Killarney to Tralee: Star Wars and a Very Tame Dolphin

We’ve spent the last few days in prime tourist territory: the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula.

Overview: 3.5 days, 246 miles


If you’re wondering about our “loop the loop” trajectory round the Ring of Kerry (driving up from Kenmare to Killarney in our last post, then round the Ring of Kerry back to Kenmare and retracing our route back up to Killarney), there is a reason for it. We’d been advised to go anticlockwise round the Ring of Kerry, that being the way that all the tour buses are required to go. The roads can be a bit narrow in places and we were warned that some of the coaches might be driving too fast…..

This advice was reinforced a couple of days later when we parked up next to a motorhome with a taped-up ear. It turned out that it had been broken by a coach on the Ring of Kerry…. So that was our decision made; we’d drive the few extra miles so as to be travelling with, not against, the coaches.

We set off along the Ring of Kerry on Thursday afternoon, figuring that would put us ahead of the bulk of the coach traffic the following morning (most of whom, we surmised, would be setting off after breakfast from Killarney).

Our stop for the night was a car park by a lovely beach called White Strand (GPS 51.9451, -10.2758). There’s even a toilet block there.

We’re now seeing lots of vans that we’ve seen before, as tends to happen once you get onto an “everyone goes the same way” section of a journey (the road up to Nordkapp in Norway comes to mind here). The German Hobby parked next to us on Thursday night had been at Mizen Head, for example, and also in a car park we’d stopped at near the Gap of Dunloe.

Portmagee was much smaller and prettier than I’d imagined. This is the port from which tours to the Skellig Islands depart. The Skelligs are two big rocks (some might say “islands”, but I think “rocks” paints a more realistic picture) a few miles out to sea.

We got a view of the Skelligs from a nice beach where we stopped for lunch on Friday:

The smaller rock, Little Skellig, is home to a huge number of birds including 26,000 pairs of nesting gannets (making Little Skellig the second largest colony of Northern Gannets in the World).

The larger rock, Skellig Michael, was the site of a remote monastery from [erm, no-one seems quite sure] until [erm, no-one seems quite sure]. The information I gleaned from supposedly reputable sources (guide books, tourist information leaflets, and noticeboards around the Ring of Kerry) was, shall we say, somewhat contradictory…

What we can say is that monks may have been on Skellig Michael from the sixth century; the first written record dates from the 8th century. They left sometime before the late 12th century, possibly to escape Viking raids, possibly as a result of climate change, or possibly due to changes in the structure of the Church in Ireland. Or possibly because they just felt like it?

A somewhat hazy view through Mark’s binoculars. Little Skellig in front and Skellig Michael behind (the white stuff on Little Skellig isn’t snow; it’s guano):

One thing’s for sure; the little beehive huts perched up high on the precipitous rock of Skellig Michael are an iconic image and a huge tourist draw. We’ve seen them on TV a few times and they do look amazing.

Just a few people would have lived on Skellig Michael at any one time; an abbot and up to a dozen monks. What people go to see is the three stone staircases from sea level up to the monastic settlement (no mean feat of construction), six beehive huts, two oratories, and various other bits and bobs that I can’t describe as I haven’t been there.

Only a limited number of people are allowed to visit Skellig Michael each day and the boat tours are booked up several months in advance. One reason that demand is so high is that Skellig Michael featured in the last two Star Wars films, so not everyone going there will be attempting to imagine the life of solitude of those early monks. Some visitors may be carrying light sabres…. Oh, and all the boats (12 per day carrying 12 passengers each) seem to leave Portmagee around 9am, so my guess is that it gets quite busy up there.

I’ve long wanted to see Skellig Michael, but the difficulties of booking a year in advance for a specific date (when you might not even get there; 50% of trips are cancelled due to the weather / sea conditions) and the sheer number of people would put me off. Hmmmmm.

You can do boat tours around the islands without booking so far in advance, and they’re much cheaper (€35-ish each compared to €85 each for the landing tours, and you get to look at the birds on Little Skellig as well as Skellig Michael). We did consider this option (I’d go on one of the afternoon departures so as to try to get a shot of Skellig Michael without a whole bunch of brightly coloured tourists milling all over it) but sod’s law – Friday was quite misty, so we didn’t bother in the end. If you’re going to go, you at least want a clear view 😎

Not to worry, though, our next stop was the site of the monks’ land base and the later Augustinian Abbey they moved to when they left Skellig Michael.

Mark did make a good point whilst we were looking at Ballinskelligs Abbey. The “Viking raid” argument for leaving Skellig Michael seems a bit flimsy when you consider that they left a spot perched high on a rock in a generally rough sea for an abbey conveniently positioned next to a sheltered beach. Surely that would be making it easier not harder for the Vikings?

One thing that’s really cheering me up about Skellig Michael is that fewer of the Star Wars scenes were actually filmed there than many of the visitors realise (or maybe, in their complete belief, it really doesn’t matter?):

Neither of us has seen any of the more recent Star Wars films but maybe we’ll have to make a point of watching them to see if we can tell the difference between a real (i.e. “restored in the 1890s”) and a fake beehive hut.

The scenery on the Ring of Kerry was, of course, lovely. I fear we’re getting spoiled here….

We spent Friday night at the motorhome park in Sneem on the South coast of the peninsula. It was all very easy: park up and then pay at one of the pubs in the village. We got a nice spot (SOK’s on the far side, hiding behind the trees); the views must be pretty spectacular when the river’s full.

The village centre was very busy when we arrived, with three coaches having disgorged their cargos of tourists to partake of the pubs, cafés, and one of the largest tat emporia I have seen in a long long time. If you can imagine it, they have it. Guinness-branded underwear, anyone?

After a circuit of the town, and having bought nothing, we needed to go and pay €10 for our overnight stay (it’s €15 with electricity).It would have been rude not to have partaken of a Guinness whilst we were there:

Our plan for Saturday had been to spend some time round the Lakes of Killarney, which we’d zoomed past on our way to the Ring of Kerry. That didn’t happen, though….

It’s surprising, when you spend your time bumbling around in a motorhome, how often you stumble across events of various types. We really enjoyed looking at the yachts that were due to set off on a transatlantic race when we were in Concarneau back in April, for example. This time it was the Ring of Kerry charity cycle event, 175km starting and ending in Killarney. I looked online to get an idea of timings and discovered that there were to be road closures, most of them from 11am until 8pm on Saturday – so we figured that we’d better make sure that we were well clear before 11am. Much as we might have liked to have cheered on some charity cyclists, we didn’t want to compromise a full day of our limited time in Ireland.

Here’s a quick photo of the lakes taken in passing:

Onwards, then, to the Dingle Peninsula. This one is a straight in and out road,with a loop you can do at the far end.

Note for motorhomers: it does look on the map as though you can make a second loop by taking the R650 between Camp on the North coast and Dingle on the South coast, but you can’t: there’s a 2 tonne weight limit on the Connor Pass, which is apparently more to do with low overhanging rocks than weight per se. We were told “it’s not that bad, it’s only the last bit” by another motorhomer, but with SOK not yet twelve months old, we decided not to take the chance, So it was straight in and out along the N86 for us…..

Saturday night’s stop was in the car park by a gorgeous beach just outside Ventry (GPS 52.12160, -10.37715). This is the life!

We did the Slea Head Drive on Sunday. It’s suggested that you do this one clockwise to avoid the tour buses (we only saw one coach and yes, it was going the same way as us).

We enjoyed the “homespun tourism” of the first part of the drive; sign after sign enticing you to stop and look at something or eat/drink something. We had no desire to “hold a baby lamb”, but full marks to them for trying:

We did part with €3 each to have a look at the remains of some beehive huts. Of course, it later transpired that the next farm along the road also had beehive huts….

We only looked at the one set, so can’t say which farm has the better offering. The parking at the first farm does have a fabulous view over the sea below, and we were lucky – there was a pod of 6-8 dolphins right below us.

Slea Head, the most Westerly point in Europe:

A bit further along the drive, we crossed paths with the Germans in their Hobby again (Mark has convinced himself that they’re stalking us!). We all waved vigorously!

We stumbled across Star Wars again in the little town of Ballyferriter (which is where the fake beehive huts in the earlier photo were erected). On the main street, a Yoda made of old tyres was  doing a very good job of stopping the tourist traffic:

One of the main tourist attractions on the Dingle Peninsula is the Gallarus Oratory (normally €4 each but it’s managed by OPW so we got in for free with our English Heritage cards).

This is another one where the information given just isn’t consistent. The sign next to the oratory says that it dates back to the 7th-8th centuries. The introductory film at the visitor centre says that it’s 900-1200 years old (which by my maths is 9th-11th centuries?). There are no surviving written records relating to the site so unless archaeologists undertake some serious excavation and find some clues, we may never be any the wiser.

Then it was time to head back to Dingle. We parked up in a tiny little car park (space for two small campers only) accessed down a narrow lane with grass down the middle as we’d been told that this was a good place from which to spot Dingle’s biggest superstar. Apologies, the photos are very fuzzy, but we did see Fungi the Dingle dolphin.

Fungi the dolphin has been hanging around Dingle harbour since 1984 (so he must now be quite an elderly dolphin). There’s a whole tourist industry in Dingle centred around boat trips to see Fungi. He’s such a dead cert. that they even offer you your money back if you don’t see him! Or you can just head out of town along the Eastern side of the harbour and watch him from the shore like we did.

Fungi wasn’t doing anything too energetic when we were watching him; perhaps he really is quite a geriatric dolphin. We were later told by a lady with a paddleboard, though, that he prefers small boats and quite often, when it’s quiet, he’ll be more playful.

Our route off the Dingle peninsula took us past the South Pole Inn in Annascaul, which was the home of the antarctic explorer Tom Crean. Crean took part in three major expeditions, with Scott in 1901-1904, with Scott again in 1911-1913 (this was the expedition in which Scott and his polar party perished), and finally, with Shackleton in 1914-1917. On that last expedition, Crean was one of the six men who sailed 800 nautical miles in a lifeboat (a 17 day journey through gales and heavy seas) from Elephant Island to South Georgia to arrange the rescue of the remaining crew. Unfortunately, the Sun was not yet over the yardarm when we passed, so we couldn’t pop in for a drink.

Next to the South Pole Inn we saw the memorial for another son of Annascaul, the sculptor Jerome Connor. We had never heard of him (oops), but it turned out that the very impressive Lusitania Memorial that we saw a few days ago in Cobh is one of his works.

We’ve now left the Dingle Peninsula and will be heading north towards the River Shannon. Further updates to follow……

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