Just off the coast of Co. Wexford lies a miniature kingdom. Two tiny islands with myths and legends of runaway rebels, pirates, princes and puffins - a busy history for islands that barely cover 160 hectares!
You might not have heard of the Saltee Islands before and a few weeks ago, neither had I. Perhaps overshadowed by the more famous islands off the west coast of Ireland, the Saltees have managed to stay under the radar for most tourists, even those from the mainland! It’s more than likely why it’s retained so much of it’s natural beauty and remains one of the finest bird and seal colonies in Ireland.
We visited the islands on the last day of August, hoping for one final burst of summer weather that’s never exactly guaranteed on an Irish holiday. But holy smokes were we lucky! In more ways than one but we’ll get to that.
Us being the eejits we are, we didn’t book ahead for tickets on the Saltee Ferry, the only way for tourists to access the islands. The ferry is run by Declan, a local man who has been shuttling tourists back and forth to the islands for decades. When we pulled in to Kilmore Quay where the ferry departs, we saw the ferry just leaving and checking the clock, we realised we had just missed the last departure of the day - disaster!
It was midday but we’d read that if the weather is decent, Declan might take another ferry load across if there’s enough people at the harbour. When we saw another couple with the same exasperated faces we had, we thought we’d chance our arm and ring Declan to see if he’d take us across. With typical bewildering Irish charm, he didn’t give us a straight answer but just said that if enough folks were there he would take us. Cue ourselves and the other couple attempting a ridiculous sales pitch to anyone who even looked towards the ferry sign.
But it worked! Declan was happy enough with our recruits and we bundled on to the ferry (I say ferry but it’s just a wee boat that fits about 20 people), and made our way to Great Saltee Island, the bigger of the two and the only one safe enough for visitors to visit. When we finally had our arses on the boat, we were like a pair of kids. The sun was beating down and the sea was sparkling turquoise, it was hard to believe we were still in Ireland.
The journey took about 20 minutes and then we were transferred to a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) that took us straight on to the beach. We were told to come back at 4.30pm for our return journey which gave us about 3 hours to explore the island, plenty of time to play in paradise.
We followed the clear path that took us in the general direction Declan pointed to go and see the colony of gannets on the opposite side of the island. We were too late in the year for puffins but after just a few minutes of stepping on to the island we saw dozens of different migratory bird species, it’s an ornithological haven.
We soon passed the private residence of the Neale family who have owned Great Saltee since 1943. It was Michael Neale’s dream to purchase the island and at the age of 10, he declared to his mother that he would one day be Prince of the Saltees. Amazingly, his childhood dream was realised when he crowned himself Prince and had his very own coronation - robes, throne, the whole lot!
Prince Michael I passed away in 1998 so the title fell to his son, Prince Michael II. The island itself is rarely inhabited by the family but they have continued to allow visitors to enjoy the island when they aren’t in residence, a gift I was grateful for as I reached the cliffs on the south of the island and was awestruck.
Turquoise waters crashed into towering caves, harbour and grey seals could be seen in every little bay as they prepared for pupping season, wildflowers were clinging on for the last moments of summer and the screeches of the gulls and gannets could be heard from above. This island is inhabited after all.
We took our time exploring. Climbing down rock faces in bare feet, barking at the seals in the hope they’d approach us (and also kind of afraid that they would). We peered into the wide open mouths of the caves wondering aloud if there really was any treasure left by the pirates and smugglers who used these islands as a base centuries ago. They came from France, Spain and Africa, plundering the merchant trips on the route between the UK and America to such success that the waters around the islands became known as ‘the graveyard of a thousand ships’.
Not only were the caves a pirate’s playground, they also acted as a sanctuary for leaders of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. After the fall of Wexford Town, rebels Bagenal Harvey of Bargy Castle and John Henry Colclough of nearby Ballyteige Castle dressed themselves and their families as peasants and hid in one of the caves on Great Saltee. Unfortunately their cover was blown when a farmer living on the island was beaten into betraying their whereabouts and the men were later hanged on Wexford Bridge.
Luckily for us the island isn’t quite as treacherous however we were near peril when we realised we made the rookie mistake of not bringing snacks. Suddenly we were starving and with another hour left on the island, we went foraging for whatever we could find. To our relief we found patches of blackberry bushes and gorged ourselves like we’d been stranded for days.
And soon our adventure came to a close. As we chugged along on the RIB towards Declan’s boat, I looked back and wondered how just weeks ago I didn’t even know this island paradise existed. It’s as if I am destined to fall in love with Ireland a million times over.
INFORMATION & TIPS
Getting there: visit http://salteeferry.com/ to find out the latest ferry times and book ahead with Declan over the phone. Tickets cost 30 euro for an adult and 15 euro for a child.
COVID response: Declan asked for our contact details for tracing, we all wore masks on the boat and RIB and passenger numbers were minimised to keep social distancing in place. We felt safe the whole time.
Amenities on the island: there is no shop or toilets on the island so bear that in mind before you go. Take plenty of water and snacks or, better yet, take a picnic to enjoy while you're there. Just remember to take away all rubbish with you as there are bins - leave the island exactly the way you found it.
Footwear: getting on and off the RIB is tricky and although we visited at high tide, at low tide I'd imagine the rocks are slippy. Make sure to wear appropriate shoes as it'll make it easier when you're exploring the island and climbing rocks (safely!)