Valentia island is a small island located to the south of the 'Ring of Kerry' on the Iveraugh peninsula in County Kerry. The name Valentia is an English corruption of Beal Inse, which means mouth of the island but the true name of the island is the far more romantic Oilean Dairbhre, island of the oaks.
Valentia's main claim to fame is that it was the home of the first ever transatlantic cable which was laid in 1857 - the details and history of this may be seen at the heritage centre in Knightstown- but it is also the most westerly point of western europe and surely deserves a mention simply for its location.
The main tourist season in Valentia is short, from June to August, but as it has an exceptionally mild climate due to the warm drift of the gulf stream it is suitable for all season visitors.
I visited Valentia in September and it captured a part of my heart. It might have been the feeling of remoteness and tranquility or the sensational splendour of the scenery, but, whatever, Valentia instilled within me a sense of belonging.
Valentia is a place of escape, a place where one can experience the harmony of nature and rejuvenate body and soul with the pure air and sense of freedom. It is one of those places which truly inspire and has the potential to draw out everyones artistic or literary streak however deeply hidden within.
The typical tourist to Valentia will travel by car to the main tourist spots and view the spectacular scenery in passing but to experience Valentia in all its glory it is necessary to abandon the car and walk, or cycle. The island is only 7 by 3 miles - so it is not a major hike.
Walking along the roads in Valentia is an absolute delight. The hedgerows are quite stunning. From a distance and speeding along in a car you see the red and orange glow of the fuschias and monbretia which line every road but walking your senses are assaulted by the colours and scents of a myriad of wild flowers.
Honeysuckle, foxgloves, heather and golden furze abound and tumble in and out of blackberries and stone walls. The smell of peat fires wafts from the small white cottages dotted around and the sounds of sheep, cows and birds accompanies you everywhere.
My first walk covered the Grotto, the tetrapod track, the lighthouse, Glanleam woods and Knightstown. The Grotto is at the famous slate quarry which was opened in 1816 and provided work on the island. The quarry supplied slates for the roof of the House of Commons and countless snooker tables. High above the cavernous entrance to the quarry is a statue of the Madonna and just inside the entrance is the grotto with water cascading into pools. The view over the sea is of course quite stunning.
The next point of call was the Lighthouse Cafe and the tetrapod track. The Lighthouse cafe is signposted but the tetrapod track isn't. The Lighthouse Cafe is a gourmet paradise - don't expect chips and burgers. I cannot say if the magic of the island had affected my taste buds but it was there I tasted the most magnificent mushroom soup on earth, full of herbs and other good things, swirled with cream and garnished with chive flowers along with the most delicious soda bread fresh from the oven. Sitting outside with views over to the the lighthouse and blasket islands I lingered over lunch far longer than necessary.
Just along from the cafe is the tetrapod trackway. The tetrapod track is an internationally important geological site. Discovered in 1993, the site is the fossilised footprints of the Acanthostega, more commonly known as the tetrapod. The tetrapod is apparently the first water dwelling creature which crawled out of the water and made the important evolutionary step toward land dwelling animals. It is dated to an incredible 365 million years ago. Now I had never heard of a tetrapod but when I heard that this track was the first in europe and only the fourth found in the world I thought I had better take a look.
Ever since the site was discovered there have been plans to make the site accessible and provide information but, in true Irish style, nothing has yet materialised so finding the track is somewhat of an adventure. I clambered over walls and streams and bogs to the white plastic marker which is the only indication of the location.
By the time I arrived 30 ft waves were pounding against the rocks below and the spray splashed my face. I couldn't see any way of getting down to the trackway without falling prey to the wild waves so after admiring yet more spectacular scenery I began the steep climb back taking a detour to the lighthouse on the way. The walk back to Knightstown is through the Glanleam woods. Glanleam is the estate which was home to the romantic sounding Knight of Kerry (the Fitzgerald family). It is mainly woodland and its sub tropical gardens are open to the public.
There are many early celtic sites on the island including standing stones, crosses, wedge tombs and holy wells. At the back of the island amidst the bleak dramatic backdrop of peat bogs and sea is St Brendan's Well and a couple of celtic crosses.(St Brendan is also known as 'the Voyager' because legend has it that he was the first person to 'discover' America way back in the 6th century when he set out on his quest for the 'Land of Promise'.) Here too is the infamous Culoo - a favourite spot for sea angling but very dangerous.
From the back of the Island there are views of the Skelligs. From Valentia the Skelligs (Little Skellig and Skellig Micheal) look like large rocks jutting from the ocean but they are in fact islands about 15 Km out. Boat trips are available to the Skelligs (about 35 Eu ) but only if the weather permits and unfortunately on my trip it did not.
Skellig Micheal is famous for being the habitation of hermit monks. They lived on this bleak square mile of rock 218 metres above the sea in 'Beehive huts'. It never ceases to amaze me why monks seemed to choose the most inhospitable places to reside. The 670 steps up to this early Christian settlement is a difficult and somewhat treacherous climb. The other reason to visit the Skelligs is the amazing birdlife. There are 25,000 pairs of breeeding gannets on Little Skellig and of course the rare and colourful puffins along with many others. The 'Skellig Experience' is a must visit whether or not it is possible to do the boat trip.
During the main season the bars on the Island have music regularly, if not each evening but off season the traditional Irish music and dancing may be found in the Bridge bar at Portmagee, the pituresque fishing village just over the bridge from Valentia which is the local to many Islanders. The locals swirl and jig at an impressive speed as they perform traditional set dances.
Valentia Island should not be reserved for the divers, anglers and day trippers passing through on the 'Ring of Kerry' tour. It is a beautiful place to recharge the batteries of your soul. Needless to say, as with everywhere in Ireland, everyone is friendly and welcoming. For further details and links see The Valentia Island website which has lots more information and pictures.
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