Secret Ireland: North Kerry
In part four of our series on Ireland’s hidden corners, Pól Ó Conghaile tracks down a dinky train, a mysterious cave and a park within a park in the Kingdom. Pictures by Ronan Lang
The marvellous monorail
From 1888 to 1924, one of the oddest railways ever developed ran between Listowel and Ballybunion. Born of a prototype used to carry esparto grass across the desert in Algeria, the Lartigue Monorail carried schoolchildren, tourists and cattle in North Kerry.
Today, visitors can take a short spin on a restored section of the route. An interpretative centre adds memorabilia such as old signal lamps and railway signage, and you can check out crackly film footage of the original steam-powered line in its audio-visual room.
The monorail was developed by a French engineer who apparently got his inspiration watching camels carry their loads in Algeria. North Kerry was a test case for a system that never really took off, however, and its closure was hastened by civil war damage. In winter, groups can visit the train by appointment.
Details: John B Keane Road, Listowel. Tel: 087 133 0905; lartiguemonorail.com.
The forest quest
Driving into Tralee along the N21, it's easy to miss Ballyseedy Forest -- a small spread of alluvial woodland squirreling away 4km of unexpected trails.
Ballyseedy must be one of the few remaining native woodlands in the area. I park the car, walk over a metal bridge and immerse myself for a half-hour among its mossy old oaks, smart beeches and roving streams.
Visit at the right time of day and you may even get to meet the residential Daubenton's bats.
Nearby, Tralee's Aquadome makes for an all-weather alternative -- you can time yourself shooting down a snaking water slide here, and the pool throws up rapids, waves and currents. It's pricey at €14/€12, but families get a 20pc reduction and 50pc off a second visit. For more fun ideas in the region, check out discoverireland.ie.
Details: Ballyseedy Forest, Bally- seedy, Tralee. Aquadome: 066 712 9150; aquadome.ie.
The freshly baked muffin
Listowel's most famous son may well be John B, but if it's muffins you're after, the man to talk to is John R. Housed behind a red and white, 19th-century shopfront on Church Street, his home bakery and delicatessen is a treat cupboard of freshly made and additive-free produce.
I stop by for a browse, taking in the tidy range of chutneys and chocolates, coffees and confectionary, before spotting a stack of muffins (€1.50) atop of the deli display. They're wrapped in baking paper and bursting with blueberries and strawberries. My only quibble is that John R's has no seats, leaving me to shuffle down the street with paper bag in hand.
Details: 70 Church Street, Listowel. Tel: 068 21249; johnrs.com.
The park in a park
At this time of year, Listowel's Town Park is a compilation of falling acorns, dewy grass, squelchy forest trails and brisk visits to senior and junior playgrounds.
All paths lead to the Garden of Europe, a beguiling project begun by the Rotary Club in the 1990s, and which today contains more than 2,500 trees and plants.
A dozen plots are each dedicated to a European country, and extras include a 400-million-year-old fossil plant, a silhouette sculpture of John B Keane and, strangely, what a sign says is Ireland's only holocaust memorial.
It's a lovely place for a gander or repose, and you can enter or exit by a walkway leading past the town's five-arched bridge (dating from 1829) over the River Feale.
Details: Town Park, Listowel; listowel.ie.
The four-poster bed
I'm not expecting much of Bally-seede Castle. It's sandwiched between Ballygarry Lodge and the Earl of Desmond on the N21, I get lost en route, and the over-supply of accommodation in Kerry makes me wary.
Then I pull through the gates and my fears melt away. A winding woodland driveway leads to a castle lit like a chandelier. Through a window I can see a couple laughing in an ostentatious dining room, with gilded portraits and deep-green wall-paper behind them. It's like a mini-Dromoland.
Inside, I find a huge Irish wolfhound sprawling beneath antique artworks and a chaise longue. There's a sensational oak-carved fireplace in the bar, and my room comes kitted out with a huge four-poster bed.
Two nights' B&B and one dinner costs from €165pp.
Details: Ballyseedy, Tralee. Tel: 066 712 5799; ballyseedecastle. com.
The underground adventure
Crag Cave (€30 for a family of four) is more than just a hole in the ground. There's an adventure play centre next door (its centrepiece is a four-lane ripple slide), and, outside, there's a playground watched over by a cappuccino-friendly conservatory.
Adjoining it is a big, Avoca-lite shopping barn complete with Lee Valley clothes, paint-your-own wellies and a Garden Café.
The cave itself was discovered in 1983, when diver Martin Farr squeezed through the rocks to illuminate a cavern now known as Divers' Delight.
Today, a clunky old entrance shaft descends into a sparklingly lit chamber, full of limestone spindles, drip stones and waxy stalactite and stalagmite formations. The tour stops after a few hundred metres, but the system goes on for miles.
Details: Castleisland. Tel: 066 714 1244; cragcave.com.
The toilet humour
John B Keane is probably Kerry's best-known writer. When asked how he would like to be remembered, however, he replied: "As a player who scored the winning point in the finals of the North Kerry intermediate football final against Duagh in 1959."
The nugget typifies the mischief and earthy lyricism of North Kerry writers, and there's plenty more where that came from at Listowel's Seanchaí Literary and Cultural Centre. Located in a 19th-century house in the town square, it showcases the words and works of several authors, including Keane, Brendan Kennelly and Bryan MacMahon, in absorbing audio-visual displays.
Keane described Listowel as a place "where it is easier to write than not to write" -- a theme echoed in the dozens of extracts printed on the walls (and on white casts of writers themselves) at Seanchaí.
I even find Bob Boland's 'Sonnet to a Lavatory' hanging in the gents. The loo is "the throne room of soliloquy", it muses -- it's hard to argue with that.
Details: 24 The Square, Listowel. Tel: 068 22212; kerrywriters museum.com.
The intriguing old ruin
St Brendan the Navigator founded a monastery in Ardfert in the 6th century, and the site today is home to several medieval churches, an ogham stone and medieval grave-slab sites.
Ardfert went on to become the ecclesiastical capital of Kerry, of course, and the remains of its 12th-century cathedral make for a nice pottering stop today. Highlights include an elegant mix of red sandstone and limestone, tall lancet windows and an ornate, Romanesque door. I'm fascinated by the way its southern wall leans -- Pisa-like -- without toppling.
If you do stop here, break the visit in the playground across the road, and don't miss the stately shell of a Franciscan friary half a mile away; another stunner.
Details: Ardfert; 066 713 4711; heritageireland.ie.
The hidden cove
Is there an obscure bylaw that says beaches in North Kerry must begin with the letter 'B'? Within a short drive of each other, I find Ballyheigue, Banna, and the old ladies' and men's beaches at the resort town of Ballybunion.
The most dramatic beach begins with an 'N', however, and you may not even find it on the map. It's the Nuns' Beach, a horseshoe-shaped cove just north of Ballybunion Castle, set beneath a convent and overlooked by a short cliff walk. The beach is accessible only by boat, as far as I can see, and all the more tantalising for it.
Peeling surf, caramel-coloured sands, a teetering sea arch and the Nine Daughters' Hole (a blowhole into which a chieftain is said to have chucked his daughters), are all features. Look closely and you may even spot bottlenose dolphins.
Details: See discoverireland. ie/ballybunion.
The fish pie
Winter can be pretty inclement on the Dingle Peninsula, but there's a cosy view from the Oyster Tavern in The Spa, on the Tralee to Fenit road. This bar and restaurant doesn't look like much from without, but inside I find strip-wood panelling, heritage colours and a cabinet containing antique bierkrugs, glassware and sporting memorabilia (including signed GAA balls).
I order fish pie from the bar menu (€13.95) and it comes in a large, shallow dish with a puffy layer of mash topped by a crust of grilled Cheddar cheese. The mash gives way to a mix of salmon, cod and mussels, with scallions and a thick white sauce binding it all together.
It's comfort food from the deep, fine fare for an autumn evening, and served with a scoop of salad and chips. My pie was extraordinarily hot, however, so be careful of little mouths...
Details: The Spa, Tralee. Tel: 066 713 6102.