When my Irish walking guide said I was like a Kerry goat, I wasn't sure how to respond. With twinkling eyes, he explained that the native goats are sure-footed on the rocks; apparently, coming from an experienced hill walker, his observation is a compliment. He didn't know that my grandfather was a Kerryman, raised on a farm with two ancient standing stones overlooking the Lakes of Killarney.
I decided to take a walking trip in Ireland's southwest to experience my ancestral land directly, each footfall softly absorbing 4,000 years of civilization. The region is the most popular walking destination in a country laced with trail networks, due to the varied landscapes and easy access to Shannon Airport. Trails run over mountains, beside lakeshores, through stony valleys, around offshore islands and along coastal headlands. The rugged shoreline, indented by the pounding force of the Atlantic, has five peninsulas jutting into the surf with dramatic sea cliffs and jaw-dropping views.
The long-distance Waymarked Ways are well established in Ireland for end-to-end trail hikers, but now the new Looped Trails in scenic spots around the country offer an alternative for those who want to mix walking with other activities, or who want to see different terrain or areas of the country. The loops are easy to moderate in difficulty, and can be completed in anywhere from a few hours to a half day, and you can take trail extensions for a full day outing. They are designed to be self-guided with trail maps, but I opted for a guided group trip to learn about the region's history and folklore.
The Hikes in Detail
Sheep's Head Peninsula, which stabs 13 miles into the sea, was the most visually striking hike on our itinerary. On the Lighthouse Loop, we followed a sheep trail along stony heights to sea cliffs with upright folds of rock forming an impressive natural fortress. A short white lighthouse clings to the jagged end of the landmass 400 feet above the surf. The trail cut back through jumbles of massive stone slabs, across boggy valleys and along coastal bluffs with views across Bantry Bay. We hiked past ruined stone cottages on the way back to Sheep's Head Café, where steaming bowls of beef vegetable soup and fluffy scones were well earned.
On Beara Peninsula, the nearly four-mile Eyeries Loop took us across farm pastures to the water's edge, where oystercatchers worked the tidal pools. Further along was Cailleach Beara, a rock formation resembling a lady with a shawl over her head. In the struggle between pagan and Christian beliefs 1,500 years ago, legend says the monastery abbot turned the Celtic goddess of the harvest into stone for trying to steal his bible. An enormous flock of curious sheep accompanied us on the walk back to town.
We took a ferry from Castletownbere to Bere Island to hike the five-mile Ardnakinna Lighthouse Loop. Dunboy Castle, across Berehaven Harbor, still looked imposing 400 years after it was abandoned. We walked past gun emplacements from the 1880s and through flocks of shaggy sheep. At land's end is Ardnakinna Lighthouse, built in 1850. It's 200 feet above the water on a flat green lawn surrounded by ocean.
Killarney National Park offered a change of pace with flat terrain on a nine-mile loop around Muckross Lake. We stopped for a tour of Muckross House, a stately 1843 manor with Victorian gardens, and at Dinis Cottage, a 200-year-old hunting lodge, for lunch. The additional three-mile Torc Waterfall Loop provided views from above and below the 60-foot cascade. Later on, we shopped for wool sweaters in Killarney.
The locals referred to the weather on the day of our mountain hike in the Ballyhoura area south of Limerick as "soft." That means light rain. We walked part of the seven-mile Black Rock Loop, but when the rain went from soft to hard, we abandoned the woods and headed for nearby Adare, a village with thatched roof cottages, a heritage center, shops and pubs. In Ireland, you're never far from castles, museums or a teahouse offering shelter from the elements. At the end of the day, you can count on finding an excellent restaurant and a welcoming pub for a pint of Guinness. Traditional music can still be found, too.
Our walking trip ended at the Traditional Irish Night at the Corn Barn in Bunratty Folk Park. We dined on Irish stew while musicians played jigs and reels, singers crooned ballads and championship step dancers pounded out Riverdance routines. Erin go brah!