Sunday, December 12, 2010


The first indication of humans in the area which now comprises Killarney dates from about 2,000 B.C., when Bronze Age "Beaker Folk" mined tin as so many others would do.  They were supplanted by Picts from the north a little later; legend has it they were descended from Queen Mebh's son Cair and that the name of the Ring of Kerry is derived from his name. In 400 B.C. the Picts were supplanted by the Fir Bolg, the "Bag Men" who shipped bags of Irish earth to Greece to keep away snakes!  Of course Ireland doesn't have snakes because it's an island, so I think this constituted the first known case of blarney.  Tales of the ancient heroes and figures such as Deirdre of the Sorrows, who figures in one of my books, come from this time.

But the beautiful area with its abundant lakes and natural resources would always attract settlers, and next  around 100 B.C. came the Gaels, or Milesians.  It took them 500 years to subdue the fierce Fir Bolg, but then in 400 A.D. St. Alban established a cell at Aghadoe and people were rather easily converted to Christianity.  Their festivals were incorporated into the Church calendar and a bloodless coup of sorts resulted.

The native O'Donoghue/MacCarthy family defeated the Gaels and in turn was attacked from 1,200 A.D. onwards by Anglo-Normans who coveted their lands.  In 1261, the O'Donoghue/MacCarthys defeated them, one of the few people to do so.  But then in 1583 came powerful English troops and Ireland was subdued for the first time in its history.  The territory in and around Killarney was given to Sir Vincent Browne, appointed Earl of Kenmare.  His influence was so far-reaching that even when English Protestant settlers arrived and began hanging Catholics, the Brownes remained Catholic and never totally lost power.

It was Viscount Browne, descendant of Sir Vincent, who first recognized Killarney's potential as a tourist attraction.  Eventually he transferred lands to the Herbert family, who became copper barons.  Both families built grand estate houses at Muckross and Knockreer.  Even today, Muckross House is arguably the main tourist attraction in Killarney--a lovely mansion now open to the public.

Both families were also among the few proactive landlords who supported their workers through the Famine of 1845, thus gaining the respect of the Irish who still speak well of them as representatives of what the English upper class should have been and so often was not.  Elsewhere in Ireland, when the potato crop failed, vitally needed foodstuffs were exported while the Irish died of starvation along roads and in poorhouses.  It was this event which spurred the first great influx of Irish immigrants to America. 

By 1861 things were settled enough for a group of prominent English ladies to visit with Queen Victoria.  They made famous the site of Ladies' View, named for them, where they took in one of the more panoramic vistas in Ireland.

In 1899 the lands of the Herbert family, concentrated around Muckross, were sold to a member of the Guinness family.  He, in turn, sold them in 1910 to William Bourn, an American who gave them to his daughter who married an Irishman but died tragically in 1929.  Her husband, not wishing to maintain his ties with her property, donated them to the government, thus creating the first Irish National Park--Killarney National Park--comprising 26,000 acres.  I have been there many times, riding its grounds on Thoroughbred/Draft Horse crosses, exploring Norman ruins and and feeding the swans.

Join me again later this week for a taste of Christmas in Killarney.


  1. Great history lesson, Miriam, sad though some of it may be. I don't ride horses (yet) but have strolled through that lovely park more than once. Next time I do, I'll be feeling quite smug in my knowledge of its past, thanks to your very informative post.

  2. Thanks, Pat. A jaunting cart ride through the park is always nice, too. I just take advantage of the fact that I can ride. Then I can go and stop where I like.

  3. Wonderful overview of the history. Thanks!

  4. Muckross Gardens was absolutely lovely when we visited this fall. I could only imagine waking up to that breath-taking view each day. Wonderful post, Miriam!

  5. Thanks for a wonderful post and history lesson, Miriam. Another spot on my "what to see when I return to Ireland."

  6. You're welcome, Cynthia. I recall you said you love Galway and I was going to tell you how much I enjoyed it there, too. I stayed in a very small family-owned hotel and it was just the best.