46 Valentia Island
Valentia Island requires a detour from the journey around Britain. The detour is justified. Ireland is an independent state and country but it is located in the section of landscape that maps define as the British Isles. More important, when I go there I do not think of it as abroad. The island is reached by crossing the Maurice O’Neill Bridge from Portmagee, a town whose name is derived from an 18th Century smuggler who appreciated the intricate coast of the island. Maurice O’Neill was executed in 1940. He was arrested while staying in an IRA safe house. O’Neill was unlucky. The authorities were seeking his housemate Harry White who escaped. The escape by White began with a crawl through wilderness and finished with him stepping off a bus in O’Connell Street in Dublin and was worthy of Billy the Kid.
Knightstown is the urban centre of the island. It is home to 156 people. The locals are friendly but there have been the occasional clashes of cultures. Trendies can cause offence. I stayed outside Knightstown in a quiet community that had a pub. The landlord was not impressed by Americans who assumed that he would sell coffee. Whether he should have told one American to go away and used two alternative words I am not sure. He poured an impeccable pint but it was in the same pub that I came to the conclusion that Guinness was the most overhyped keg beer in the 3000 year old history of alcohol. I did not mention this to the landlord.
Times change. Now the island has a three day music festival in July. The festival this year had a lot of jazz, and, on a quiet island, mixing jazz and folk is a sensible idea.
Valentia Island has fabulous scenic views. The wildlife is varied, and so is the archaeological history. Early settlements are well preserved and are complimented by standing stones that exist in fine locations. The island has a Heritage Centre and a museum called the Skellig Experience. The island of Sceilig Mhichil is reached from Portmagee rather than Valentia Island. Sceilig Mhichil has a 6th Century monastic settlement. The monastery was abandoned in the 12th Century. George Bernard Shaw described the island as ‘part of our dream world’.
Because Valentia Island is the western tip of Europe it possesses not only an attractive lighthouse but also the Valentia Observatory. This was built in 1868. It is the wettest weather station in Ireland but the skies over the Observatory are not as wet as those over the mountains of Kerry. Rain did not deter the entrepreneurs who thought that there was money to be made from a Transatlantic Telegraph Cable. It took five attempts to lay it between Valentia Island and Hearts Content in Newfoundland but the two ships laying the cable finally met in the right place in 1858. The first telegraph between Valentia Island and Hearts Content mentioned the glory of God and offered peace and goodwill to all men. Some people thought that the technological breakthrough would unite the world. To them it must have felt like watching Coca Cola teaching the world to sing. Imagine their surprise in 1914 and 1939.
Next week, Dracula and a whalebone, Whitby
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.