A walking festival built the Kerry way

Killarney is preparing to give summer a wild mountain and valley welcome with its first walking festival. Gary Quinn took his family along for a preview

Sat, May 31, 2014, 00:01

The beauty of Killarney National Park is staggering. It’s no wonder people flock there from all over the world and, although it’s one of the first places we’ll point tourists towards, most Irish people rarely take the time to experience it. It’s a place steeped in folklore and wrapped up in ireland’s sense of itself – every hill and valley a triumphant tribute to nature and survival, hardship and the wild – and very accessible.

It’s surprising then that although Ireland has around 80 walking festivals, this is the first year Killarney will launch one of its own. The Killarney Walking Festival runs from June 20th to 22nd and the national park and surrounding mountains will play host to an ambitious programme of walks and events for all ages and abilities.

I’m here on a family trip with some of the organisers, walking my six-year-old, his two teenage sisters and a 10-year-old friend 10kms through the Black Valley. We want to be a famously fit family but we’re not there yet and my youngest quickly revolts: “Seriously,” he asks 20 minutes in, “why do adults think this is fun for kids?” A bag of jellies and a promise of an ending in the Cookie Monster Cafe in Bridia Valley swiftly captures his attention and he takes up a lead position. It’s a winning formula from our lead guide, Valerie O’Sullivan, that hints at the expertise behind the walking festival.

O’Sullivan is a local and best-known as a photographer. She has walked almost every reek and path in sight and along with Brian Coakley of activeme.ie is currently mapping the area – not just the terrain, but the stories that come with it too.

Every turn in the road or pile of rocks on a hillside prompt a tale or explanation from Valerie or Brian, and it’s fascinating. The slope of a hill, the colour of a lake or the sound of a bird overhead unlock wonderful tales and it’s exciting to be around people who are as passionate about the landscape as they are. Later, we’re met by John O’Sullivan, another of the festival guides, who bounds across the hills to meet us in the few hours between a morning Communion and an evening funeral, like a man with seven league boots. Born under the McGuillycuddy Reeks, he reckons he’d be doing himself a disfavour if his life didn’t conjure a role in the reeks and so he finds himself with three decades of climbing experience, 20-year membership of Kerry Mountain Rescue and running the Lodge and Reeks Guiding Co. (See lodgeandreeksguiding.com).

This trio of happy walkers are inspiring and excellent company and they make us feel at home in an instant. They know everyone in the valley: the wonderful Tangney family who for 50 years have run the Black Valley Hostel and who bring us in for tea and great conversation; the O’Sullivan family in the last house in the valley sit us around their kitchen table for more refreshments before we leave at the other end.

The wind rushes through the valley as we walk and the sun beats down. We pass through farmland, woodland, amble up hillside and across rivers and streams. The highest elevation to conquer is 300m and we’re told stories of the standing stones at the top as we go. The children are bouncing from rock to rock now, suddenly alive with energy. Standing looking down at the valley from the top, the sky is huge overhead and we start to get a picture of the view that the eagles that have been reintroduced here experience.

We’ve had the valley largely to ourselves all day. A single German couple, two picture postcard donkeys, a young girl walking a puppy and lots of sheep. We’re feeling very privileged. Ahead and beneath us is Bridia Valley and somewhere hidden within it is the Cookie Monster Cafe, a family-run cafe with striking hillside views. We hurry towards it, following the signs of the Kerry Way. For all its wildness the Kerry Way is very well organised and supported.

Accommodation in Killarney offers great choice too. We stayed at the Gleneagle Hotel apartments and had full use of the beautiful four-star Brehon Hotel and Angsana spa. The spa is an adult-only retreat guaranteed to sooth the most tired bodies and feet, but I’d give the hotel and apartments a huge thumbs up for families and couples. The food is fantastic too.

Back in the valley, we hear details of a special event at the festival in June: the summer solstice walk. Valerie will lead this walk to the summit of one of the Paps of Danu (or Dá Chích Anann) to watch the sun rise on June 21st – the longest day of the year. This is an ancient trail to a sacred summit and the Paps of Danu are described by Valerie as “two breast-shaped hills associated with the mythology, mysticism and majesty of the Goddess Anú”. Wearing headtorches and following guides, this moderate-level walk will leave at 2am on Saturday morning, walking in darkness to the summit to watch the sun rise.

As we dip deep into Bridia Valley now and see the cafe ahead of us the children race ahead, energy flowing once more, and despite their 10km trek they help conjure up an image of an incredible festival ahead, just bursting with inspiration – and we plan to be back to see it.

The Killarney Walking Festival has routes for all types of walkers - beginners, intermediate and experienced. The walks are graded C1/C2/C3 with C3 being for the most experienced. Families are especially encouraged.
Photography workshop: The Hidden Valley of the Reeks walk which takes in the Black Valley and more, is aimed at photographers or would-be photographers. Valerie O’Sullivan will offer her expert advice on shooting landscapes as you walk. See killarneywalkingfestival.ie

Staying there: Book through killarneywalkingfestival.ie website to get special rates on the festival’s partner hotels including The Brehon Hotel and Angsana spa (thebrehon.com) and The Gleneagle Hotel & Apartments (gleneaglehotel.com)

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