View of a natural harbour on Innisfallen island, Killarney

A Picturesque Tour of Killarney

Finola O'Kane examines how Killarney, County Kerry rose to become one of the pre-eminent tourist destinations in the 18th and 19th centuries

Killarney, a small town in the far southwest of Ireland, became Ireland's most successful tourist destination during the 18th century. This was the result of a concerted effort by its owners and the many landscape painters, writers and early tourists who visited, drew, and described Killarney's landscapes. Once published, ideally in a book of views that united the power of image and text, readers would be inclined to visit what they saw, creating Irish tourism. In 1751 Richard Barton (1706–1759), author of the first tour guide to Killarney, encouraged the fellows of Trinity College Dublin to ‘return after a summer’s recreation, with descriptions of beautiful rural Scenes’ so that Ireland might 'soon be painted, and foreigners charmed'.[1] Unlike in England, the understanding courted by Ireland’s tourist literature was not that of the native but that of the well-heeled foreigner, who generally embarked in Cork or Dublin before making the trip to Kerry. Trinity owned a substantial estate in Kerry, and Barton reasoned that this should incline the fellows to buy his book, 'the first of its kind, concerning the most beautiful scene in the Kingdom’.[2] He illustrated the book with Letitia Bushe's (d. 1757) drawing of Killarney's lower lake where the legend listed many of the sites that were to structure the visitor's subsequent experience of Killarney. Bushe had also provided a frontispiece for Barton's earlier book on Ireland's other great lake, Loch Neagh.[3] Barton was but one of a growing deluge of writers that made the difficult journey to Killarney in the 18th century, among them Mary Delany (1700–1788), Arthur Young (1741–1820), the Earl of Shelburne (1737–1805), Louisa Conolly (1743–1821) and Charles Fox (1749–1806). Slowly Killarney became the epitome of both Irish and British picturesque landscape.[4]

A Perspective View of Lower Lough Leane in the County of Kerry in Ireland

A Perspective View of Lower Lough Leane in the County of Kerry in Ireland

Based on artwork by Letitia Bushe, this engraving is the earliest extant view of Killarney

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A Perspective View of part of Lough Neagh

A Perspective View of part of Lough Neagh

This engraved view of Lough Neagh – the largest fresh water lake in Ireland – is based on artwork by Letitia Bushe  

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The picturesque advocated a particular viewpoint, route and way of seeing. William Gilpin, a key theorist of the picturesque, used Ireland, and more specifically Kerry, to define the picturesque. Describing the picturesque as ‘that kind of beauty which would look well in a picture’ he found that ‘neither grounds laid out by art, nor improved by agriculture’ were picturesque.[5] His 1792 publication Essays on Picturesque Beauty, used Ireland and Switzerland to define picturesque beauty as a whole. While the Giant’s Causeway might 'strike' the picturesque eye briefly 'as a novelty', the lake of Killarney could hold and 'attract its attention'.[6] The lakes of Killarney held many advantages over other Irish tourist sites. Geographically a stepped series of three lakes, the landscape became progressively more sublime as one moved westward and away from Killarney town. The circumnavigation of the lakes provided the visitor with a clear circuit, and the town itself became a comfortable place to stay, thanks to a growing number of landlord-sponsored inns.

Ireland’s demesnes, or the private parks of the landed gentry, were the precursors of the Irish tourist routes. Using the emphasis placed on route as the generator of landscape form, particularly in ‘Capability’ Brown inspired landscape gardens the demesne’s route-making aesthetic also meandered out into the wider countryside. The landlord’s demesne inspired the construction of estate villages and towns as its views and vistas were projected outwards and it gradually became a powerhouse for generating and seducing tourists. Landscape paintings, once corralled within demesne walls, soon jumped into the wider landscape where their facility for framing picturesque views helped to design the tourist routes. The progression is particularly evident in the career and work of Jonathan Fisher (d. 1809), an able landscape painter and early advocate of engraved views and the much wider public they could entice. Although he began by painting estate portraits, his Picturesque Tour of Killarney (1789) and Scenery of Ireland (1795), threaded many disparate landscapes into published routes and established a hierarchy of Irish landscapes, tours, sites, and towns. Advancing Killarney as the ultimate destination in Ireland, Fisher drew a plan of his Killarney views in A Picturesque Tour of Killarney so that visitors began in the right place and took the optimum route in a clockwise direction. His leading view of Killarney was located at a point along the approach road from Castleisland where a gap opened between the Glena and Turk mountains. This allowed the visitor to see from the lower lake through to the upper one and from the beautiful improved landscape around Lord Kenmare's park to the wild upland bogs of the Upper Lake. This precise position also allowed Fisher to compose an image where the horizontal layers of foreground, middle ground and distant ground were approximately equal and therefore particularly picturesque. If he had chosen a more distant viewpoint ‘on the northern line’ from Killarney it might have afforded the tourist finer views, but 'the fore-ground of the distant picture would occupy two-thirds of the view, and reduce the magnitude of the interesting parts of the scene before you’.[7] Paul Sandby's 1778 edition of The Virtuosi’s Museum aimed to unite the visual identities of the three kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland and England and confirmed Killarney as Ireland’s pre-eminent tourist site with 'perhaps, no spot in either of the three kingdoms, that is more indebted to Nature, for peculiar beauties, than the Lake of Killarney and its environs’.[8]

Map of the Lakes of Killarney

Map of the Lakes of Killarney

This map of the lakes of Killarney, by the artist Jonathan Fisher, is the first plate in Picturesque Tour of Killarney, a volume of twenty aquatint views first published by Fisher in 1789

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North View of the Lower Lake of Killarney

North View of the Lower Lake of Killarney

Fisher’s picturesque aquatint view of the north prospect of the lower lake of Killarney

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In The Picturesque Tour of Killarney Fisher began his tour of twenty numbered views in Lord Kenmare's demesne or park. The views were keyed to his published plan. The visitor first crossed the River Flesk, meandered towards the village of Cloghreen and explored Muckross Abbey. Then he or she began to climb the slopes of Mangerton mountain to get a general view of Muckross peninsula. Directed to a boat near the ruin of Ross Castle on the second day, the tourist was rowed through the lower lake's many islands to approach the passage or canal between the lakes at the Old Weir Bridge. Alighting from the boat, the tourist proceeded to the Eagle’s Nest, 'a stupendous rock', and passing the cataract of Esknamucky Cascade emerged into the upper lake. The substantially uninhabited Upper Lake proved a very different experience to that of the lower, with mountainous landscapes that were both bleak and majestic. The third day was a more relaxed enterprise ‘devoted to the Lower Lake’, taking in Inisfallen island and the cataract of O’Sullivan’s Cascade.

Ross Castle on the Great Lake of Killarney

Ross Castle on the Island of Ross, in the Great Lake of Killarney

This aquatint and etching of Ross Castle on the banks of Lough Leane was engraved by Samuel Alken after artwork by Thomas Walmsley.

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A View of O'Sullivan's Cascade

A View of O'Sullivan's Cascade, which falls between the Mountains of Glena & Toomish into the Lake of Killarney

A View of O'Sullivan's Cascade, which falls between the Mountains of Glena & Toomish into the Lake of Killarney

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The tour of Killarney was also structured around two families and their ruins: the Browne family, Earls of Kenmare and their ruin of Inisfallen Abbey and the Herbert family and their ruins of Muckross Abbey. Muckross Abbey was generally adjudged the most successful, principally because of Kenmare’s irreverent mingling of ruined abbey and cottage at Inisfallen. In 1763 Owen Salisbury Brereton described Inisfallen's ‘ruin of a fine abby, part of which is now the cave of a Devonshire Hermit’[9] with a dining room that enjoyed a view of the lake and its islands. Muckross Abbey, in contrast, was ‘in the true stile in which all such buildings should appear’ in 1776 because 'the hand of dress’ had ‘not touched it’.[10] Cartwright's engraving of Thomas Walmsley's view showed the ruins covered with vegetation and with little evidence of any active maintenance or restoration. As the correct conservation and presentation of ruins took hold, Inisfallen's conversion of abbey to dining parlour became ever more controversial, the more so in Ireland's more inflammatory confessional environment. Isaac Weld, who made ‘a comparison favourable to ourselves between the gloomy and bigoted notions of monkery and the more enlightened opinions of modern days’, was uncomfortable with Muckross Abbey’s continued use as burial place by local Catholics. While he found ‘the appearance of these poor people, clad in long russet garments, prostrated on their knees, and counting their beads with all the enthusiasm of devotion quite in character with the solemnity of the scene’, he remarked ‘that a day scarcely passes without a [Catholic] burial at Mucruss abbey’ describing it as a 'ceremony of interment with cries and howlings’ and one 'not thought expedient to oppose'.[11] Expounding the Protestant work ethic, he also found that ‘idleness ha[d] also a great share in collecting people on these occasions’.[12]The owner, the Earl of Kenmare, whose Catholic religion was remarked upon by many visitors, may have preferred to keep the monastery in use – his dining room a tacit refusal to see them solely as the repository of picturesque beauty. Becoming ever more problematic as the century progressed, Inisfallen's monastic ruins were sidestepped by Thomas Walmsley and Francis Jukes who neatly removed them from view.

View of Muckross Abbey on the Lake of Killarney

View of Muckross Abbey on the Lake of Killarney

Cartwright's engraving of Thomas Walmsley's view of the ruins of Muckross Abbey on the Lake of Killarney

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Innisfallen Island, Killarney

Inisfallen Abbey

This aquatint and etching with hand-colouring depicts one of the natural harbours on Innisfallen, the largest island in Lough Leane in Killarney, County Kerry, Ireland

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Moving into the 19th century Killarney's pre-eminence among Irish and European tourist sites continued. Despite the efforts made by some writers, notably Arthur Young, to shift some of the focus to Ireland's other lakes, such as the upper and lower Lough Erne, most tourists could not conceive of visiting Ireland without a trip to Kerry. Kerry had everything an 18th-century landscape painter could desire – mountains, lakes, islands, ruins, towns and sea. The calculated physical shaping of Killarney as a tourist destination is one of the earliest and most long-lived examples in the world. Gradually encompassing the Dingle peninsula and the monastery island of Skellig Michael into its outer reaches, the Kerry tour remains Ireland's first and most successful wild Atlantic way.

Perspective View of the Great Skellig

Perspective View of the Great Skellig, County Kerry

This view of Skellig Micheal, a rocky island off the south west coast of Kerry, illustrates Charles Smith’s The antient and present state of the county of Kerry, first published in 1756

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[1] Richard Barton, Some remarks, towards a full description of Upper and Lower Lough Lene, near Killarney, in the County of Kerry, (Dublin: S. Powell, 1751), p. A2. 

[2] Richard Barton, Some remarks, towards a full description of Upper and Lower Lough Lene, near Killarney, in the County of Kerry, (Dublin: S. Powell, 1751),, p. A2 

[3] Richard Barton, Lectures in Natural Philosophy, designed to be a foundation, for reasoning pertinently upon the petrifications, gems, crystals, and sanative quality of Lough Neagh in Ireland; and intended to be an introduction to the natural history of several counties contiguous to that lake, particularly the county of Ardmagh, (Dublin: For the Author, 1751): frontispiece by Letitia Bushe, ‘A Perspective View of part of Lough Neagh, the river Camlin, alias Crumlin, and the country adjacent' 

[4] For a discussion of this process in England and Wales see Malcolm Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760–1800, (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1989). For Ireland see Finola O'Kane, Ireland and the Picturesque; Design, Landscape Painting and Tourism in Ireland, 1700-1840, (New Haven & London:Yale University Press on behalf of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art,2013)

[5] William Gilpin, Observations on the western parts of England, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; to which are added, a few remarks on the picturesque beauties of the Isle of Wight, (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808), p. 328. 

[6] William Gilpin, Essays on Picturesque Beauty; &c. &c. &c.: Three Essays: On Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape: To which is added a poem, on Landscape Painting, Second Edition By William Gilpin, A. M. Prebendary of Salisbury; and Vicar of Boldre in New Forest, near Lymington, (London: R. Blamire, 1794), p. 43.

[7] Jonathan Fisher, Scenery of Ireland (London, 1795), from Appendix description of The Celebrated Lake of Killarney, pp. 11–12. The complete quote reads: ‘The views of the lower lake of Killarney, from the northward are the most descriptive of its beauties; they extend from Lord Kenmare’s park to the ruins of Aghadoe, beyond which the open between Glena and Turk is lost to the eye, and the expanse to the distant mountains precluded from view. There are situations more distant on this northern line that afford fine views, for approaching the lake in this direction, after traversing dreary wastes, and arriving at a spot where the first appearance of a long-wished for object presents itself, the eye naturally feels relieved, and often conceives a partiality for the first interview. But description requires a more intimate acquaintance as the fore-ground of the distant picture would occupy two-thirds of the view, and reduce the magnitude of the interesting parts of the scene before you.’ 

[8] Paul Sandby, The Virtuosi's Museum, (London: G. Kearsly, 1778), vol. 2/2: Plate 2 'Ross Castle on the Lake of Killarney in Ireland' Paul Sandby's 1778 edition of The Virtuosi’s Museum aimed to unite the visual identities of the three kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland and England and confirmed Killarney as Ireland’s pre-eminent tourist site with 'perhaps, no spot in either of the three kingdoms, that is more indebted to Nature, for peculiar beauties, than the Lake of Killarney and its environs’ Paul Sandby, The Virtuosi's Museum, (London: G. Kearsly, 1778), vol. 2/2: Plate 2 'Ross Castle on the Lake of Killarney in Ireland'

[9] Desmond FitzGerald, the Knight of Glin, ‘Owen Salusbury Brereton Esqr. F. R. and A. S. late Vice President of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce; The Irish Tour of an Eighteenth-century Antiquary and His Notions about Irish Round Towers, 1763’, Ireland of the Welcomes, XIX/3 (September¬–October 1970), p. 8. 

[10] Young, A Tour in Ireland, p. 351. 

[11] Ibid., p. 26. 

[12] Ibid., p. 28. 





  • Finola O'Kane
  • Finola O'Kane is Associate Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin and a Member of the Royal Irish Academy.

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