History & Heritage

The Early History of Killarney

Evidence of prehistoric settlement in the area of KNP dates back at least 4,000 years. Copper mining began at Ross Island at the dawn of the Bronze Age (c. 2400-1800 BC) and these mines are now recognised as the oldest in north western Europe. See http://www.nuigalway.ie/ross_island/index.htm

Ross Island Copper Mine (Photo Credit, William O’Brien, Dept. of Archaeology NUI Galway).

In the lowlands to the north and east of the National Park, there are a number of other prehistoric features of archaeological interest. These include the Lissyviggeen Stone Circle, probably dating from the Bronze Age, as well as standing stones, fulachta fiadh (cooking sites), and traces of ring forts probably dating from the Iron Age and early Christian times. Monastic sites provide the main evidence of the history and occupation of the Killarney area in early Christian times. The most important of these was the monastery founded on Innisfallen Island, part of the National Park, by St Fionán in the 7th century. The “Annals of Innisfallen” written there between the 11th and 13th centuries provide a major source of information on the early history of Ireland.

During the early Christian period, the Killarney area was ruled over by the Kings of Eoganacht Locha Léin who took their name from Lough Leane at the heart of their territories. Following the Norman invasion, the McCarthys, Kings of South Munster, retreated to South Kerry and West Cork where they displaced the local chieftains. The Normans made several unsuccessful attempts to take control, one of their defeats being in a battle at Tooreencormick, on the slopes of Mangerton, in 1262.


Some of the demesne lands of McCarthy Mór included the area around Muckross. The castle with which these demesne lands are associated was on the shores of Lough Leane at Castlelough. The remainder of the lands around the lakes were held by the O’Donoghues, whose chieftain O’Donoghue Mór resided at Ross Castle. The lands of the O’Donoghues were confiscated in the 16th century and given to Sir Valentine Browne, ancestor of the Earls of Kenmare.

The lands of the McCarthys remained in their ownership, despite disputed inheritance and temporary confiscations, until the 18th century. Early in that century, the Herbert family, originally from Montgomery in Wales, leased land at Muckross from the McCarthys. The first Herbert house is thought to have been built around this time, about half way along the Muckross peninsula. Florence McCarthy Mór married Agnes Herbert, a member of this family, and when their heir died unmarried in 1770, he left the McCarthy Estates to the Herberts.

 (Left: McCarthy Mór Castle on the Grounds of The Lake Hotel (Photo Credit: By:  GotIreland.com).


Muckross House and Gardens

               (Above: Muckross House & Gardens).

A second Herbert residence was built by Thomas Herbert whose great grandson Henry Arthur Herbert subsequently built the present Muckross House in 1843. Throughout their tenure at Muckross, the Herberts played a very active role in social and political life and in the development and improvement of the Muckross Estate.

However, by the late 19th century a series of financial problems heralded the end of over 200 years of the Herbert family at Muckross. In 1899, the Muckross Estate, encompassing approximately 1,300 acres of demesne lands was sold to Lord Ardilaun, a member of the Guinness family. He then sold the property to a Californian, Mr. William Bowers Bourn in 1911, who gave the estate to his daughter Maud, on her marriage to Mr. Arthur Vincent.

They carried out a number of developments to the estate over the following 20 years. The estate, comprising about 4,300 ha, was given to the State in 1932 as the Bourn-Vincent Memorial Park, in memory of Maud who died in 1929. In 1964, a group of local people, concerned at the continued closure of Muckross House over 30 years after it had passed into State ownership, came together and formed the Trustees of Muckross House (Killarney) Limited. They approached the Minister for Finance, who had responsibility for Muckross House at that time, proposed that the House be opened to the public. This proposal was accepted and the successful partnership between the State and the Trustees of Muckross House has endured to the present day.

Killarney House and Gardens

Killarney House Ireland

As previously alluded to, the lands of the Browne Family at Ross and Molahiffe dated back to the late 16th century. Despite being Catholic the Browne’s married into leading Gaelic families and received titles of Viscount Kenmare and Baron Castlerosse in 1689 and became Earls of Kenmare in 1802. By the early 17th  Century they had large estates in Cork, Kerry and Limerick but by end of the century their lands were confiscated by the Crown following the Treaty of Limerick.

In 1720, Sir Valentine Browne regained the family estates with the exception of Ross Castle, and he subsequently remodelled an earlier 17th century house close to the town of Killarney, known as ‘Kenmare House’. This house was extended in the late 18th and mid 19th century before being demolished in the 1880s when a new Victorian mansion was built at Knockreer, pictured below. The Browne family also fulfilled a major social and political role and was very involved in the development of Killarney town as well as developing the demesne landscape of the Kenmare Estate. However, at the end of 19th century, due to financial problems and the effects of the Land Acts, the Browne family’s land holdings were reduced. Nevertheless, they still retained ownership of a considerable portion of the mountain land surrounding the Killarney Lakes as well as demesne lands of approximately 600 ha (1500 acres).

 (Above left: The original ‘Kenmare House’ in the centre with the current ‘Killarney House’, formerly the Stable block, to the right).

Further misfortune occurred in the early 20th century when their Victorian mansion accidentally burnt down in 1913. As a result, the stables of the original Kenmare House were converted into the new ‘Killarney House‘. This work was completed by 1915. In 1952 the 7th Earl of Kenmare died and the estate was left to his niece Mrs. Beatrice Grosvenor. In 1956, Mrs Grosvenor, while retaining part of the original estate, sold the remainder to an American property syndicate which was in turn bought by Mr.John McShain. Mrs. Grosvenor built Knockreer House in 1958 on the site of the  Victorian mansion.The purchase of Knockreer House and its demesne from Mrs. Grosvenor in 1972 and the gift to the Nation by Mr. McShain of Innisfallen Island in 1973 began a series of acquisitions to form Killarney National Park as it now exists.

Subsequently the townland of Glena, and parts of Gortroe and Incheens were purchased, followed in 1979 by the acquisition of Killarney House and most of its demesne landscape including Ross Island, along with Lough Leane, Muckross Lake and the islands therein.Following Mrs. Grosvenor’s death in 1985 most of the remainder of the Kenmare estate was added to the National Park, including the Upper Lake and mountain lands to the south of it. The use of Killarney House itself was retained by Mrs. McShain for her lifetime and was then taken over fully by NPWS following her death in December 1998.

(Left: The Mansion at Knockreer (Photo Credit: Lawrence Collection, National Library of Ireland).