A guide to celebrated, touristy Killarney in 1865

One of my sisters, an inveterate antique store browser, occasionally sends me 19th and early 20th century books that she discovers during her explorations. Her most recent gift is a copy of Black’s Guide to Killarney and the South of Ireland, from 1865.

The 1865 edition.

Nineteenth century travel guide books developed with a simultaneous expansion of the tourist industry. Victorian era travelers were looking for sublime encounters with nature and ancient history. Comprehensive guides replaced the earlier travel narratives of individuals or groups who described only their specific journeys. The new books had “a more streamlined look, with well-indexed sections that made it easy to flip to a certain area of interest and a more compact shape.”[1]See “Guidebooks and the Tourist Industry” in Villanova University’s “Rambles, Sketches, Tours, Travellers & Tourism in Ireland.

Black’s Guides were published by the Adam and Charles Black firm of Edinburgh, Scotland  (later London) from 1839 to 1919. They competed in the British Isles with similar series from Baedeker’s, Ward Lock, and Francis Guy’s. These guides are a great resource for historians.

The gifted 1865 edition of Black’s Guide to Killarney circulated 15 years after the devastation of the Great Famine. Work was just beginning to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable from Valentia Island, Kerry, about 45 miles west of Killarney. The U.S. Civil War ended after claiming the lives of many Irish immigrant soldiers. Suppression of the Irish People newspaper began a nationalist agitation that two years later resulted in the failed Fenian Rising.

The guide opens with a 21-page summary of “interesting objects” to view from either side of three Great Southern and Western Railroad routes through the region. Key mile markers are provided on the lines from Dublin to Cork, through Kildare, Queen’s County (renamed Laois in 1922), Tipperary, County Limerick, and County Cork; from Kildare to Waterford, through Carlow and Kilkenny; and from Limerick Junction to Tipperary, Clonmel, Carrick-On-Suir, and Waterford. The next 86 pages contain more detailed descriptions of these natural and built landmarks. The last 32 pages is a “Catalogue of Books,” which sells additional guides, maps, and atlases, as well as the 21-volume Encyclopedia Britannica and a collection of Sir Walter Scott’s works. The Killarney book also features a foldout “Chart of the Lakes of Killarney and Surrounding Country” (below), two-page “Plan of Cork” city, and an illustration of the Killarney lakes (below).

Lakes of Killarney illustration in 1865 Black’s Guide of the region.

Similar view from my March 2023 visit.

Regional map from the 1865 guide. (The right edge has been cropped out due to tears.)

Of Killarney’s natural landmarks, Black’s stated:

From the over-strained laudation, and the multitude of paintings and engravings that have been produced of these justly celebrated lakes, the tourist is apt to form too high an estimate of their beauty. There can be do doubt, however, that the rocks that bound the shores of Muckross and the Lower Lake, with their harmonious tints and luxuriant decoration of foliage, stand unrivaled, both in form and coloring; and the character of the mountains is as grand and varied as the lakes in which they reflect their rugged summits.

A framed photo of my wife standing on the same rocky shores of Muckross graces a corner of my writing desk, herself looking even more lovely than the surrounding scenery. But Black’s was less charitable about Killarney’s built environment and denizens, which it described as “certainly not the cleanest town in the world, and it has the misfortune to be filled with beggars, touters, guides and other annoyances.” German journalist Richard Arnold Bermann made similar observations during his 1913 visit.[2]See my post, “Welcoming American tourists to Ireland, 1913-2021.” As if dirt and mendicants were absent in London and other destinations.

In 1865, Black’s also offered a comprehensive, island-wide guide to Ireland, and three other regional titles:

  • Belfast and Giant’s Causeway
  • Dublin
  • Galway, Connemara, and the Shannon

Several editions of these books from the 1870s to 1912 have been digitized by HathiTrust. Antique book sellers offer Black’s guides in very good condition at prices approaching $100; while print-on-demand copies are available for much less. Other guide series are also available.

Years ago one of my Irish relations spoke a memorable line that my wife and I still quote in our travel-related discussions: “Why would you want to be anywhere in the world but Killarney in May?”


1 See “Guidebooks and the Tourist Industry” in Villanova University’s “Rambles, Sketches, Tours, Travellers & Tourism in Ireland.
2 See my post, “Welcoming American tourists to Ireland, 1913-2021.”

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