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Western Ireland: Return to a land of quiet wonder

Hilary Bradt updates her childhood memories of western Ireland on a tranquil midwinter break

"If you think I'm going anywhere near Macgillycuddy's Reeks, you can think again," said my sister. Our trip to western Ireland couldn't be worse in January 2013 than in it was in August 1956, could it? My memories of childhood holidays were pretty bleak. Designed by our father to indulge his passion for mountains, there were few concessions to his wife and three children, apart from occasional respite days on chilly beaches eating rain-drenched sandwiches.

For our first holiday outside the UK, he chose a hotel in the shadow (the rain shadow) of Macgillycuddy's Reeks, Co Kerry. "Isn't that a lovely name?" said Mother brightly, omitting to tell us that the Reeks part meant smoky or foggy, or that the ascent of Ireland's highest mountain, Carrantuohill, was part of the plan. Instead she told us that we could ride horses through the Gap of Dunloe and take horse-drawn jaunting cars – which didn't sound so bad.

Ever frugal, my father booked us in steerage on the overnight ferry, The Innisfallen, from Fishguard to Cork. We gave up trying to sleep through the inevitable results of a particularly rough crossing and tiptoed delicately around the piles of vomit on the deck the next morning.

In Ireland it rained most of the time. We climbed Carrantuohill in persistent cloud and drizzle. I remember sinking into bog to the top of my thigh, although Kate claims that it was her. Perhaps it was both of us. We had clammy plastic macs, plimsolls and a very poor attitude. But at 12 and 15 years old, what do you expect?

"No mountain climbing," I assured Kate. "We might try to hire horses to take us through the Gap of Dunloe, and maybe do a teeny weeny walk somewhere dry." I'd organised a hire car and booked us into a rather luxurious spa hotel, so with the short days we would have a wonderful excuse for some hedonistic pleasures during the hours of darkness.

Killarney, with its mountains and lakes, is and always has been the centre of tourism in Ireland. In 1838, Lord Ritchie rhapsodised that "within the circuit of a moderate day's walk, almost every possible variety of the wild, the majestic, the beautiful, the picturesque" could be seen. For old times' sake we took a jaunting car. These horse-drawn carriages have changed – no doubt because of health and safety – from passengers facing outward for the best view of the scenery to a covered wagon. Paul, our driver, told us why Killarney had escaped much of the devastating consequences of the potato famine. "We had benevolent landlords here. They created work for their tenants. See that wall? It's called a penny wall. The workers who laid all those stones were paid a penny a day."

There were penny walls aplenty around Muckross House. Many of Ireland's tourist attractions close during the winter, but not this huge manor. "In the summer we cram them in," said the guide. "Maybe 40 people at a time." Our select group of 13 were having a much better tour of this symbol of Ango-Irish grandeur. Built for Henry Arthur Herbert in the mid-19th century, the house caught the attention of Queen Victoria who paid a visit in 1861. The prospect put the household into a tremendous tizzy. They prepared for the visit for three years, anticipating every royal whim with such dedication that by the time the queen, her consort and 50 servants left after a stay of two nights, the Herberts were virtually bankrupt. They never recovered and the house had to be sold.

The Tudor-style mansion is the equal of any British stately home, but with indigenous Irish features. I never knew, for instance, that the region had its own furniture craftsmen. Killarney inlaid furniture was made from the wood of arbutus (a lovely pinkish-red), yew, holly and the almost black bog oak. Muckross House has some superb examples, inlaid with ferns and foliage, and detailed local views.

The walls of the entrance hall sprout mournful stags' heads, antlered skulls and massive remains of an Irish elk, found in a local bog. Carrying such spectacularly impractical headgear, one marvels that this animal became extinct only some 8,000 years ago. Kate stopped in front of an ancestral portrait of an austere frowning woman. "Look. Lady Elizabeth. She lives in our satnav." She did indeed. Her crisp voice guided us efficiently, if a little intolerantly, through a confusion of back roads. Fortunately for us, she was clearly Anglo-Irish and understood where we wanted to go, even when the road signs only admitted to "An Daingean", which doesn't look much like Dingle to the non-Irish speaker. In this Gaeltacht region, the use of Irish Gaelic is zealously encouraged, sometimes to the puzzlement of visitors.

"Dingle? Isn't that where that man leered at us outside the fish and chip shop?" I'd forgotten that incident. While the parents were buying our supper he'd poked his head through the open window of our car and, well, leered. But Mother's photos showed that we'd also driven around the blunt end of the peninsula, Slea Head. This is one of Ireland's most scenic drives, along with the Ring of Kerry. In peak season there are too many cars to do more than peer occasionally to the left at the precipitous cliffs, foam-flecked rocks and misty islands. In January, we were almost alone. Even on an overcast day, with a grey sea and the tops of the mountains hidden under cloud, it was spectacular.

A band of silver underlined Great Blasket Island and the twin pyramids of Tiaracht. There, too, was the endearing profile of the Sleeping Giant, his hand resting on his pot belly and his mouth open above his crinkly beard. The sun peeped out. Ahead of us a red minibus, describing itself as "The Paddy Wagon", swung into one of the viewpoints and disgorged giggling teenagers. We followed as they shrieked and tiptoed over the mud, bog and rocks which constituted the trail to Clogherhead and the peninsula's best view.

Slea Head has its own man-made attraction. While Muckross House is the symbol of Anglo-Irish rule, Gallarus Oratory represents its indigenous past and reminds us that Ireland was probably a Christian country before England. The little chapel attests to the skill of the masons who built it without the use of mortar, using the technique of corbelling (curving the walls inward until a line of capstones can complete the roof). Estimates vary as to when it was built, but it was somewhere between the eighth and 12th centuries. It has never been restored and is still watertight. We had it to ourselves. And that was almost true of one of Ireland's best restaurants. No fish and chips for us tonight. We got the affordable Early Bird menu at Doyle's, Dingle's finest seafood place. No booking necessary.

Kate had agreed, masochistically, that she would ride through the Gap of Dunloe "in snow or rain", but in the event there were no horses to be hired. "Not until St Paddy's Day," we were told. What a relief. "They said we could expect a bit of something soft," said Kate, referring to the weather forecast. So we drove through the mountain pass in our nice cosy car, something you're not allowed to do in the summer when the road is reserved for horses and jaunting cars. It winds through the deep valley, past grey ruffled lakes, shaggy ponies and staring sheep, until the pass itself when the road barely fits between the black and brown flanks of the mountains. Fifty-seven years ago we must have trotted past the workshop of the John Kiernan, the last Killarney furniture maker, but our bottoms were too sore, and the rest of us too wet, to notice. Now the cottage is in ruins, with trees growing through the chimney. And we wondered which, of the cloud-covered peaks, was the dreaded Carrantuohill.

A few days later, after Kate had returned home, I drove again through Macgillycuddy's Reeks. I asked a man puffing on his cigarette outside the Climber's Inn to point out Carrantuohill. "Is it yourself who'll be climbing it?" he asked, eyeing my wrinkles speculatively. I explained. "That's the thing," he said. "People come in August when it's all covered in cloud. The weather closes in then. This time of year, if you get a clear day and make an early start, you'll have a grand time."

And that's the point, really. Even if the weather doesn't clear, Killarney in the winter gives you this most touristed of areas to yourself. And, like us, you can stay at the Aghadoe Heights hotel, have a massage (not that we deserved it after such idle days), a swim and an Irish coffee over a game of Scrabble after dinner. Kate always beats me, but I definitely arrived on the summit of Carrantuohill first, all those years ago.

Hilary Bradt is the founder of Bradt Travel Guides

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Hilary Bradt travelled with Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com), which flies to Cork from Bristol, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow and Manchester. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted, Gatwick and Liverpool. Fastnet Line (00 353 21 437 8892; fastnetline.com) has a ferry crossing from Swansea and Irish Ferries (00 353 818 300 400; irishferries.com) links Pembroke with Rosslare. The writer hired a car from Hertz (0843 309 3099; hertz.co.uk).

Staying there

Aghadoe Heights, Killarney (00 353 64 31766; aghadoeheights.com). Doubles from €130, with breakfast.

More information

Tourism Ireland: discoverireland.com