Wild Atlantic Way: The Great Tour of North Kerry

North to South? South to North? The North Kerry stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way can be travelled in any direction but on a recent trip I started my journey in Tarbert, Kerry’s northernmost town and headed south. Kerry is separated from neighbouring County Clare by the River Shannon and a ferry from Killimer traverses the river bringing travellers to Tarbert in minutes. En route into Tarbert town from the ferry terminal is Tarbert Bridewell, a courthouse and jail built in 1831 by the British but renovated and run by the local community as a visitor centre. It’s well worth a stop as it houses an exhibition on the pre- and post-famine judicial system and how this harsh regime was indifferent to the prevailing local poverty. Tarbert Bridewell also houses an exhibition on local scholar and writer Thomas McGreevey.

Tarbert Bridewell

Tarbert Bridewell

Leaving Tarbert on the R551 my next stop was the ruins of Lislaughtin Abbey in Ballylongford. Built in the 15th century this Franciscan Abbey has had a tumultuous history. The grounds serve as a modern graveyard. Below is a picture of the east window, the main feature of architectural importance.

East window, Lislaughtin Abbey

Lislaughtin Abbey – East window

The unassuming village of Ballylongford has some famous sons. Poet and scholar Brendan Kennelly is from the area as were 1916 patriot Michael O’Rahilly (The O’Rahilly) and Lord Kitchener, he of the “Your country needs you” World War I British army recruitment posters.

Outside Ballylongford on the Ballybunion road there is a turn-off for Carrigafoyle Castle. Built in the 15th century the castle was the stronghold of the O’Conor-Kerry clan.

Carrigafoyle Towerhouse

Carrigafoyle Towerhouse

Part of the southern wall of the castle is missing which means one can get a fine cross-sectional view of the inside. Unfortunately dampness pervades the interior and for those with allergies to spores a visit here will require antihistamines and a mask. I’m pretty sure it was here I was bitten in the leg by some winged creature.

Carrigafoyle Towerhouse -  side view

Carrigafoyle Towerhouse – side view

The Wild Atlantic Way forks off from the R551 bringing visitors to Beale. From Beale, the road travels along the coast over fertile agricultural land. The Shannon estuary now becomes the Atlantic Ocean but the County Clare coast is still visible.

The Beale road rejoins the R551 on the north side of Ballybunion, a seaside resort which is as well-known for its boisterous fun as it is for its beautiful blue flag beaches.

Ladies (North) Beach, Ballybunion  - view south

Ladies (North) Beach, Ballybunion – view south

Golfers praise its golf links as being one of the best in the world. Ballybunion was the venue for the 2000 Irish Open and Bill Clinton has declared the course his favourite. And speaking of Bill there’s a statue of him located outside the town’s Garda Station, the first statue of the president on public display in the world. Tiger Woods is also a fan of the town’s golf course.

Bill Clinton statue, Ballybunion

Bill Clinton statue, Ballybunion

If the weather isn’t too inclement the best activity of all in Ballybunion is the cliff walk. Starting at Doon Road on the north side of the town, the loop walk travels across the cliffs adjacent to Ladies Beach/North Beach and finishes further north on Doon Road.

Ladies/North Beach Ballybunion - view North

Ladies (North) Beach Ballybunion – view North

Along the walk numerous geological formations are visible including the Virgin Rock.

Virgin Rock, Ballybunion

Virgin Rock, Ballybunion

The following picture shows both the fine scenery on show and how close to the edge the track is located.

Cliff Walk, Ballybunion

Cliff Walk, Ballybunion

The walk meanders towards Nun’s beach, a beautiful bay accessible only by boat or by abseiling down the cliffs.

Nuns Beach, Ballybunion

Nuns Beach, Ballybunion

The walk finishes by returning to Doon Road and I’ll conclude the Ballybunion section of this blog post by betting that the scenery of this seaside resort will be the most photographed on the North Kerry stretch of the Wild Atlantic Way and deservedly so.

The R551 exits Ballybunion by travelling parallel to the golf links. Outside Ballyduff the Wild Atlantic Way leaves the R551 and travels the Coast Road towards Kerry Head. But take a detour through Ballyduff and visit the monastic settlement of Rattoo Round Tower and Church. Round towers were built in Ireland as early as the 10th century. Rattoo’s structure is impressive and, if in a giddy mood, one could imagine Rapunzel throwing down her hair although, at the time, her mane would get tangled in scaffolding as the structure was undergoing maintenance. The church was accessible so here’s a sneak preview:

Rattoo Church

Rattoo Church

Having rounded Kerry Head, and the Dingle Peninsula now visible, the Wild Atlantic Way re-joins the R551 at Ballyheigue, another seaside resort where the extensive sandy beach of several miles in length joins with the historically important Banna Beach to its south. Walking this conjoined sandy expanse has been recommended. Logistically, this would mean leaving the car in Ballyheigue and returning by taxi from Banna.

Ballyheigue Beach

Ballyheigue Beach

The R551 continues towards Ardfert but the road to Banna Beach forks off beforehand. Banna Beach was where patriot Roger Casement was caught smuggling weapons into Ireland for the republican cause in 1916. Casement was later executed by the British and a large monument to him can be found at the back of the sand dunes south of the main car park.

Banna Beach

Banna Beach

Roger Casement Memorial, Banna Beach

Roger Casement Memorial, Banna Beach

Continuing into Ardfert, the town’s most striking architectural feature is its cathedral which was once a monastic settlement of St. Brendan. I won’t describe how to exit Ardfert as its one-way system is the Irish equivalent of the Bermuda triangle. My only advice is to follow the excellent Wild Atlantic Way (south) signs which lead to the village of Fenit. At this point North Kerry runs directly parallel to the Dingle Peninsula, divided by Tralee Bay. The next and final stop on my tour is Tralee, the administrative capital of Kerry, and one of the largest towns along the Wild Atlantic Way. Tralee is home to two of my favourite social outings – the Greyhound Stadium and Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland. Designed in the shape of a ring fort, Siamsa Tíre is one of the most appealing modern buildings in the country and is worth a visit for its design alone.

And so my great tour of North Kerry comes to an end. I rigidly stuck to the official Wild Atlantic Way road but feel free to veer off-track. Listowel isn’t on the official route but given its influence in North Kerry and nationally from a literary perspective I simply couldn’t omit a mention and recommend it for a stopover particularly during Writers’ Week. Besides, one-fifth of my previous Wild Atlantic Way blog post is dedicated to its most famous son, writer John B Keane.

Finally, an excellent companion to my grand tour is “North Kerry Landscape”, by Bernadette Tarrant and Gráinne O’Connell. Well-researched with a clear layout the book details the history behind my tour sights plus much more including a piece by writer Bryan MacMahon stating that Tarrant & O’Connell’s publication “should make us far richer in mind, proud also – and enable us to identify with the fortunes and misfortunes, the elations and griefs, the legends and wondertales of the countryside that surrounds us”. I see the Wild Atlantic Way facilitating this enrichment by opening up little-known gems to a wider audience.

© Hazel Joy 2014

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