The ring less worn
Seaside and brimming with history and hospitality (and sheep), Beara is beautifully untrammeled.
BEARA PENINSULA, Ireland -- For centuries, this remote finger of land extending from Ireland’s southwestern corner into the ocean has stymied foreign invaders. Even when most of the Emerald Isle was gripped in an English vise, this untamed cape was often a lawless frontier, just beyond the long reach of the crown.
Today, the Beara Peninsula remains blissfully wild, refusing to be conquered by the sprouting of souvenir shops and armadas of tour buses. While platoons of travelers armed with cameras and fortified with fanny packs stick to the Ring of Kerry - the well-trod trail directly to the north - the Beara remains off the beaten path, even though its scenery is just as spectacular as its neighbor’s.
The Beara, which reaches 30 miles into the Atlantic, won’t disappoint anyone looking for quintessential Ireland. It abounds with castle ruins, rolling green meadows dotted with white puffs of sheep, friendly locals, rugged mountains, and windswept coastlines. But it also captivates by delivering the unexpected: palm trees and tropical gardens, seclud ed coves with Caribbean blue waters, and brightly painted villages seemingly plucked from the Mediterranean.
We based ourselves in the village of Kenmare on the northeast corner of the Ring of Beara, an 85-mile scenic drive that traces the peninsula’s outline. The Gaelic name for Kenmare translates to “little nest,’’ and the town is indeed a cozy roost from which to explore both the peninsula and the Ring of Kerry, which also runs through town.
Despite its small-town vibe, Kenmare has enough going on to satisfy the most cosmopolitan of tastes. Rows of bookstores, craft shops, and woolen markets are perfect for a casual stroll, and Kenmare is quickly gaining a reputation as a foodie haven. At night, traditional Irish music lures all within earshot into the town’s dozen pubs.
History buffs should visit the Kenmare Heritage Centre, which recounts its evolution from ancient times (the largest prehistoric stone circle in southwest Ireland is here) to the present day. The center displays samples of Kenmare’s world-renowned Irish lace, which was highly prized by Victorian society, and tells of the devastating wrath of the Great Famine, which reduced the town’s population by nearly 30 percent through death and emigration.
At the famine’s height, the dawn of each day brought with it the grim sight of another four or five bodies on Kenmare’s streets. Many of the town’s 5,000 victims were buried in a mass grave inside the town cemetery. The picturesque location of the plot, marked by a simple white monument topped by a Celtic cross, on a hillside overlooking Kenmare Bay, stands in stark contrast to the horror it commemorates.
The Ring of Beara runs south of Kenmare through the rough-hewn tunnels of the lofty Caha Pass to the seaside town of Glengarriff, home to the lush gardens of Garinish Island (known officially as “Ilnacullin’’). In the early 1900s, the owner of the 37-acre island, British MP Annan Bryce, transformed the desolate landscape into a botanical paradise flush with exotic, subtropical species that flourished in Glengarriff’s mild Gulf Stream climate.
We caught a ferry to Garinish Island from Glengarriff’s Blue Pool, a crystal-clear lagoon with a tropical feel. Along the 10-minute ferry ride we got a close look at the harbor’s local denizens: a colony of seals basking on the rocks in the sporadic Irish sunshine.
A walk around Garinish Island is like a horticultural journey around the world. There are giant New Zealand tree ferns, Japanese bonsai, and Chilean fire trees, all plants you wouldn’t expect on the Old Sod. The highlights are the sunken Italian garden and the Grecian temple that perfectly frames the waters of Bantry Bay and the conical peak of Sugarloaf Mountain. Particularly when the azaleas and rhododendrons are ablaze in spring, the colors of the garden oasis explode like fireworks against the canvas of the barren, boulder-strewn Caha Mountains.
The Cahas, which form the Beara’s spine, serve as a towering wall between the counties of Kerry and Cork. The peaks may have been divinely inspired to separate the rival counties that clashed centuries ago as feuding branches of the O’Sullivan clan and still wage bitter battles on Gaelic football pitches.
Funeral processions used to stop at the top of the Healy Pass, an eight-mile road scaling the Cahas, and push coffins over the border to the awaiting party in the opposite county. Luckily, we didn’t have to dodge any caskets on our drive up the narrow pass, since it was tough enough navigating the twisting road. Travelers who reach the summit will find a white marble depiction of the Crucifixion that has been scoured by the elements. A prayer at the shrine may be in order to give thanks for the incredible sweeping views of the craggy mountaintops and the serpentine ribbon of road that looks like a massive snake that somehow eluded St. Patrick’s banishing staff.
Even at rush hour, grazing sheep are the only traffic on the pass. As we pulled over on one of the turns to snap some photos, so did a car behind us. Out came the driver who introduced himself as the owner of the sheep. Fearing a berating for bothering his flock, we instead received a hearty welcome from the weather-beaten man whose wispy white hair was in as much need of a shear as his herd.
Other than telling us that he owned “three and a half hundred’’ sheep, we learned little about him because he was so intent on discovering all he could about us. Like a long-lost friend, he asked us about our careers, the health of our family, and even whether we were planning on having more children.
After playing 20 questions, we were in for more sheep-peeping at Gleninchaquin Park. Donal and Peggy Corkery have opened the doors of their vast working farm for public exploration, and it’s well worth a detour up the curvy, one-lane road off the Ring of Beara.
Gleninchaquin Park features six trails of varying difficulties, ranging in hiking time from 40 minutes to seven hours. The mountain streams, soaring sandstone cliffs, and verdant glens teeming with sheep, newborn lambs, and blooming yellow gorse bushes are idyllic. But the park’s centerpiece is a gorgeous 300-foot-high waterfall with thin, silver fingers of foam cascading down a steep rock face. All that’s missing is a pot o’ gold at the end of a rainbow.
It’s not just Mother Nature who’s responsible for the Beara’s kaleidoscope of colors. The residents of the neighboring seaside hamlets of Eyeries and Allihies, huddled in the foothills on the west side of the ring, have seemingly raided the palettes of a paint store to color their storefronts and homes. Even when they are swaddled in the dreariest Irish weather, the vivid hues of these picture-perfect villages, which are more evocative of Burano or the Greek Isles than Eire, brighten the mood.
Allihies was home to bustling copper mines in the 1800s. After they closed, many villagers emigrated to the mining areas of Montana, and the ruins of their stone cottages and the old engine houses are strewn amid the scarred hillsides. Below the intimate village is one of the Beara’s rare sandy strands, Ballydonegan Beach, which was formed from crushed quartz washed down from the copper mines.
The Puxley family, which made its fortune in those mines, built a glorious manor house a mile west of Castletownbere, a salty fishing port blessed with one of Ireland’s largest natural harbors. The IRA burned the mansion out in 1921, but its shell is being redeveloped into a luxury hotel, a project that has languished since the Celtic Tiger lost its roar.
A few hundred yards away are the overgrown ruins of Dunboy Castle, a medieval fortress that was once the stronghold of another powerful family, the O’Sullivan Beare clan. In 1602, more than 4,000 Elizabethan forces besieged the castle’s garrison of 143 men. After 11 days of fierce bombardment, the badly outnumbered defenders could hold out no longer, and the English breached the castle walls, slaughtering nearly all inside.
The few survivors were sent to the gallows, including Dunboy’s priest who had refused to renounce his religion. A plaque amid the ruins is dedicated to “the warriors who fell at Dunboy for their country and faith.’’ The story of utter annihilation echoes that of a famed American garrison - the Alamo - and that’s probably not a coincidence, since the Beara Peninsula, like the Texas frontier, has always been the Wild West.
Christopher Klein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.