Friday, 7 September 2012

The Ring of Kerry

It couldn’t have been a more pleasant day touring a well-worn tourist path in County Kerry today, exploring what is known as the Ring of Kerry.

Largely formed by the intervention of an ice age which carved deep u-shaped valleys and left a series of spectacular lakes, our tour took us through sleepy little Irish villages and spectacular mountain scenery. Its been a very wet summer in the UK, which is great for making the place green but particularly bad for summer crops like potatoes. Back in 1845, they had even worse, when a fungal blight spread through potato crops, turning them black and putrid. As the staple in an already poor diet, families at first resorted to eating the black spuds and died as a result. Unable to feed themselves, they turned to selling their possessions, then stealing food. Neither solved the problem and when the blight returned for the following two seasons, the only two alternatives were to leave the country or huddle in their stone cottages and die. These were poor people made poorer who couldn’t afford to emigrate as families, so ones and two were chosen to leave, mostly for America, where some survived, even found success but left behind families they would never see again.

In those three years of the potato famine, the Irish population reduced by 25% from 8 million to 6 million. Its hard to imagine the scale of such devastation but sitting roadside beside a series of broken, overgrown stone cottages which had become tombs for their occupants, the imagining become much easier.

This was the most powerful image of my day.

Contrasted with Muckross House in the evening and a life of extreme opulence of the Vincent Family who lived there, it became more vivid, more telling of that age old gap between haves and have-nots and makes it all the more understandable why the Irish have became such a practical and hard people not given to folding when times are tough.

At Muckross House, the owners planned for six years for a visit by Queen Victoria. They spent much of their wealth redecorating in the finest quality furnishings of their day, for what became a two day visit, in anticipation of Royal favours of a title or perhaps a land grant. Instead, they got nothing, no return on their investment and eventually had to sell their house and land and cut their losses.

In between these very human stories, the scenery was very pretty, especially up in the mountains. Unfortunately, lunch was taken up in the lower cloud ceiling and the “prettiest view in all of Ireland” was instead white out conditions. Not all was lost: I had a Murphy’s to commiserate. The day ended back at Lough Leane, overlooking the loch and the remains of an old castle whilst frothing up my moustache over yet another Murphys.

We are starting to enjoying the company of the people on tour, mostly by being selective as to who we talk with. Each has stories to tell and after a few days, become willing to tell them. Our tour is dominated by Australians, making up half of the group. We are among the youngest.

During one stop, whilst others snapped the scenery, I listened to some music from a folk duo who played harp, flute and guitar: most pleasant but cut ridiculously short as the commitment to moving on engulfed me. I’ll have to wait until Australia to hear their CD.

Bad couple of days for me but what else can I expect. When that old Black Dog comes snapping at my heels, all I can do is grab his leash and keep him from biting me too hard. Like the Irish, I’m a survivor.

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