Great Railway Journeys in Ireland

When Michael Portillo takes his Great Railway Journey across the Irish Sea, he will be setting off on a historical jaunt through Victorian Ireland

On the evening of August 26th, 1861, Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria, arrived in Killarney train station in County Kerry.

When Michael Portillo arrives in Killarney to begin the railway journey that will take him from Kerry to Galway, he will begin his Victorian jaunt in the very same place.

First Stop: Killarney and a lookout for ladies

For the definition of beautiful, see Killarney National Park.

This is a universe where weeds come in the form of hot pink, blushing bushes of Rhododendron and mansions sit in sympathy with rugged, rural Ireland.

Michael Portillo won’t be the first to enjoy the view.

One particular spot, now on the Ring of Kerry, earned its name thanks to a group of Queen Victoria’s Ladies in Waiting, who derived so much pleasure from their aspect that the location was named after them as Ladies View. Hopefully, for Michael Portillo’s sake, gentlemen are allowed the pleasure, too.

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Second Stop: Waterford and the ultimate bachelor pad

William George Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire is a bit of a mouthful. For some, his nickname the “Bachelor Duke” would have been welcome. In terms of bachelor pads he broke the mould with Lismore Castle.

Here is the riverside pile that hosted Henry II King of England, was added to by King John and was eventually bought by the man who brought tobacco to England, Sir Walter Raleigh.

In the end, it took the Victorian whim of the Bachelor Duke to transform Lismore into what Michael Portillo will see today on the Waterford stage of his journey.

Third Stop: The Earl, the Leviathan and the stars

The Third Earl of Rosse was much more than his title. He was a scientist, an astronomical explorer and, some might say, a genius.

Plonked in the stately surrounds of County Offaly’s Birr Castle, sits the Leviathan. Looking somewhere between a giant slingshot and a mill, this hunk of Victorian science was at one time the world’s largest telescope. It was also, for almost 70 years, the only way a mortal could witness the spiral nature of some of galaxies, a phenomenon discovered by guess who? The Third Earl of Rosse.

Should Michael Portillo put this eye to the Leviathan’s eyepiece, he will be viewing space through one of the Victorian era’s most incredible scientific breakthroughs.

There’s no need to let him have all the fun. An engaging science centre, gardens and, of course, the telescope are all open to the public.

Fourth Stop: Mastering the dark arts in Kilkenny

It may sound like the cue for a Tolkien story, but there’s something dark in Kilkenny’s hills. Dark and valuable. And we’re not talking rings, or dwarves; we’re taking marble.

On a search for links between County Kilkenny and Ireland’s Victorian railways, Michael Portillo found himself cutting the county’s famous black marble under the expert tutelage of master carver Jim Harding.

Who knows, should you pop into Jim Harding’s workshop, you may well be able to view an original ‘Portillo Fireplace’.

Last Stop: A ring with heart. And a crown.

Pass any Galway jewellers and you’ll be hit by a peculiar similarity. In each window will sit variation upon variation of the county’s most popular ring; two hands cup a crown-topped heart, as if to offer it to the world.

It was from the miniature fishing village of Claddagh where this eponymous ring originated, and you’d have to go back to the 17th century to find the first one. As Mr Portillo will find out in Galway, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that hands in England and further afield, became dressed with what has become one of the most popular ring designs in the world.

If you’re looking for the original, you, and now Mr Portillo, know where to find it.

The Ireland episodes of Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys series will air on BBC Two from Monday 4 Feb until Friday 8 Feb at 18:30.

If you miss them, you can catch up on the BBC website here (only available to UK residents).

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