Killarney's unique history began with the last Ice Age. A single ice sheet covered the entire region. As it melted, it sculpted Killarney's magnificent peaks Carrantoohill, Crohane, Tomies, Torc, and Mangerton. Pushing aside huge boulders and gravel, it created the winding passes of Moll's Gap and the Gap of Dunloe. The retreating ice also formed dark, mysterious loughs. The Long Range (Upper Lake, Muckross Lake, and Lough Leane), Lough Guitane, and the Devil's Punch Bowl are all glacial remnants. On the humorous side, it left the geological joke Cnoc An Cappeen, "the rock with a hat", just outside Kenmare.
Erosion over long periods has continued to form other beauty spots. The Upper Lake, Muckross Lake, and Lough Leane briefly combine at the Meeting of the Waters, creating a mass of small ripples before parting again. Water draining from the Devil's Punch Bowl is responsible for the spectacular Torc Waterfall, while mountain streams join and tumble down at O'Sullivan's Cascade. Time brought climatic change and great plant growth as well. Although today Killarney has one of the few remaining oak woods in Europe, the county was once covered with these mighty trees. With ample fresh water, wood, and plentiful animal life, it was only a matter of time before man arrived.
The first residents of the Killarney area were the Bronze Age Beaker Folk, from around 2000 BC. They mined copper on Ross Island and also left the open-air temple at Lissyvigeen. The Beaker Folk led a prosperous life with strong trade ties to the Continent. Beaten gold collars, or lunula, have been found at Mangerton and were common exports at the time. Although substantial finds of bronze weapons have been found in outlying areas, the Beaker Folk were generally peaceful farmers. Beginning in 500 BC, successive waves of invaders culturally changed the Killarney area. Pictish tribes from the north of Ireland were the first invaders. They practised polyandry and had matrilineal succession. According to legend, the ruling tribe in Killarney was descended from Queen Mebh's son Cair and was known as the Ciarraige. It is from this name that 'Kerry' is derived. Despite conquering the Beaker Folk, the Picts soon became subjects to the next invasion group for a number of centuries. The Ciarraige then moved and rose again in the sixth century to rule all of North Kerry. It is believed that St. Brendan the Navigator was desended from the Ciarraige.
In approximately 400 BC, the next wave came with the arrival of the Fir Bolg or Iverni. The name Fir Bolg means, "bag men." One explanation often given for this name is that they exported Irish earth to the Greeks to protect their cities from snakes. Expert stonemasons, the Fir Bolg created the stone forts Staigue, Cahergall, and Leacanabuaile centuries later. They also developed Ogham script, fine examples of which can be found near Killarney. The O'Shea and O'Falvey names are traced to the Fir Bolg. These were a Celtic people, who gave Ireland some of its richest legends. The tales of Cuchulainn, Deirdre, and Curoi are all attributed to them; it is thought that the great Irish saga 'Tain' tells of the Fir Bolg's battles with the next invasion group, the Gaels.
The Gaels - who later called themselves the Milesians - arrived in 100 BC. Although a fierce, warring race, it still took them 500 years to dominate the other two groups and eventually settle their power base around Killarney. From then on, Killarney rulers were called Eoganacht Locha Lein. Centuries later both the O'Sullivan and O'Donoghue families claimed Milesian descent.
The Arrival of Christianity
Until 400 AD, Killarney remained under Eoganacht Locha Lein rule with the Ciarraige and Fir Bolg paying tributes. The first Christian communities were established around this time with St. Abban building a cell at Aghadoe. Christianity was accepted quite readily in Kerry, as in all of Ireland, with the old pagan festivals and rites incorporated into the new faith. By 633 AD, a member of the Eoganacht Locha Lein, Faithliu, established the monestary on Innishfallen Island. Although the Geraldines came as far as Aghadoe and built a castle on the site of Parkavonear, the Eoganacht Locha Lein ruled undisturbed for 200 years until they were overthrown by another Milesian family from Cashel, the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy's. From 1200 onwards, the Anglo-Normans, based at Ballymalis Castle, launched successive attacks on the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy chieftains. The Anglo-Normans were eventually defeated at Callan in 1261. In the relatively peaceful centuries that followed, the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy family built Ross Castle and Muckross Abbey. Then in 1583, the English defeated the O'Donoghue/MacCarthy's, and most of their lands were awarded to Sir Vincent Browne. So ended a long line of Milesian rule in Killarney, and saw the beginning of a new dynastic power.
The Brownes eventually became Earls of Kenmare and had the single biggest influence on Killarney town. As part of the plantation of Munster, English Protestant settlers were given land in Killarney and in 1604 there were 40 English houses. However, this was not a success and by 1642, there were only 17 English men, women, and children left. In 1652, a Cromwellian military post was set-up at Ross Castle. These soldiers then sought out and hung Irish Catholic "revolutionaries." The poet Piaras Ferriter was one victim and the town centre Speir Bhean Monument commemorates him. The priest Thaddeus Moriarty was another, arrested for saying mass at Killaclohane Mass Rock. Remarkably, the Brownes remained Catholic throughout this period and never lost power.
Killarney continued as a small market town until 1750. At this point Viscount Kenmare, seeing a great promotional opportunity, decided to capitalise on nature's bounty. He invested in roads, boat facilities, and gave out long leases for new inns. Killarney became the "in place" to be and by 1780, even the Bishop of Kerry had moved there. During this same period, the lands around Muckross transferred to the Herbert family through marriage with the MacCarthy Mors. The Herbert's amassed a considerable fortune by mining copper along the Muckross peninsula. In 1793 Rudolf Erich Raspe, the author of The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, was employed as geological adviser for the estate. He died from a fever in November 1794 and is buried in nearby Killegy churchyard.
With the continued encouragement of the Brownes, St. Mary's Cathedral, St. Mary's Church of Ireland, the Presentation Convent, and a new Franciscan Friary were all built in the early nineteenth century. Both the Herberts and Brownes also built grand, new estate houses at Muckross and Knockreer. This prosperity was halted in the autumn of 1845 when a potato blight struck Killarney and the rest of Ireland. The partially built St. Mary's Cathedral was used as a fever hospital. The population of the large workhouse, built in 1845 to house 800, had swelled to 1200 by 1847. The Herberts and Brownes were active in Famine relief, remaining on their estates throughout the crisis. Both families cut personal expenditures in order to supply soup and provide agricultural expertise for their tenants.
By 1850, the ravages of the Famine had faded and Killarney's role as a tourist centre returned. It was confirmed in 1855 that Queen Victoria intended to visit the area. In 1861, with an entourage of over 100, the Royal Party arrived. They sojourned at Knockreer and Muckross during their stay. A panorama on the Muckross estate, enjoyed by her ladies-in-waiting, was dubbed Ladies View, a name it has retained ever since. The Herberts, in particular, spent vast sums in preparation for the visit, bankrupting themselves in the process.
The Muckross estate was sold in 1899 to Lord Ardilaun, a member of the Guinness family, and used strictly as a hunting lodge. In 1910 it was sold to a wealthy Californian, William Bowers Bourn, who gave it to his daughter as a wedding gift. Interestingly enough, Bowers Bourn had the ballroom walls of his California mansion, Filoli, painted with Muckross scenes. Maud Bowers Bourn married Irishman Arthur Rose Vincent and they made the estate their home. After Maud's tragic death in 1929, Arthur Rose Vincent decided to give the estate to the Irish nation. This was finalised in 1932, making Muckross the first Irish National Park. The National Park has continued to grow over the years. With the addition of the old Earl of Kenmare estate, it consists of approximately 26,000 acres. Initiated by Viscount Kenmare in the eighteenth century, Killarney's tourism role has changed very little in the present time. Whether energetic visitors come to hike in the magnificent mountains or the more sedate prefer to drive to the historic sites, Killarney welcomes everyone.