27 August 2020
I have been staying for two nights on Valentia Island, off the Iveragh Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. This island is one of Ireland’s most westerly points, is about 11 km (7 miles) long, 3 km (2 miles) wide, and has a population of 665.
I have been staying at the Royal Valentia Hotel, where tourism began on Valentia Island in 1833. The hotel has been run by the Kidd family since 2004, and has been restored lovingly over the past decade or two.
The hotel faces onto the harbour at Knightstown, the island’s main village. A car ferry runs a shuttle service from Knightstown to Reenard Point, near Cahersiveen, on the Ring of Kerry, throughout the day in the summer months (April to October). The island is also linked to the mainland by a bridge at Portmagee. There is a second, smaller village in the middle of the island at Chapeltown, halfway between Knightstown and the bridge.
The Valentia Island Slate Quarry opened in 1816 and soon gained a reputation around the world. The quarry expanded quickly and by the 1850s it employed 500 men on Valentia. Business and trade began to spring up around the quarry and one such business, described by its proprietor as a ‘neat and very comfortable little inn,’ opened its doors in 1833.
This inn was established at ‘The Foot’ before the village of Knightstown was fully developed. Knightstown was initially designed by the engineer Alexander Nimmo (1783-1832) in 1830-1831, shortly before he died, and it is one of the first planned villages in Ireland.
Knightstown began to develop in the early 1840s as the quarry was expanded and the works moved to the village. It In his designs, Nimmo envisaged a bridge as he lined up the main street with Renard Road on the mainland.
Meanwhile, Thomas Young, a carpenter, built the new hotel on the site of the old inn, and ran the hotel with his wife and family. At first it was known as the Valentia Hotel and later as Young’s Hotel.
The reputation of the hotel grew, and in 1858 Lord John Manners, a leading English politician and future Duke of Rutland, described the hotel as ‘the neatest, cleanest, most comfortable little hotel in all of Ireland.’
Lord and Lady Adare stayed at the hotel for two months in 1858 and later remarked that ‘there is no village or other miserable little cottages near to make it disagreeable.’
Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, visited Valentia on 20 April 1858, accompanied by his personal tutor. His tour started in West Cork from 12-14 April and from there he sailed towards Co Kerry on the royal yacht Osborne. He visited the slate quarry in Valentia before going on to a two-week holiday in Killarney, but he never stayed on the island.
During a later 10-week stay in Ireland for military training in 1861, the Prince of Wales referred to his visit three years earlier, saying he had ‘conceived a strong attachment to the peasantry.’
Around this time, Valentia was also at the centre of a breakthrough in global communications. Efforts were being made to fund a transatlantic cable and Queen Victoria took a personal interest in the project. She exchanged formal messages with the US President James Buchanan during the brief period of the first successful cable in 1858.
Before the cable was laid, all communications were sent by boat and it took about two weeks for a message from Europe to reach North America and another two weeks to receive a reply.
A transatlantic cable was first proposed in 1845, but it was not until 1856 that the Atlantic Telegraph Company was registered with a capital of £350,000 (then about $1.4 million).
After some initial success in August 1858, a fully operational stable cable was established by Cyrus Field in 1866 and opened for business, cutting the communication time between the two continents to two minutes. The Cable Station remained in operation for the next 100 years, and during that time, Valentia Island took its place at the centre of world communications.
Queen Victoria sent her youngest son Prince Arthur (1850-1942), later Duke of Connaught, to visit Ireland in 1869. The Knight of Kerry, Sir Peter Fitzgerald, invited Prince Arthur to Valentia during his trip and when this invitation was accepted word was sent to reserve rooms at the island hotel.
The prince arrived at Renard Point on 22 April 1869 and was greeted by local people dressed in their holiday best. After a brief visit to the home of the Knight of Kerry at Glenleam House, Prince Arthur arrived at Young’s Hotel, and from then on it was known as the Royal Hotel.
However, while beds had been telegraphed for, they could not be had ‘at any price,’ according to the Freemans Journal, and it appears the prince did not stay overnight at the hotel. He ‘inspected the hotel and spoke kindly to Mrs Young.’ But he returned to Glenleam House later that evening. Dinner was hosted by the Knight of Kerry and the guests included the parish priest, Father Thomas Maginn. Soon after the visit, the hotel was renamed the Royal Valentia although the royal guest never stayed there. Prince Arthur took an Irish title when he became Duke of Connaught in 1874
Valentia had royal visitors once again in 1897 when the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V and Queen Mary, visited the island.
The hotel was taken over by Timothy Galvin in 1901 and then by the Huggard family in 1937. The Huggard family bought up hotels along the local railway line and at one point owned the Royal Hotel Valentia, the Butler Arms Hotel in Waterville, the Carragh Lake Hotel and the Lake Hotel Killarney along with Ashford Castle in Connemara.
Since 2006 the Royal Valentia Hotel has been operated by the Kidd Family who have been restoring the hotel to its former glory over the past 14 years.
From a wet and windy Waterville, the first phase of our August ‘Road Trip’ continued along the Ring of Kerry to Ballinskelligs. The Skelligs Ring, which branches off the Ring of Kerry through Waterville, Ballinskelligs, Saint Finian’s Bay, Portmagee and Valentia Island, was listed in Lonely Planet 2017’s ‘Top 10 Destinations in the World.’
Legend says that the first inhabitants in Ireland arrived in in the Bay of Ballinskelligs. The myths say that Ireland was uninhabited until a woman named Cessair, accompanied by her father, two men and over 40 women, arrived in a ship that landed at Ballinskelligs Bay in the year 2361 BC.
The legend says Cessair was the granddaughter of Noah, who had no room for her in the Ark when he had finished building it. She built her own three ships and set sail for Ireland, believing it was free from sin.
After surviving a voyage that endured for seven years and that suffered the loss of two ships, Cessair landed in Ballinskelligs and decided to stay. Two of the men died, the third fled, leaving Cessair so heart-broken that she too died soon.
I first became enamoured with Ballinskelligs when I spent the summer of 1966 at Dungeagan as part of an Irish summer school programme that my parents hoped would give me adequate Irish to pass the ‘Inter Cert’ (Junior Certificate) in 1967.
It was a beautiful summer, but I learned less Irish than they probably expected, and I have memories of endless, sun-filled afternoons swimming at the long sandy beach, reading Anne Frank’s Diary and Catcher in the Rye in the sand-dunes, watching the 1966 England v Germany World Cup final on the only television my cousins and I could find – a black and white television in a convent – and maturing as a teenage boy.
I have been back twice since, most recently in 2018. But all those memories came back once again with joy and smiles as I walked the beach in Ballinskellings this week and watched the Atlantic waves break against the sand.
However, the damage caused earlier this week by Storm Francis, with high waves and strong rains, stopped two of us walking out to the ruins of the old Augustinian priory, the old graveyard and the ruins of the MacCarthy castle that once guarded the entrance to Ballinskelligs Bay.
In the Church of Ireland, the parish was known as Killemlough and sometimes as Killemlagh or Kyllemleac. JB Leslie explains that the name Killemlough means ‘the Church of the Marsh,’ and the parish included the offshore island of Puffin Island and the Skelligs islands.
Saint Finian is said to have founded both the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Islands and a church at Killemlagh in the sixth century. The ruins of two early churches can still be seen near the Skelligs Chocolates factory, a major attraction on the Skelligs Ring, and Saint Finian’s Bay, which offers some of the best views of the Skelligs Rock – although they were shrouded in clouds and mist for much of this week.
Increasing hardships, Viking raids and changing climatic conditions all contributed to the eventual decision of the monks to move from their monastic settlements on the Skelligs Rocks to the mainland, settling on an outcrop at the edge of Ballinskelligs Bay.
The Skelligs Rocks and the Abbey at Ballinskelligs shared one abbot, and the move was completed some time between the 11th and 13th century.
The ruins of the later Augustinian Priory date from ca 1210, and include a church, the prior’s house, cloisters and a refectory.
The names of the vicars and rectors of Killemlough are known only from the early or mid-15th century. Eugene O’Sullivan was appointed to the parish ca 1447 even though he had not been ordained. He was eventually forced out of the parish in 1459 because he had still not been ordained.
His successor, Florence O’Sullivan, also had to leave the parish after he was ‘said to have committed simony and to be guilty of fornication.’ Cornelius O’Mulchonere had to obtain a dispensation to be ordained for the parish because he was the illegitimate son of an Augustinian Canon Regular – perhaps a friar from the priory at Ballinskelligs.
The Parish of Killemlough was held by the Treasurers of Ardfert from 1615 to 1839. They included William Steere, who became Bishop of Ardfert in 1628, James Bland, who became Dean of Ardfert in 1728, and William Cecil Pery, who became Bishop of Limerick.
The Church of Ireland parish was united with Valentia in the 1870s.
Meanwhile, the connection between the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Rocks and the people of Ballinskelligs remained part of romantic memory and folklore.
In the late 1930s, JB Leslie recalled a custom from 60 years earlier known as the ‘Skelligs Lists.’ Doggerel poetry was issued early in Lent naming and pillorying couples who were supposed to be courting but who had not married before Shrove Tuesday.
‘Sometimes those lists were distinctively libellous and perhaps malicious, but were anonymous,’ Leslie notes.
Leslie quotes the phrase ‘send them to Skelligs,’ and suggests ‘that on the island (Skelligs) marriages might be celebrated, perhaps as in Gretna Green.’
‘Or could it have been,’ he asks, ‘that the keeping of Easter and Lent was different in Skelligs and on the mainland, so that marriage could be celebrated there after Shrove Tuesday?’