John and Sally McKenna have compiled their pick of Ireland’s 100 best places in their latest book. Here, they unveil their top Munster choices – and explain why they made the cut.
Everybody has their own 100 best places in Ireland.
That beach you always yearn to go back to. That lakeside vista that sets your heart at rest. Those hills you want to scale, and that streetscape that makes you happy every time you walk down it.
So writing a book about the 100 best places in Ireland should be a cinch for anyone who lives here.
Of course, reality intrudes in this sweet but simplistic picture, and it can quickly become a bit of a battleground as you agonise over whether this beach is better than that beach – more white sand; fewer people; better for swimming and whether this lakeside idyll is more idyllic than that one.
To be honest, asking anyone to describe their 100 best places is the start of the trouble, the beginning of the agonising: why this museum, but not that one? Why this gorgeous garden, but not that gorgeous garden?
And Sally and I faced an extra hurdle as we sought to finalise our 100 best places: we have travelled the length and breadth of the country for 30 years, so you had two people with 60 collective years of exploring and discovering.
Our solution came down to this: does this place register with me emotionally? Do I feel its power every time I return? Does it both charm and disarm me, and make me feel grateful?
If the answer was yes, yes and yes, then it made the 100 best places. Maybe it wasn’t that difficult after all.
The collection of ogham stones in the stone corridor on the campus of University College Cork is the largest public collection of these rare, inscribed memorials.
While ogham stones have been found in Cornwall and south Wales, they are particularly associated with the southwest of Ireland, in particular counties Cork, Kerry and Waterford.
Ogham is an alphabet of 20 letters, derived from Latin script, which were carved into the edges of quarried stone and are read vertically upwards on the edge of the stone.
The stones marked the burial place of a distinguished person, and usually record tribal or personal names. The individual letters are associated with a tree or a plant.
Ogham stones are the first inscribed monuments in Ireland, in use between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, and pre-date the arrival of Christianity.
December 26 is Wren’s Day in Dingle, when groups of boys and men take to the streets of the town dressed in suits and hats of straw, led by a pantomime-style hobby horse.
In times past, a wren would be hunted and nailed to a pole to head the procession, for while the wren may be the king of the birds, its reputation is ambiguous, and it is associated with treachery.
It was also considered bad luck to kill a wren any day other than at Christmas.
The Wren boys sing and play music, and visit houses to solicit contributions to be spent on refreshments at the later Wren party.
The Wren parades have vanished throughout Ireland, but in Dingle they hold fast to a tradition that dates from the Middle Ages, parading down Goat Street.
The Wren is one of three lovely festivals held in Dingle each year, the others being their buzzing annual food festival and the cult and charismatic Other Voices. It’s also a great New Year’s location.
The Stone Age tomb at Poulnabrone is a portal dolmen understood to date from around 2,500BC, and excavations in the 1980s uncovered the bones of 14 adults and 6 children.
Neolithic builders also constructed court, passage, and wedge tombs, in addition to portal tombs.
The simple but awe-inspiring collection of enormous stones poses an unanswerable question: how on earth did they raise the massive capstones, and place them on the side-stones and back-stone?
The dolmen makes a vivid outline on the landscape, and Poulnabrone is an iconic structure that is one of the most photographed monuments in Ireland.
The name has been translated as ‘Hole of Sorrows’.
Waterford claims to have more of its ancient walls extant than any other city in Ireland, and indeed only Derry in Northern Ireland has more impressive city walls.
The city is the oldest in Ireland, and can trace its origins back to the Vikings, who made a settlement there in the early 10th century.
Reginald’s Tower, at the junction of the Quay and the Mall, is allegedly the oldest tower of mortared stone in Europe.
The walls have won fame in recent years thanks to the inspiring street art festival, which has seen more than 100 street artists from all over the world bestow vividly colourful works on ancient gables, bridges and walkways; and touring the art trails during the August festival is a joy.
Levis’s is a century-old country pub with a century-old tradition of hospitality, a lovely little place where in recent years Joe and Caroline O’Leary have amplified the hospitality, while also creating one of the great music session venues, and a marketplace where you can pick up organically grown West Cork vegetables.
Mixing the traditional with the contemporary means that Joe and Caroline have created a new template for the Irish pub, and their inspired work is fitting tribute to Joe’s great aunts, Nell and Julia, who ran the pub for many decades.
As a singer himself — Joe was lead singer for Cork band, Fred — he has an especial sympathy for musicians, which results in unforgettable music sessions.
The 100 Best Places in Ireland by John and Sally McKenna (HarperCollins €22.50)