in the moment wasn’t difficult at all.
Throwing all plans overboard
We drove through Kenmare, a pretty little town by the Roughty River estuary, stopped again, for lunch. With the realisation that at this pace we wouldn’t make it all the way to Ballaghboy Cable Car we changed plans, decided to go for a southerly route to take the ferry to Garnish Island instead.
Halfway en route another distraction, another stop. A house by the road, a 200-year old cottage. Red window panes and a thatched roof. Smoke coming from the chimney, the door invitingly wide open. We walked past the old truck which had barrels and milk churn loaded in the back, entered the cottage. Inside, time seemingly had stood still. A fragrant peat fire was burning in the fireplace, socks hanging on the mantlepiece to dry, china in the cupboard, gas lanterns hanging from the ceiling. This used to be Molly Gallivans Cottage, a widow who had seven small children.
The owners now ran a visitor centre here together with tea rooms and a wonderful craft shop. They invited us to explore the farmland behind the cottage, a 500-metre walk to explore 5,000 years of Irish history. Past pigs, cows, donkeys, and chickens we went to experience Irish rural life of times gone by.
We found the foundations of an abandoned farmhouse, a stark reminder of the Great Famine that had caused devastation in Ireland in the 1840s. A neolithic stone row, perfectly aligned to greet the sun on the day of the summer solstice. All the way to the top we walked, to take in the views of the surrounding countryside, the ancient burial mounds of an important chief in the far distance, the beautiful spread of the verdant Sheen Valley on the other side of the road.
A boat ride past seal rocks
In the afternoon, we arrived in Glengarriff. Right in the town centre we took the path down to the water, to a place they call the Blue Lagoon. Well developed and sheltered, a fantastic swimming spot in summer. Now, in autumn, we only spent little time here, waiting to board the ferry.
While we waited near the waterfront, an old man approached us, struck up a conversation. He mainly asked us questions about our lives back home, just wanted to be friendly. Gave us hugs and kisses on the cheeks, had his photo taken with our cameras. Then he shook hands and disappeared. As we learned later from the skipper, this man would spend hours in this spot, talking to strangers and tourists. A man without a family, just in need of some simple human interaction.
The boat took us to Garnish Island, home to a set of gardens from which you could enjoy some fantastic views of the water and the countryside. Just a short boat ride, past colonies of seals, lazing in the pale autumn sun, their tales lifted into the air, their black eyes curiously watching us ride by. The seals looked so happy in their spot, so tranquil. A beautiful experience, a highlight you could only hope for on a trip like this.
On Garnish Island we paid the entry fee and explored the formal gardens. Gazebos and still pools, bonsais and fuchsias, shrubs with strawberry shaped fruit. An old watchtower, overlooking the landscape of water, mountains, and forests.
The magic of the stone circle
Before we returned back to Killarney we decided for a bit of a detour. A strong, cold wind was blowing when we put the car in parking position somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The gates were closed, there was no one around. We walked around the closed gate, followed the road up a hill, then took a path to the left. Winding up all the way to the top of a small hill, sharing the views with the cows, while the wind kept tugging our sleeves and made our eyes water.
Our reward for this very last curious exploration was the magnificent sight of Uragh Stone Circle, with the biggest monolith standing almost 3 metres tall. Our biggest present for the day, the enormous waterfall in the background on the other side of the lake, adding a little bit of magic to this fascinating piece of human history.
Beara Peninsula – hidden gem south of Killarney
We did not make it all the way to the tip of Beara Peninsula. There was just too much to see, too much to take in, the fairies kept throwing us off-course.
But those things that we did see – Derrycunihy church, Ladies View, Kenmore, Molly Gallivans Cottage, Glengarriff’s friendly man, the seals off Garnish Island and the gardens, the stone circle of Uragh – did give us the opportunity to appreciate everything that we come to love about Ireland. Nature and History, Tragedy and Love, and indeed, a little bit of Magic.