Ireland set a tourist route along its western edge between Donegal and Cork the "Wild Atlantic Way." Distinctive signs including a logo of what appeared to be something like ww — although stretched out farther like waves — marking the path. We didn’t follow the route purposely although we encountered its roadsigns often as we explored peninsulas and islands where water met land with spectacular results.
We came upon Achill Island (map) by happenstance. The runner of the family wanted to race in Ireland and discovered through some Internet sleuthing that the Achill Half Marathon would take place during our visit. Otherwise I’m sure we wouldn’t have learned about Achill. We would have missed an opportunity to experience a pretty awesome place.
It almost seems like I’m giving away a secret, and I’m feeling a little guilty simply for revealing the existence of Achill Island even to the trusty members of Twelve Mile Circle audience. The views were spectacular, as dramatic as any seacoast we saw anywhere in Ireland including those famous places featured prominently in the tourist guides. However we never felt crowded on Achill. There were a handful of B&B’s and small hotels along with summer cottages spread amongst a sparse permanent population. We drove to scenic overlooks, hiking along ridges and through historic sites, hardly ever encountering another person.
We stayed in Keel, with direct access to Keel Beach (map) literally a walk across the back yard. Just look at this Blue Flag beach! There would be high-rise condos and a hundred times more people just about anywhere else in the world with that beach and that backdrop. I hated leaving Achill Island, although grateful for encountering it by blind luck.
Don’t tell anybody. We’ll make it our little secret.
Farther south, we drove along the full extent of the southern edge of the Dingle Peninsula. I’m saving other stories from the peninsula for different installments so I won’t go into a lot of detail. The scenery was also impressive. We began to experience the tour buses, though. Getting stuck behind those buses as they slowed to a crawl on serpentine roads became frustrating and tiresome after awhile. It wasn’t a lot of fun staring at the back of a bus instead of mountains and ocean. We stopped frequently at overlooks to let the buses pull off into the distance, savored the terrain and returned to the route.
Ring of Kerry
Ladies View, Killarney National Park
Of course we made the obligatory pilgrimage to the next peninsula farther south, to the renowned Ring of Kerry. It’s famous and for well-deserved reasons, for picturesque seacoasts, hillsides and inland lakes. It also attracted an order of magnitude more tourists than Dingle, again with the buses that lumbered around the ring in a constant anticlockwise procession. We understood that situation in advance and planned around it.
We drove the northern segment from Killarney to Portmagee (map) early in the morning before any buses began their daily circuit of passengers who preferred to leave the driving to the professionals. I could sympathize with that. The roads were narrow, winding and a little scary at times when trucks passed in the opposite direction on hairpin curves. That never deterred me though. We had to catch a boat heading to the island of Skellig Michael so the plan worked out perfectly for us. We also experienced the incredible scenery of Killarney National Park on those same scary roads on a different day, going between Kenmare and Killarney (map).
I didn’t complete the loop, however, having to forgo the southern segment because of our over-packed itinerary. We saw a lot of it from the sea and figured that was good enough.
Beara was the next peninsula in line to the south. People told us the Ring of Beara rivaled the Ring of Kerry, without the crowds. That one will have to wait until the next trip though. We saw it only from the sea and only from a distance.
That gave me another good reason to return someday.
Somewhere close to 8.2 million people lived in Ireland in 1841. Then came Phytopthora Infestans, a fungus-like microorganism that attacked Irish potato fields with a fearsome blight and utter devastation. The Great Famine killed more than a million people through starvation or disease between 1845 and 1850. Two million survivors fled their native land avoiding similar fates in the immediate aftermath, and the population continued to bleed over multiple generations to North America and to Australia and to other accommodating places.
Today about 6.4 people live on the Irish island, with 4.59 million in the Republic of Ireland and 1.84 million in Northern Ireland. It is feasible that the pre-famine population might finally be reached again by 2046, TWO CENTURIES after the initial calamity.
It’s not my purpose to delve deeply into the history and geopolitical underpinnings of the Great Famine. Plenty of sources with vastly greater knowledge and insight exist to fill that role. I approached the subject as an observer of a small number of people and places left in its wake as they existed today.
Seemingly every town — for completely understandable reasons — had a famine museum, a memorial, or maybe just the crumbling ruins of homes formerly occupied by those long gone. A visitor should visit at least one famine site, and we stopped at the Famine Cottage at Slea Head on the Dingle Peninsula (map).
We’d explored far along the peninsula, almost all the way to the extreme western point on the Irish mainland to see an Iron Age ruin, the Dunbeg Fort. Unfortunately a howling storm damaged the property earlier in the year, closing the site to visitors so that it could be viewed only from a distance. However, a Famine Cottage operated as a roadside attraction practically at the same spot so we took that as a cue to walk through the property. This was an actual farm and homestead from the time period, not a replica, and restored in the manner of how it would have appeared when people lived there during those dark years. It would have been a difficult life on that windswept mountainside even during the best of times.
Slievemore Deserted Village
I think the ruins of the deserted village of Achill Island (map) had an even greater impact, complete with a cold foggy drizzle to heighten a sense of gloom and despair. This wasn’t a lone residence as we saw on Dingle, it was an entire settlement of a hundred homes.
Achill lay beyond the standard tour bus circuit. Nobody collected a fee. A mile of crumbling stone houses stood beside a barren path. We were alone at that spot except for our thoughts.
Excavations sponsored by the Achill Archaeological Field School confirmed that people lived on the sheltered southern slopes of Slievemore mountain for several thousand years. A permanent village formed at the site during the early Medieval period.
The houses were built of unmortared stone, which means that no cement or mortar was used to hold the stones together. Each house consisted of just one room and this room was used as kitchen, living room, bedroom and even stable. For many years people lived in the village and then in 1845 Famine struck in Achill as it did in the rest of Ireland. Most of the families moved to the nearby village of Dooagh, which is beside the sea, while some others emigrated.
Residents abandoned their settlement although it survived for awhile as "booley" housing, a term for structures that were used during summer months while people tending to livestock. The practice of transhumance lasted longer on Achill than just about anywhere else in Ireland, and indeed well into the 20th Century, in remote places like Slievemore. However the village never recovered. It slipped into complete abandonment as years slipped by, an eerie site on a gloomy day.
My great-grandfather grew up in Ireland in the decades after the famine, born at the family farm in Mountcollins, Co. Limerick in 1868 (map). An impoverished Catholic farm boy didn’t have to stray far to get into trouble during that era. The family spirited him to Cork where he caught a ship heading to the United States, one step ahead of the authorities. Thomas O’Connor left Ireland in 1888 and died in 1958, never returning to his homeland. This was such a common and permanent occurrence that the Irish referred to the situation generically as an American Wake. It was almost as if the person leaving had died. The United States became Thomas O’Connor’s new home and he had 73 living descendants in his adopted land when he passed away, including a grandson named for him. Later there would be a great-grandson also named named for him who would visit his boyhood home and post these words to Twelve Mile Circle.
We spent a day with our Irish relatives, my elderly father getting at least one more chance to better understand his equally elderly second-cousins. They drove us to the small house where Thomas was born, now a rundown storage shed on a farm that still belonged to the family. We saw the church where he was baptized and the place where he went to school. We touched the gravestone of his parents. We read the family genealogy charts with so many stories of people who left for Texas, Kansas, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Washington DC, or just generically USA, often marked with the phrase "no further information."
The Great Famine famine and the troubling decades afterwards changed Ireland profoundly, a tremendous turmoil that still reverberates. My family story differed little from a million others.
My typing fingers grew a little rusty over the last couple of weeks. Those of you who follow 12MC on Twitter already knew that I was in Ireland because I posted a steady stream of photographs. What may have been less understood was that I wrote all Twelve Mile Circle articles ahead of time. That’s right, the blog was on autopilot for awhile although I was still able to approve comments, update the complete index map and attend to administrative tasks of that nature.
The next several articles will relate to my Irish adventures and shift towards a travelogue briefly rather than tackle the usual compendium of geo-oddities. Historically, those haven’t been the most viewed articles so I won’t take it personally if readers decide to skip a few until we get back to normal business. I like writing them and that’s what I’m going to do.
When one thinks of Ireland in a somewhat stereotypical sense, one often envisions medieval structures like castles, abbeys, and cathedrals of weathered stone in various states of decay. Maybe that’s just me. Nonetheless, that seemed like a good starting point for the series. My younger son wanted to see "lots of castles" and that’s what I fed him. I think even he was tired of walking through crumbling ruins by the time we left. I’ll focus on four ancient buildings in four different Irish counties that we visited.
This might be my favorite photograph from the trip except for maybe the puffin, although I’m getting ahead of myself.
Achill Island on the western coast of County Mayo appeared as a quiet, unspoiled landscape bypassed by the largest of the tourist hordes. Known more for its beaches and scenery, Achill had only one ancient fortification still standing, Granuaile’s Tower at Kildavnet (map). It had an impressive backstory.
The Tower at Kildavnet, in the south-east corner of Achill Island, is a perfect example of a 15th century Irish tower house. The Gaelic Chiefs of the time copied a Norman design and constructed many such tower houses. The tower at Kildavnet is thought to have been constructed by the Clan O’Malley in about 1429, but is associated locally with a descendant of the original builders, Grace O’Malley or Granuaile. This legendary pirate queen is thought to have been born around 1530 and died in about 1603.
The tower belonged to a woman of significant power and means known as the "The Pirate Queen of Connaught." Gráinne Ní Mháille (Grace O’Malley in its anglicized version) inherited the family business from her father. Some would characterize it a shipping enterprise while others might have noted elements of pirating. The lines were a little fuzzier back then. Nonetheless Granuaile established strongholds along the western Irish coast and this was one of the towers she used to protect and control her domain.
Ross Castle in Killarney (map) was another excellent example of an Irish tower house of the period. It dated probably to the 15th Century, originally built by the O’Donoghue clan, later owned by the Brownes of Killarney and finally served as a military barracks until the 19th Century.
Today it’s an often-visited part of Killarney National Park in County Kerry. Ross Castle sat conveniently along the famous "Ring of Kerry" tourist road so it’s evolved into a more-or-less obligatory stop for sightseers in one of the most heavily visited areas of Ireland. This was the only place where I saw signs in the car park warning people to remove valuables from their vehicles. This was also the only place where we had to be content with external views of the castle because tours were sold out. Still, if one is in Killarney, one should probably visit Ross Castle (if only to book a boat from there to visit Innisfallen Island, which I’ll talk about in a later episode).
Rock of Cashel
The Rock of Cashel was a real castle (map), not simply a tower house for pirates or lesser nobility. The imposing Rock of Cashel, Carraig Phádraig, served as the home of the Kings of Munster, in what is now County Tipperary.
It was here that St. Patrick converted the reigning king to Christianity in the 6th Century according to legend. A later king, Muirchertach Ua Briain, gave his mighty fortress to the Church around the year 1100. An imposing cathedral was added to the grounds in the 1200′s. The site fell into disrepair over several centuries although more recent restorations preserved what remained, and visitors are allowed to wander the grounds mostly unimpeded.
St. Canice’s Cathedral
I enjoyed St. Canice’s Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, in County Kilkenny (map). The church itself was remarkable although I’d recommend its Round Tower as something to be included on the itinerary too.
Round towers – a particularly Irish feature – were built at major religious sites as places of refuge for body and treasure, during the times of the Viking raids from the end of the 8th century. St Canice’s round tower offers a breathtaking 360 degree view of the surrounding countryside from its summit – hardly surprising since that was the other reason they were built. The presence of the round tower here is the clearest sign of the antiquity of St Canice’s as an important religious site. There is a reference that suggests a mid-9th century date for it, making it the oldest standing structure in the City.
The thought of climbing a 30 metre (100 ft.) tower that was 1,200 years old might seem unnerving to many visitors, and as a case in point my wife and older son decided to remain earthbound. It was up to my younger son and I to uphold the family honor and reach the summit. I won’t lie — it wasn’t for the faint of heart. The climb involved a succession of seven ladders leading to small wooden platforms in increasingly narrow spaces as the diameter of the tower tapered towards the top. This wouldn’t be enjoyable for those with claustrophobia, acrophobia, or irrational fears of old towers crumbling at any moment whatever phobia that might be named. Fortunately my son and I had none of those fears and we reaped a splendid bird’s eye view of surrounding Kilkenny.
My kids never did understand why I quietly muttered "You Bastards!" every time someone mentioned Kilkenny.
We visited a number of other medieval structures, too.
Some of these may be featured in later installments. Others may not. Feel free to check images I’ve posted on each of these places using the photo links provided.