The Lakes of Killarney & Environs
The Lakes of Killarney, comprising the linked Lough Leane (aka Lower Lake), Muckross Lake (aka Middle Lake) and Upper Lake, are surrounded by Killarney National Park, which in turn forms part of a Special Area of Conservation covering the greatest expanse of semi-natural native woodland (approximately 120 km2 / 30,000 acres) remaining in Ireland.
Lough Leane (Loch Léin – “lake of learning”) is the by far largest of the three lakes. The River Laune drains Lough Leane into Dingle Bay. (Photo by Mike Brown)
Ross Island & Castle
Ross Island, barely offshore, features one of Europe’s earliest Copper Mines, dating back to the Bronze Age some 4500 years ago, and still in use at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The informative and enjoyable Mining & Nature Walking Trail takes 60-90 minutes to complete.
Ross Castle, a square C15th Tower House, was built by the O’Donoghue Ross clan; legend has it that their greatest chieftain (who notoriously had his son chained to the nearby rocky islet known as O’Donoghue’s prison) jumped or was sucked out of the window during a banquet in the top floor grand chamber and, along with his horse, table and library, plunged into the waters of Lough Leane, where he is said to dwell in a great palace, reappearing every seven years on a shining white steed etc. etc. etc.
The castle was acquired after the 2nd Desmond Rebellion by the MacCarthy Mór family and leased to the first Sir Valentine Browne, whose descendants, having gained full title, lived in the building before constructing Killarney House.
At the tail end of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, Ross Castle was the last stronghold in Munster to resist Cromwellian forces, defended by the remnants of the Kilkenny Confederacy’s troops under Donough MacCarthy, 2nd Viscount Muskerry. After several days of siege, General Ludlow learned of a tradition that the castle would never be taken by land; he had ships carried up from Kenmare and sailed across the lake, whereupon the previously staunch defenders immediately sued for terms.
Pierce Ferriter/ Piaras Feirtear, the aristocratic poet from Dingle, was promised safe conduct to negotiate the terms of surrender, but was seized at Castlemaine and hanged with a priest and a bishop at Cnocán na gCaorac (“the Hill of Sheep”), now called Fair Hill.
Lord Muskerry fled to France but returned to Ireland a year later, and was twice acquitted of felonies. King Charles II made hin Earl of Clancarty in 1658, and he recovered all his Munster estates in 1660.
Much of the castle’s surrounding bawn wall and two flanking towers were removed when a British army barracks was attached to the building in the C18th. The restored interior now contains an interesting collection of C16th / C17th oak furniture.
Ross Island is the departure point for hour-long tours of Lough Leane in large glassed-over bateaux-mouches like those on the Seine in Paris. Alternatively, local fishermen will take visitors out on the lake in little boats with outboard motors, which are also available for hire – the best way to land and explore the island of Inisfallen.
Innisfallen / Inishfallen (Inis Faithlinn – “Faithlinn’s island”) is home to the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey, founded in the early C7th by Saint Finian the Leper, which became a great centre of learning for several centuries and survived as an Augustinian priory until 1594, when the last monks were dispossessed by order of Queen Elizabeth I.
The oldest extant structure, dated to the C1oth, is the western two-thirds of the abbey church. The remainder of the church and the main abbey complex were constructed in the C13th. A third structure, an oratory with a Hiberno-Romanesque doorway, dates from the C12th.
The island became a popular destination for picnics and merriment for the various guests of the Browne and Herbert families in the C18th and C19th, and was “oft visited” by romantic poets and writers. Thomas Moore ‘s poem Sweet Inisfallen celebrates the place (but curiously, not the ruins).
The Killarney Regatta, held annually on Lough Leane on the first or second Sunday in July, claims to be Ireland’s oldest surviving regatta, dating back to at least 1830 and possibly the C18th. The style of rowing is traditional, fixed seat rowing in wide, wooden 6 person boats. Since the 1980s, a number of local clubs have moved toward modern Olympic style ‘slide’ rowing.
Castlelough, a lakeside community near Killarney town, is the location of Muckross holiday village, not to be confused with the real Muckross village further south.
Muckross (Co. Kerry)
Muckross Abbey by Mary Balfour Herbert, painted in 1861, the year of Queen Victoria‘s visit to Killarney.
Muckross / Irrelagh Abbey was founded in 1448 by Donal MacCarthy Mór as a friary for a community of Observantine Franciscans. Despite raids by marauders and later persecution by religious fanatics (Fr Donagh O’Muirthile and his companions were put to death by English soldiers in 1589, and the church was desecrated by Cromwellian troops in 1652), the monastery managed to survive until 1698.
Damaged and reconstructed many times, the abbey is largely roofless but otherwise generally quite well preserved. Its most striking feature is a vaulted cloister around a large yew tree.
The burial ground, still in sporadic use, contains the graves of the poets O’Donoghue, Ó Rathaille and Ó Suilleabhain.
The church of the Holy Spirit (RC) in Muckross village is a relatively modern edifice, popular for weddings.
Muckross House, designed by the Scottish architect William Burn and completed in 1843 for Henry Arthur Herbert and his wife, the watercolourist Mary Balfour Herbert, was the fourth and most magnificent residence built by the family over 200 years.
The house accommodated Queen Victoria with her family and huge retinue for three days in August 1861.The Herberts had spent vast sums in preparation for the visit, and some years later were forced to declare bankruptcy.
The Muckross estate was sold in 1899 to Arthur Guinness, 1st Baron Ardilaun, who used it strictly as a hunting lodge. In 1910 it was purchased by a wealthy Californian businessman, William Bowers Bourn II, who gave it as a wedding gift to his daughter Maud on her marriage to Arthur Rose Vincent, an Irish-born colonial judge who at one time was stationed in Zanzibar. After Maud’s tragic death from pneumonia in 1929, her husband (by then a Senator) and his father-in-law decided to give the estate to the Irish nation as the Bourn Vincent Memorial Park. This was finalised in 1932, making Muckross the first Irish National Park.
The house is now a museum, accessible by guided tour only. The elegantly furnished rooms recall the lifestyle of the C19th Irish landed gentry, while the basement illustrates the working conditions of their domestic servants.
Muckross House Gardens, laid out by the Herbert family and considerably developed by the Bourn Vincents, are famous for their collection of rhododendrons, hybrids and azaleas, and exotic trees. While the formal flower beds are irritating, the Sunken Garden and Stream Garden are impressive, and the Rock Garden, hewn out of natural limestone, is truly outstanding.
The Crafts Centre is a workshop where visitors can observe artisans using traditional skills in the crafts of weaving, bookbinding, pottery etc.
Muckross Traditional Farms is a working farm project / eco-museum that recreates Irish rural life in the 1930s, prior to electrification. Visitors are ferried about on a vintage bus.
Killegy Churchyard, situated on a low hill to the north of Muckross village, contains a small early church, reconstructed in the C18th as a mortuary chapel, a large Celtic Cross known as the Herbert Memorial, several Herbert family graves and that of Rudolf Erich Raspe, author of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, who was employed as geological adviser for the Muckross estate in 1793 and died from scarlet fever in November 1794.
The Blue Pool is a small lake surrounded by woods near Muckross; the water is tinted sea green / blue due to copper deposits. This exceptionally pleasant spot is a great place to observe kingfishers in action, while other local wildlife can be seen on the Cloghereen Nature Trail.
Muckross is linked by road to Glenflesk on ByRouye 5.
The Muckross Peninsula, separating Lough Leane from Muckross Lake, is the location of the C16th Old Weir Bridge, where the rapids can be quite dangerous. Bricín Bridge (“The bridge of the little trout”) spans the gap between the peninsula and Dinis Island, while the Meeting of the Waters, a scenic spot where the three lakes mingle, is overlooked by Dinis Cottage, where tea rooms serve refreshments in season.
Muckross Lake is the deepest of the three loughs, while the northern part of the Upper Lake is so narrow that it resembles a river, called the Long Range.
Ronayne’s Island in the Upper Lake is named after Philip Ronayne, an C18th recluse who some claim was the famous County Cork mathematician (1683 – 1755), but others insist was an English army officer. He constructed a shack and lived a subsistence lifestyle, surviving by hunting, fishing and growing a few vegetables. Some contemporary reports suggest that he shared the island with a negro manservant for a time. He is said to have jealously guarded his privacy, vigorously driving off any curious people who came to catch a glimpse of this ‘Robinson Crusoe’ type character, who eventually disappeared as mysteriously as he had arrived.
Lord Brandon’s Cottage at the mouth of the Black Valley was built as a hunting lodge for the Rector of Castleisland, the Revd William Crosbie (1771 – 1832), Baron of Brandon, by all accounts a pleasant man, who lived here full-time for several years. The original cottage is in ruins, but a café on the site serves refreshments in summer. Paths wander through the surrounding scenery, and boat tours of the lakes use the jetty behind the house.
The Black Valley is on ByRoute 1 between Moll’s Gap and the Gap of Dunloe.
The Upper Lake seen from Ladies View (Photo by Kglavin)
Ladies’ View, so named for the enthusiasm displayed there by Queen Victoria‘s Ladies-in-Waiting, is a very popular photo stop on the windingN71 mountain road to Kenmare, part of the Ring of Kerry, with spectacular views of the lakes. It is often clogged with tourist coaches and cars with registration plates from all over Europe. The large shop catering to visitors’ needs resembles a WWII Soviet bunker.
Ladies’ View is very close to Moll’s Gap, which is on ByRoute 1 and is also the eastern end of the Internal Route on the Iveragh Peninsula.