The name Killarney in Gaelic is Cill Airne meaning Church of the Sloe (Cill – Church or Hermit’s cell, and Airne – Sloe): sloe is another name for the Blackthorn plant.
Enjoying a mild climate, due to the Mexican Gulf Stream, the town of Killarney has been a tourist destination for over 250 years. As Cork Kerry Tourism proudly states in its booklet about the town, ‘Killarney is the cradle or birthplace of Irish tourism.’
If you arrive by train once you leave the station, across the road, is the Great Southern Hotel. The hotel was built in 1854 and the exterior has kept its original charm. The Irish writer Brendan Behan stayed at the hotel and while being interviewed by a local journalist he said about it, ‘I know this hotel well. Didn’t I paint and decorate it with my father a few years ago?’ – which is true, they did.
The town is enjoying a period of increasing prosperity, as there are construction sites visible from practically anywhere within the central business district—mainly hotels. By the accounts of Killarney’s shopkeepers and tour-operators tourism is booming, with the population doubling during the peaks of the tourist season.
The times have not always been good: the people of Killarney, and Ireland, have had to endure two major scourges—the British occupation and the potato famine between 1846-89. Each has left an indelible mark on the Irish psyche, and in the town there are reminders of both.
From the Great Southern Hotel, if you look to your right, down East Avenue Road, you’ll see the Franciscan Friary. The Franciscans date back in the area to 1448. The friars did well until the English Penal Law of 1697 that forbade catholic bishops or priests to remain in Ireland. The friars went into hiding ministering in out of the way glens and in woods using flat stones as altars. These makeshift altars became known as ‘Mass Rocks.’ The friars remained in hiding until 1781, when there was some relaxation of some of the Penal Laws.
Oliver Cromwell was and still is despised in many parts of Ireland, which is fine since he despised the Irish. He had no pity for them and after slaughtering the inhabitants of Drogheda, in 1649, he justified himself by writing it would, ‘tend to prevent the effusion of blood for the future…which otherwise cannot but work remorse and regret.’
There is a church attached to the friary that you can enter to either enjoy the architecture and interior or go and see the skull of Friar Francis Diarmuid O’Sullivan who was beheaded by Cromwell’s soldiers in 1653.
Many of the old ruined castles you see around Ireland are due to Cromwell’s armies rampaging across the countryside. Within the Killarney National Park you can find the last fort to fall—Ross Castle—on the shores of the lake Lough Leane. The castle has an interesting story: General Ludlow laid siege to it in 1652, but realised he couldn’t maintain the siege over winter. He heard of a story saying the castle would fall if it were blockaded from the lake. He put such in place and the castle surrendered without firing a shot. Ross Castle is now a tourist attraction restored in 17th Century style.
If you’re standing at the gates of the national park and Knockreer Estate you’ll, see across the road, the magnificent St. Mary’s Cathedral—one of the finest Gothic Revival cathedrals in Europe.
The cathedral’s foundation stone was laid in 1842 and it wasn’t finished until 1855. During the years 1845-9 it acted as a shelter for victims of the potato famine. On the grounds of the church, in front of its entrance grows a splendid Californian Redwood. This tree was planted on top of a mass grave of the children of Killarney who died of starvation and related illnesses during that time. Next to it there’s a memorial with the simple inscription, ‘In the memory of the unknown children who lie here’.
As the Irish—Catholics—couldn’t own land due to the Penal Laws this void was filled by Protestants and Anglophile-Irish. Many of these landowners didn’t even bother to live in Ireland; they lived in England and had their ‘agents’ administer their properties.
The landowners were not always benevolent; in fact many were totally unscrupulous. Under the English occupation many of the Irish had to become tenant farmers. A large number of the absent landlords only allowed a yearly lease on their lands. It was common that the lease’s end the rent would be increased so the tenant farmer never rose above the poverty line. This practice became known as ‘Rent Racking’.
If the farmer couldn’t pay the rent, or failed to renegotiate the lease, they were forcefully evicted—there was no support for them except from other tenant farmers who could barely support themselves. To be evicted was, basically, a death sentence.
Not all of the landlords were ‘Rent Rackers’. Lord Kenmare, of Killarney, was one who looked kindly upon the plight of the people around him. He paid them one penny a day to build a stone, wall. This became known as the Penny Wall (one of many such within Ireland). A penny isn’t much today and it probably wasn’t much then either; however, it was the difference between eating and starving.
Lord Kenmare was well liked and respected for his efforts during the famine. He made trips to London to raise money for the subsidising of food, and had the houses in the town whitewashed, twice, to reduce the spread of fevers and infections.
There is a large Celtic cross on the outskirts of Killarney where Lord Kemare’s buried—standing up according to his wishes, over looking the town. The locals tell the tale that his wake lasted for three days and nights and that at the end of it the only one still standing was his lordship.
When the Irish potato crop failed the British government’s relief response, under Lord John Russell, was to shift to reliance on Irish resources and the free market—basically, the financial burden for supporting the starving was thrown on the Irish land owners. The British also assisted through loans—which had to be repaid.
One group whose efforts during those bleak times are the Sisters of Mercy. The sisters arrived in Killarney in 1844, setting up a school in College Street. In the middle of the street there is a car park, and taxi stand, which used to be the old market square. During the famine the sisters set up a temporary hospital in the school. When that was full they laid down straw for people to rest on all along the market square. With the number of ill and dying increasing the sisters continued their makeshift hospital down into Plunkett Street (the extension of College). No one knows how many lives the sisters saved through their efforts; however, it is known that thirteen of them lost theirs during that dreadful time.
In Ireland over 1,100,000 people died during the famine from starvation and famine related diseases. It greatly affected immigration and the Irish economy for years to come. In 1844 the population of Ireland was 8,400,00. By 1851 it’d fallen to 6,600,000. In effect it’s only been the last 10 years or so that the Irish consider themselves recovered from it.