Take me to the island

 

VALENTIA:How many of us can say we are in love with where we live? Valentia Island, on the edge of the Atlantic, is a slice of heaven for its inhabitants who explain why they wouldn't - and couldn't - live anywhere else, writes Miriam Mulcahy

ITS NAME IN Irish is Dairbhre, meaning island of the oaks. And just like the name, there is something magical about the place. It's not technically an island, being joined to the mainland by the bridge at Portmagee in Kerry. The piercingly-pure sea air floods the island from all sides, while bordering every road in summertime are ridiculous amounts of montbretia and fuschia.

When the sun is shining, Neoprene-clad kids whizz by on bikes to throw themselves into the sea at Knightstown, the harbour book-ended by white Victorian terraces that housed the lighthouse keepers and cable men's families.

The first transatlantic cable was started here, reaching Newfoundland on its second attempt. Ancient artefacts practically litter the landscape. Around every corner is another incomparable view, another historical legend, another great story, another excuse to return.

Don't make the mistake of admiring it from a distance; explore it, and come to terms with the fact that no matter how often it is visited, it might never be enough.

And like countless others before you, the only solution to the way this place hooks and reels in your unsuspecting heart might be to realise that Ireland is just an island to the side of Valentia.

With all that is here, it's not about what is being left behind, but rather what is to be found.

PAUL AND PAULA DUFF, THE LIGHTHOUSE CAFÉ

Everything about the Lighthouse Café is idyllic. Mountains and the slate quarry rear above it, imposing gravity. The Atlantic and Dingle bay wash beneath it, the lighthouse punctuates the rocky shoreline and Dolus head is right in front. The Blaskets are in the distance, fishing boats work the waters and serious willpower is required to tear your eyes away from this visual feast.

There are mussels, crab claws, smoked mackerel and chowder, with plenty of tables outside. Salads and potatoes are sourced from the gardens that are cultivated the old way, fertilised with seaweed.

"It's all my fault," says Paula Duff (left, with husband Paul). "I just woke up here one Sunday morning and said, 'I know exactly what we're going to do. We're going to buy the Lighthouse Café, you're going to do organic gardening, and we're going to run the café'."

In a previous life, they worked in insurance and collected pictures of lighthouses. A friend's wedding brought them to Valentia. "There was something about the place that just caught the two of us."

Paula rises early to make the chowder, the stew, scones and soda breads. Paul looks after the garden and deals with the fish, collecting boxes of mackerel, filleting and smoking them for the next day.

What keeps them here? "There's a real sense of place, a sense of community," says Paul, his eyes constantly dragged out to sea. "We love the times when we're closed, we love the off season."

The cafe is a seasonal business and when they close at the end of the summer, plans are laid for long holidays abroad. Last year, they spent two months in Australia: this winter it is a roadtrip across America.

Paul often finds himself looking up from the garden and still being stunned by the view. "There's a real sense of being on the edge of Europe, of being apart from everything. We get lashed out of it here by storms, there's that feeling of nature, it's just incredible."

MUIRIS O'DONOGHUE, FARMER AND TOURIST OPERATOR, GEOKAUN MOUNTAIN

Muiris O'Donoghue points at the sheep grazing his mountain. "They're only there for the tourists," he says. Things were going well when he first took over the family farm, but there's nothing in sheep now. He was interested by a service in Britain's Lake District - National Trust properties with pay-and-display car parks.

Muiris then developed a 1,500m roadway from the public road to the top of Geokaun Mountain. There are four pay-and-display car parks along the way, with one at the top of the mountain, as well as walking paths for those without a car. "We had a trackway here, we knew we could improve it. We reckoned it could work, but we didn't know. Someone could say, 'I can walk up that mountain for free, why should I pay you?' " Muiris was not deterred. "It's the top of the island, it's unique. On a fine day, it's an experience." There are viewing points on the mountain that encompass all the surrounding wonders such as the Skelligs, the Blaskets, the Kerry mountains and the Fogher cliffs. Even on a hazy day, the views are spectacular.

"It's a good way of life, but we'll be the last generation to farm here. It's great for bringing up kids. Sometimes you feel you'd like to have better land. If you turn your back on land here, it's weeds and rushes. You have to be watching it all the time, there's water everywhere. But I don't think I could live away from here. I'd have to see the sea - mountains, too - but I need the sea."

JOE AND CAROLINE DALY, VALENTIA ISLAND FARMHOUSE ICE-CREAM

A third-generation dairy farmer with land sweeping down to the sea, Joe Daly converted old farm buildings into an ice-cream parlour. "The whole point of it was the milk," says Joe. "We have unlimited supply and full traceability. We know exactly what those cows are feeding on." They throw away the skimmed milk that a lot of ice-cream is made from, with 1½ litres of cream going into every 10-litre batch.

This summer was their third making ice-cream. "Everything is handmade, with natural ingredients, absolutely from scratch. There are no artificial flavourings, colourings or preservatives. That's why we don't do a lot of fruit ice-creams. Fruit needs a preservative, so we do sorbets," says Caroline.

They choose the flavours according to their own taste. "I love chocolate, Joe loves hazelnut and pistachio. For the sorbets, it's often down to people. They ask and we make it." Some of the more unusual orders include white pepper, wasabi, cucumber, and gin and champagne. Unfortunately for ice-cream aficionados, it is currently only sold within Kerry borders.

The Daly boys run into the parlour for more chocolate and caramel, but it is not for sharing "Get your own," says Matthew, already involved in the marketing end of the business. "Caramel with sprinkles is the best."

There is a sense of unerring certainty that this will work for them. "It's a wild place, a windswept, open space. The air is so pure, it's like champagne," says Joe. "We face south; it's good grass, it's good land. Happy, healthy cows produce happy, healthy milk."

KEISHA SHEAHAN, TIMELESS JEWELLERY

Keisha runs the smallest shop in Ireland, and possibly Europe. She sells jewellery in the clock tower at Knightstown Harbour. Coal used to be weighed there before it was loaded on to the ferry.

Keisha is from Trinidad. She was working in London when she met her husband, a Valentia man, and came to the island with him three years ago.

She found the transition from city to a tiny community surprisingly easy to make. "It's a special place. The other day, I was kayaking and we were surrounded by seals. And I thought, 'I love my life, this is where I live!'"

In winter, she teaches computer classes and conducts science workshops in local schools. "Before I came here to settle, I said to Nathan: 'Sign me up for anything'." She arrived to find herself working in the coast guard. "We do cliff and coast rescues, searches by boat and on foot. I can be called out anytime of the day or night."

One of the things she loves about the island is the sense of community and the chance to be involved. "When I lived at Port of Spain, in Trinidad, I was involved with lots of community groups. I'm not happy unless I'm busy. Everything feels so relaxed, so safe here. I never felt like that in Trinidad or London."

BROTHER AND SISTER VINCENT AND FIONA KIDD, CO-OWNERS OF THE ROYAL HOTEL

Fiona and her brother, Vincent Kidd, went from one family business to another. After years of working in the French polishing business in Dublin, they and their respective families were ready for a change.

"Our brother was here on holidays when he spotted this place. I had never been here before. I loved the building, the scenery, being on the waterfront."

The hotel is called The Royal because Queen Victoria's son stayed here, and the Kidds are running it as a B&B while they renovate the building, which is listed.

Despite the change in ownership, it's still very much a local haunt. One side of the bar is occupied each evening by boatmen and fishermen, with the garden beside the harbour full of tourists and locals. "All our winter trade is purely local and we've had great support from the locals. They really wanted to see this place open. Our season is so short, only 12 weeks. Christmas is crazy, it's a great buzz, it's packed," says Fiona.

The downside are the months of January and February. "It's just rain and wind, it can be bleak. Once the ferry stops, it gets very quiet. The days are very short and dark, and fairly long."

Whatever the challenges, thoughts of leaving are never entertained. "I couldn't see myself back up in Dublin. After a couple of days, I'm, 'C'mon, get me home, quick'. All the things you never noticed before, noise, traffic jams, sirens," says Fiona. But the one thing she misses is public transport. "We have to ferry the kids everywhere. Down here, you teach them how to drive early."

MICK O'CONNELL, FOOTBALL LEGEND

"If you have five minutes," promises Mick O' Connell, "I'll show you Valentia." He is in his 70s, but O'Connell hurries up the mountain as if his life depends on it. At the summit, he does indeed show me Valentia, laid out below us like an interwoven tapestry of history and natural beauty.

"I've lived here all my life. Born here in 1937, my people came from Beginis Island. All my roots have been in this area, south Kerry. My father and his father before him both married O'Connells from the Iveragh Peninsula, so the O'Connell line is going a way back. 'Tis a beautiful island and the island doesn't change. The population has changed, but the island has a great history. The Western Union laid the telegraph cable, there was the radio station, the farmers, fishermen, all the trades were practised here. We had everything here: hospitals, schools, doctors, piano teachers, a cinema, dancehall and three churches.

"We're well used to having a mix of population; there has always been a great mix of other people coming in. With the fine harbour, it was a very busy place. Cable ships came from Newfoundland, Denmark, France and Holland; trawlers from Spain, France and Wales.

"Anyplace in Valentia, you get a range of views of the islands, the Blaskets, Skelligs, Dingle Bay and the Atlantic, the MacGillycuddys. For that reason, it's a lovely place to live. On a winter's day, with the big swells coming across there . . . all seasons here bring their bonuses.

"You can be anywhere on the island and in five minutes, you can go to a spot, and have a scenic view that is second to none. It mightn't put money in the pocket, but it's uplifting. There's a lot of people say that you're remote here. Remote from what? Remote from the cities, that's obvious. But the cities are also very remote from beautiful scenery, that's the other point of view."

At the house, Rosaleen O'Connell shows me a collection of photos of the island. "Every single night, we see a different sunset. No two are ever the same," she says, "and seeing the sea every day in all its aspects, I feel like I have all the world before me. I don't think I'm missing anything here."