All through lockdown I was haunted by a childhood memory of gazing across the sea at a sunny Valentia Island and thinking it was Spain.
Of course the name of the island off the Kerry coast has nothing to do with Valencia but derives from ‘Dairbhre’, the Irish for ‘oak wood’. It’s hardly an island any more, either, since a bridge to the island was built from Portmagee in 1971. But it’s still about the most exotic place you can go without leaving Ireland.
The scenery on this Ring of Kerry coast is stunning and that’s before you consider the peaked form of Skellig Michael, the sixth century monastic site and Star Wars location, on the horizon.
You'd be very lucky to bag a seat out to Skellig Michael on an organised tour from Portmagee before next Summer but you might get out to Beginish Island, renowned for its fine beaches or take a winter Dark Skies" cruise with Kerry Aqua Terra (kerryaquaterra.ie).
You don’t have to leave Valentia at all to see the quite recently discovered “tetrapod trackway” near the radio station at Wireless Point, petrified tracks made by one of the earliest four-legged amphibians which made the move onto land 350 to 370 million years ago.
The beautifully restored lighthouse on an old fort at Cromwell’s Point, still open to visitors until the end of October (tel: 066 9476985), guards the entrance to Glanleam Bay with its paradise beach.
Approaching the Glanleam Estate by land, we began to see subtropical stragglers in the rich, Kerry hedgerows. When the big house appeared, wrought-iron gates beckoned us into its secret garden where Chilean myrtles and giant tree ferns and huge cypresses formed a magical canopy and an ethereal pale pink fuchsia made a bright arch through the shade.
Perhaps stumbling upon these exotic gardens near the village of Knightstown was the best way to first experience them. They are organised as a web of interconnecting paths on the headland which leads to Valentia lighthouse.
The current custodians of Glanleam House and Gardens, Meta and Jessica Kreissig and Jessica’s husband, Eoin O’Donoghue, have built a fairy garden and cleared a path to a healing well. They run the house as a B&B and there are three self-catering houses to rent: the former estate manager’s house which faces the kitchen garden and sleeps 10; the one-bedroom gardener’s cottage which has a view of the harbour and sleeps two; and the 250-year-old boathouse which faces the stunning pocket-sized beach and sleeps four to six.
The gardens are now seriously over-grown which adds to their charm as a “lost domain”. However it is important to understand that Glanleam was once the first great sub-tropical garden in Britain or Ireland, laid out and planted under the instructions of the 19th Knight of Kerry, Peter FitzGerald, in the late 19th century.
Former gardener at Glanleam, Seamus O’Brien, who is now with the National Botanic Gardens at Kilmacurragh, describes FitzGerald as “an absolute pioneer”, yachting backwards and forwards from his 5,000 acre estate, importing plants from as far away as New Zealand.
The great Victorian poet Tennyson is said to have composed the lines "Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, O Sea", while staying at Valentia.
O’Brien planted much of the Fernery, which is now a sub-tropical jungle and reveals there is a rare Killarney fern in a secret place at Glanleam, a survivor of the Victorian passion of ferns known as terridomania. Glanleam Gold, a special Chilean Myrtle with variegated leaves, was discovered on the estate, and Chilean guavas are another speciality.
It’s tempting to see the planting of this exotic garden on this far-flung Irish island as symbolic of the internationalist history of Valentia, which became in 1865, thanks to the workings of the 19th Knight of Kerry, the first place in Europe to be connected to North America by transatlantic cable.
The Knights of Kerry were the FitzGerald family, who leased and then bought their estate on Valentia from 1752 on. While Robert FitzGerald is associated with a linen mill, his son Maurice promoted the famous slate quarry and had the village of Knightstown laid out by Alexander Nimmo to face the mainland by Renard Point near Caherciveen.
Maurice dreamed of Knightstown rivalling Liverpool with a transatlantic packet steamer sailing from the port several times a week and attracted the unwise investment of one Daniel O’Connell. Though this never happened, his son Peter’s success with the transatlantic cable offered a far more modern form of connectivity.
Knightstown, where the car ferry from Renard Point docks from March to October, still has a strangely colonial air about it, with its clock-tower, and the grand old Royal Hotel, which serves good food all year round (royalvalentia.ie). It got its royal title in 1869 when Peter FitzGerald brought in Arthur, the seventh son of queen Victoria, and he stayed to dinner in the same Glanleam House dining-room in which you get your B&B breakfast today. The great Victorian poet Tennyson is said to have composed the lines “Break, break, break, on thy cold grey stones, O Sea”, while staying at Valentia.
The current knight, Adrian FitzGerald, divides his time between England and Co Waterford but still owns an old boat house on the Glanleam beach at the edge of the estate. He is unsentimental about the knights, saying the Anglo-Irish in general didn’t adapt fast enough to independent Ireland, and “If you don’t adapt, well, tough.”
He explains that the knights’ title is Norman and Irish rather than English, dating from 1350 when the Earl of Desmond divided his massive Munster estate between three “illegitimate” sons, named the Black Knight (at Glin, Co Limerick), the White Knight (at Mitchelstown, Co Cork) and the Green Knight (the Valentia branch in Co Kerry).
The earl was murdered on the orders of queen Elizabeth 1: “They were ghastly, those Tudors, really”, comments FitzGerald. The White Knights died out around 1600 but the Black Knights lasted until Desmond FitzGerald died in 2011. The Green Knight’s title can pass to Adrian Fitz Gerald’s cousin and to his cousin’s son.
While the knights brought industry to the place, there’s no point trying to blot forced evictions from their history, and historian Nellie O’Cleirigh tells the troubling story of Knight Peter’s attempt to pay quarry workers in meal, not money in the 1880s. Their tenure ended following a sell-out to the Congested Districts Board and Adrian FitzGerald’s grandparents finally left in 1936.
There were two Anglo-Irish intermediary owners, and then along came the Kreissigs from Germany, who had been encouraged by the IDA to set up a knitting factory on the island. Meta Kreissig, now 80, loves telling, in her strong German accent, how the former owner said, “We can’t sell it to a foreigner”, when she was, “as foreign as I am”.
The house is now decorated in a characterful mish-mash of styles, with four enuite bedrooms. Mine had a stunning sea view and a gorgeous 1970s gold and avocado bathroom suite, which is in itself a heritage item. When I go back, however, it will be to the old Valentia-slated boathouse with its picture window full of the sea, surely one of the most romantic spots in the country and quite possibly the most exotic.
Glanleam House B&B from €130pp; cottages from €75 to €140pp, see glanleam.com