The Island at the Western Edge Christmas 2004

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When Jack O’Connor and his victorious Kerry team took Sam on a celebratory tour of the county, one of the earliest ports-of-call was the national school on Valentia Island.

During this visit they also met up with GAA legend and island native Mick O’Connell, who complimented the lads on the quality of their football in the final against Mayo. O’Connor fondly recalled this meeting later that day, suggesting that this was a great plaudit, as “Micko doesn’t throw out compliments readily”.

O‘Connell‘s legendary unassuming character is mirrored in the community of his island home. Valentia is the last remaining inhabited island off the coast of Co. Kerry, sitting at the western edge of Europe, and is much less well known than the Blaskets or the Skelligs. Its people are affected by all that comes from rural isolation, especially limited or no access to services taken for granted elsewhere – no dentist, part-time doctor, limited public transport, no broadband access etc.- and, of course, the limited employment opportunities which living some distance from larger populations brings. Yet they don’t shout about these issues, they deal with them.

The Health and Welfare Association runs the island’s small hospital, as well as providing community laundry and transport services. There is also a créche and day care centre, with plans for extended post-school facilities. And just last year, Tig an Oilean, a residential centre for adults with learning disabilities, was opened. Built on land donated by Mick O’Connell – his son is a resident of the centre – and paid for through an intensive programme of fundraising managed by a local committee, the centre is home to six men who now live back in the midst of their own community. They are able to receive visitors, get involved in local events such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade and Tidy Towns and lead full and active lives.

The economy and culture of Valentia is still dependent to some extent on the traditional activities of farming and fishing, but increasingly this is being replaced by those post-industrial favourites, tourism and support services. Many people work off-island, in towns such as Cahirciveen and Killorglin, in call-centres, government offices or commercial enterprises. The demand for new houses has led to a growth in construction services, with all the attendant specialists that go with it (electricians, plumbers, tilers etc.) and there is a new vibrancy on the island as development takes place. Knightstown, the island’s “capital”, has many listed buildings and so new builds have to be very carefully and sympathetically planned.

One of the most intriguing and exciting work places on the island is the Valentia Slate Quarry, the only working one in Ireland. Historically, the quarry provided materials for places such as the Houses of Parliament in London and the Paris Opera House, but it ceased operations in the late 19th century. A few years ago a group of local businessmen decided to try and make a go of it again, and they now run a successful, busy enterprise. As well as providing quality slate goods for domestic and commercial uses, they have just recently won a contract to provide floor tiles to the UK Houses of Parliament which is undergoing refurbishment.

For the visitor, Valentia has a great deal on offer. High quality marine activities are readily provided: sailing, diving, fishing and boat trips can all be arranged locally. Trips out to Skellig Michael, some nine miles out from Valentia, are run by licensed boats in the summer months, and a visit to the Skellig Experience Centre is a perfect way to round off such a trip. Wildlife enthusiasts can watch dolphins, seals, basking sharks and sun fish, as well as a diverse range of birds.

The island has impeccable heritage, just about the earliest remaining Neolithic sites are to be found at Coarha Beg. On the western side of the island, there are the remnants of two Cromwellian forts, one at each end of the island, and the first working transatlantic telegraph cable was laid from Valentia to Newfoundland. Glanleam House and Gardens, once the seat of the Knight of Kerry, nestles in a sheltered corner of the island and has a remarkable array of tropical and sub-tropical plants for the visitor to see.

One of the earliest creatures to emerge from the sea and seek sanctuary on land, a tetrapod, managed somehow to leave a set of footprints in soft sand. There are over a hundred of these footprints still to be seen. And, also at Coarha Beg, is St. Brendan’s Well, a holy well dedicated to the Kerry saint. Legend has it that St. Brendan was sailing in Dingle Bay when he saw two figures beckoning him from the shore at Valentia. He landed and found an elderly couple, whom he blessed. Close to the site of the well are two standing stones, and it is believed that this couple are buried there.

The story goes that after Kerry’s success in the 1959 All Ireland final, captain Mick O’Connell didn’t join in the post-match celebrations. Instead, he took the train out of Dublin and headed back to Kerry. Landing at Renard, he jumped into his rowboat and crossed over to his beloved Valentia. It’s easy to understand why.

Jim Shean, born in London but with Irish and Welsh Ancestry, escaped the rigours of that city and the M25 for a more peaceful existence in the wilds of South Kerry.

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About this record

Written by James Shean

Published here 26 Dec 2023 and originally published Christmas 2004

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