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Share and Share Alike: Skellig Coast Stories

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From Snapchat and Instagram to hit serial podcasts, the way we share stories has changed radically over the years. Today, we can access other people’s narratives at a moment’s notice in our beds, at our desks, on the bus, and in the classroom. People write long-winded tales in the run-up to recipes; they take to YouTube to talk about the five things that surprised them about sunrise.

Surrounded by so many digitally-accessed anecdotes, it can be hard to filter through the fuzz and truly tune in to a tale worth hearing. But on the Wild Atlantic Way, the old conversational customs still trump Twitter and a pint shared in a local pub will almost always end with a rendition recounted in real-time.

The further off the beaten track you travel, the more intriguing these stories become. And there’s one place along the route that seems to have more than its fair share of stories to tell: the Skellig Coast region.

Hugo McCafferty, native editor for independent.ie travelled to the Skellig Coast to hear what the locals have to say about just what makes this region so special, finding humanity, history and adventurous anecdotes in spades. Here are five of the most memorable.

  • Monk living, Skellig Island, Kerry

A tale as old as time

Ballinskelligs Beach (Trá Baile an Sceilg) is a Blue Flag beach featuring views out to sea of the iconic Skellig islands. With stretches of sultry white sand leading to a striking outcrop of rock, it’s a relaxed and beautiful place to spend a day with family and friends. It’s also a place with a rich and intriguing history, for atop that rock at the end of the strand stand the ruins of a castle and an abbey, each with their own fascinating story to tell.

“When people think of coming to south Kerry, you know, they think of lots of different things,” says Ballinskelligs local and fount of historical knowledge Dessy Cronin. “Obviously, number one is the Skelligs, but there’s a lot more to south Kerry than the Skelligs.”

“If you stood here maybe a thousand…years ago, what you would be seeing walking there in front of you would be the Skelligs monks. Just to our right here, just a couple of hundred yards along the beach, we have the Ballinskelligs Abbey. Ballinskelligs Abbey was the land base for the monks.”

Indeed, Ballinskelligs is deeply connected to the story of those holy men of the islands. If you’re curious, you can retrace their footsteps at the Monks’ Trail, a newly developed walking route that includes the Augustinian Abbey (known locally as Ballinskelligs Abbey), or make your way to the the slopes of nearby Bolus Head, where another archaeologically important site can be found. Featuring a number of beehive huts constructed in exactly the same style as those found on Skellig Michael, the site is also peppered with still standing altar stones, their primitive Celtic crosses still visible, instilling visitors with a sense of the majesty and tranquillity that drew those early Christians to this part of the world.

For all its intrigue, however, the site has little in the way of signposts or markings. Hugo asks Cronin why.

“That’s what you call sustainable tourism,” he chuckles. “Not everybody knows about this place and, do you know, we wouldn’t want everybody knowing about this place, either. All over the place there are so many hidden gems like this. This is only one gem.”


"The best time to see [Fogher Cliffs] is in the afternoon when the sun has gone west, and it’s very popular – even for us"


A brand new chapter

The monks of yesteryear may have sought the Skellig Coast as a sanctuary from the civilised world, but the region would eventually be utterly transformed by modernity in 1858,  when nearby Valentia Island became the site of the world’s first transatlantic telegraph transmission.

Establishing itself as the epicentre of modern day communications, Knightstown would become integral to not only international communications but also to the broadening world economy, by linking the stock markets in London and New York and changing the course of history.

“It was from the US to here in Valentia (that) the first transatlantic cable came ashore 151 years ago,” Tony O’Connell and Michael Lyne, campaigners for UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the cable station, explain.

“Up to then it was taking two weeks, one way, for a message to get from Europe to the States. When they got this thing (the cable) done in 1858 for the first time – then very successfully from 1866 – messages (took only) two minutes. So this is where the internet really began.”

So who sent the first message and what did he - or she - say?

“Well, the first message was sent by Queen Victoria to (US) President Buchanan, and it said ‘Ireland and America are joined. Glory to God in the highest.’”

In a world where globalisation is taken for granted, it’s worth remembering the essential role played by Valentia Island in the journey to our hyper-connected present day.

  • Ballinskelligs Beach (Trá Baile an Sceilg), County Kerry

Escaping the ordinary

“It’s otherworldly up here,” says Bernie O’Donoghue, one half of the husband – wife team who own the land atop Valentia Island’s highest peak, Geokaun Mountain. She’s talking about the view from the summit, a 360-degree panoramic spectacle that on a clear day can stretch to the Atlantic horizon, taking in the Skelligs, or back over the land to the Kerry Mountains.

In recent years, Bernie and her husband Muris have transformed their mountaintop family farm to include a viewing spot of the incredible Fogher Cliffs, a scattering of picnic tables and 50 information panels detailing every aspect of the mountain - from history and folklore to geology, flora and fauna.

But for the couple, who’ve worked this land all their lives, the real stories are written when families make the journey to Geokaun together. That’s why they’re keen to ensure a visitor experience that’s as inclusive as it safe, and have installed a perimeter railing to keep visitors well back from the edge.

“This is designed to be… family friendly,” Muris explains. “You could bring your children here and enjoy the views without being in any danger.”

Dizzying in their scope, the views of Fogher can rival any in Europe for drama, and Muris is quick to dispense a little insider knowledge to a curious Hugo, who has made this journey under rather foggy conditions.

“The best time to see it is in the afternoon when the sun has gone west, and it’s very popular – even for us – in the evening time when the sun is setting on Dingle Bay,” says Muris. “On a clear evening, it’s lovely.”


“There seems to be something in this part of the world, some sort of energy that brings people from far away.”


From sea to land

Back on the mainland, at Cahersiveen, Hugo meets a man for whom land and sea seem effortlessly interchangeable. Local entrepreneur Tommy O’Connell is the owner and operator of Valentia Harbour Tours, a family-run business offering trips to Valentia Island and the stunning and uninhabited Beginish Island in what at first glance appears to be some kind of amphibious vehicle. When quizzed, however, Tommy is quick to set the record straight.

“An amphibious vehicle would mainly be on the road and then just go a small bit into the sea, but this is a sea boat – it’s twelve feet wide… too wide for the road.” So, a boat with wheels, then. But where on earth does one acquire such a thing?

“It was built in Arklow, in Wicklow,” Tommy explains. “The idea came from France – they have a lot of amphibious boats in France.”

Turns out, it’s the perfect transport option in these parts; beguiling Beginish Island, where Tommy’s grandfather hails from and where the O’Connell family still keeps a sheep farm, has no harbour or pier, making traditional visits by passenger boat impossible. But with the boat with wheels on hand, cruising Valentia Harbour is not only a breeze, it’s a ton of fun, too, and as such the whole family have gotten involved.

Leading the pack, Tommy regales passengers with stories he remembers hearing the old islanders tell when he was young, as well as historical accounts of the Viking settlement, nearby Church Island, and more recent news of life in this enchanting part of the world.

Derrynane House, County Kerry

Derrynane House and Gardens

One of the most fascinating of these stories can be found not far away, nestled in the Oakwood of St Fionán on the very tip of the Iveragh Peninsula in a place so beautiful it nearly speaks for itself.

It’s called Derrynane House, and it’s as stimulating as it is stunning. The ancestral home of Daniel O’Connell, Derrynane is steeped in stories – a chronicle in the form of a country house. Today, it’s a national monument dedicated to “The Liberator”, but it retains its peaceful garden seclusion and beachside serenity.

“There seems to be something in this part of the world,” Hugo remarks to head gardener James O’Shea while strolling the grounds, “some sort of energy that brings people from far away.”

“People often say that,” James replies. “Perhaps that’s why they chose the house there, which had been the site of an older abbey as well…a sacred site.”

Maura E. Lyne, guide at Derrynane House, agrees.

“Of course,” she explains, “he’s (O’Connell’s) among a very large clan system…(with) great, strong kinship ties with his brothers and their families (and) his uncles and their families, who would have all lived here.”

“The O’Connell family are like an ancient Gaelic clan,” she goes on. “The leader becomes Daniel and he sees all the people of the area as part of his family unit, almost.”

The fact that Daniel O’Connell spent his life returning to Derrynane, first with his wife Mary to raise a family and later as a refuge from the pressures of political life, seems indeed to point to some kind of preternatural attraction inherent in the place, though whether it’s the history in the soil or simply the picturesque surrounds at play is hard to say.

“It’s a very beautiful place and you’re in the midst of wonderful scenery here,” says Maura. “You have the most wonderful beaches, mountains, lakes and all the pleasures of nature.”

“I once heard a priest describe it as The Cathedral of Nature.”

Find out more about Hugo McCafferty and his journey around the Skellig Coast region.  To learn more about storytelling on the Wild Atlantic Way read our feature on how you can embrace the Wild Atlantic Way of life, and of course, start planning your trip.

Article Source: Hear the voices of the Wild Atlantic Way

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