Kenmare, Ireland, founded in 1670, is a well-preserved little town set at the foot of the Cork and Kerry mountains. Here the River Roughty meets a sea inlet that reaches deep into the Kerry coast. People who marvel at the natural beauty of the area and the attractive town with colorful houses call it the “jewel on the Ring of Kerry,” as it is on the popular Kerry loop tour.
Kenmare bustles with activity in its shops, restaurants, and pubs. On Sheep Day, when animals are brought in for sale and auction, it’s even livelier. Pubs abound, and you’ll find plenty of music. As in most of Ireland, signs in the pub windows invite musicians to join in.
The entire region suffered in the mid 19th century because of the terrible famine, and in 1861, the Poor Clare nuns arrived with a plan to help. They taught the craft of fine lace making and developed a business for selling it. Kenmare became known for the intricate designs of its exquisite lace; Queen Victoria owned pieces of it. You can still buy it and see how it’s made in Kenmare Lace, on the town square next to the tourist office.
Kenmare has several good restaurants. Mulcahy’s is one of the best, with smooth service, top-quality cuisine, and a homey atmosphere. Examples of the creative menu offerings are the Kerry lamb with pistachio crust and chicken with thyme aioli. Also recommended is D’Arcy’s Oyster Bar & Grill. You’ll find a table near a fireplace in this cozy spot, and great seafood.
Before sitting down to a fine meal, though, you’ll probably want to do some exploring. Take a look at rural Irish life in a former time—it was not so very long ago—at Molly Gallivan’s Cottage & Traditional Farm. The stone buildings, animals, peat-burning fires, and the garden are fascinating to 21st century visitors. Also on the grounds are a tea room, craft shop, and “Druids’ Path” which leads to Neolithic stones. Molly Gallivan, who owned the farm, was a widow with seven children. An enterprising woman, she supported her family by selling produce, handspun woolens, baked goods and, mostly, “poitin,” a potent and illicit whiskey they called Molly’s Mountain Dew.
There are dozens of marked walking trails in the area, boat trips into Kenmare Bay to see seals and other wildlife, and numerous water sports, from windsurfing to canoeing. A golf course is adjacent to the town, and four miles away is the Ring of Kerry Golf and Country Club, with broad views of the bay. Fishing is popular, too, in nearby lakes and rivers.
Several stables provide horses for rides into the mountains or along the coast. Bicycling is a pleasure on the level roads, through a picturesque landscape. One excellent bike ride is the Beara Peninsula, starting from Kenmare. There are several places along the way where you can stop for lunch and a pint.
Kenmare has a wide range of lodgings, including hotels, farm stays, cottage and apartment rentals, hostels, B&Bs, and campgrounds. The classic Victorian-style Lansdowne Arms Hotel is in the heart of town, offering 26 comfortable rooms and a pretty dining room, the Quill Room.
A short walk from town is the 20-room Brook Lane Hotel, small and quirky, with modern design and warm hospitality. It features a bistro, a bar, and a lounge. Another easy walk—about 10 minutes–from Kenmare is Abbey Court B&B. The Ceallaigh family’s home is set on two acres with gardens and views of Kenmare Bay. Guests receive the full treatment at breakfast, with a four-course Irish meal: juice, cereal, breads, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, eggs, black pudding (blood sausage with various fillers), toast, fruit, cheese and yogurt.
Before leaving the Jewel on the Ring of Kerry, be sure to visit one of the largest Neolithic stone circles in southwestern Ireland. Right in town, it’s an evocative site of mystery and speculation.