Biographer DJ Taylor discovered the remote extremity of Ireland's Co Kerry through the eyes of one of his subjects, the Victorian satirist William Makepeace Thackeray, who visited in 1842. How would it measure up today?

From the arrivals lounge, Cork airport looks half built. There are four departure gates, each debouching on to a modest strip of tarmac filled with an assortment of small aircraft, baggage trucks and minibuses. Beyond lies a Brobdingnagian ghetto of unfinished tower blocks, piled-up rubble and fenced-off roadway, the latter flanked by a kind of Sargasso Sea of orange cones. Further still into the distance, summer verdure tracks away into the Cork suburbs.

Oddly enough these architectural preparations stir a twitch on the historical thread. To William Makepeace Thackeray, coming this way in the summer of 1842, the litter of half-finished building projects figured as a gigantic metaphor for the miserable state of Old Ireland. "The whole country is filled with such failures: swaggering beginnings that could not be carried through; grand enterprises begun dashingly, and ending in shabby compromises and downright ruin," he observes. A hundred and sixty-two years later, on the other hand, the breeze block skeletons around the airport perimeter are a mark not of indigence but prosperity. Not a main road in Cork or Kerry this summer seems to lack its signboard proclaiming that such and such a "pavement" is being widened with largesse from the EU, and there is scarcely a village on the south-west coast without its two dozen holiday homes in an advanced state of manufacture.

Thackeray's Irish Sketchbook, reposing in my suitcase as we negotiate the airport car park, must count as one of the most abrasive travel books ever written. The résumé of a three-month visit made on the cusp of the great 1840s famine, whose preliminary signs lay everywhere about, it is characterised less by a delight in scene and custom than a feeling of profound irritation. As a middle-class, newspaper article-writing, English protestant, Thackeray examined the crowds of penniless Irish beggars, Irish Catholicism and the fly-blown Irish towns through which he travelled and diagnosed only shiftlessness, superstition and ignorance.

At the same time, he was uneasily aware that no one becomes a beggar out of choice and that something more than sneering remarks about "the finest peasantry in Europe" was required to drag the country out of its swamp of near-medieval backwardness. The 300 pages that followed, consequently, are shot through with a dreadful sense of uncertainty, the uncertainty of a man who does not quite know how to respond to what he sees and frequently has to take refuge in a self-satirising guilt.

Behind the Sketchbook's irritation, too, lies a deeper, personal misery. Thackeray had first come to Cork two years before, bringing with him his wife Isabella and their two daughters, Anny and Minny. Two days into the voyage from Bristol, Isabella, who had been in a state of melancholic abstraction for months, threw herself over the side. Rescued from the water, after air trapped in her voluminous dress kept her afloat, she was taken ashore at Cork "quite demented" and never recovered her reason.

By the time Thackeray returned for a second shot at the publisher's commission - Isabella was by now installed in a French asylum - his personal life had been turned upside-down. Worse, his wretchedness was stoked by the memories of the previous trip. Isabella, Anny and Minny stared back at him from the pinched faces at the roadside and the crowded coaches, sometimes to devastating effect.

His judgement on the country as a whole - "The epicurean, and traveller for pleasure, had better travel anywhere than here, where there are miseries that one does not care to think of, where one is always feeling how helpless pity is, and how hopeless relief, and is perpetually ashamed of being happy" - is inextricably bound up with his feelings about himself and the people closest to him.

Thackeray's journey out of Cork took him by way of an Ursuline convent at Blackrock, the excuse for some pious horror over Roman Catholic observances ("Oh honest Martin Luther. Thank God you came ..." etc etc). Embarked instead on the N22, I detect a second curious historical connection. Back in 1842, traversing the desperate Irish roads in a succession of jolting "cyars" and ramshackle carriages, Thackeray marvelled at the apparent vagrancy of the populace. "What can send these restless people travelling and hurrying about from place to place as they do?" Nowadays the N22 is usually a quietish thoroughfare, wandering on through Macroom and Ballymakeery in the direction of Killarney.

Today, though, the entire population of Cork seems to be in riotous transit to the west, making the trip in vehicles strung with red banners and bumper stickers advertising "the rebel county". Where are they going? And what, as the traffic slows, concertinas and then crawls on again, are the Gardai doing about it?

The answer to the second question is: nothing. In Killarney, reached after a three-hour trip that should have taken 90 minutes, the streets are awash both with the Corkites and a horde of swarming rivals in blue and yellow sports shirts. "'Tis Cork playing the Tips" [Tipperary], a waitress in a Tesco restaurant explains. It transpires that this afternoon sees the Munster hurling final, played on the neutral ground of Kerry. Having a sharp eye for these things, I notice that the "full Irish breakfast" (€6.99) and the "all-day breakfast" (€5.99) contain exactly the same items.

"A hideous row of houses informed us that we were in Killarney," Thackeray told his early-Victorian readership. Nowadays the borders are lost in the customary out-of-town sprawl. But the dark green forests and hills of the National Park rising into the distance above the lake are worth any amount of inconvenience from the Cork and Tipperary fans who will roll amiably into the road on all sides as one inches past (What are the Gardai doing about this? Again: nothing). Back in 1842, our guide attended the local races, watched an abortive stag-hunt on the rain-drenched island of Innisfallen, and, having observed the tribes of mendicants thronging the approach to the racecourse, declared that "it is a shame that such horrible figures are allowed to appear in public".

Pleasant as these associations are, my own aim is to press on to Tralee, the county capital, 30 miles to the north-west, in the midst of what to Thackeray was "a sad-looking, bare, undulating country, with few trees, and poor stone-hedges, and poorer crops". The "wretched town, where horses are changed, and where I saw more hideous beggary than anywhere else, I think" looks as if it might be Farranfore, now very spruced up and touristified, and here, suddenly, with Dingle Bay stretching out on its western side, visible amid sheets of rain, lies Kerry's ancient heart, where the Desmond earls held out against Queen Elizabeth's invading forces before the city was burned to the ground.

A handsome description could be read in the guidebook he had brought with him, Thackeray observed, but "if I mistake not, the English traveller will find a stay of a couple of hours in the town quite sufficient to gratify his curiosity with respect to the place". This English traveller agreed.

The charm of most of the towns in Kerry is that they resemble the Norfolk villages of 30 years ago: sedate, not too populous, with quaint little shops and somewhere to park. Tralee, alternatively, notwithstanding Paddy O'Maloney's tourist hostelries, copies of The Kerryman on sale in the newsagents and the emerald fields rising across the horizon, could be Basingstoke: full of the usual loitering teenagers, clogged traffic and fast-food outlets.

There is an excellent museum, whose 19th- and 20th-century displays are captioned with an objectivity not always apparent elsewhere in Kerry, where the Fenians are always sturdy freedom fighters. But my real quest lies in the direction of a Victorian chapel where Thackeray, arriving to witness the Feast of the Assumption, stumbled upon what to an English protestant was an extraordinary spectacle: thousands of penitents on their knees in the courtyard, "rosary in hand, for the most part praying and mumbling, and casting a wistful look as the strangers passed". It would be long before he could forget this "strange, wild scene", Thackeray declared, "so different was it from the decent and comfortable usages of our own church".

The chapel seems to have metamorphosed into the church of St John (foundation stone laid in 1854), an impressive piece of architecture with - this at a time when all the Irish papers are lamenting the declining priesthood - no fewer than six incumbents with their pictures up in the porch alongside some discreet notices advertising the benefits of natural contraception.

I lingered there for quite a long time, as the children nagged and skirmished and the cars whined past in the slip-road, trying to find some link between this seemly edifice and Thackeray's wide-eyed sense of culture shock, before heading back into the exhaust fume-scented avenues thronged with back-packing tourists, wall-eyed 17-year-olds and Mr Paddy Power's ubiquitous betting shops.


How to get there

The best way to get there is to fly to Cork or Kerry airports. Ryanair (0871-246 0000; flies from Stansted to both airports from around £130 return. Aer Lingus (0845- 084 4444, flies from London Heathrow to Cork from around £95.

Where to stay

Caragh Lodge at Killorglin (00 353 66 976 9115; is a beautiful country-house hotel on the shores of Caragh Lake, not far from Killarney and Tralee. B&B in a double room starts at €180 (£128), based on two sharing.

Further information

Tourism Ireland (0800-039 7000;