This is the sort of town I’d usually run a mile from! There isn’t a cliché that hasn’t been thrown at it – charming, inherent beauty, gorgeous, perfect location, picturesque, cute (that’s used a lot!), tranquil sanctuary, unique, otherworldly beauty, world renowned……. all a bit too twee for my liking.
The thing is – Kenmare gets away with it. In the middle of touristville, it has managed to hold on to its character and charm (oh dear – here I go…) and really does deserve its reputation as a great base for exploring Ireland’s south west.
Its on the world famous Ring of Kerry so many visitors stop here for a wander or lunch. But you just have to look at all those signs up along the street to know that this is a great town at night time….
….well…. maybe a tad quiet nowadays thanks to Covid!!….
How it all started….
There is evidence of settlement from the Bronze Age – more about that later.
Vikings are said to have invaded this region.
This entire area was granted to Sir William Petty by Oliver Cromwell as part payment for the mapping of Ireland in 1656.
Petty brought in English, Welsh and Cornish Protestants as settlers.
His great grandson took an interest in the settlement in the 1770’s and created what was probably one of Ireland’s first planned towns. The two main streets were designed in a ‘X’ formation and included a triangular market space.
Etymology – Kenmare probably comes from Ceann Mhara meaning head of the sea which is appropriate for its coastal location. I can’t find a connection between that and the current Irish name for the town – Neidin. Neidin means a little nest and presumably refers to the fact that the town nestles among the surrounding mountains.
Out and About
One doesn’t really think of Kenmare in terms of sight seeing but there is a Heritage Trail with a few landmarks to seek out as you walk off your lunch..
Colour, Colour, Everywhere…
The town is lovely for a bit of a stroll. The residents pride themselves on their colourful facades and signs. There are plenty of cafes and shops to distract….
It might be a busy town but there’s always time for a chat…..
The Fair Green
This was the original market area and would have been an enclosed space. Nowadays, it offers a nice open park in the town centre.
Stone circles were constructed during the Bronze Age (2000 – 500BC) and the Kenmare circle, with 15 stones, is the biggest in the south west of the country. Its located just a few minute’s walk from the town centre. It is egg shaped for some reason or other and has a boulder-dolmen in the centre (dolmens often marked the burial place of someone important). I don’t love it – I dislike the manicured setting – but if you’re on a whirlwind tour of the region then its a good example and easily accessed.
Hawthorn Fairy Tree.
The Hawthorn is traditionally seen in Ireland as a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the owner of the piece of land on which it grows. Fairies live under these trees so they represent a meeting place between their world and that of us mortals. The Hawthorn is always treated with respect and never cut down. Indeed, roads have been diverted to avoid the cutting of such trees. You can however, remove a few twigs and flowers – brides once wore the blossoms in their hair or bouquet to symbolise their union of love. They are often located at pagan sites or near holy wells. People leave prayers and gifts attached to the branches, asking for good health, luck, etc….
No one knows where the name came from but its most unlikely to have been called after our esteemed neighbour, Oliver Cromwell! One theory is that the bridge was actually called croiméal – a moustache – due to its shape, and was anglicised to Cromwell.
Our Lady’s Well
Holy wells are very common in Ireland. They may have originated as pagan Celtic places of worship that were later blessed and taken over by early Christian missionaries. The waters are believed to have curative powers. This well is visited throughout the year by devotees and there is a special pilgrimage on August 15th.
There’s a nice grotto here but the well itself was rather uninspiring on the day of our visit….
Holy Cross Catholic Church
I like the rather unusual spire which dominates the skyline. Have a peep inside to admire the stained glass.
Killowen Old Parish Church and Burial Grounds
Located just on the outskirts of town, the church was replaced in 1856 by another building closer to the town centre, as ‘the old church was so small the increasing number of Protestants could not be accommodated.’ The graveyard is notable as the burial site of English-born composer Ernest J Moeran who, from 1930 onwards, spent most of his time living in this part of the country (Moeran died in 1950 after falling into the river Kenmare).
Out for the day…..
Location, location, location…. so many town councils throughout the country must writhe in jealousy at the number of gems on Kenmare’s doorstep. We’d just 72 hours in Kenmare and were on the go the whole while, spending very little time in and around the actual town itself.
10,000 hectares of stunning parkland and lake.
Follow the coastline around the Iveragh Peninsula for a spectacular 175km drive.
Unspoiled rugged beauty with little traffic on the roads..
Other Activities and Attractions:
Kenmare sits on the water and is surrounded by mountains so there are plenty of local options if you have extra time or just don’t feel like a long drive. In the bay, you can enjoy a relaxing boat trip or opt for diving, windsurfing, wake boarding, kayaking…. Back on land there are all the usual attractions you’d expect from a tourism destination – horse riding, golf, fishing, walking, cycling….
Where we Stayed:
There’s everything here from luxury hotels to campsites. We went for a Bed and Breakfast option – Abbey Court – which is circa an easily walkable kilometre from the town centre. At the end of July, the hosts were making their way through high season with restricted capacity and stringent anti-Covid measures but in no way compromised on the high standards which has earned this place plenty of glowing reviews. You can always judge a place by its return visitors and we were glad to meet such at breakfast each morning. Brendan and Ger were genuinely committed to making all their guests get the most out of their time in the area and offered lots of advice and tips without being pushy or intrusive. And yes – before you ask – I’d definitely stay here again.
Where we Ate:
So many places, so little time! Kenmare is famous as a food destination. Fish in particular is fantastic – the catch of the day comes from Castletownbere just 48km away while oysters and mussels are grown locally in Kenmare Bay. There’s something for every pocket here – great takeaways, early bird menus and tapas, fantastic pub grub, family bistros and fine dining options.
For us, breakfast was well catered for in Abbey Court and we were never actually in Kenmare at lunchtime so that leaves dinner. With restricted seating in place all summer, we’d scanned through Tripadvisor and prebooked 3 restaurants before we arrived. This would not be my preferred option – unless we really wanted a particular restaurant at a particular time, I’d much rather chance my luck when we’re away. For instance, on the Ring of Kerry, there were people dining on what looked like gorgeous fish dishes in Portmagee. It was a nice evening – about 5.30 -and in ‘normal times’ we’d have stopped and dined there and then later that night gone out for a drink and some music when we got back to Kenmare. This summer, that was not an option because pubs could only serve drinks with a ‘substantial’ meal. If we’d eaten early in Portmagee, we’d have arrived back into Kenmare with nothing to do for the rest of the evening…
Davitts – a popular option for casual dining. Most mains are circa €14 -€16.
No.35 offers just a set menu (don’t know if that’s a covid thing) which at €36 per head won’t suit every pocket. But food and service is great…
We’d packed our glad rags and planned on splashing out at the Boathouse just outside town but, still on the Ring of Kerry in late evening, we were never going to get back for 7.30 pm. They couldn’t accommodate us at a later time so we arrived back into Kenmare about 8.30 with nothing booked. After trawling through several restaurants we’d resigned ourselves to a takeaway when we struck lucky in O’Donnabhain’s Bar where we were the last order of the night. We’d have eaten anything but were very pleased with our stew, fish and very welcome pint!
When I go back to Kenmare:
We didn’t do all of the Beara Peninsula so I want to complete that drive.
Would love to get out on to Skellig Michael and climb those steps – in homage not alone to those intrepid monks of yore but also as a StarWars fan (before its closed due to the influx of tourists in recent years).
I want to sit in Portmagee on a summer’s evening (post Covid of course) with a pint and fresh fish supper!
I’ll leave the final words to Irish singer / songwriter Jimmy McCarthy:
As I leave behind Néidin
It’s like purple splashed on green
My soul is strangely fed
Through the winding hills ahead
And she plays a melody
On wind and streams for me