Hopefully this article’s title will ignite only friendly debate. Ireland is studded with beautiful towns, but history and location has endowed the port of Kinsale with a stellar provenance. Important as a trade link with the Mediterranean since the Bronze Age, Kinsale’s harbor has built fortunes based on wine, security and yachting for centuries.
As a university student in the early 1970s this travel journalist was enamored with Kinsale on first sight. Already an important yachting and summer home center, the village was an Irish best kept secret among international tourism destinations. Then the Irish Youth Hostel was a short walk both to town and the romantically decaying national treasure Charles Fort. The fortress and grounds were wide open to anyone and on that particular March day a couple friends and I wandered sacred ground in silence.
Returning with my wife some decades later Kinsale was still sacred ground in silence. For sure there were more people, the village decorators had discovered modern travel photo opt staging and there were bus tours. Yet tranquility reigned on these soft days of late August showers alternating with brilliant sunshine. Everyone on the streets – punctuated by bright red, deep blue or even burnt orange painted houses – settled into the rhythms of the photo perfect port town with the distinct sounds of seagulls and a charming child-size waterfront amusement park.
Kinsale’s history is drama beyond its size. Kinsale was founded in the early 1300s by the Norman Plantagenet dynasty of England. Based on the success of Celtic Mediterranean sea routes, its strategic importance for the southwest shore wine trade was firmly established. For the next 500 years Kinsale would become the wine distribution center for Europe generating vast fortunes.
Desmond Castle built c.1500 is a fine example of a fortified urban tower house. The three-story castle served the powerful Earls of Desmond in their business dealings in Kinsale’s lucrative wine trade. In the 1700s it transitioned to an infamous prison with several connections to wars involving a fledgling United States. During the Great Famine of the 1840s the castle was a workhouse for the destitute. In serious decline, Desmond Castle was declared a national monument in 1938 and today hosts the International Museum of Wine as well as life-like full size dioramas of its prison and workhouse days.
Ireland does not have a climate to produce wine. What Ireland had since pre-Celtic days was easy water routes between the Mediterranean and northern Europe. This geographic position ideally suited the southern location of Kinsale as a distribution center to the heart of Europe. Among the Desmond Castle collection of wine and sprits luminaries are many famous Wild Geese – Irish who fled after the Battle of Kinsale (1601) sealed English conquest. From California to South Aftrica they settled, among them Thomas Barton established a strong Irish presence in the Bordeaux wine region of France. Richard Hennessy distilled the finest brandy and the O’Neales relocated to Spain and continued in their sherry wine business.
These significant families would never have left Kinsale had it not been for another war between England and Ireland. Since the 12th century, the Celtic/Anglo-Norman kingdoms of Ireland had been under the loose feudal control of England. But Queen Elizabeth I launched a successful and devastating war to subjugate the island.
Charles Fort (1670) commands the highland with James Fort (1607) on Castlepark Peninsula on the opposite shore of the narrow opening to Kinsale harbor. Their combined firepower dramatically displays how strategic the lords of Ireland considered Kinsale harbor from ancient days through World War I. The port of Kinsale was pivotal to the final English conquest of Celtic Ireland in the 17th century. Ringcurran Castle guarded Kinsale’s highland entrance when it fell to English forces in 1601 – rebuilt by 1670 into the massive Charles Fort.
It’s hard to find a place that screams “romantic” – as in Gothic novels – more than the ruins of James Fort (1607). Whereas Charles Fort charges a modest admission and provides guided tours, a visitor can simply wander free on the lush green hills of Castlepark Peninsula surrounding the decaying fort and revel in panoramic vistas of Kinsale’s multi-colored waterfront and its forest of ships masts.
The 12th century St. Multose Church – note in the slideshow the narrow windows & “tower castle” design used for defense – bespeaks a tumultuous world. Among its roles, the burial grounds hold some of the victims of the infamous RMS Lusitania sinking. The great passenger liner was torpedoed in 1915 off Kinsale. Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy St. Multose’s layers of design from early medieval through high Gothic.
Actons Hotel has been a Kinsale harbor front luxury classic since the early 20th century. Its spacious suites and rooms offer all the amenities one expects in a first class accommodation. Breakfast is served in an airy dining room where one can enjoy a traditional full Irish breakfast.
This feast is just the needed fuel for enthusiastic walkers since Kinsale’s best explored on foot and being built on hillsides it can be a workout. For longer hikes there is a scenic path, the Sli Route, that runs 2.5 miles along the harbor to Summercove – just a short distance more to Charles Fort. It’s an easy 10-mile walk from Actons Hotel to James Fort along roads that ring the harbor. Or take a taxi to Castlepark Village and then walk a short distance to the grounds. A nice sand beach can be found in Castlepark Village.
As for culinary excellence, Ireland still lags behind the rest of Europe. Ingredients such as organic produce, grass fed cattle and outstanding seafood abound, but not talent at the stove. Certainly there has been a sea change since the 1970s in the quality of Irish restaurants due largely from expanding opportunities for culinary education. Yet now there is a proliferation of corporate menus serving the Irish equivalent of California Modern. Ireland’s chefs and restaurant entrepreneurs need to stretch their boundaries and take full advantage of an expanding culinary travel client base.
The Blue Haven Café succeeds in delivering imaginative dishes from local Cork crab to tapas paired with an excellent wine cellar and craft beers. The Blue Haven is one of Kinsale’s best small music venues offering live jazz through modern Irish. Charming Janey Macs tea and coffee shop and café is in a small stone house. The quality of everything from the coffee selections to the light and flavorful pastries matches the old Irish warmth of Janey Macs.
Kinsale is an easy 17-mile drive from air and rail connections in Cork then by auto, taxi or bus along the scenic southern coast of Ireland. The summer season is lively especially with boating regattas, but the crowds are relaxed, and Kinsale hums with activity and music. Off-season the sacred ground continues to hum with tranquility.