Searching for Leprechauns

Summer 2011 CSANews Issue 79  |  Posted date : Jul 08, 2011.Back to list

Our Ring of Kerry drive continued to Sneem, a village of bright pink, yellow, green and blue homes, restaurants and shops. Flower pots decorated Sneem's old stone bridge, the narrowest part of the Ring of Kerry.

Daniel O'Connell's Home, the centrepiece of Derrynane National Historic Park, was our next stop. "Daniel O'Connell was the Abraham Lincoln of Ireland," explained Frank Walsh. "He won civil rights for Irish Catholics, who comprised 75% of the population in 1829." His home (now a museum) contains period furniture and a portrait of O'Connell's young son, dressed as a girl. (We'll explain the reason later.) The most impressive artefact was a gold chariot, which carried O'Connell through Dublin in 1844.

After picnicking on a beautiful wide beach behind Derrynane House, we strolled to Abbey Island to explore the scenic 10th-century Ahamore Abbey ruins. The roofless church and its surrounding cemetery overlook Derrynane Bay.

Driving north on the Ring of Kerry, we arrived in the town of Cahersiveen. Frank took us to Cahergall, a reconstructed 1,000-year-old ring fort, built without mortar. "It was a Celtic habitation," he explained. "Residents used the circular dry stone walls to corral their animals at night." Climbing steps up the three-metre-thick wall, we looked down on an early medieval tribal leader's dwelling.

The magical melody of Greensleeves arose from the other side of the fort. Following the notes, we discovered Adolf Packeiser plucking the strings of his homemade Irish harp. (Go Ireland had invited the founder of the Kerry Orchestra to perform for us in Cahergall.) Mesmerized, we listened to several songs, culminating in Danny Boy. We felt as if we had discovered the pot of gold at the end of the leprechaun's rainbow.

Avoca Lodge, our comfortable Cahersiveen bed and breakfast, was located on a country lane lined with wild orange montbretia flowers. Even though Carmel Walsh's delicious Irish breakfasts were substantial enough to sustain a day of walking, our tour included picnic lunches.

We drove to Valentia Island. The first transatlantic cable, laid in 1866, stretched for 3,200 kilometres from here to Heart's Content, Newfoundland. Our walking destination was Bray Head and its 1815 signal station in southwest Valentia. 

Following a gently rising gravel road lined with purple heather and grazing sheep, we reached the two-storey Bray Tower ruins. Atlantic Ocean waves, crashing against the wind-scoured Kerry cliffs, competed for our attention.

Amethyst peaks of Skellig Michael (Great Skellig) and Little Skellig pierced the southern horizon. Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the best-preserved early Christian monastic site in the world. Little Skellig is the world's second-largest gannet sanctuary. Between February and October, 27,000 pairs of gannets breed and nest here. Beginning this year, Go Ireland has added Skellig boat tours to Celtic Kerry Footsteps trips. Participants observe bird and marine life and climb 600 steps to dry stone cells, occupied by hermit monks between the sixth and 12th centuries.

Our trip featured equally fascinating alternatives to the Skelligs (offered when wind prevents boat trips), including a hike around the top of Geokaun Mountain and Fogher Cliffs. After awesome views of coastal cliffs and islands, we visited the now-closed Valentia Slate Quarry, which provided slate for the British 

House of Commons' roof, the Paris Opera House and Derrynane House.
Our biggest Valentia Island surprise was discovering evidence of creatures that existed long before leprechauns. Frank led us along a trail to a tetrapod trackway. Formed 385 million years ago (155 million years before dinosaurs appeared), the basset hound-sized footprints are the world's oldest evidence of four-legged vertebrates walking on land.

Leaving Valentia Island, we drove south to St. Finian's Bay for picnic lunches overlooking the beach. The nearby Skelligs Chocolate Co. is the most westerly chocolate factory in Europe. Staff offered us delicious samples, including hazelnut praline truffles, Irish honey, gin and tonic- and strawberry champagne-flavoured chocolates. Despite great will power, many of our souvenir purchases disappeared before reaching their intended recipients.

Another treat awaited in Cahersiveen's Shebeen Bar, where Go Ireland had arranged a private bodhran lesson for our group. Our teacher was Eddie MacCormaic, who plays the bodhran at traditional Irish music evenings in a nearby pub. "A bodhran is a one-sided Irish drum, made from goat skin stretched over a circular frame," explained Eddie, as he distributed bodhrans and playing sticks. The musician moved the heel of his hand and his fingers in different locations inside the drum, creating an impressive variety of sounds as he struck his bodhran with the stick. (Anyone who has heard Riverdance music will recall the bodhran's haunting sounds.)

Eddie patiently explained how to hold the stick and hit the drum with up-and-down movements. Someone's stick flew across the table and hit a player on the other side. Learning to play the bodhran is not as easy as it looks. After a half-hour of playing along with recorded jigs and reels, we developed a great admiration for Eddie's skills.

Eddie interspersed lessons with interesting information about his family, Irish music and culture. Irish people charm the socks off you. Meeting the locals in pubs and on tours was the highlight of our Go Ireland trip. In Kells, we met Brendan Ferris, a sheep farmer with a delightful Kerry brogue. Shepherd's crook in hand, he demonstrated how his trained border collies herded sheep.

Lying on their bellies, the black-and-white sheepdogs waited like loaded coils, ready to spring at their master's command. Using different whistles for each dog, Brendan instructed them to move sheep in different directions and separate them for shearing. Max stalked the sheep, half-crouched, like a wild cat, never taking his gaze off of them. "When I go out for a Guinness, he watches over my drink the same way," quipped the farmer.

Besides sheep, wild white goats graze on County Kerry hills. Every year, from August 10 to 12, a wild puck (male goat) presides as king of Killorglin's Puck Fair, a festival that dates back to 1613. We strolled through streets packed with free entertainment, including Irish fiddlers, dancers, buskers and King Puck mascots. Stands sell snacks, handicrafts and King Puck horn hats. Visitors enjoy a parade, horse show, cattle fair, midway, free concerts and pub music.

Go Ireland makes arrangements for participants to attend festivals, such as Puck Fair, when event dates coincide with walking tours. In late August, tour groups view horse- and pony-racing on the beach at the nearby Glenbeigh Festival. We enjoyed a picnic beside Glenbeigh's three-kilometre-long Rossbeigh Beach, while watching a row of horses and riders splashing through the Atlantic surf.

The morning after we completed the Ring of Kerry in Killarney, a vintage bus transported us to Ross Castle in Killarney National Park. The 15th-century fortified tower house is the starting point for Lakes of Killarney cruises. We boarded wooden boats and motored across Lough Leane to the ruins of Innisfallen Abbey, where monk scribes documented Irish history in the Annals of Innisfallen between the 11th and 13th centuries. After crossing Muckross Lake and Upper Lake, our cruise ended at Lord Brandon's Cottage.

Lunch fuelled us for the most spectacular walk of the trip - the 11-kilometre Gap of Dunloe. Most of us, including 84-year-old Isabella, hiked along the paved road, ascending and descending hills, crossing stone bridges and passing five lakes. Those who didn't want to walk hired horse-drawn jaunting cars to ride the serpentine route. Either way, the mountain scenery, boulder-strewn landscape and wildflowers in the glacier-carved valley were breathtaking.

Kate Kearney's Cottage was the end point of our 2.5-hour walk through the Gap. (We would have made faster progress if we hadn't stopped to snack on the luscious wild blackberries lining the road.) Dating back to the mid-1800s, the white pub became famous for Kate's potent and illegal poteen (moonshine). 

Nowadays, most visitors quench their thirst with Irish coffee and Guinness.
After a tasty farewell dinner in Killarney, we reluctantly parted from our walking companions. A 3.5-hour Irish Rail trip brought us from Killarney to Dublin. 

Before flying back to Canada, we spent two days exploring Dublin, from the conveniently located O'Callaghan Stephen's Green Hotel. Using Hop-on, Hop-off Dublin Bus Tour passes, we travelled to the National Museum, Guinness Storehouse, Liffy River and other Dublin attractions.

A National Leprechaun Museum sign caught our eyes near the Temple Bar district, but we didn't find little bearded men dressed in green here either. "These images of leprechauns were imported into Ireland in the 1950s," said museum manager Craig Burnett. "Walt Disney made leprechauns famous in the movie, Darby O'Gill and the Little People. Hollywood perpetuated the stereotype with Finian's Rainbow."

Irish people call leprechauns "wee folk." During the museum's self-guided tour, we learned that the green-garbed dwarfs are only a small part of Ireland's rich Celtic mythology. Storytellers, a giant's room and representations of the leprechaun's pot of gold at the end of the rainbow enlightened us about Irish folklore (and reminded us once again about the Wizard of Oz). The gift shop stocks leprechaun and Irish folktales reference books, which visitors are encouraged to browse.

Our leprechaun quest came full circle at An Evening of Food, Folklore and Fairies in Dublin's Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Ireland. Between courses of a delicious candlelit Irish dinner, storyteller Johnny Daly entranced us with Irish folklore that complemented our Celtic Kerry Footsteps tour experiences. 

Johnny explained that Irish people believed that fairies moved into ring forts (such as the one we saw at Cahergall) when farmers moved into traditional homes. "There are thousands of fairy forts across Ireland today, yet modern farmers refuse to touch them, just like their ancestors," said Johnny. "Fairies are the biggest protectors of Irish archaeology today."

He explained that belief in fairies was so strong in the 19th century that parents dressed young boys as girls, so that they wouldn't be abducted by fairies. We recalled the portrait in Daniel O'Connell's House, which depicted his son dressed as a girl.

Strolling from table to table, Johnny Daly enraptured us with examples of why Irish people believed in fairies. "Folklore about fairies kept people safe and helped explain the unexplainable, like crop failures, in times past," he said. "Parents told children not to talk to strangers because they could be leprechauns (solitary fairies)."

According to Johnny, storytelling still thrives today. "Go into any Irish pub and you'll hear that we love conversation"; and folktales, like the one we heard about an Irish pub that displays a leprechaun's skeleton. Although we didn't see any wee folk in Ireland, its magical scenery, ancient sites and sociable residents ensured our awareness and appreciation of Irish culture, folklore and, yes, even leprechauns.


Go Ireland: 
Toll-free Canada: 1-877-876-2813
Toll-free USA: 1-800-721-4672

Toll-free: 1-800-SHAMROCK

Dublin Tourism:

Barb & Ron Kroll publish the trip-planning