Our columnist makes the most of holiday spots outside peak time. This week: the rugged coastline of Ireland's County Kerry.

A man for all seasons: County Kerry, Ireland

A view across O’Carrolls Cove

Putting on sweaters and jackets, we take a bottle of wine out to the big wooden table in front of the house. There’s a view across O’Carrolls Cove to the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean, and a mountainous peninsula to the south. Pools of sunlight are moving across the sea, and the sky is rearranging itself in many shades of grey, cream, blue and purple, with flashes of copper and an unlikely dark green. I take out a camera and put it away without turning it on. The very idea of trying to photograph or paint or record this huge spectacle on video seems vain and doomed to disappointing results. As Johnny says, “Why not just point?”

Having negated landscape art, he leads us down to the Blind Piper in Caherdaniel, where the bartender wears a T-shirt that reads, “I’m as confused as a baby in a topless bar.” Stone walls, low ceilings, dark wood, cobwebbed memorabilia — it’s the sort of pub one always hopes to find in Ireland. Sadly, though, they’re serving their Guinness too cold, depriving it of the rich creamy complexity I’ve been craving since Cork. After a satisfactory dinner of fish, chips, crabs and roast beef, we decant across the street to a wonderful old shop and pub called Freddie’s, where a peat fire is burning in the fireplace, the Guinness is just right, and the shots of Black Bushmills are even better.

The Christmas decorations pinned to the ceiling have been there for years, saving the bother of putting them up. Seven local men sit down at the next table and fall into a conversation that is almost completely unintelligible to me. Even Johnny has to concentrate hard to decipher their accents, and all Mariah can make out is the occasional word amid the extraordinary musical rhythm of their talk.

In the days to come, we will hear Irish spoken in pubs and petrol stations – a rougher, harsher sound than an Irishman speaking English. Johnny says it’s a descriptive language that circles around things, and avoids the blunt naming declarations of English. Another Hibernian friend has given me a primer, Teach Yourself Irish, that suggests deeper and more mysterious differences between the two languages, and sometimes reads like a found poem. Exercise 44A calls for the following phrases to be translated into Irish: “It was sold. They were bought. We would be killed. She was not seen. The money was lost. The books will be found. (People) came. The dogs were let loose.”

Morning rain gives way to drifting mists pierced by shafts of sunlight. I navigate the Superb along the westernmost road in Ireland, the last road in Europe, passing ruins of Iron Age forts and early Christian churches, standing stones and impossibly green fields grazed by spray-painted sheep. Way out in the windswept countryside, we come to a small family-owned petrol station that is holding its first art show.

The artist is a young Spanish woman. Her paintings are of cars and roads, and they hang in a small white room adjoining the shop. The impresario behind the show is Noelle Campbell-Sharp, standing out by the petrol pumps with dyed red hair, drinking a glass of wine and talking a mile a minute. Once a successful publisher in Dublin, she fell in love with the wilds of Kerry more than 20 years ago, and established a thriving arts centre and artists’ retreat, Cill Rialaig, up the road in Dungeagan, Ballinskelligs.

Cill Rialaig, a thriving arts centre and artists’ retreat

Some 2,500 artists from around the world have come to stay in the ruined old stone village that she rescued and renovated. “Some of them have gone mad here, it’s true,” she says. “But most of them have been inspired to create in their own styles and genres, rather than trying to deal directly with the landscape here.”

The petrol station is one of 21 improvised “pop-up galleries” that she has organised for this week’s show; the others include a church, a football pitch, several pubs, a ruined 12th-century abbey, a hilltop and various fields. She tried her hardest to get the local police station to hang paintings of policemen wearing pink spotted ties, but their regional superiors wouldn’t allow it.

When Noelle hears that we’re leaving to find lunch, she invites us back to her place. We follow her speeding Mercedes up tiny grassy lanes to a fantastic old stone house, filled with art and oddities, and featuring an old-time Irish pub attached on one wing. “What’ll you have?” she asks, stepping behind the bar. “Red wine”, we say. She hunts to see if any has survived the last session, says it’s doubtful, and then produces an excellent bottle of Chateauneuf-du-Pape before running off to make sandwiches.

As we eat, she tells us that this is the last pub in Ireland, albeit unlicensed, and warns us that we won’t find a drop west of here. Duly fortified, I hug this wonderful stranger-now-friend, and set out for the end of the earth.

At the muddy conclusion of the last road in Europe, we park the Superb and climb a hilltop called Bolus Head on the headland of the peninsula. Seven miles away, rising out of the sea like Wagnerian castles, are two jagged black rocks called the Skelligs. In the fifth century, a group of Irish monks withdrew from the wider world to live there in stone beehive huts that still remain. “They ate a lot of seagulls,” says Johnny. “They were like nature poets – none of that Council of Trent stuff. It’s mad to think of them out there.”

Ladders of light are angling down through the bruised clouds. A hawk hangs motionless in the wind, looking right at us. Elated and contented, feeling very much alive, we stare at the Skelligs and beyond, where there’s nothing but sea lanes and whale roads all the way to America.

  • Kia Ora is a luxury new four-bedroom cottage, comfortably sleeping 8, overlooking O’Carroll’s Cove in Caherdaniel, County Kerry, available through pureholidayhomes.com (ID 36704). A week in low season costs from €400 (£320).
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