Nature Notebook

WHERE THE EARL OF DESMOND WAS BEHEADED … & Captain Robert Monteith was hidden away

The weather forecast said it would be overcast but there would be no rain.  But as I was leaving the Bernard Collins Carpark the dark clouds were almost dripping.  For the two and a half hours I was likely to be walking the Lenihan Trail it was best to wear rain gear.
The information panel just inside the entrance to Gleann na gCaointe Wood describes the area as the Sherwood Forest of Ireland.
On forest road along the open hill on the southern side of a steep, narrow valley with the greenest field along the valley floor … dense conifer wood covers the steep northern wall of the glen.
At its eastern end the road becomes a trail.  Crossing over a stream a further information panel tells that the last Earl of Desmond was beheaded here.  The place is named the vale of the wailing.
Now rising under a thick canopy of conifer wood.  By a holy well with waters, we are told, that have unique powers to satisfy thirst.
High up looking down over a great panorama of hill and wood.  A further panel tells how Captain Robert Monteith, who landed on Banna Strand with Roger Casement, evaded capture here.
Along the way … occasional primroses …
and a rich abundance of newly bloomed Hazel catkins
… by furze in full bloom.
An information panel tells that Stephen Fuller, who was the only survivor from the bloody massacre at Ballyseedy in 1923, was spirited away here.
Further illustrated panels tell of the athletic prowess of Dan Ahern and Tom McCarthy.
Now rising high on open hill with great panoramas – in the right visibility – of Tralee Bay … Killarney lakes and mountains from the Paps to Knockadobar.

What better way to spend a Sunday afternoon … and the rain that appeared imminent at the beginning never came.

– Frank Lewis

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– a story for Sarah – or other four year olds – of any age

The zig zag angles of the branches of the formidable sinuous yew at the south western end of the Monks’ Wood are extraordinary.

It looks like a grotesque giant stretching after sleep. But the zig sag stretching is not just in the arms but also in the legs. The trunk is straight. But it has no head. A figure not to come across unexpectedly especially in the half light of dusk.

In the mild moistness of last Sunday the glistening branches appeared to be bulging with muscles, particularly at the hairpin angles. This was somebody to have in your corner if there was a fight.

Maybe this was a human giant turned into a tree by some magical power.  Maybe he had cycled here on the ghost bicycle we had come across in 2016.  A year ago this looked like a bizarre piece of nature intertwining with the undergrowth. Others have disturbed it since then.  Like the ‘cyclist’ we saw last Sunday.

Maybe in a final rage, being transformed from man to tree, the giant twisted some of the other yew trees into the corkscrew/spiral shape that we see today – and that includes the great yew in Muckross Abbey.

What did the monks from the nearby abbey make of this unique yew, on their meditations, or when they tended their fruit and vegetables gardens in the fertile hollows here?

How did the yew grow like this?

The severed trunk and zig zag branches are around an open space.  Might the tree have grown around a huge boulder?  One of the great rocks dropped thousands of years ago by a melting glacier.  These huge stones are a common feature of Killarney woodlands.

But there is no huge boulder nearby that might have fallen out of the tree. And that does not explain the zig zag shapes.

Was the tree shaped in this way?  There appears to be some evidence of pruning, but that appears to be much more recent.  Nearby – but not, I think, in view of this tree – the Herbert’s had built a platform from which to admire Mr Herbert’s exotic trees from many lands.  Did they fashion the tree as a further ‘curiosity’ to entertain their visitors?

“I can’t explain the amazing shapes of the tree,” the person most familiar with these woods, horticulturist Cormac Foley, said on one of our visits here a year ago.

Then he wondered “might the yew have been twisted in this way by radiation from a falling meteor?” Like human bodies were grotesquely damaged by the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster or the dropping of atomic bombs in Japan.

Might this great yew be a relic of an ancient meteor shower? There is archaeological evidence that such things did happen with devastating consequences. It is a theory worth examining.

Frank Lewis

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Christmas Walks


Christmas is a festival of walks. Eight or nine or sometimes ten days of doing a decent walk everyday. This year has been particularly good. The warm, dry, sunny weather made it exceptional.

Spurred on by the repeats of four of our radio walks … Tuesday December 27 the Derrynane Mass Path, Wednesday From Lisselton to Cnoc an Fhomhair, Thursday the Monk’s Wood, Friday the Keel Loop Walk and last Saturday a new programme Walking in Fenit. You can hear them all on the Radio Kerry podcast.


Christmas Eve was an unexpected bonus. Four year old grand-daughters needed to be away from shops/food/television. First to Torc Waterfall. How much further would they walk?  The two lead the way up.  Now across the Owengarriff above the waterfall.  Up through conifer woods.  Now small legs were beginning to object.  Along a track their mothers were enticed to walk with the promise of a playground in the middle of the woods.  Now no longer there.  But we got to the first great viewing point on the north face of Torc mountain.  Even in the misty, overcast conditions the great view over Middle and Lower Lakes with their backdrop of Purple mountain.  And, as the carol says, all the way home is downhill.  From car back to car was something over two hours.


I don’t know whether the Christmas Day ten mile trek around Muckross and Dinis was a challenge for a four year old but it is one of my earliest memories. Along the southern shore of Lough Leane, through endlessly varied woodland , through the largest yew wood in Europe, under great oaks, by large conifers introduced from the Americas. The great bulk of Tomies/Purple /Glena mountains to the west. Now Lough Leane to the right and Muckross lake on the left. At Dinis the waters of Killarney’s three great lakes meet. Then hugging the southern shore of Muckross. The Park road above the main road gives high views of lake and mountain. Then skirting eastern lake shores, through Muckross Gardens, 15th century Muckross Abbey, along the funeral road. Even in the dark, misty gloom this three hour trek made Christmas dinner even more appetising.


From Stephen’s Day there was endless sunshine.

An annual Stephen’s Day walk in recent years has been from Derrycunnihy to Kate Kearney’s. Beginning through Ireland’s most extensive ancient oak woodland. Queen Victoria’s cottage once framed the great cascade. On open moorland with high views over the Upper Lake. Then along the lake shore to where Lord Brandon ‘detained’ his unfaithful wife. Through part of the Black Valley. Along the whole length of the Gap of Dunloe, gouged out by millions of years of ice movement. High mountain cliffs on both sides. Past a series of glacial lakes. This is a walk of some five hours. The pint in Kate Kearney’s is all the more welcome and food never tasted so good.


The Keel Loop Walk is one of the great additions of recent years.  It begins in the village of Boolteens (about 40 minutes from Gallan Eile). A short way on public road, then along the banks of the River Groin, beginning at the edge of green fields, then for an extended time on top of raised flood bank. A young alder and conifer wood on the right. Increasing banks of golden reeds cover the marshland on the eastern shore of the river Groin and then along northern and southern banks of the River Maine. The Slieve Mish mountains imminently to the north. To the south a huge range of mountains from the Cork/Kerry border to the western ocean. Now along the estuary of the Maine. The mud flats here feed wintering arctic flocks. As well great numbers of snipe use their long beaks to search for food. Look out for the Little Egret (like a small heron) and the Shell Duck – both snow white.

At Lacacalla Slip, just where the Maine flows into Loch na dTrí Caol (the lake of the three narrows)/Castlemaine Harbour, the Keel Loop Walk goes inland along a quiet bohereen. Even with numerous ‘picnic’ stops – where she presided on the top step of a stile – the distraction of bird, donkey and goat we had now been walking for over three hours and four year old Sarah had had enough. We returned along two kilometers of the unpleasantly busy and narrow R561 (Killarney/Dingle road). The second half of the Keel Loop is north of the R561 on the bare moorland of the foothills of the Slieve Mish mountains with great high panoramas over river, sea and mountain (see Nature Notebook March 16, 2016 ) The total walk should take about four hours.


On Wednesday a great combination of lake, mountain and sea on a loop of the Kerry Way that circles Seefin mountain. Beginning outside the Catholic church in Glenbeigh – some 40 minutes from Gallan Eile – we walked east for 2.5 kms along the main Ring of Kerry/N70 road. The widening views of the spits of Rossbeigh, Inch & Cromane – that give Loch na dTrí Caol its name – and of Dingle Bay gave reason for stopping on the rising secondary road and looking back. Now on the level – more or less – along kilometers of green road some 200/250 feet over the whole length of Caragh Lake, in the background our highest peaks in the McGillicuddy Reeks. Now west/north west through the 300 foot high Windy Gap – south west the Coomasaharn Horseshoe.

Now north with a great high panorama of Dingle Bay, the three sandy promontories and the inner harbour with the Slieve Mish spine of the Dingle Peninsula behind. Dermot told me we were walking for three hours and twenty minutes.


Ross island (a 15 minute drive from Gallan Eile) is ideal for both walker and stroller. It is entirely flat and heavily wooded with endless views of mountain, lake and island. The stroller can spend an hour or two covering all of the main points on the park roads. The slightly more adventurous will be hugely rewarded following all of the tracks and even venturing where there is no path at all. On Thursday it was after 1 before we started. Along the mining trail from the back of the boat dock at Ross Castle.

Now the trees are bare of leaf showing their huge complexity.

At the oldest copper mines in north western Europe picking up evidence of iron working. So many stones with green copper stain. Searching for a fragment of a Neolithic axe head. Who was the Governor that had a spectacular headland named after him. High over the northern shore of Hyde’s Bay, decayed remains of steps prepared for Queen Victoria’s 1861 visit. Huge beech trees that will cloak acres and acres of wild garlic in April and May and in October/November are luminous with Autumn colour. Library Point looks out on the ancient abbey on Innisfallen, O’Donghue’s Prison and Mouse island. Finally on the largely trackless south eastern corner that ends on the canal back to Ross Castle. Ross Island deserves a library of its own. All of that in just over three hours.


On Friday I have the blisters that are evidence of raking the endless Autumn leaves at Gallan Eile. And then a special treat – afternoon tea in splendour of the Park Hotel in Kenmare looking down on the sea at full tide.


On Saturday from Gallan Eile a brisk walk through conifer woods to the heights of Faill a Crann (Tree cliff). Rising up to a widening lake panorama with mountain backdrop. For the last kilometer or so the bare branches of larch trees cloaked in an appropriate seasonal decoration of lichen. At the end of the rough park road the lake/mountain/woodland panorama is most spectacular


On Sunday several hours wandering around the large exclosure in part of our most extensive natural oak woodland in Derrycunnihy. Great varied carpets of mosses are at their luxuriant richest at the moment. Great numbers of huge rocks dropped here by melting glaciers. The huge numbers of young holly would appear to show the exclosure is successfully keeping out the deer. But every one of the young trees has been browsed. I saw one red deer hinde with her calf and the great amount of deer droppings shows there are many more. Walking over earthen ridges in an area that was carefully built up to conserve scarce soil wondering about the harshness of living here in pre-famine years. Two of the most rewarding hours in this living landscape text book.


 I wanted to spend Monday (yesterday), the last free day, wandering the Monks’ Wood south west of Muckross Abbey (see Nature Notebook, March 7, 2016 ) but an accident sent us west. We ended up at Lacacalla Slip.  It must have been after 1pm when we started walking along the flood bank that the previous Tuesday we had walked the other way around.  

Now more of the mud flats were exposed on either side of the River Maine Estuary. The lonesome whistle of flocks of snipe, who left tracks on the mud on their busy hunt for food. Great numbers of other birds including the all white Little Egret and Shell duck. Sarah learned all of ‘Ma,Ma will you buy me a ..’ By the time we reached the end of the flood bank over the River Groin it was 3.30. Sarah and Siubhan continued to Boolteens and I retraced my steps. Now the evening light was even more dramatic. Every bird song note was clear in the still of the evening. Those four year old legs had walked and run for most of three and a half hours … along the way picnicing, singing, watching bird, goat and donkey.

Surely this is what life is about?

Frank Lewis

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– now in magical Autumn colour

The beech trees overhead were mesmerising in infinite shades of luminous yellows and browns.  I walked up and down, backwards and forwards.  I lay on the ground to get the full effect.  Eventually I had to drag myself away.


Last Sunday that headland south of Library Point on Ross Island was magical.  In May this whole place is covered in white flowering wild garlic.

Leaving the estate road to Library Point I walked along the track on the northern side of Hyde’s Bay.  Across the bay the rocky outcrop of Governor’s Rock.

The several sets of crumbling stone steps indicate that at an earlier time this was a popular route developed sensitively with some considerable care.  Perhaps for the visit of Queen Victoria in 1861.










Great erratic boulders, left behind in the ice age, evidence of a much older era, that also gouged out the basin that is now filled by lake water.


Along the wooded way oak and yew, ash and sycamore.  A pictorial representation of moving from Summer to Autumn contrasting the evergreen leaves of the arbutus with the endless Autumn colours of the deciduous leaves.


At the western end the captivating beech grove extends from the lake as far as the demesne road.


On several of the more majestic beech trees initials are distinctively carved.  On at least two trees ‘JG’.  On one added ‘1940’ and on another ’31 1 ’40’.  Another tree very decoratively remembers ‘MTM’.  I wonder if the ‘J’ and ‘M’ with a bulging heart carved in between went on to live the promise.  Carving on trees happened in years gone by but is now frowned on.

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Further along the wooded track, high over the broad expanse of Lough Leane richly red-berried holly with its prickly dark green leaves, side-by side with Autumn dark browns to luminous gold … an indication of moving from Autumn to Winter.  Or, perhaps more appealingly, moving from Autumn to Christmas.


At the furthest headland, having checked that O’Donoghue’s Library had all of its volumes, wondering how O’Donoghue managed on his prison, saluted the spirit of the monks on Innisfallen, imagined Mickey Mouse on his tiny island.  After all of that I preferred to retrace my steps than returning on the demesne road through the alder and sally of the swamp woodland.


Looking out from Gallan Eile there is still plenty of Autumn colour in evidence.  Even after the storm of the past days and the cold evidenced by the snow-capped peaks.
– Frank Lewis

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To Autumn by John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
    And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
        To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
    With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
        For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.


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– as a result of careful research & good detective work


In the Killarney House Gardens, on the edge of the town, the great expanse of formal lawns, the Cherry Tree Walk, the Long Terrace Walk and the mixed border draw the line-of-sight to Lough Leane and the McGillicuddy Reeks. 


The dominant features of the main entrance area are the trees – established and newly planted, the refurbished building – that was the stable block in the 18th century French chateau style house here – with its new sunken, paved forecourt, and new very modern building.  In Spring tens of thousands of newly planted daffodils will bloom here. 


The 300 metre Cherry Drive has been entirely newly planted.  In May the impact of the flowering cherries leading to the original front door will be apparent. 


The 270 metre ( six metre wide) Mixed Border, with 7,500 plants, and a backing of yew, is the longest herbaceous border in Ireland. 


Imagine Queen Victoria and her ladies-in-waiting being guided along the Long Terrace Walk by Lord and Lady Castlerosse when they stayed here on Monday, August 26, 1861, on their formal state visit.  The wide, paved terrace allowed the ladies to view the estate while preserving their finery and wide skirts.

Careful research and good detective work were used to re-create the overall garden design – including paths, flowers beds, trees, hedges and wilderness area – as they were for the Queen’s visit.


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The circular bed in the centre of the lawns is at present full of a varied selection of flowers in rich magnificant bloom.


Thousands of newly planted fifteen foot high trees cover much of the area west and south of the formal gardens. These include Spanish chestnut, oak, beech and alder planted in straight lines in the style of an 18th century Wilderness Area. 


The southern edge of the formal lawns is fringed by a line of lime trees, replicating the limes that line nearby Ross Road.

The southern side of the gardens has a series of tree-hedge surrounded grassed areas including a Patte d’Oie or goose foot shaped area formed by paths and hedging. 

The cherub classical garden sculpture was part of the formal garden 200 years ago. Other original sculpture pieces will be re-introduced in the coming months. Around the cherub there is a lot of tree planting and a short herbaceous border.


Killarney House Gardens are open everyday from 9am to 6pm.  The house will open in 2017.  It will have interpretative exhibitions on the flora and fauna of Kerry and the broader Kerry area as well as displays on the people who lived here.  It will also have temporary exhibition areas and space for cultural events.

– Frank Lewis

On September 24 hear something of the legend, nature, history and folklore in our walk around Killarney House Gardens on Saturday Supplement on Radio Kerry from 9am to 11am – 97fm or – live or on podcast.

Killarney House Gardens are within a ten-minute drive of Gallan Eile, our self-catering rental accommodation – for more information or to book a stay Gallan Eile …

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– Cian walks to Faill a’ Crann after five hour half iron man

In the endless hours of sunshine last Friday blackberries should have been picked. Now the hope is the persistent rain over Friday night/Saturday morning didn’t take them all. At the very least the full flavour will not have been helped. The next hours of sunshine won’t be diverted by the recurring need to strim and weed.

Hopefully this week there will be a window to pick blackberries for a mouth watering pie – I can taste it already – and we might make a few pots of the king of jams – blackberry and apple.


These are the last days of the rich 2016 crop of red/orange rowan berries. The last chance get enough to fulfill a special dream. Make just one pot of rowan jelly. The word is that it enhances cold meats.


A big red stag thrashed a young silver birch a week ago last Saturday as I watched from the kitchen window. This pre-rut activity is to strip off the soft tissue covering their antlers. I got a photograph but it isn’t great.


Then later in the day I found our ginkgo or maidenhair tree had been decimated by a red stag. The tree to mark the launch of Alice Taylor’s book Country Life. Only one very sad looking branch survived. The bark of the young tree had been stripped to the ground. Our only tree of special significance.

Ginkgo in August 2015 (from a different angle)

Kathleen told me several weeks ago that she had already heard the very distinctive triple, extended whistle-like, rut roar of the sika stag.


Mangerton’s purple cloak was highlighted by the red hue of the pre sunrise light a few days ago. Sunrise is at 7 this week in Killarney and sunset is at 8.10.


The purple bell and ling heathers are at their best these days on the forest road through conifer woods just short of Faill a’ Crann on Mangerton.

After completing the Kenmare half iron man (1.9km swim; 83 km cycle, 21km run) in four hours & forty minutes Siubhan’s 19 year old nephew Cian came with us on the two hour trek to the viewing point at Faill a’ Crann. There are very definite advantages in being young!

Now in September there are so many signs of Autumn. Though the leaves from my window are still all green. The pinks and purples of Autumn flowers are vigorous. The grass in the lawn is still growing too quickly.

It is good to be alive.

– Frank Lewis


– gets kids to walk and mouths water

“There are lots of hurts up here that you can pick and eat.”  I had made the huge mistake of saying we were going for a walk in the woods.  I should have said “we are going to pick berries in the woods”.

Now I was desperately trying to back track.  The growled response indicated I wasn’t having much success.

The first bushes had no berries.  Things were bad.  Luckily I hadn’t said what I was looking for.  They didn’t know what I was searching for.

Three and a half year old Sarah is the essential greedy magpie.  Maybe that should be industrious squirrel.  She is a throw back to an earlier time when everything had a use.

She had Scots pine cones in one hand, bits of branches in the other.  Everything was interesting. The promise of food was a bonus – a very important bonus.



But for her 8 year old cousin Ronan, for whom the sun rises and sets on lego and computer games, going outdoors with adults was suspect from the beginning.

To be fair he does like the outdoors – on his own, or with other youngsters of his own age, in his own time he goes out regularly.  And runs and jumps while he thinks and talks lego and computer.

On his bicycle or with some other diversion was fine.  But his bike was at home in Reno in Nevada.  So not having berries immediately was an extra challenge.

Field grasses now have full seed heads.  Pulling one of these through gaps in teeth leaving a mouth full of grass seed behind was a great diversion … especially if that was an adult mouth.

Fourteen year old Nessa, the third of the triumverate of grandchildren, in a world between children and adults, a world that might be ‘boring’ or wander from one side of the fence to the other.


Looking at the colourful rain jackets of my four fellow walkers I wondered if the disposition of all four could only be as colourful.  It will happen.  In time. Hopefully.


At last a clump of hurt bushes with a rich crop of berries.  The two youngest members picked and ate and picked and ate and picked and ate.  They had to be dragged away.

These days the brambles are showing more and more fully ripe blackberries.  The king of the wild fruits.  Eaten straight from the bush.  To remind you of the ecstasy I have included the photo of Sarah taken a year ago.


Fresh blackerries mashed up with cream or ice cream – an ideal refreshment while watching Kerry play Dublin on Sunday.  Blackberry and apple tart, pie, jam.  If you haven’t eaten don’t deny yourself any longer.

As well in these coming weeks … crab apples and rowan berries, hazel and Spanish chestnuts, mushrooms.  More about all of those in the weeks ahead.

Frank Lewis

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– in a land formed by ice from Derricunnihy to Kate Kearney’s

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Even with moderate water the Derricunnihy Cascade is a special sight.  Walking up close its width and its many channels are even more impressive.  If you come back during or immediately after extended heavy rain its ferocity would take your breath away.

Not surprisingly Queen Victoria was impressed when she visited here 155 years ago … almost to the day.  And unlike her visit, a week ago last Monday we had no problem with midges.

Then on through hundreds of acres of oak woods, with their understory of holly and thick ground cover carpets of mosses.


The abrupt end of the woods makes more impressive the first high view looking down over the Upper Lake, with the full Reeks Ridge in the background. Over two million years the movement of glaciers gouged out the basin that is now filled by the lake.


Then out on open, rough, wet land.


From a high outcrop looking down on Duck, Ronayne’s and Eagle Islands with the huge, bald, purpley-blue dome of Purple mountain imminently in the background.

In the 18th century Philip Ronayne, with his black servant, came to live here, an ideal place of quiet and seclusion to write his two algebra books and indulge his passion to fish.

Coming across one other fishing on the lake he judged his peace and seclusion violated. Coming home he instructed his black servant “Pack. We are leaving. This place is getting too bloody crowded.”


Then skirting the southern shore of the Upper lake. Views recorded by Jonathan Fisher 246 years ago.

There were two swans on the lake near the mouth of the Gearhameen River that flows down through the Black Valley.

Visitors relaxed in the sunshine at Lord Brandon’s Cottage on their way to or from the unique boat trip through the three lakes.


Walking in to the Black Valley.  By a rock outcrop with ‘MH 1853’ carved on it. Did Mary Herbert paint from here 153 years ago?

Now the Reeks are immediately overhead. The great bulk with four or more of our highest mountains.

Mary Tagney said the pine marten killing her few remaining hens in recent weeks was the last straw. No more fowl.

The whole length of the Black Valley from the Upper Lake to Lough Reagh at the Valley's western end
The whole length of the Black Valley from the Upper Lake to Lough Reagh at the Valley’s western end

Then along the whole six miles of twists and turns of the Gap of Dunloe. My ruler tells me it is only three and a half miles/five and a half kilometers, but with all of the twists and turns it must be close to double that.


This deep rift valley was cut through the mountains by prolonged movement of ice and snow. Sheer mountain walls are close on both sides, passing five glacial lakes, and tiny arctic and apline flora.

Looking South over Black Lake
Looking South over Black Lake

The two swans on the lake near the mouth of the Gearhameen river, Gene Tagney told us, might be an ominous weather indicator.

As we watched swallows on their flowing criss-crossing of the sky overhead Gene said the first swallows had not arrived in the Black Valley this year until July 7.  2016 had been a record year for cuckoos.

“Last year the first swallows arrived on April 23 and the first cuckoo came the following day.”

Jon Twynham at the top of the Gap
Jon Twynham at the top of the Gap

Up to the top of the Gap it had been a warm, calm summer’s day. The strong fresh breeze at the top was unexpected and continued for much of the rest of the journey.

When we got to Kate Kearneys we had been walking for nearly six hours. But then there had been a break at Lord Brandon’s and along the way we took photographs and stopped and chatted.

Derricunnihy to Kate Kearney’s is a walk with everything. But you need somebody to drop you off and pick you up.

Frank Lewis

PS   Derricunnihy is a 15 minute drive from Gallan Eile .. and Kate Kearney’s is about 30 minutes

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