The Lakes of Killarney can be credited with the beginnings of tourism in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Shortly before Christmas, I spent a weekend in Killarney. A special offer in one of Killarney’s many hotels allowed me to spend three days researching and photographing some of the church buildings by the Gothic Revival architect, AWN Pugin, and his son, Edward, including Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the former Presentation Monastery, the Convent of Mercy and the Franciscan Friary.
It was thirty years since I had visited Killarney, and almost 40 years since I had stayed there. I had forgotten how beautiful it is. But how could I?
After all, Killarney is the very beginning of tourism in Ireland, thanks to the Browne family and visits by poets such as Tennyson and Wordsworth, writers such as Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, and a royal visit by Queen Victoria.
Much of what is now the Killarney National Park was owned by the Browne family and the Earls of Kenmare from the 17th century on. Successive generations in the members are to thank for the preservation and conservation of the national park and the development of the town.
The beginning of tourism
Thomas Browne (1726-1795), 4th Viscount Kenmare, was the first person to dream of making Killarney a tourist attraction and set this process in motion in 1754. He built walkways around Innisfallen Island and a house for visitors to dine in, encouraged boats to ply the waters for local tours, improved the infrastructure of the town and the local roads, providing greater accessibility, and in 1790 he built a coaching inn, now the Muckross Hotel.
By the beginning of the 19th century, Killarney was attracting visitors from royalty to writers, including Alfred Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth, who were lured by the romance of Killarney’s scenery, and writers like Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen, who eulogised Killarney and its lakes after their visits. Even the architect Pugin took a full day to himself on the Lakes of Killarney in 1845, drinking in the whole setting and dreaming about his vision for a new cathedral nearby.
Ladies’ View provides panoramic views across the Upper Lake and its islands (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Dignitaries from around Europe soon followed, and a royal visit by Queen Victoria in 1861 was a crowning moment for Killarney. She stayed in Killarney for four days, and during that visit her royal party was entertained by the Earl of Kenmare and the Herbert family at Muckross House. Her entourage visited many of Killarney’s landmarks, with trips to Dinis Island, Torc Waterfall and a deer hunt in the grounds of Muckross Park.
To this day, many locations in Killarney retain their place-names from that visit, including Queen’s Road, leading up to Torc Waterfall, and Ladies’ View, a sight overlooking the lakes that was enjoyed by her ladies-in-waiting.
A warm parish welcome
Saint Mary’s Church stands on a church site that gives Killarney its name (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
On Sunday morning, I received a warm welcome from the Revd Sue Watterson and the parishioners of Saint Mary’s Church, Main Street, the Church of Ireland parish church in Killarney. The church, which was designed by Joseph Welland in the 1860s, stands on the site of the original Church of the Sloes, Cill Airne, which gives Killarney its name, and a church has stood on this site since the ninth century.
Holman Hunt’s ‘The Light of the World’ inspired a Victorian window in Saint Mary’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The interior decoration is of the late Victorian period, with Victorian tiles, an organ dating from the 1870s, and stained glass windows that are very special, including one that reproduces The Light of the World, William Holman Hurt’s famous painting in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and the chapel of Keble College, Oxford.
In the porch, a list of the Rectors of Killarney includes the Revd Arthur Hyde (1808), the great-grandfather of Douglas Hyde, the first President of Ireland. Across the street from Saint Mary’s Church, behind the Town Hall, is Saint Mary’s Well, a holy well whose waters were reputed to cure ills and ailments.
Saint Mary’s Well … now under lock and key but once a popular destination for pilgrims (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
A mythical diocese
Saint Mary’s Cathedral … Pugin’s design was inspired by Salisbury Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Although the Church of Ireland in Kerry is organised in the Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe, and local lore says Erca was appointed the first Bishop of Kerry by Saint Patrick, it appears that there never was a Diocese of Aghadoe, and there is no evidence that there was ever a cathedral in Aghadoe, near Killarney. The ruined church at Aghadoe, with its magnificent Irish-Romanesque doorway, probably dates from the late sixth century, and the Annals of Inisfallen record the death of Aedh Maol Patrick, Abbot of Aghadoe, in the year 939.
The diocese was organised in the 12th century, and it was known in the medieval Church by a variety of names, including West Munster. Although it eventually became the Diocese of of Ardfert and Aghadoe, the only cathedral appears to have been in Ardfert, and while Aghadoe had abbots it never had a resident bishop, and the stone church was blown down in a tempest in 1282.
Medieval bishops of the diocese included Bishop John (1217-1224), who acted at the same time as a suffragan to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Bishop John Pigge (1461-1475), who became Archbishop of Beirut but ended his days as the Rector of Saint Christopher’s, Threadneedle Street, London.
At times, the diocese had two or three rival bishops: John Attilburgh (1405-1411) was appointed by the antipope Alexander V, while Nicholas FitzMaurice (1408-1450) was appointed by another antipope, John XXIII. Both John Stack (1458-1488) and John Pigge (1461-1475) were both appointed by a perhaps forgetful Pope Pius II, while a third claimant, Philip Stack (1473-1495), was appointed by both Pope Sixtus IV in 1473 and Pope Innocent VIII in 1488.
The spire of Pugin’s cathedral reflected in a window of the former Presentation Monastery, also designed by Pugin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
At the Reformation, Bishop James Fitzmaurice, a Cistercian who had been a papal nominee, was also recognised by the Crown. In 1661, the Church of Ireland Diocese of Ardfert and Aghadoe was united to Limerick. Later bishops included Nathaniel Wilson (1692-1695), who died in Dublin in 1695 of apoplexy, supposedly caused by a fall from his horse.
In 1952, the Roman Catholic Church changed the name of the diocese from Ardfert and Aghadoe to Kerry. Saint Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, built between 1842 and 1855, is one of the most beautiful Gothic revival cathedrals in Europe. It was said to be Pugin’s favourite Irish church, and is one of his finest buildings in Ireland, despite recent alterations that have stirred controversy among architectural and church historians.
Driving around the lakes
The jarveys and their jaunting cars could be described as the trademark of Killarney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
The jarveys and their jaunting cars – unusual side cars that could be described as the trademark of Killarney – have a halting stop close to Saint Mary’s Church. Many tourists are led to believe that a visit to Killarney is not complete without a trip on a jaunting car, exploring Killarney National Park or climbing up to Kate Kearney’s Cottage with only the clip clop of the horse’s hooves and the tall stories of a jarvey to break the silence.
However, two of us took a tour of the lakes in our own winter silence, driving out to Muckross, past Torc Waterfall to Ladies’ View and Moll’s Gap, into the Black Valley, through the Gap of Dunloe, and stopping for refreshment at Kate Kearney’s Cottage.
The Gap of Dunloe is long, rugged, ravine cutting deeply through Ireland’s highest mountains (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Muckross House and gardens are at the heart of Killarney, with broad lawns sweeping down to the Middle Lake. The 19th century house, built by the Herbert family, and the demesne, extending to over 10,000 hectares, was given as a gift to the Irish nation in 1932. The estate takes its name – which means the “Rock of Music” – from Muckross Abbey, founded in 1440 by the Mac Carthy Mór family. Three celebrated Kerry poets are buried within the ruined walls of the abbey: Aogán O’Rahilly, Eoghan Rua O’Sullivan and Geoffrey O’Donoghue.
Torc Waterfall, south of Muckross House, is a 70 ft sheer drop of falling, foaming water that is part of the Owengarriff River, rising in the “Devil’s Punchbowl” at the top of Mangerton Mountain and feeds into the Middle Lake..
However, the winter weather did not entice us to walk up beside the waterfall. Instead we headed out the Kenmare road to Ladies’ View, with its panoramic vistas across the Upper Lake and its island and towards the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks and the Purple Mountain. These views charmed Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting in 1861, and this is still a major stopping point for tourists who are presented with the Lakes of Killarney in their fullness and classical beauty.
A rainbow after a winter shower in the Black Valley (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
As we descended into the Black Valley in the winter rain, we were rewarded with the sight of a beautiful rainbow. We then climbed up to the southern entrance to the Gap of Dunloe, a rugged, 9 km long ravine that cuts deeply through Ireland’s highest mountains. A local guidebook prosaically describes this as “a place of massive boulders in grotesque array, over which foaming mountain torrents dash down with reckless valley.”
The legendary Kate Kearney sold strong drink (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
At the northern entrance to the ravine, we stopped briefly for refreshments at Kate Kearney’s Cottage, which is popular with walkers and cyclists, trekkers and climbers. Kate, who gave her name to the hostelry, supplied illegally distilled whiskey; it was so strong, it was said, it had to be tamed by seven measures of water before drinking.
Lady Morgan feted the original Kate in song, warning against the glance of her eye “modestly beaming” and how easy it was to be deceived by the “mischief she’s dreaming.” We are told it was impossible to “tell how fatal’s the spell that lurks in the eyes of Kate Kearney.”
From Kate Kearney’s Cottage it was a 15 km drive back, past mysterious Aghadoe, into Killarney.
Churches and laneways
The Convent of Mercy … a hidden Pugin gem in Killarney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
Back in Killarney, we searched out some more Pugin buildings, including the former Presentation Monastery, the Convent of Mercy and the Franciscan Friary.
The Franciscan Friary and church were designed by Pugin’s son, Edward Welby Pugin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
We spent some time too exploring Killarney’s lanes, one of the finest features of the town. The Bridewell Lane, Green Lane, Pond Lane and Back Lane form a well-maintained and colourful complex off New Street, a hundred metres on the cathedral side of the Post Office. This is now the most fully lived-in traditional lane complex in Killarney.
Some of the lanes off High Street are still cobbled and Barry’s Lane has an archway framing the cathedral. Timmy Buckley, the tailor made famous in The Tailor and Ansty, learned his craft in Brewery Lane. Bower Lane formerly included the Methodist manse, where a future Lord Chief Justice of Australia, William Bourn Higgins, spent his early childhood. Another unexpected delight was discovering the Fern Garden on Mission Road, near the cathedral, celebrating the contribution of Killarney missionaries across the world.
Killarney’s laneways form a well-maintained and colourful complex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
On the way back to Dublin, we stopped off to visit the picturesque village of Adare, where Pugin also worked on the medieval parish churches and on the redecoration of Adare Manor. But that’s another charming story for another day.
Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the January 2011 editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)