Killarney town (Co. Kerry)
Killarney town has eccentrically juxtapositioned streets with brick pavements, atmospheric laneways, elegant old buildings, good shops with handsome traditional façades and over 50 pubs, many hosting regular live music sessions. (Photo – Quinlan Tours)
Unfortunately, more than a few of the town’s commercial premises are tourist traps, largely devoted to fleecing visitors (especially Americans) of all their money. The worst offenders are the gaudy souvenir stores selling overpriced “Oirish” junk, including the dreaded silly hats, plastic leprechauns and proverb-laden tea towels.
That said, Killarney town has numerous good accommodation options, including 20 hotels, plus several excellent restaurants, and is surrounded by leisure facilities ranging from the inevitable golf course(s) to equestrian centres of note.
The Browne / Kenmare Estate
Killarney House, built in 1726, was purchased from the last Earl of Kenmare’s successors in the 1950s by John J McShain (1898 – 1989), the Irish-American construction magnate responsible for the Pentagon, who bequeathed his stately home to the nation. After years of neglect, the mansion is currently due for restoration and refurbishment, along with its C19th pleasure gardens overlooking the lake.
The Golden Gates provide access to a pretty cherry-lined driveway through the attractively landscaped grounds.
Kenmare House, a red brick Tudor Revival mansion built c.1875 at Knockreer by the 4th Earl of Kenmare, was destroyed by fire in 1913. The family lived in the converted stable block until 1952, when the last Earl died and the estate was inherited by his niece Mrs. Beatrice Grosvenor.
Knockreer House, erected by the Grosvenor family in 1956, was known as Kenmare House until 1974, when it was presented to the State, and is now the Killarney National Park field study and education centre.
Knockreer demesne is noted for lovely gardens full of mature trees and wild flowers, with beautiful views of the lake valley. Pathways lead down to the River Deenagh, the lakeshore and Castle Ross. There are several longer looped walking trails, one taking in Cloghmacuda, a strange rock formation that has given rise to various folk stories.
Deenagh Gate Lodge (1834) houses pleasant old-fashioned tearooms in season.
Killarney Courthouse, designed by George Richard Pain, was erected in 1835. Outside, a sculpture depicts fish to be found in the area.
The Old Workhouse on Rock Road, constructed to a design by George Wilkinson of Oxford, was completed in 1845. Intended to accommodate 800 paupers, it housed up to 1200 people at times during the Great Famine. The stone buildings remain virtually unaltered.
Killarney Railway Station is a charming Victorian stone edifice dating from 1853, when the town began to truly prosper as a tourism destination.
The Malton / Great Southern Hotel (1854), known as the Grand Old Lady of Irish hotels, is not at all cheap, but epitomises elegant C19th travelling style at its best. Rooms vary in size and facilities, resulting in mixed reviews, but the reception area is magnificent, the service impeccable and the restaurant very good indeed.
St Mary’s Cathedral
St Mary’s Cathedral (RC) was designed by AW Pugin in 1842 as his homage to Salisbury Cathedral. (Photo by Pam Brophy)
It was half finished when the Great Famine brought work to a halt, and the structure was used for two years as a fever hospital. Pugin’s work was carried on by JJ MacCarthy. Inaugurated in 1855, the Cathedral was finally completed by George Ashlin in 1912 with the erection of the 90m / 285ft spire.
It is a magnificent church, although post-Vatican II “liturgical re-ordering” in the early 1970s eliminated many attractive features. This vandalism was committed by Bishop Eamonn Casey, the hypocritical prelate whose 1992 exposure probably did most to damage the previously monolithic authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy until subsequent scandals destroyed it.
The massive Californian Redwood tree outside the Cathedral was planted by Irish-Americans to mark a mass grave of victims of the Great Famine.
Pugin designs were also used for the Bishop’s House & Seminary (1861), the Old Monastery (1861) and the Presentation Convent & School (1886).
The Franciscan church on Fair Hill (site of notorious Cromwellian executions) was completed by Belgian monks in 1867, while the adjoining Friary was built in stages between 1866 and 1877. (The location of an C18th Franciscan boys’ school is recalled in the name of College Square). The Gothic church has a 43m tower designed by Pugin & Ashlin, a magnificent Flemish altar and a fine Clarke Studio stained glass window made in 1930 by Richard King. The Friary’s Sacristy contains the skull of Fr Francis O’Sullivan, Provincial of the 62 Franciscan houses in Ireland from 1650, who was put to death in 1653 on Scarriff Island off Derrynane.
The Speirbhean / Speir Bhean (“Spirit Woman”) Monument across the road, sculpted by Seamus Murphy and erected in 1940, honours Kerry’s four great Gaelic poets Pearce Ferriter / Piaras Feirtear (1616-1653), Geoffrey O’Donoghue of the Glens (1620-1677), Aogán Ó Rathaille (1670-1726), and Eoghan Rua Ó Suilleabháin (1748-1784).
St Mary church (CoI) in Rookery Close was restored / rebuilt in its current English Gothic form in 1889, after a fire had severely damaged its predecessor, erected in 1808 on the location of the original church that gave Killarney its name, and was itself a site previously used for prehistoric pagan worship. The interior features beautiful stained glass windows, an impressive tiled floor and a lovely organ. Concerts and recitals are occasionally held here.
St Mary´s Well, first recorded as a place of pilgrimage in 1302, is contained within a quaint enclosure in the car park behind the Town Hall.
The Old Town Hall, a late C19th redbrick edifice, was built with materials left over from the construction of Lord Kenmare’s ill-fated mansion at Knockreer. This was for many years the local theatre, venue for countless musical and dramatic performances. The central meeting point in front of the building is generally referred to as “Under the Clock”.
West End House, a former school of domestic science founded in 1906 by Lady Kenmare, has been an elegant restaurant since 1986.
Killarney’s Methodist Church was constructed in 1911 in the style favoured by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with red brick walls and green tiled windowsills. A trio of leaded glass windows depict shamrocks, roses, and thistles to symbolise Ireland, England and Scotland.
Hugh O’Flaherty CBE
Hugh O’Flaherty (1898 – 1963), dubbed “Ireland’s Oskar Schindler“, was brought up in Killarney in a staunchly Republican household, detesting the British. He was ordained a priest in 1925 and seconded to the Vatican Diplomatic Service, working in Egypt, Haiti, Santo Domingo, and Czechoslovakia. When WWII broke out he was a Monsignor stationed in Vatican City.
Between 1943 and 1945, O’Flaherty ran a clandestine organisation in Rome that saved 6,500 Jews, Allied soldiers, downed aviators and escaped POWs by concealing them in farms, convents, schools, private homes and even a flat next door to the Gestapo headquarters.
The 6’2” Monsignor earned the nickname “the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican” due to his ability to evade the traps set by the Gestapo and Sicherheitsdienst, headed by Obersturmbannfuhrer Herbert Kappler, who ordered a white line painted on the pavement between The Vatican and Rome, stating that O’Flaherty would be killed if he crossed it. Ludwig Koch, the head of the Fascist Italian police, often spoke of his intention to torture O’Flaherty before executing him, if O’Flaherty ever fell into his hands.
Kappler was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to prison, where O’Flaherty was his only regular visitor. The Monsignor also stayed in contact with those he had helped, living in the UK, USA and Israel.
Hugh O’Flaherty was made a Commander of the British Empire, awarded the US Medal of Freedom with Silver Palm, and conferred with also conferred with the title “Righteous Among Nations” by the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Authority – the first Irishman to receive this honour. A tree stands in his memory at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, and he is commemorated by a simple brass plaque beside a grove of Italian trees in Killarney National Park.
Mgr. O’Flaherty died in his sister’s house in Caherciveen. He has been the subject of several artistic productions, including The Scarlet and the Black (1983),a television film starring Gregory Peck, and a BBC Radio play broadcast in 2006.
Killarney’s famous jaunting cars, operated by local jarvies renowned for their tall stories, have long provided pleasant guided tours of the town and Killarney National Park. In 2010 they went on strike in protest against an ordinance forcing their horses to wear nappies, but eventually agreed to comply.
Killarney Races, first held in 1822 and staged annually between two different courses in the area until 1901, were revived when the present course was opened in 1936. Surrounded by mountains and lakes, the racecourse is arguably the most beautiful in the country. National Hunt and flat race meetings are held in May, July and August.
Cahernane House, on the outskirts of the town, was home to five generations of the aristocratic Herbert family, cousins of the owners of Muckross House. The present building, erected in 1877 to replace a Queen Anne house, is approached along a tree-lined avenue through wooded grounds. Now the Cahernane House Hotel ****, it provides beautifully furnished Victorian country house accommodation and excellent meals.
Killarney town is linked by road to nearby Beaufort and Milltown, both on ByRoute 1, and Barraduff and Glenflesk on ByRoute 5.
Coolwood Wildlife Park & Sanctuary at Coolcaslagh is a 50 acre complex, with a 10-acre zoo containing monkeys, lemurs, meerkats, raccoons, prairie dogs, agouties, artic foxes, maras, llama, alpacas, mountjac deer, pygmy goats, exotic waterfowl and a large bird of prey collection, plus 40 heavily wooded acres sheltering red squirrels, sparrow hawks, dippers and the more common native wildlife species.
Pike Wood (Coill na Paidhce) is the location of a pleasant Coillte forest trail and picnic site.
Lissivigeen is the location of a Bronze Age Stone Circle known as the Seven Sisters and, with the two Standing Stones guarding the entrance, as the Pipers & Musicians. (Photo by saintinexile)