What’s the best time to visit Kerry?
Let’s get one very important consideration out of the way for starters. Disregard the weather when you’re making your plans. The harsh reality is that there are no weather guarantees in Ireland. We can get all four seasons in one day, a heat wave in May or a monsoon in summer. Drive into Dingle town one morning and see people sheltering from rain in doorways and, by afternoon, they’re licking ice creams in the street. Come with plenty of wardrobe options and layers to embrace all weathers because, rain or shine, the Kerry experience will pay you dividends.
Trad music and Bluebells
Kerry never fully slumbers – visitors come year round – but the county does doze in winter and begins to rub its eyes again in February. An excellent jumping off-point for a spring break is the annual traditional music and dance festival, ‘The Gathering’, presenting the cream of Irish talent in late February. Not to be missed if you are a music fan. Check out the Irish National Events Centre website for its full programme of concerts through the year (inec.ie).
Saint Patrick’s Day or March 17th is the date that the tourist season really begins to resurrect. Practically every little village and town has its own Paddy’s Day Parade. If you want to start your holiday with a carnival atmosphere, a showcase of Irish culture and swathes of golden daffodils, circle March 17th in your calendar. But do pack warm clothes and waterproofs.
As in every popular holiday destination, the early bird escapes the crowds in Kerry. In March and April, you will have the county virtually to yourself. Late frost delivers incredibly blue skies and clear days. And, crucially, you have quiet roads and your pick of dates for accommodation. The bluebell woodland is spectacular in March/April.
Nature at its Best
Late April and the entire month of May arguably represent the time that you will see nature at its most beautiful in Kerry. The fresh green of new growth is incomparable. Cultivated rhododendrons and azaleas transform Muckross Gardens into an oasis of indigo and pink. Wild rhododendrons bloom in a purple haze on the Killarney mountainsides. Horse chestnuts are heavy with candle blossoms. Kerry’s landscape will simply steal the sight from your eyes.
Would you like to join locals at an ancient pilgrimage site that is totally under the radar as regards tourism? On May 1st every year, people from East Kerry and beyond converge on “The City” near Rathmore as their ancestors have done for generations. Set in an ancient ring fort, this gathering represents authentic Celtic spirituality in its purest form (see voicesfromthedawn.com).
For the best of Irish literature, visual arts, music, and storytelling check out Féile na Bealtine in Dingle, the Celtic welcome of summer over the first weekend in May (see feilenabealtine.ie).
Another May highlight is World Fiddle Day in Scartaglin, a hilltop village about 30 minutes drive from Killarney (worldfiddledayscartaglin.ie). This showcase of Irish music takes place on the third Saturday of May. It is an unrivaled opportunity to experience ‘real Ireland’ as fiddle sessions featuring the maestros of Irish traditional music get underway from early morning in the local bars and cultural centre. There are also lectures and exhibitions.
One word of warning for the first weekend in May. Killarney hosts the Rally of the Lakes over this bank holiday weekend. This is fine if you are into motor sports. If not, prepare for heavy traffic on the outskirts of the town and some road closures.
Horses and Festivals
By the time July and August roll in, obviously it’s all systems go. Country roads on the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula are blazing with the orange of Monbretia set against the scarlet of Fuchsia – an incredible sight.
This is high festival season. Again, like Paddy’s Day, the summer festivals and horse racing meetings are an ideal introduction to Irish culture in all its richness and eccentricities. Killarney and Listowel are the most high-profile horse racing venues but, for true visual spendour, catch a smaller beach meeting in Glenbeigh on the Ring of Kerry to see the horses thunder on the sands at the ocean’s edge. Our favourite festival would include Puck Fair, Dingle Races and Kenmare Fair Day (all in August).
If you’re into motorbikes and the spectacle of Zse Zse Top-like Harley riders, you will enjoy the carnival atmosphere of Killarney’s annual Ireland Bike Fest which takes place in early June and features an amazing parade through the town (irelandbikefest.com).
For the readers among you, Listowel Writers’ Week (writersweek.ie) features readings and book signings by leading international authors over the first weekend in June. The who’s who in the literary world have all checked into Listowel through the years. One of the beauties of this festival is its informal atmosphere and total lack of pretension. Listowel is one hour’s drive from Killarney.
Check out Killarney’s annual Fourth of July Parade which has all the razzmatazz of a Disney parade in the centre of town.
If you are interested in Irish history and politics, try a session at the Daniel O’Connell Summer School held annually over a weekend in August in Cahersiveen and Derrynane (see oconnellsummerschool.com).
Yes, it’s high season, you’ve got plenty of company but Kerry boasts such vast wilderness that it’s no problem to get off the beaten track with insider advice and tips from your hosts here at “Gleann Fia” on walking trails, cycle paths, boat trips and mountain climbs.
September in Ballinskelligs and Derrynane
Again for an authentic experience of Celtic spirituality, visit Saint Michael’s Well in Ballinskelligs on September 29th for Saint Michael’s Feast Day, also known as ‘The Pattern’ or ‘The Pattern Day’. Locals gather for traditional prayers called ‘rounds’ at the well which was supposed to have miraculous powers in the 18th century (see visitballinskelligs.ie).
The tiny coastal community of Ballinskelligs is an Irish-speaking or Gaeltacht region just off the Ring of Kerry. Brimming with culture, history and walks, it truly qualifies as a hidden gem. Well-worth a day day trip from Killarney, especially for the nearby Bolus Head Loop Walk.
Another highly-recommended day trip is Derrynane House, Gardens and Beach on the Ring of Kerry. This is truly an unspoiled paradise (see derrynanehouse.ie).
The big shift in the season comes at the end of August when the Irish schools re-open. You see, we Irish are tourists as well and the home visitor traditionally has a soft spot for Kerry as a family holiday destination, a romantic getaway, a wedding venue, an outdoor paradise or a good old knee’s up packed with Irish fun or ‘craic’. And, if the Irish adore Killarney and Kerry, what better recommendation do you need? But when mammy, daddy and the kids have reluctantly returned to the ‘real world’, September is a quieter time to visit. Also, locals often bank on an Indian summer at this time; sometimes it materialises.
The onset of autumn brings its own beauty with the changing colours of the leaves making it an ideal time for walking, cycling, mountain climbing or, in Irish parlance, gloriously doing ‘feck all’. Killarney boasts a number of world-class hotel spas where you can lie back in relaxation rooms overlooking the lakes and mountains after your treatments.
September is also the month for Ireland’s national Culture Night, a date teeming with free performances and cultural activities. DO look up Culture Night in Kerry if you’re planning a September visit (culturenight.ie/kerry).
Bellowing Deer and Winter Stars
A big attraction in the Killarney Valley in October is the rutting or mating season of the native Red Deer. The primeval bellowing of the lovelorn stags in Killarney National Park carries as far as the town on still nights. Because the deer herds are so close to the walking paths, the rutting season has become a huge attraction for photographers. But, careful how you walk on the wild-side. Seasonal warnings are issued not to leave the paths or get too close to the hormone-tormented stags who can be dangerous at this time.
The Kerry Red Deer Society runs two organised walks for the public in October (kerry-deer-society).
As the evenings grow darker, Ballinskelligs, set in the heart of South Kerry’s International Dark Sky Reserve, is an ideal location for star gazing at the edge of the sea. Specialist weekends with visiting astronomers and star-watching through powerful scopes on the beach are simply heavenly (kerrydarksky.com).
One of the advantages of an autumn/winter visit to Killarney is that there are far less visitors and more opportunities to chat with the locals in local bars where open fires blaze and traditonal music sessions continue. Again, check out an entertainment event at the INEC to build your visit around.
Christmas in Killarney
As the Bing Crosbie song suggests, ‘Christmas in Killarney’ is a truly magical time. From the last weekend in November, the town is transformed into a winter wonderland with exquisite lighting garlanding the streets and the trees. Parades are held every weekend for the children and the young-at-heart (Christmas in Killarney).
Whatever time of year you choose to visit Killarney and the Kingdom, you will discover that Kerry is truly a county for all seasons and all interests.
For up-to-the-minute listings of festivals and arts events, check out Kerry County Council’s updates (festivals & events).