The Great Southern Railway, the Franciscan Friary and the Red Deer
We will continue up East Avenue Road and follow the branch to the right, as this leads us to Killarney’s Railway Station. The railway acted as a great catalyst in the establishment of Killarney as a tourist destination during the middle of the nineteenth century. The fine railway buildings were constructed with stone quarried near the town in 1853. The Killarney Junction Railway was the first railway company to own and operate its own hotel, the Great Southern Hotel, which opened in 1854. The hotel has hosted many celebrities over the years. The famous opera singer, Jenny Lind, also known as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’ was greeted by a large crowd when she arrived at the hotel in 1859. She delighted her fans with a rendition of ‘Believe Me’ on the steps of the hotel.
The sculpture known as An Spéir Bhean or The Sky Woman was sculpted by Seamus Murphy in 1940 to commemorate the four Kerry poets; Piaras Feiritéar, Geoffrey O’Donoghue, Aodhagán Ó Rathaille and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin. Two of the poets, Ó Rathaille and Ó Súilleabháin, belonged to the famous Sliabh Luachra School of Poetry, which flourished nearby in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, these were turbulent and tragic times in Kerry, and this was reflected in much of their poetry, which was largely composed in Irish. The poets also taught in local ‘hedge schools’, where Catholic children were taught reading, writing and arithmetic and sometimes, Latin and Greek.
The Sky Woman looks across towards Martyr’s Hill or ‘Cnoc na Martra’ in Irish, where one of the poets, Piaras Feiritéar, was hanged in 1653, together with Fr. Thaddeus Moriarty, a Dominican Prior. Both men had been marched by Cromwellian soldiers from their imprisonment in Ross Castle and executed on the gallows.
Geoffrey O’Donoghue survived the turbulent times of Cromwell and people travelled from far afield to attend his parties and hear his poetry. Aodhagán Ó Rathaille wrote of the Sky-woman in his poetry and hoped that one day the traditions of Gaelic Ireland would be restored. Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin, the last of the four poets, led the life of a rover and raconteur. The four poets are said to have been laid to rest in Muckross Abbey.
A short walk east brings you to the beautiful, Gothic Revival Franciscan Friary and Church on Fair Hill. The Franciscans first made a foundation at Muckross Abbey in 1448, at that time known as Irrelagh Friary. The monastery flourished until the friars were forced to flee under the Penal Law of 1697, which forbade any Catholic bishop or priest to remain in Ireland. The friars went into hiding in isolated places near Mangerton Mountain and ministered to the people in lonely glens and woods, using rock outcrops and flat stones as altars, which became known as ‘Mass Rocks’. Having spent decades on the run, the friars were eventually permitted to return to the town in 1781 where they set up a school for boys on College Street.
The foundation of the present Church and Friary dates from 1860, when Belgian Franciscans were invited to come to Killarney by a local Bishop. The Belgians, in turn, handed the Friary over to the English Franciscans in 1891 and finally, in 1902, the Killarney Friary came once again into the care of the Irish Province.
Designed by J.J. McCarthy, the architectural disciple of renowned architect, A.W. Pugin, the church was completed in 1887. The Earl of Kenmare and his wife held a bazaar in the grounds of their home to help raise funds for the church’s construction. Among the guests were King Leopold II of Belgium, the Duke of Chartres, the Duchess of Aumale and the Counts of both Flanders and Paris. The bazaar raised over £1,400 – a substantial amount of money at that time.
The Church interior is said to have been designed by Edward Pugin, eldest son of A.W. Pugin, who designed Killarney Cathedral but perhaps is most famous for designing the Palace of Westminster. The interior is simple in style, with a lofty arched ceiling and strong oak paneling providing a clean backdrop to the wonderfully ornate and detailed Flemish-style alter designed by J. Janssen from Belgium. One of the finest examples of a Harry Clarke studio window can be found in the organ gallery, its deep rich colours, the delicate depiction of the figures with their finely carved features making it a work of outstanding beauty.
Today’s Franciscans live in a new house built within the grounds of the Church while the old buildings are now used as the Diocesan Youth Centre.
Red deer are inextricably linked with Killarney, Visitors who arrive into Killarney from the nearby train station are welcomed by two life-size bronze stags leaping into battle. The sculpture, made by Don Cronin in 2012, celebrates the saving of the Red Deer when they were brought back from near extinction by the Kerry Red Deer Society in 1962. Red Deer is Ireland’s largest and only native species. They are believed to have had a continuous presence in Ireland since the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago. At this time, deer roamed freely throughout Ireland, however as a result of deforestation and over-hunting, many populations became extinct. By the middle of the nineteenth century the last home of the Red Deer was in the woodlands and mountains around Killarney.
Today there are about 800 roaming the National Park and surrounding hinterland. Stag hunting was a popular pastime of the landed class throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however it was banned in Ireland in 2010. Wild deer are now a protected species with the national herd being managed by conservation rangers. The two best places to see Red Deer in Killarney are in the Knockreer area of the National Park and further out of town beyond Muckross House. The Red Deer has a rich red coloured coat, darkening down to a greyish brown in winter. The rut season takes place in October and November and if you are lucky, you may catch them in action, or at least hear their deep bellowing, a sound that has echoed around this landscape for millennia. It is advised not to get too close to the deer during rutting season.
The area behind the courthouse, now a car park, was once the Fair Field, where all the local fairs were once held. Sheep, cattle and pigs all changed hands here, and it also traded in thousands of turkeys at Christmas Time. During the year hay, potatoes and vegetables of all kinds were brought and sold. There are market stalls still trading today but the animal fairs are now a thing of the past.