Here’s a question for a Guinness-sponsored pub quiz: who or what is a ‘jarvie’? The answer is the gypsy driver of a ‘jaunting car’ — or pony and trap — you can hire to drive you up the Gap of Dunloe between the Purple Mountain and Macgillicuddy’s Reeks just west of Killarney in south-west Ireland. If that sounds a bit touristy, it certainly is; but the Gap, with its ruined cottages, Wishing Bridge, placid lakes and mountain goats glowering from dark parapets, is also an authentic glimpse of the wild place that was pre-modern Ireland before the struggle, boom and bust of the past hundred years.
The town of Killarney itself, dominated by its grey Pugin-designed cathedral of St Mary, is not so atmospheric, but a starting point for other outings. Most famous of these is the clockwise drive around the winding 110-mile Ring of Kerry (the tour buses go anti-clockwise), taking in minor detours to windswept Valentia Island — with its shades of Father Ted — and Rossbeigh Strand, where the sad wreck of the schooner Sunbeam, sunk in 1903, was torn out of the sand by last winter’s Atlantic storms and thrown hundreds of yards along the beach.
Perhaps better for the health and the appetite is a ride on a hired bicycle round the three lakes which form the centrepiece of Killarney’s national park; they connect at the Meeting of the Waters, a pleasant spot to play Poohsticks from the high-arched bridge. Golfers will find plenty of exercise too, with three courses — Mahony’s Point, Lackabane and Killeen — offered by the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club, and several others in the vicinity. For shooters, there are woodcock and snipe to be had from late October to January, and sika deer from September to February.
As for appetites and thirsts, every visitor will of course want to sample the draught black stuff, perhaps in Kate Kearney’s Cottage at the bottom of the Gap — Kate was a legendary 19th-century beauty and poteen-brewer — or the nearby Beaufort Bar. But let’s be honest, gastronomy is not the greatest claim of Ireland north or south, and if you’re determined to sample local delicacies, the next pub-quiz question might be ‘What’s the difference between drisheen and crubeens?’ Answer: the former is a black pudding of cow’s, pig’s or sheep’s blood, best served with steaming tripe, while the latter are boiled and breadcrumbed pigs’ feet, notoriously messy to eat.
Still, the range of Killarney’s eating choices has broadened in recent years to include Italian and Thai, and the district’s upmarket, boom-era hotels offer finer dining: recommendations include the Europe and the Aghadoe Heights, both with views of the lakes. Or rent a private mansion such as Churchtown House, which sleeps 12 in great comfort and can provide a pair of local chefs.
How to get there? Cheap flights to Cork or Kerry, and even cheaper hire cars. What to wear? Anything waterproof. Damp, green and beguiling, this is a destination with a very distinctive charm.