The Islands of Ireland: A taste of the Saltees

Dan MacCarthy talks us through the Saltee Islands, named by Viking seafarers.

Puffins on Great Saltee Island, a birdwatcher's magnet. Pictures: Dan MacCarthy

At the south-east corner of Ireland lie two islands that through their names alone say as much as anywhere else about our history. The Saltee Islands in Wexford were named by Viking seafarers — Salt ey, where ‘Salt’ is salt and ‘ey’ is the Norse word for island. The name later evolved to its current spelling. Though the Vikings were infamous for raiding many of our islands on the west coast such as Skellig Michael, there is evidence too of their presence elsewhere in the Irish Sea: Ireland’s Eye (originally ey) off Dublin; Anglesey in Wales — Ongli’s Island.

This pair of islands are lonesome, for apart from the nearby minute Keeragh Islands, they are the only sizeable islands between Dublin and Youghal. Unlike our fragmented western coastline, the eastern and south-eastern coasts are remarkably contiguous with just a handful of islands decorating the margins.

The nearest point to the Saltee Islands is the busy fishing port of Kilmore Quay from where a small boat transports passengers about 5km for day trips. And a day trip is all that is permitted for there is a royal connection to this sceptred isle.

In common with Tory Island, Co Donegal, where the nominal ‘king’ is an artist of the primitive school, Patsy Dan Rodgers, the Saltees had a self-styled prince.

Great Saltee Island seen from Little Saltee.

Great Saltee is owned by the Neale family, children of the former owner of the island Michael Neale, who purchased the 241 acres in the 1940s. As a 10-year-old boy looking out from the mainland, the putative prince is reputed to have promised his mother that he would one day own the island and become its prince. True to his word, when the boy became the man, he did indeed buy the island. A throne, flagstaff, and obelisk were brought to the Great Saltee, the obelisk carrying a profile of his likeness. The throne is a memorial to his mother and features a coat of arms.

However, any real legacy of power in the region attends to the smaller Saltee which is owned by the last living descendant of Henry Grattan of Grattan’s Parliament — Patrick Grattan Bellew who proudly recalls his visionary ancestor of the 1780s.

The seas here are notoriously rough and with dangerous reefs just under the surface, many a ship has foundered — over 1,000, estimates suggest. As the islands lie on a main shipping route from the US to England, they became synonymous with piracy and smuggling in previous centuries with much booty secreted in the islands’ caves away from prying eyes.

In the 1798 rebellion two of the Protestant leaders, Harvey Bagenal and John Henry Colclough, sought refuge on the island but were discovered and duly hanged from the bridge in Wexford Town.

Great Saltee flag indicating the Neale family is in residence on the island.

Among the vessels to join the ship’s graveyard was the SS Ardmore which sank in 1940 with the loss of 25 lives, having been sunk by a German magnetic mine. Former Irish Examiner journalist Dominic O’Sullivan who was related by marriage to one of the sailors wrote that “not since the sinkings of the Titanic and the Lusitania had the sea pounded so fiercely upon the communal imagination”.

Great Saltee is recognised as the second most important nesting colony in Ireland for gannets after Skellig Michael and followed by Lambay Island, Ireland’s Eye, Bull Rock (Dursey), and Clare Island. A phenomenal, cacophonous caterwauling sends you running for cover if you get too close, your eardrums begging for mercy. It is a birdwatcher’s magnet for other species too, with significant numbers of kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, fulmars, puffins, manx shearwater, cormorants, and shags. Photographer Sheena Jolley has taken many award-winning shots of the courtship rituals of the gannets, her shots frequently gracing these pages.

Author of Lough Hyne: From Prehistory to the Present, and nature writer Terri Kearney says: “The range of bird life there is extraordinary, and the sights, smells, and sounds of this wild place make return visits inevitable.”

How to get there: Ferry from Kilmore Quay operating in the summer months. Declan Bates: 087 252 9736, kilmorequayangling.com Other: salteeislands.info sheenajolleyphotography.com Books: A Pinch of Saltee, Henry Grattan Bellew — Justin Nelson Productions

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