One of my favourite places probably in the whole country to visit would have to be Blennerville and the area near the Tralee Ship Canal, on the outskirts of the county town of Tralee, Co. Kerry. There are spectacular views out the Dingle peninsula toward Mount Brandon, and the majestic beauty of Tralee Bay.
Blennerville was once the port for the town of Tralee in the 19th century, and in addition to handling shipping requirements for the area (both import/export of goods and the emigration of people from 19th-century Tralee and its environs) this small village was where many ships were built over the years, including the tall ship the Jeanie Johnston. (Sidenote: when the replica famine ship was being built in Blennerville about 10 years ago, locals were taking bets as to how far out of Fenit she would get before she sank, given who from the locality was involved in the building. I’m pleased to note she still floats, and is currently docked in Dublin’s Docklands). If you visit the Blennerville Visitor Centre, just down a small road to the left of the light-yellow visitor centre building is the windmill, and a bit past it is the old limestone quay where scores of people left in the late 18th and early to mid-19th century in search of better lives elsewhere.
The Blennerville windmill was built c. 1800 by Sir Rowland Blennerhassett, when there were more than 100 windmills in Ireland. Nowadays, there are only 2 within the Republic – the windmill at the Visitor Centre in Blennerville, and one at Tacumshin, Co. Wexford, where according to the Wexford Partnership website “the key may be obtained in the nearby shop”. The windmill in Blennerville was a thriving concern in its day, with granaries and storehouses near its ideal location at the quay, and would have been used for grinding corn both for the local population and for export to Britain. After falling into disuse in the 1850s following the completion of the Tralee Ship Canal in 1846, it fell into disrepair until Tralee Urban Council purchased it in 1982 and began restoration of the structure in 1984. It’s now a beautiful reminder of Ireland’s industrial history and a spectacular location to visit, with views across Tralee Bay and the mountains of the Dingle Peninsula.
Across the River Lee is the Tralee Ship Canal, which runs from Tralee Bay in to the Marina at the edge of the town itself. On 15 February 1828, a petition was made on behalf of the gentry and merchants of Tralee to the House of Commons by Maurice Fitzgerald, the Knight of Kerry. This petition sought the sanction and aid of Parliament towards the completion of a ship canal from the town to the sea. A Bill was introduced, and was finally sanctioned by a local Act in June 1829, whereby funds were allowed to be raised, by taxation on local shipping, to build the canal. There were a number of local-politics problems with the building of the canal itself, and at one point work was stopped for several years due to a quarrel between some of the major players, but the canal was finally completed in 1846, running from about half a mile out past Blennerville in to the basin on the edge of the town at Princes Quay. In the early 1850s, proposals began to be put forward to build a railway line between Tralee and Dingle not far from the canal, and the Tralee and Dingle Light Railway was incorporated on 17 September 1888. A section of the railway has been restored, and despite difficulty with the restored steam engine, a diesel engine has apparently been sourced and the train runs between Blennerville and the AquaDome in Tralee.
The Ship Canal allowed ships of up to 300 tonnes to navigate up to the edge of the town at Princes Quay from its opening in 1846 until it fell into disuse in the 1930s due to silt buildup and the opening of the deepwater quay at Fenit. With the restoration project of the windmill at Blennerville, attention was given to the old ship canal and it was restored in the 1990s/early 2000s, with the lock restored and a swing bridge installed over the canal. There’s a lovely path along the north side of the canal with benches provided, and much of the land north of the canal is now a nature preserve, with a huge variety of birds.
My favourite walk that includes the Tralee Ship Canal and a visit to Blennerville starts from Tralee, near the Brandon Hotel. If you walk up from Princes Street along James Street and O’Rahillys Villas to Strand Road, a left followed by a right onto Spa Road will bring you out of town. Walking up Spa Road past Knockanacuig, you will soon be treated to wonderful views across the fields to Tralee Bay, with the white of the windmill beautiful against the backdrop of the Dingle Peninsula. A left along Cockleshell Road (which looks more of a one-lane track than a full road) will bring you down to Cockleshell Beach on Tralee Bay, with gorgeous views out to the Dingle Peninsula. It’s a quiet, rocky beach, and generally a very peaceful spot to spend some time. A short walk along Cockleshell Beach will bring you to the bay end of the ship canal; if you walk up along the canal you’ll shortly come to a bridge leading to the Tralee-Dingle Road, and the bridge across the estuary to Blennerville itself. Stop in to the Visitor Centre for a bite to eat if you’re peckish and a look around, then to the left as you’re facing the visitor centre is Windmill Lane, which will bring you to the 19th-century windmill and the older limestone quay, which is still in excellent condition. Returning across the bridges to the path along the canal, it’s a lovely walk into town with the nature preserve to your left, the canal to your right and often swans and all sorts of birds on the water.