Valentia Island (Co. Kerry)

Glanleam is a townland on the northeastern side of Valentia Island, within easy reach of Knightstown.

Glanleam House & Gardens

Glanleam House, originally built as a linen mill in 1775, was converted into a country house by the 19th Knight of Kerry, Peter George FitzGerald (1808-1889), who planted the magnificent sub-tropical gardens.

 

An enthusiastic botanist, he recognised the unique potential of the island’s almost frost-free conditions for cultivating sub-tropical plants, and laid out a forty-acre garden in a wild Robinsonian style, interplanting natural and exotic habitats with species just introduced from all over the world, particularly Australasia and South America. His efforts won him great acclaim at the time.

 

After a decline of over half a century, the estate was rescued in 1975 by Meta Kreissig and her daughter Jessica, who restored and refurbished the house and opened it to guests. Furnished with a stylish amalgam of antique and contemporary pieces, several of the rooms have their original Valentia slate chimneypieces, and there is an extensive library. The setting looking out over the harbour is magical.

The enchanting gardens have also been restored and enlarged. On a domesticated level, the long and narrow walled kitchen garden with its radial plantings has been described as ‘a jewel’. Beyond this enclosure, many of the original collectors’ prizes have spread in wild profusion and grown to enormous proportions, resulting in a lush  “mature” woodland made up of dense subtropical rain forest and benign jungle, an other-worldly paradise penetrated by winding paths, where storm damage evidently poses an ongoing maintenance challenge.

 

Glanleam estate is open to the public as a sub-tropical garden and guesthouse, and for a small fee non-residential visitors can stroll through the gardens (ideally with machetes).

Glanleam beach is the only sandy beach on Valentia Island.

Fort Point Lighthouse was established in 1841 on the site of a Cromwellian fort, guarding the mouth of Valentia Harbour with its colleague on Beginnis island. It has been automated since 1947. The adjacent keepers’ houses are now used as holiday homes. There are great panoramic vistas of the Atlantic from here. (photo by Valerie O’Sullivan)

The Lighthouse Café is a very pleasant surprise, serving excellent teas with homemade soda bread and scones as well as more substantial dishes for lunch or dinner. The views from the pretty organic garden are wonderful.

Prehistoric Footprints: About 385 million years ago, a primitive vertebrate passed along a muddy shoreline in the equatorial swampland that is now southeastern Ireland. The tetrapod’s fossilised tracks, discovered by an undergraduate geology student in 1993 near the Lighthouse, are among the oldest signs of vertebrate life on land and have been studied extensively by palaeontologists. Nobody would be surprised to discover a descendant lurking Jurrasic Park-like in Glanleam!

Dohilla, originally a settlement occupied by slate quarry workers, is now undergoing a new lease of life, with the old cottages renovated as holiday homes, some of which are available to rent.

The Valentia Slate Quarry

The Geokaun Slate Quarry was officially opened by Maurice FitzGerald, 18th Knight of Kerry, in 1816 and ceased operations in 1878. It has recently been reopened as the only working slate operation in Ireland. (Photo by Karen)

 

Valentia slate, noted for what experts call its good cleavage, has been used to make benches, tables, sundials and various other items, especially billiards tables, and for paving at railway stations in Nottingham, Derby, Rugby, Leicester, and, in 1860, San Salvador de Bahia in Brazil. “Valentia Flag” was also  used in London’s Westminster Palace (roof), Public Record Office (said to have 25 miles of slate shelves) and National Gallery.

 

Some locals recall that several miners were killed by internal rockfalls in the mid-C19th.

 

The mouth of the quarry was converted in 1954 into a Marian Grotto, with a statue of the Madonna of Lourdes dominating the entrance, and water cascading into pools eerily echoing from the back of the huge cavern.  Masses are regularly celebrated in this atmospheric venue against an extraordinary Atlantic background.

Geokaun / Geokawn Mountain (268m / 880ft) is Valentia’s highest summit. The peak, commanding magnificent 360º views of the island, the Kerry coast and the ocean, can be accessed by a 1200m road / path, with parking areas, viewing points and information panels at various levels.

The Fogher Sea Cliffs on the mountain’s northern face rise some 600ft from the Atlantic waves crashing against their rocky base. This was where the famous American rock climber Michael Reardon drowned on July 13th 2007 when he was swept out to sea while posing for a photograph after a successful solo climb.

Exceptional vistas are also available from other points on the Island’s rocky coastline, but mist can descend suddenly, and tides can be unexpectedly high, making walking very unsafe. This is especially true along the Calloo stretch, popular for shore angling.

Chapeltown (An Caol – “the Narrow”), a small village at the junction of two streams in the centre of the island, south of Geokaun Mountain, grew up during the C19th around Valentia’s first post-Reformation Roman Catholic chapel, since replaced by the church of SS Darerca & Theresa. (The Patron Saint of Valentia Island, Saint Patrick‘s sister Darerca, was the mother of numerous saints and bishops).

Nowadays a straggling line of buildings along the main road from Portmagee Bridge to Knightstown, with some mature gardens providing a scenic touch, Chapeltown is effectively the social centre for the island, insofar as the  Community Centre, primary school and GAA grounds serve all the islanders. The local Valentia Island Pipe Band, founded in the 1920s, has enjoyed episodic fame over the years. The village has a pub/hostel, and is probably the best place to ask about self-catering accommodation.

St Brendan’s Well, a well-maintained place of pilgrimage, is where the early C6th AD Saint Brendan the Navigator is believed to have baptised islanders on his way from Dingle to St Finian’s Bay. The waters are said to have curative powers; however, the location is difficult to reach by car. Other Holy Wells on the island are dedicated to St Derarca, St Helena and the King of Sunday.

Bray Head (180m / 792ft) at the southwestern end of the island, has the most dramatic overhanging cliffs on Valentia, and is topped by  a Napoleonic-era lookout tower, later used by the Royal Navy as a semaphore base and by Irish Army coast watchers during WWII, now in ruins, with splendid views of the 15km-distant Skelligs.

Foilhommerum Bay was the site of the first ever transatlantic cable connection betwen Europe and America, laid by HMS Agamemnon on 5th August 1858, and used by Queen Victoria to send a congratulatory message to President Buchanan. The first connection lasted only one month, and a cable laid in 1865 also failed, but was recovered the following year as another 4260km line was laid by the SS Great Eastern from Valentia to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, remaining in operation for 100 years.

The Telegraph Field (aka the Longtitude Field) is the site of local sculptor Alan Ryan Hall‘s striking  memorial (2002) commemorating the island’s significant role in the history of the telegraph industry from 1857 onwards. The original station (Anglo-America Cable House) can still be seen.

The Skellig Experience, housed in an old Coastguard station converted into a Heritage Centre on the island side of the Portmagee bridge, serves not only as some slight consolation for those prevented by weather conditions from visiting the famous islands themselves, but also has a genuinely interesting audio-visual presentation about their history and bird life, plus a range of artefacts and models, while a nearby viewing point provides superb views of the mystic pinnacles. A Sea Cruise is available as an optional extra.

Shealane Country House is a highly rated B&B on the island side of the Portmagee bridge.

Illaunloughan, a small low-lying sland near Portmagee Bridge, can be reached on foot in low spring tides. is the location of a well-maintained early church site with an altar, a killeen burial ground for “children and adult strangers” and a spring-fed Holy Well roofed with a large stone lintel. In 2003 overseas research groups carried out some excavations. A book about the island has been written by Claire Walsh.

Valentia`s annual regatta is a festive event held every August Bank Holiday. Competitors brave the Atlantic swells to row Seine boats (traditional fishing vessels) along the Island and mainland waters. There are plenty of vantage points on both sides of the Portmagee Channel, but to capture the real spirit of the event, watch from the Island shore. (Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan / www.irishtimes.com).

The Valentia Island King Scallop Festival, held every July, is a three-day gastronomic feast accompanied with live music and virtually non-stop partying.