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Valentia Island - Next Parish America


Valentia Island is on of the most westerly inhabited places in Europe. It’s just off the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry but linked by a bridge to the mainland. Hugh Taylor and Moira McCrossan went there in search of a World Heritage Site, traces of a prehistoric creature and the forerunner of the internet.

 Valentia Island - Bray Castle

Bray Castle - Valentia Island

© Hugh Taylor


Standing amidst the ruins of Bray Castle we looked west through a huge breach in the wall. Two fingers of rock, sticking out of the Atlantic ocean about eight miles away, are all the land between us and America. Now joined to the mainland at one end by a bridge and a mere ten minutes away by ferry at the other, this small corner of County Kerry was one of the remotest spots in Ireland until well into the 20th century and at the same time a centre of world communications.

 
 

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Skellig Islands.

Des Lavelle organises boat trips to the islands. Tel:+353.66.9476124 

For more information: Tourism Ireland, Nations House, 103 Wigmore Street, London W1U 1QS. Tel: 020 7518 0800.   

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As the nearest point of land on the eastern side of the Atlantic, Valentia was chosen as the terminus of the first transatlantic cable, laid in 1865.

This feat has been described as 'the equivalent of putting men on the moon in the twentieth century.'  The vagaries of the weather, the size and weight of the vast reel of cable that had to be fed out of the boats, the problems with the tension of the wire, underwater obstacles and the difficulties of the mid-Atlantic rendezvous as well the final triumph are preserved in newspaper articles and original letters in Valencia Heritage Centre housed in the old primary school.

One of the exhibits is an ancient telephone exchange which was operated by Clare Ring, Island Postmistress until she retired.  She was still using this exchange as recently as 1984 and had a bell in her bedroom to alert her for emergency calls at night.

Typically, Valentia was in the vanguard of telecommunications and at the same time one of the last places in the world to replace the old handle operated telephones.

In 1916 Valentia had better communication with New York than Dublin had with London. It was that communication that led to the Irish Republican movement in New York learning of the Easter Rising in Dublin before the Government in London.

One of the cable operators, Claire’s father-in-law, Tim Ring, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, sent word in a coded message to a leading republican in America.  It simply read 'Mother operated on successfully today'.  However the authorities identified Ring as the sender and he was interred on the British Mainland and not allowed back to Valentia until 1922.

Valentia Island - Telegraph Station

Telegraph Station - Valentia Island  © Hugh Taylor

Claire visited Dublin and looked up the file they have on him from that period. In it she found a report by the British Commander-in-Chief, General Maxwell, describing her father-in-law as 'a disloyal and dangerous man'. Her son had T shirts printed bearing his grandfather’s photograph with those words beneath it.

Valentia Island - Cottages

Valentia Island - Cottages

© Hugh Taylor

At its peak the cable company employed 200 men who lived, with their families, in purpose built houses attached to the station. That was a time of great prosperity, but with modern equipment, automation and the installation of new transatlantic telephone cables at Oban, in Scotland, staff declined to 25 and the doors were finally closed in 1965. 

Des Lavelle was one of the last employees. Like many of the islanders he now makes his living from tourism. Fascinated since childhood by those two barren fingers of rock in the Atlantic where his father had been a lighthouse keeper he began to take visitors out to appreciate the wildlife - the seabirds, the gannets,  puffins, razorbills and guillemots of Skellig and Skellig Michael.

That led to a deeper interest in the place and its history. Des's research led him to ancient manuscripts like the Annals of Innishfallen, currently in the Bodlean Library at Oxford. ‘They were the journals or diaries of the time with sometimes only one entry in a year. So you could be sure if it was about Skellig Michael then it was a very important place.' In 1996 Skellig Michael was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In the late 1960s by way of advertising his boat trips, Des produced a small brochure, typed on an old beat up typewriter. ‘Somehow it just got bigger and bigger.' So when he heard of a publisher who was producing a series of books on islands, he sent him the manuscript.  The book on the Skelligs was published in 1976 with Des's photographs in black and white.  Now in full colour in the seventh edition it’s a local best seller.

Remote and inhospitable with hardly a patch of level ground, the remains found on the Skelligs tell a powerful story of human endeavour and persistence.  In the 6th century a group of monks landed there in small leather boats, built a landing stage and carved a staircase out of solid rock to the top where they set up home. 

The community remained for six hundred years building beehive huts, walls, terraces and innumerable Celtic crosses from the abundant local stone. They dragged and carried huge lumps of stone, weighing anything up to 800 pounds, across the island for use as steps, lintels and walls.

Finally a change in church politics, coupledwith deteriorating weather, forced them to move to the mainland about the 12th century. There were many monastic communities living on remote islands around Ireland at that time but none was as inaccessible as Skellig.  As a result it has remained intact through the centuries. Today, visitors can still climb the 544 steps to the summit and marvel at some of the best preserved examples of Early Christian architecture in the world.

Although the Skelligs are only accessible in summer, Valentia Island itself is scattered with ancient remains from beehive huts to standing stones. About 350 million years ago, a tetrapod, trailed out of the sea across the sand and left tracks which we can still see today, the only ones of their kind in Europe.

Valentia Island - Wild Coastline

Bray Castle was built by the British as a look out for smugglers. Situated on Bray Head with a view of the Skelligs and the wastes of the Atlantic beyond, it is an atmospheric place where in one afternoon, heavy rain clouds may surround you with swirling mist and downpours, followed by high scudding white clouds in a clear blue sky while at the base of the cliffs the sea pounds against the rocks in high spumes of foam.

 

Valentia Island - Wild Coastline © Hugh Taylor

Through the long winter months when the cold wind and rain blow in from the Atlantic, Des Lavelle decamps to America where he earns a living touring an audio visual show on the Skelligs round Irish American cultural institutions. But come the spring he is back, preparing his boat for the trips to the Skelligs, and walking the beautiful coastline of this strange and romantic island of contrasts. A tiny rural community at the furthest western edge of Europe, yet its commercial shipping radio station, at the centre of a sophisticated world-wide telecommunications network, is a life line for shipping in these inhospitable waters.


 

Read about these other areas of Ireland

BLARNEY - enjoying the talk in Counties Cork and Kerry

DUBLIN - Pub-crawling for literature

DUBLIN - Take a new look

IRELAND WEST COAST - Coach-touring the west


"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

The Rough Guide to Ireland - by Margaret Greenwood, Mark Connolly, Geoff Wallis - A detailed guide which makes excellent reading.

The Rough Guide to Irish Folk - CD with various artists - Revive your memories of those evenings spent in the singing pubs. Listen to online samples of the melodies.

The Dingle Peninsula  by Steve MacDonogh - Written by a specialist on the region.

Lonely Planet Ireland  - A good choice for capturing the atmosphere of Ireland.


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