An Irishman's Diary
LOOKING out to sea from the harbour at Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford, two islands stand like tempting forbidden territory, about 5km off the coast. The Saltee Islands, Great and Little, may be small in size but they encompass much history and a great variety of natural life.
Provided that the weather is calm, the boat journey across from Kilmore Quay is an easy passage. Declan Bates or others at Kilmore Quay harbour are happy to take people for a boat trip around the islands, or else to land, much easier on the big island. Declan says that it’s possible to land on either of the islands, which rather amazingly, were once joined to the mainland.
The first people to have settled on the Saltees did so during the New Stone Age, about 3500 to 2000 BC. In modern times, the first family recorded on the islands were the Boxfels, in the 16th century. They were farmers, but one of the Boxfel brothers soon discovered that smuggling was far more profitable. The caves around the coast of the bigger island, with such names as Hell’s Cave, were ideal for smugglers and it’s said that if anyone probes deep enough into these caves, they will find material left by the smugglers 200 or more years ago.
The Saltees became an ideal base for a very motley crew of smugglers, pirates and brigands, while there were also a vast number of shipwrecks, about 1,000 in all, in this area of the south-east.
During the 1798 rebellion, the islands became a hiding place for some of the south Wexford rebels. Two Protestant leaders in 1798, Beauchamp Harvey Bagenal and John Henry Colclough, hid in caves on the islands, but were captured and then hanged on the town bridge in Wexford.
Early in the 19th century, the Parle family bought the islands and started cultivating wheat, barley and potatoes. The Parles formed the 52 arable hectares of the big island, with a third in tillage, the rest in pasture. One of the family, John, had a great reputation as a strong man; he could lift up two sheep, one under each arm, and put them into a cot (small boat) to take them to the mainland. By 1860, about 20 people were living on the Great Saltee.
The Parles lasted until 1904, when they sold the leases on the islands to Martin Pierce, of the family that owned the famed foundry in Wexford. But his interest was short-lived. In 1907, he took one of his employees on a rabbit shooting expedition on the Saltees, but when they were leaving the islands, a storm blew up and their boat filled with water and sank. They were rescued, but Martin Pierce died a few days later.
For the next 20 years or so, other members of the Pierce family used the islands for sport but didn’t live there. In 1930, the Great Saltee was sold to a sporting syndicate from Dublin for £5. Then, in the late 1930s, a man called Claude Francis took over the big island and farmed there. He abandoned the island after the death of his wife and in December, 1943, a Co Wexford man, Michael Neale, a farmer’s son, bought the main island.
When he was 10 years of age, he had declared to his mother that one day, he was going to own the Saltees. He also declared himself Prince Michael of the Saltees, although his “coronation” was delayed until 1953, the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Prince Michael built a throne on the big island, as well as an obelisk with his own likeness, and put up a flagstaff. He left a peculiar decree, that if none of his family could take over the islands after his death, they were to be governed by the Absent Twelve, after the Twelve Apostles, who could come from any country in the world, as long as they were fishermen.
Prince Michael planted 34,000 trees and shrubs on the great island and the palm trees that he planted can still be seen. He also learned to fly, so as to visit his island easily. One of his airlifts was very controversial; in 1949, he flew in a plane load of cats, 46 in all, to deal with the vermin on the island, but the cats died out after about eight years. As for the prince himself, he died in 1998 and is buried in the family vault at Bannow Bay on the nearby Wexford coast. He was succeeded in his ownership and title by his eldest son, who became Prince Michael the Second.
Little Saltee, half the size of the main island, remained inhabited up until the end of the second World War. Then in 1977, Henry Grattan Bellew and his partner, Shirley, made the restoration of Little Saltee Island their active retirement project when they came back to Ireland from southern Africa.
Today, much of the main island is covered in thickets and brambles, but in one respect, the two islands retain their main point of interest. They form Ireland’s largest bird sanctuary and have an astonishing reputation among bird watchers from all over the world for the incredible number of seabirds that come to the islands – thousands upon thousands of gannets, guillemots and puffins, as well as many other species. Other wildlife, too, can be seen, such as seals and dolphins. In 1950, Major Robert Ruttledge, with the help of John Weaving, turned the original island farmhouse into a bird observatory, which lasted until 1963. Major Ruttledge himself died 10 years ago, at the age of 102.
For anyone who loves nature and an unspoiled environment, the two islands are ideal for a fascinating summer trip.
They have been written about, mainly by Wexford writer Richard Roche, while Henry Grattan Bellew also put pen to paper with his account of his stay on Little Saltee, called A Pinch of Saltee. But the ideal way of exploring this magic and unspoiled islands is by taking a boat there from Kilmore Quay.