Music streams out of O'Connor's Bar in the center of Killarney, Ireland, every time the door opens onto the sidewalk, with lively jigs and reels beckoning to passersby. Inside the dark pub, talented locals line the bench seats in one corner, instruments in hand. They join in the music at different times as the sound of the piece intensifies and picks up in pace. The fiddles take the lead, and a button accordion, flute and guitar add to the musical merriment. The crowd is mesmerized by this blazing pickup performance, every foot in the place tapping the Celtic beat.
This informal musical gathering is called a "session," and can be heard in pubs on any given night across the southwest region of County Kerry. The surprise is seeing which musicians turn up and how they play off one another. The delight is that live music is available for the listening and foot tapping every night, and at no charge.
Free musical entertainment is just one of the unique cultural experiences to be had in Kerry at no cost. By day, some of the most spectacular seascapes and mountain vistas in all of Europe lie quietly waiting to astonish visitors, either on scenic drives or walking trails. Along the way are ancient castles, ring forts and stone monoliths ready to impress tourists with up to 6,000 years of history and folklore. All of this is free for those with the curiosity and time to investigate, making for an affordable and memorable vacation.
The number of options is also remarkable. Three peninsulas jut dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean, offering scenic drives: the Dingle Peninsula, the Beara Peninsula and the famous Ring of Kerry on the Iveragh Peninsula. Killarney National Park and the Walking Loop system offer many well-marked walking trails in the region. And every night during the summer and fall, there are more than a handful of pubs offering live traditional music in both Killarney and Dingle Town.
Kerry offers some of the best music in Ireland, as playing an instrument is ingrained in the culture and lifestyle, especially in the Gaelic-speaking region on the Dingle Peninsula. According to renowned button accordion player Brendan Begley, the traditional music is 10 times better in Dingle Town than in Killarney. Begley, from a musical family in nearby Brandon Cove, plays internationally with The Boys of the Lough and produces a TV program on Irish music. Every night in Dingle Town through high season there are about eight pubs offering music, giving bar hopping a fun, new dimension. Begley's favorite spots are John Benny Moriarty's Pub and The Marina Inn.
The region's music is unique in Ireland, explains Begley. "The music of West Kerry focuses on polkas and slides, as opposed to the jigs and reels of the other regions. It's livelier and more suitable for set dancing than the music in other parts of the country," he says.
The World's Most Scenic Drives
The three rugged peninsulas on the far western edge of Ireland with high bluffs, rock formations, crashing seas and offshore stony islands offer some of the most spectacular vistas in the world. Twisty roads edge these peninsulas with plenty of pull-offs to take it all in. This area contains 60 percent of Ireland's ancient sites and stone monuments, so there are fascinating historical stops as well, including astronomically aligned monoliths for rituals, stone beehive huts for meditation, and ring forts for protection.
The Ring of Kerry on the Iveragh Peninsula is the most famous scenic drive in the country. There are massive Bronze Age round stone forts to explore, such as Staigue Fort, which is 100 feet across and dates to 1500 BC. Numerous overlooks take in offshore islands with seabird colonies. Skellig Michael is a vertical rock where sixth-century monks built beehive huts for solitude; it's now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are also pubs like the Blind Piper, teahouses and small towns along the route.
The Dingle Peninsula is the connoisseur's choice for scenery and historic sites. This peninsula hosts mountains, long strands and Ireland's greatest concentration of early Christian sites, plus the Blasket Islands offshore. There are stunning views while crossing over Connor Pass, and an otherworldly landscape while driving to land's end at Slea Head. Visitors can climb around archaeological sites, check out the boat-shaped stone Gallarus Oratory and watch the surfers on Inch Sandspit.
Only part of the 30-mile-long Beara Peninsula is in County Kerry. Highlights on the loop drive are the views from the Crucifixion shrine at the top of Healy Pass, villages with pastel-colored buildings and the ruined Dunboy Castle near Castletownbere.
Soak in the Landscape on Foot
Although taking in the scenery and sites by car is affordable, taking it in on foot avoids even the cost of gas. One of the best places for hiking is Killarney National Park with 25,000 acres and a variety of hiking trails, such as lakeside strolls through azalea gardens on Muckross Estate and to the restored 15th-century Ross Castle. There are also steeper climbs to waterfalls and overlooks. The 60-foot-high Torc Waterfall is worth the effort, as is Ladies' View, overlooking the Killarney Lakes.
A stay at the affordable Lake House has bonuses for walkers and history buffs. It's the only hotel on the park side of the lake, and hotel walking trails connect to the garden paths on Muckross Estate and hiking trails in the national park. In addition, there is a 12th-century castle ruin on a promontory in the lake directly in front of the hotel, which is lit dramatically at night.
Another must-see view is from the top of the Gap of Dunloe. You can take a boat across the lakes, and then a horse or a horse-drawn jaunting car up the gap, but to avoid the expense, simply drive around the lakes to Kate Kearney's Cottage and walk the five-mile trail to the top of the gap for the scenic rewards. There are other well-marked hikes in the Looped Trail network, typically offered in areas of scenic and historic interest with good maps.
Given the high exchange rate with the euro, Irish goods like crystal, linen, pottery and woolens are expensive. But music CDs are affordable and easy to pack. Take home some traditional jigs and reels to get your foot tapping and bring back memories of the craic (good times) in County Kerry.