Valentia: Island Life with the Locals
Did you know that Valentia is the only inhabited island in Kerry? With only 657 residents, the island may be tiny but it’s impact on the wider world is very significant. Valentia has a fascinating heritage and history for you to discover. It’s also a perfect natural playground, with many opportunities for outdoor activities to suit all ages.
We love to bring our visitors here, as there is something to interest everyone in the family. In our experience, people put down their gadgets and really engage on Valentia. The locals will welcome you and help you get a real taste of Island life. Sure, you can “do Valentia in a day”, but why on Earth would you? Spend a weekend here and you’ll never want to leave… There’ll be more visitors than residents on Valentia Island in the last weekend in August.
Why? Because two signature festivals are taking place in this glorious location: “King Scallop Festival”, and “Chamber Music on Valentia”. You’ll be spoilt for choice between violin virtuosos and competitive chefs, feasting and family fun, history and heritage, water-sports and wandering.
King Scallop Festival, Knightstown, 18th – 20th August 2017.
Now in its eighth year, King Scallop is a family festival that celebrates the local seafood delicacy, the Valentia King Scallop. Foodies and aspiring chefs will be thrilled to see all the live cooking demonstrations, and the Chef’s Cook-Off Competition in the seafront marquees. There will be plenty of weekend activities for the little ones, including scallop-shell painting, street entertainment, face-painting and a bouncy castle.
- Pick up some recipe tips, and treat yourself to a gourmet-cooked taster dish.
- Grab a Guinness or a glass of wine, and taste some delicious Valentia Ice Cream.
- Stroll along the seafront and listen to live music on the festival stage and in the local bars.
- 4 -12-year olds can enter the kiddies talent show. Play an instrument, sing, dance, recite poetry, or give a dramatic performance. Judges will award prizes for the best!
- 7-16-year olds can join the swim/walk Duathlon, and battle it out before the crowds. This is always great fun to watch!
- See the coastguard helicopter rescue demonstration, and meet the RNLI Lifeboat team on their open day at the marina. The lifeboat service is close to everyone’s heart here, and is enthusiastically supported by the whole community.
Chamber Music on Valentia, 18th – 20th August 2017This classical festival showcases programmes of chamber music and string orchestra in uniquely special venues all over Valentia. This year, we will be welcoming the following international musicians:
- Francesco Dillon (cello-Italy, Quartetto Prometeo),
- Keith Pascoe (violin, Vanbrugh Quartet),
- Darragh Morgan (violin, Fidelio Trio)
- Fishamble Sinfonia from Dublin
- Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes) of Lúnasa fame with Patrick Doocey (guitar)
- Special guest Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin will bring the Irish premiere of his recent book of Carolan arrangements to perform the closing concert on Sunday 20th.
See the full programme of events here: Even if you can’t make it for the festivals, there’s so much to do on Valentia. May we share some of our favourites with you?
Getting on to Valentia IslandValentia must be the easiest Irish Island to access! You can take a 5-minute ferry trip from Reenard Point, just 2 miles outside of Cahersiveen. Local boatmen manage this tiny car-ferry, and the service runs regularly from March to September. Alternatively, you can cross the road bridge from the mainland at Portmagee. This picturesque fishing-village is now on many people’s bucket list following the success of the Star Wars movies recently filmed here. Valentia is relatively small, at only 12km x 5km, so there’s no need to race around it. Take the time to experience spectacular coastal views and the lush swathes of glorious wildflowers growing all along the roads. City-dwellers will be especially surprised by the unique quality of our fresh Atlantic air. You can even taste the salty ocean breeze - no pollution, no traffic fumes…. Give your lungs a break and breathe deeply! The name “Valentia” is the anglicised form of the Irish “Béal Inse” meaning 'the mouth of the island'. The true Irish Gaelic name is “Oileán Dairbhre”, which translates as 'island of oak trees'.
Valentia’s Importance On The World Stage.
We’d have no internet without Valentia!
Did you know that the World’s first Transatlantic Telegraph Cable was laid from Valentia to Newfoundland in Canada in the mid 1800’s? It is now widely recognised that Valentia is the birthplace of global telecommunications. This short video explains it all:
The Cable Station was operating commercially from 1866 to 1966, and you’ll find associated buildings, monuments, artefacts and tales throughout the Island. In 2016 the locals set up a company to bid for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Find out more about the fascinating history on their website, here:
Parliaments, Preachers and Players.
What do the British Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, The Paris Opera House and the Duke of Wellington’s Billiard Table have in common? They all have the same Valentia Slate in their construction. In 1816, the slate quarry opens and starts shipping this high-quality material to some of Europe’s greatest architects and craftsmen.
By the 1850’s, over 500 people are working here to supply the increasing demand. As times change, the quarry ceases to operate in 1911. In 1954, a noteworthy Marian Shrine is erected above the mouth of the disused entrance. The locals continue to visit and pray at the Grotto. Did their prayers get an answer? Maybe so - in 1999 the quarry re-opens for business, hurray! We’d really recommend a sunset visit here. You’ll be blown away by the wide-open vista across the Atlantic, and to the Viking Island of Beginish.
From the moment you step foot on Valentia, you’ll notice that many of the historical buildings differ significantly from other towns on the Skellig Coast. We can trace back this rich legacy of architecture to the influence of the Knights of Kerry. In feudal times, the Earls of Desmond were to create three hereditary knighthoods for the FitzGerald family line. The Knight of Kerry is also known as “the Green Knight”.
In 1780, the family begins to reside on Valentia, and buys out the whole estate in 1807 from Lord Orkney. Sir Peter FitzGerald (the 19th Knight) is the most noteworthy of the dynasty for Valentia. In the 1800’s he develops significant trade and industry on the island. (Sir Adrian Fitzgerald is currently the 24th Knight of Kerry and 6th Baronet of Valentia. He is also a Knight of Malta, and currently President of the Irish Association of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta.)
In 1830-31 the architect Alexander Nimmo lays out plans for “Knightstown”. Now, the island is changing rapidly due to the success of its slate quarry. Population expansion and new trade and industry accelerates the plans for the village. Consequently, building begins in earnest during the 1840s. Some of the iconic buildings still in Knightstown today are the Cable Station and Houses, the Clock Tower, St John the Baptist Church and the Royal Valentia Hotel.
Family Fun on Valentia Island
Whilst you are in Knightstown, you’ll find plenty to do for all the family. At the harbour itself, you can’t miss the watersports activities. There are excellent summer camps for the kids - if you can’t get your ones to look up from their phones, just show them this link!
In the grounds of St John the Baptist Church, you can explore the Sensory Garden. This lovely area is especially for people with disabilities, and includes ways to invoke all five senses. Little ones will also delight in the tiny fairy doors on many of the old trees here. Another great place is the Cracow playground, where you can whoosh down the double zip-wire with a friend at your side! The playground has extensive sports facilities to entertain kids of all ages. After all this racing around, probably you’ll be needing a break.
Head out to Valentia Ice Cream, which is just out the road on the Daly family Dairy Farm. You can get great coffee and the most wonderful artisan ice-cream. Where else can you pet the cow whose milk made the ice-cream? Probably nowhere! You can also saddle up for a pony-trek here. Not a confident rider? Maybe you’d rather take a leisurely ride in a pony-gig instead? On the other side of the island you’ll see signs for a candle-making factory. This little place produces some beautiful candles scented with natural essential oils. Kids can make candles of their own when workshops are taking place.
Stretch The Legs, Smell the Flowers, And Marvel At The Views .
Walkers and photographers are spoilt for choice here. You can take a hike up to Bray Head, one of the iconic signature points on the Wild Atlantic Way. From here you’ll have a cracking view of Skellig Islands across the bay. Bring your camera! If you are a plant lover or gardener, don’t miss Glanleam House. This 40-acre site was created in the 19th century by the 19th Knight of Kerry.
The sub-tropical gardens include exotic plants curated from as far afield as Australasia. Many are still thriving and growing to enormous proportions thanks to the Gulf Stream microclimate. It also has the only sandy beach on Valentia. Trails meander along the beach, river and through the forest.
Come and see the tallest tree ferns in Europe! Would you like to get a 360 degree view from Valentia Island’s highest point? Then you should certainly visit Geokaun Mountain & Fogher Cliffs. This tourist attraction is especially relevant for people with limited mobility, as you can drive to the summit if you can’t manage the walk. At the peak, there are three viewpoints with more than 50 information plaques relating to the area. There is also an impressive viewing platform, 180m high, on the Fogher Cliffs.
Heritage and History
Can’t get onto Skellig Islands on a boat trip, or because you’ve mobility challenges? No problem! The Skellig Experience allows you to discover many aspects of those offshore islands whilst remaining on dry land. This exhibition centre has an 80-seat auditorium presenting a short film “An Island On The Edge Of The World”. It also interprets the Early Christian settlements, the local Lighthouses, our prolific seabirds and the underwater magic of the Skellig Coast. There’s a giftshop and café, and you can also book a boat tour around the Skelligs UNESCO site.
The Lighthouse at Cromwell’s Point is one of our favourite places on Valentia. It ranks as one of Ireland’s “12 Great Lighthouses”, and is open to the public. The beacon is operating here since 1861, and is built on the remains of a 17th century star-fort, still visible from the air. In recent times, a community initiative has revived and restored this stunning place. Local guides will happily take you on a short tour of the building. Go carefully up the windy stairs to the balcony for magnificent views and a bracing blast of fresh air. Enjoy a coffee and a cake in the little café in the grounds.
Visit the Heritage Centre. The old school house on the road towards Geokaun Mountain hosts our local museum. It is filled with quirky artefacts of Valentia’s history. You can even see the original Morse Code Key that was used to test the world's first transatlantic telegraph cable!
Pilgrims and Palaeontologists
Interested in very early history? Sure, we have that too! St Brendan’s Well is a shrine to “Brendan the Navigator”, the 6th Century Christian Saint and Seafarer who is so beloved here in Kerry. It is said that he baptised “heathens” at this well and revived them from near death.
Modern visitors still make a pilgrimage to the well and the early stone crosses in the vicinity. It’s a peaceful place, but can be dangerous too. Close by are the Culloo Rocks.
Brave fisherman cast off from here, but breaking waves can sweep you away with no warning! Be very careful, and don’t take any chances, even in calm weather.
Brendan won’t be around to bring you back! The oldest inhabitant of Valentia Island was a strange creature indeed! 385 million years ago, a four-limbed creature took a stroll on our shores, and left his footprints behind. They weren’t recognised until the 20th century, when a Swedish geology undergraduate posited the theory of the Tetrapod Trackway.
There are information panels at the site explaining more about these fossils, thought to be the oldest “in situ” vertebrate record in the world. The gravelled path can be quite steep on the descent, so go easy!
Key Milestones In Maritime History
Unsurprisingly for an Island on the most western edge of Europe, Valentia has a long and illustrious history for maritime achievement. In the mid 1800’s Valentia was the site of two important experiments in navigation and cartography.
Sir George Airy’s “Altazimuth Instrument” was used to measure physical distance against Greenwich Mean Time to check assumptions on lines of longitude. As a result, map accuracy and navigation safety were significantly improved.
Visit the “Altazimuth Stone” on Jane Street in Knightstown to find out more. While some of these stories are now historical, the Valentia Lifeboat and Marine Radio Station have been co-ordinating search and rescue missions here for over a century. They still play a vital role in preserving human life all along the Atlantic Seaboard. Our respect goes out to all the staff and volunteers who regularly say “I’ll go” when the need arises.
Thank you for reading our introduction to Valentia Island.
In conclusion, we’re sure you will understand that Valentia has such a rich and varied history that it is impossible to cover everything in a short article. You’ll really have to visit yourself to get a true taste of Island Life with the Locals. We’d recommend the community website here: for updates on local events and recommendations for accommodation and dining. Finally, we guarantee you a warm welcome to Skellig Gift Store if you are touring the Skellig Coast region of the Wild Atlantic Way.
Are you and your family regular visitors to Valentia Island yet? What do you enjoy most of all? Connect with us on facebook and twitter, or let us know in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!