County Kerry contains many of Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations, despite registering the highest rainfall in the country. The vast majority of people in the county are friendly and welcoming. The stereotypical Kerry native is famed for charm, intelligence and what some might call eccentricity, but others recognise as lateral thinking skills. The county is obsessed with Gaelic Football.
(Motto: “Coöperation, Help, Friendship”)
Bronze Age prospectors, probably of Iberian origin, left extensive traces on Kerry’s mountainous peninsulas, including remnants of mining and smelting works, hoards of copper and bronze tools and weapons great wedge tombs.
Iron Age promontory forts, roads and field systems, still exist, as well as extraordinary legends that became the basis of much of early Irish literature. Sagas tell of the coming of the Milesians, the supposed ancestors of the Gaels.
Christianity arrived in Kerry in the C5th AD, and the following two hundred years saw the establishment of numerous religious settlements, mainly along the coast and on the islands, notably the deeply impressive UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael. The county is dotted with hermitages, beehive huts, inscribed crosses, tomb shrines, ruined monasteries and other artefacts.
Vikings were active in neighbouring areas of Cork and Limerick, but seem to have largely avoided Kerry. Locals defeated Danes in battle in 812 AD, and Skellig Michael was raided by Norsemen on several occasions.
The C11th and C12th saw three ruling Gaelic families come to prominence, and their surnames, MacCarthy, O’Donoghue and O’Sullivan, are still dominant in the county, along with the pre-Gaelic O’Driscoll.
Early in the C13th the Norman FitzGerald family began to build major strongholds in the region. With them came surnames such as Ferriter, Brown, Ashe and Landers. Within a few generations the Geraldines controlled both the County of Desmond and the Palatine County of Kerry.
Almost four centuries of feudal autonomy ended with the Desmond Rebellions, as a result of which the last Palatine Earl lost his life and his dynasty’s lands.
The modern County of Kerry was created in 1606, from the merger of the former County Palatine of Kerry with part of the County of Desmond.
One of the most important instigators of the 1641 Irish Rebellion was Donagh MacCarthy, 1st Viscount Muskerry, who held the county during the subsequent Wars of the Three Kingdoms; his followers were amongst the last to surrender to Cromwellian troops in 1652.
Much of the native owned land in Kerry was confiscated and given to English settlers. However, even at the zenith of the Ascendancy, Kerry was sufficiently far from the centres of power to maintain many of its old ways, including independent trade with mainland Europe. These circumstances nurtured the talents of Ireland’s first great statesman, Daniel O’Connell, known to many as “The Liberator”.
Both the Great Famine and the Land War hit County Kerry very hard. Many thousands of poor farmers and agricultural labourers emigrated to seek a better life in America and elsewhere well into the C20th.
County Kerry was one of the counties most involved in the War of Independence, and was arguably the worst affected area of Ireland in the ensuing Civil War. Most Kerry IRA units opposed the Anglo-Irish Treaty, and the county saw bitter internecine warfare between men who had been comrades in arms only a year previously.