Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon is deputy editor of Canvas.

Irish stones and stories

Greg Dixon dons his walking shoes to visit the ancient sites in the Ring of Kerry, revelling in the awe-inspiring settings and the many tales they have to offer.

The remains of a 12th century church in a 1000-year-old graveyard, on Abbey Island. Photo / Greg Dixon
The remains of a 12th century church in a 1000-year-old graveyard, on Abbey Island. Photo / Greg Dixon

The old stones of western Ireland always seem to stand on bleak hills. Under a grey sky Staigue Fort sat forlornly, its back pressed close to the top of a small, gently rising valley, its old stones resting amid grass and rushes and sheep shit.

Our walking party of seven was wearing fleece jackets and windbreakers. Too right. The early morning breeze was blowing from the Atlantic straight on to County Kerry's peninsula and it was stiff enough to make us hold on to our hats. My eyes ran and I fished in my backpack for tissues.

But there was no feeling bleak, not here. Even if the hills and clouds pressed in and the wind gossiped of rain, there was no ignoring the intoxicating view. These old stones stared down the valley, past a few handsome cottages, across Kenmare Bay to the high hills of Beara Peninsula and beyond to the open sea.

They are standing guard.

These stones have watched this view for friends and foes alike for a millennium and half, though those who shaped them into a circular fort have long since gone.

Staigue - from An Steig, probably meaning "the portion of land" - is one of the largest and finest stone ring forts in Ireland and it's likely its Iron Age walls were raised to protect a very wealthy chieftain, his family, guards and servants sometime in the fourth or fifth century.

The circle remains complete, its wall still standing up to six metres high and four metres thick, built with undressed stone and without mortar. As we passed through the door - a narrow lintel-covered passage - we found a 30-metre round of grass ringed by stone.

The fort would once have been full of houses, outbuildings and possibly tents. There are no buildings now, though two small chambers are contained within the fort's inner wall, and stone steps go up the inside so that you might stand, as that chieftain once did, and keep a wary eye for weather and invader.

Michael, a 60-something former teacher, now a calm, jovial guide for SouthWestWalks Ireland, gathered us to tell a story. It was only day three of our amble around the highlights of western Ireland's Ring of Kerry, but I'd already gathered that, where there are old stones, there are always old stories. Some are fairy tales.

Almost nothing is known about those who built Staigue and lived here, Michael began, but it was abandoned around the 12th century, possibly because there was an outbreak of anthrax, which was probably carried by the local sheep and cattle.

For centuries after the fort was deserted, farmers hardly went near it - perhaps because of some folk memory of the disease that laid waste to its inhabitants - and children were warned it was the home of leprechauns and fairies. This is why Staigue and others like it, Michael said, are what the locals call Faerie Forts.

As we walked back - it would take most of the rest of the day - to our B&Bs in the tiny, improbably pretty village of Sneem some 16km away, there were more stories.

We walked along a "butter road" made for transporting the dairy product by horse and cart from the 18th century and there were tales of bootleggers using the peninsula's quiet coves to smuggle booze in the 16th and 17th centuries and cocaine in the 21st.

There were stories too about a failed French invasion south of here, on Bere Island, in 1796, and of centuries of "cutting turf" - the removing and drying of peat for fuel - and of the marvellous preserving power of bogs if a tree or a tool or a coin - or, lord bless us and preserve us, a body - should happened to fall in.

As Michael talked and walked, I almost forgot my tired legs.

The Ring of Kerry, An Mhor Chuaird, is an eye-filling sort of place. Beginning and ending in the fine city of Killarney, it's a 180km road circuit out and around the Iveragh Peninsula that has some of the best scenery in Ireland - and the hordes of tourists to prove it (including, back in the 60s, one Charles de Gaulle).

There are more than two dozen outstanding sites to visit around the Ring, from the lakes and woods of Killarney National Park to Skellig Michael, a rocky, impossible island at the tip of the Iveragh that, for 600 years from the 7th century, was used as a monastery-cum-eyrie by Irish Christians.

But why take the Ring's road when you can walk?

The Kerry Way weaves together green roads and tracks both ancient and new to form a continuous hiking track. From end to end, it takes 214km and, quite likely, a bit of grunt to complete. There are no tramping huts; instead hikers walk from village to village taking accommodation in the myriad bed and breakfast places along the way.

But why walk the whole of the Way, when you might see the best of it in a week?

I joined Michael and a party of three Americans, a Canadian and a Frenchwoman in Killarney for six days of walking, of fretting over unexpectedly dodgy weather forecasts, of hearty meals (sometimes featuring two types of potatoes!), a few drinks, good company and finally, on the last night, a little Irish music and whiskey in a singing pub in the village of Cahersiveen.

SouthWestWalks has a schedule, but the early summer weather seemed not to know. High winds meant our boat trip out to Skellig Michael was a bust on day five and again on day six - we never got there in fact, but instead went to its visitor centre on Valentia Island. Still, Walking, Talking Michael, who has hiked these tracks for years, massaged the programme each day to suit the uncertain weather (and, I suspect, a few doubtful limbs).

But forecasts are forecasts. The predication for our fourth day was rain, so of course it dawned fine - a perfect day for the beach and for more ancient stories.

This old stone sat in a field spotted with gorse with a view of Derrynane Bay. It was an Ogham stone, a letter from the past. Standing taller than a man, it has been on this spot for more than 1500 years, though I suspected the concrete at its base holding it in place was a little newer.

Ogham is an intricate form of alphabet made of lines cut into stone or wood and used from around the 4th century. On this stone by a road to Derrynane House and its national park, a 21st century visitor may still make out the message cut into hard rock by a man wanting, perhaps, to mark the death of another, or to signal the beginning of his territory.

The secret of these rough letters had been lost by the dawn of the modern era, said Michael. It was only with the discovery in the 19th century of a key in a Medieval Irish text - the delightfully named Book of Ballymoot - that modern scholars could begin unravelling these ancient text messages.

Up the narrow tree-lined lane from the Ogham stone, and past the biggest gunnera plants I'd ever seen, lies another story at the old home of "Our Liberator", Daniel O'Connell.

As we wandered about the grounds of this impressive if slightly prim old manse, Michael related the story of O'Connell, a 19th century lawyer and politician who forced the Brits to emancipate Irish Catholics in what O'Connell passionately believed was the first step to Irish home rule.

The house, now a museum to the Liberator and the liberated, tells the story of how, in 1828, O'Connell was elected MP for County Clare but didn't take his seat. His re-election the following year helped force Britain's Parliament to pass the Catholic Emancipation Act.

In a history littered with defeats, this was a famous victory. So it's no wonder that his grateful nation dubbed O'Connell "The Great Liberator".

O'Connell died in Genoa. His heart was sent to Rome. His body is buried in Dublin. But the Great Liberator's wife and uncle were interred across the tiny bay from O'Connell's Derrynane, on Abbey Island where there were more old stones.

The walk from Derrynane House to the island, across the whitest beach and under the bluest sky, and then up the hill above Derrynane Harbour was perhaps the most perfect walk I have ever done.

The following day would leave me exultant too, as we walked from Kells along an old coach road used by the likes of O'Connell, which climbed steeply through farmland and a small pine plantation before edging a ridge high above Dingle Bay then dropping down toward the long sandy finger of Rossbeigh Beach. The panoramas were well earned, and so too was the beer and fries at a local pub.

But this walk, to the ruined church on Abbey Island followed by a trot up the steep hill to the Scarriff Inn - where we sat and admired the grand view of the bay with Scarriff Island and the Barra Peninsula in the hazy distance - offered a kind of gentle Irish bliss.

The original abbey was constructed sometime in the 6th or 7th century. The ruined church, that sits at the centre of the 1000-year-old graveyard, was built some six hundred years later. The island is cut off at high tide and there is no road, so parishioners and pallbearers would walk the sand to church, and so did we.

After trotting along a bushy "Mass path" to find a spot for lunch, we hoofed it up the hill for a coke, a rest and a better view from the Scarriff Inn, a tourist bus trap.

We found perhaps the oldest stones I saw in Ireland, across the road, over a stile and at the top of the last hill we climbed before turning for home.

There can be few graves in Ireland - or anywhere - with such a view as the Bronze Age "wedge" tomb that sits above Derrynane Harbour.

We stopped, puffing slightly from the short, steep climb, and paid our respects to whoever has been interred there since 3000BC, turned our faces to the breathtaking outlook and then it was off again: across a headland saddle to find another bay where there would be more old stones and more old stories.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily connections to Dublin via London, Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Talk to your bonded travel agent.

Getting around: See World Expeditions' Ring of Kerry package.

Further information: For more on visiting Ireland and Kerry, see discoverireland.com

Greg Dixon walked the Ring of Kerry with help from World Expeditions, Tourism Ireland and Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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