Killarney National Park, Ireland - Muckross Abbey, Muckross House, Torc Waterfall, Ross Castle
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
On our road trip in Ireland we either stayed one night or two nights in some places, depending on what we wanted to see in the area. In Killarney, a town in County Kerry, we stayed two nights. There is so much to see in the area and the town of Killarney is a good base from which to explore the Ring of Beara, Ring of Kerry, Skellig Ring, Valencia Island and Dingle Peninsula.
Killarney (in Irish Cill Airne means "church of sloes"), is the gateway to Killarney National Park. From here, we explored some of the most beautiful sights in and around the area, including Muckross Abbey, Muckross House & Garden, Torc Waterfall and Ross Castle, located all within the park.
Killarney National Park is located at the foot of Ireland's highest mountain range, the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks (Na Cruacha Dubha means "The Black Stacks"). The park was designated as a Biosphere Reserve in 1981 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in short, UNESCO.
This park is Ireland’s oldest National Park. It was created in 1932 when Arthur Vincent (a British politician and barrister), together with his parents-in-law (William Bowers Bourn II and Agnes Moody), donated Muckross House & Estate to the Irish State.
Exploring the National Park
We started at the ruins of the Muckross Abbey (entry is free). There is a small parking area a short walking distance to the Abbey (along N71 road), but if you can’t find a spot there’s a big parking space at Muckross House. You just have to walk a little farther to the abbey, which is not bad since it is a beautiful path surrounded by trees.
Taking the path by the lake going back to Muckross House is even better, you won’t be able to resist stopping and absorbing the beauty of the lake, hear the birds sing and enjoy the pretty flowers along the way.
Muckross Abbey is located near the shores of Lough Leane, partly hidden within the dense forest of the park. The Abbey was first built as a Franciscan Friary of Irrelagh. Dόnal MacCarthy founded the abbey in 1448, but Franciscan patronage had long run in the MacCarthy family and it was suggested that Dόnal’s great grandfather, Cormac MacCarthy Mór, might have originally founded Muckross Friary in 1340. It was also believed that the first monastery was built here by Saint Fionan sometime in the 6th century.
The ruins of the abbey are well preserved and many of its architectural features and details are still visible such as those in the pictures below.
This friary suffered a harsh past - it was vandalized and reconstructed many times. On one such occasion, in 1589, Father Donagh O'Muirthile and his companions hid the church’s valuables on one of the lake’s small islands (the friary is also known to have a miraculous statue of the Virgin Mary). Their bravery ended in persecution by the soldiers of Queen Elizabeth I. But the friary’s ending happened after it was burned by Oliver Cromwell's forces in 1652.
In the middle of the cloister is an ancient yew tree, said to be as old as the Abbey (or even older), sturdy and still standing, surviving the test of time. Imagine if this tree could talk. What secrets does it hold?
At the back of Muckross Abbey was the burial place of local chieftains, local poets and many Gaelic families. The cemetery is still in use today.
Muckross House (an entry fee is required) is the main attraction of the national park. It remained closed for over 30 years after the estate was donated to the state. A group of concerned local residents got together, formed a board of trustees and proposed the house to be open to the public.
Before the Vincent family, the estate was first owned by Henry Arthur Herbert, an Anglo-Irish politician and his wife Mary Balfour, a British artist. The house was built over a period of years (1839 to 1843), but further improvement was carried out before Queen Victoria’s visit in the 1850’s. It was said that these improvements contributed to the financial difficulties of the Herbert family. They sold the house to Arthur Guinness (of the Guinness family), in 1899. He didn’t live in the house but rented it out as a hunting lodge for the wealthy. He later sold it to William Bowers Bourn, a wealthy mining magnate from California in 1910.
When Bourn’s daughter Maud married Arthur Vincent, they gave Muckross House as a wedding present. Further improvements to the house were made including the Sunken Garden and landscaping. Unfortunately, Maud died of Pneumonia in 1929. Arthur Vincent and their children lived in the house for three years before the estate was donated to the State, as a memorial to Vincent's late wife and the Bourns' daughter, Maud Bourn Vincent.
We can’t possibly be in the National Park and not do at least a short hike (or walk). From Muckross House, we followed the 1.6 mile trail to Torc Waterfall (again, if you don’t want to walk far there is a parking area along N71 road, just a few minutes walk to the waterfall). From the waterfall there are various loop trails (Blue, Yellow and Red), your choice depends on your stamina and time…or the weather. Red Trail leads to Cardiac Hill, also called Huntsman's Hill or the Cardiac Steps. Sounds intimidating doesn’t it? The steep steps to the viewpoint are worth your effort if you have the stamina. We have the stamina but did not have the time. We wanted to visit Ross Castle before we drove to Annascaul in Dingle.
Behind the Legend of Torc Waterfalls
As we all know, Ireland is associated with many legends and myths. Here is a short version of the Torc waterfall's legend. According to the story, there was a poor local farmer who keep finding his cow or sheep dead in the morning. One night, as he walked the field, he found a man standing near him. As the farmer began to talk, the stranger suddenly transformed into a wolf, and admitted he killed the sheep and offered the farmer gold stashed away in his cave.
Could you trust a wolf? The farmer did, and was then led to a cave (where the waterfall is today). He was fed and showed the door to the gold. There was a catch though. The farmer would be given more gold and continue to prosper as long as he keeps the secret for seven years. The farmer, as promised, kept his secret. That is until his curious wife, who pestered him as to where his fortune is coming from, followed him one day to the enchanted man’s cave.
What's a husband to do? The farmer chose to tell the wife. When the enchanted man's secret was revealed, he suddenly appeared and roared “We’re done for!” and burst into flames. He disappeared onto the top of Mangerton Mountain and plunged into the lake (the Devil’s Punchbowl lake). There the water burst a hole through the side creating the waterfall and hiding the cave and its gold. The farmer became even poorer afterwards. There are lessons to be learned from this story. Don't pester the husband, just spend his money, ha ha.
In reality, the 20 meters high waterfall is formed by the Owengarriff River as it drains from the Devil's Punchbowl lough, high above Mangerton Mountain.
We drove following the Ross Road to Ross Castle after hiking back from Torc Waterfall. The grounds are free but a fee is required to tour the castle. Built in the late 15th century, a typical example of a stronghold during the Middle Ages, Ross Castle was originally owned by an Irish Chieftain, O’Donoghue Mόr (Ross). It sits on Ross Island at the edge of Lough Leane (the largest of the three lakes in Killarney National Park), overlooking Inisfallen Island, home to a 7th century monastery.
Ross Castle’s ownership was contested throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, but it eventually came into the hands of Sir Valentine Browne (ancestor of the Earls of Kenmare), who held it until 1956. In the late 1950's, John McShain (a famous American builder) took over the land. In 1970, John and his wife Mary donated the castle to the Irish State .
Ross Castle is reputed to be one of the last strongholds to hold out against Cromwell’s forces in 1650’s. It was said that, "Ross may all assault disdain, Till on Lough Lein strange ship shall sail". This prophecy came to fruition during the Irish Confederate Wars. The castle was eventually taken by General Ludlow in 1652, who attacked the castle by water. The castle became a military barracks until the early 19th century.
If you have time, you can visit Inisfallen Island by boat from Ross Castle. On the island are the ruins of a settlement/monastery founded by St. Finian the Leper in 640.
Also, there are Jaunting Cars, horse drawn carriages, available if you don't want to explore the national park on foot.