Globalisation, communications and a spot of history at Valentia


November 18th, 2023


Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way 2023

Written by

Richard Farrington

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By Richard. Posted on November 18th, 2023 in Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way 2023.

We were keen to push on to the west, but decided that we had time to spend a few days in the Kenmare River first. Ardgroom looked enticing in the Pilot Book, the Cruising Companion and on the chart, but in the end we opted to push on another couple of miles to Kilmakilloge, purely because it has a pub (Helen’s Bar) close to the anchorage at Bunaw pier. The weather was typically Irish – a south westerly around 12 knots with thick cloud cover and the odd ‘softing’ shower as we left Crookhaven, soon veering, pushing up over 20 knots but with bright, warm sunshine on our faces and the boat accelerating to over 9 knots as we bore away to the North around Mizen Head. Squadrons of gannets on combat air patrol, with guillemots and the odd puffin as nervy surface escorts and regular pods of dolphins perfecting their ‘equal speed manoeuvres’ around the bow.

We stayed outside Dursey Island on our way into the Kenmare River – there’s a cable car running across Dursey Sound, but I didn’t quite trust the charted clearance of 21m. I think my masthead height is 20m… and actually I always enjoy seeing the offshore islands of the Bull, the Cow, the Calf and the Heifer as you bear away around the headland. The entrance to Kilmakilloge was straightforward enough, but once inside the wonderful natural harbour, we found that the marine farms have encroached into the main channel north of Spanish Island more than our charts suggested and we found ourselves more constrained than we expected. By now, the wind had backed southerly and was gusting 30 knots as we nosed into the anchorage off Bunaw pier. The pilotage into the anchorage was perfectly safe, if a little tight. We put out 40 metres of cable in a charted depth of 5m and decided to stay onboard until things settled down a bit.

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Calf Island off Dursey Head. Imagine living there…
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Kilmackilloge Bay

The following day the wind eased and the sun came out and we ventured ashore with our bikes to explore the spectacular coast road eastwards Lehid harbour and then back over the top to Helens Bar for lunch and on to Derreen Gardens – an oasis of pine trees and rhododendrons and the home of the Knight of Kerry who served as Viceroy of India and Governor of Canada.

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Looking across Kilmackilloge from Derreen Gardens, Co Kerry

The next day we slid across the Kenmare River into Sneem – another wonderful spot surrounded by islands, pines and rhododendrons, with the mountains behind providing an awe-inspiring backdrop of rock, heather, bog and that iridescent green that you only find in Ireland when a shaft of sunlight explodes out of a bundle of black clouds. Tiny white farmhouses, the odd abandoned bothy, sheep clinging to precipitous slate breaking up the expanse of apparently unworkable land… We anchored in the lee of Garinish island, just out of sight of the famous Parknasilla Hotel and tucked in close to where the river runs down from Sneem itself. You can land at the splendid slipway at Oysterbed House, but we took the rubber boat up the river with the tide to the village and tied up alongside an old pier. The village straddles the river as if in endless competition with itself; we spread our Euros between the two factions to avoid any accusation of partiality. Good black pudding, Guinness and cake, friendly natives!

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The Kenmare River, looking south west

Our next stop was Valentia Island – home of the legendary signal station and the European landing point for the first Transatlantic communications cable laid in 1866 by the SS Great Eastern – the largest ship in the world at the time. My great-great grandfather was a seaman onboard and we have a piece of the cable in the dining room at home, so it would be a great thing to come and see what all the fuss was about. The passage from Sneem was quite hard work: heavily reefed in a south westerly 5 gusting 6, we fought our way to windward until we were safely to seaward of Derrynane, before bearing away to pass inside the Skelligs which appeared every so often in visibility that was two miles at best but probably only a quarter of a mile in the heavier rain. By late afternoon the wind had eased and we were able to shake out some reefs and began to dry out as we rounded Bray Head and turned in towards Valentia Sound. This is another brilliant natural harbour, with room to hide a battle fleet. We anchored off the eastern end of Beginish island as the forecast was for the wind to swing northerly overnight.

My section of the first Transatlantic communications cable. The important bit is the twisted wire top right – everything else is armour!

The next day the sun came out early and we decided to move to the ‘marina’ at Knightstown in order to explore the island. The back story here is that Valentia has been the home of several big commercial ideas over the last two centuries, but most have failed because of the remoteness or a lack of investment. The slate quarry is world famous: Valentia slate built many of London’s most impressive landmarks, but eventually the Welsh product edged the market (easier to get to market, I guess). The phone cable to America was a remarkable technical achievement – Robert Peel spoke of it as the ‘birthplace of globalisation’ – but as the technology quickly became more robust, so ‘location’ became less important – and not many Europeans wanted to rely on an island off an island off an island…

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The original telegraph hut still stands… isolated in a field.

The Knightstown ‘marina’ is the latest casualty. Envisaged as a 200 berth marina, the floating breakwaters were installed, but the pontoons never arrived. The whole thing has stalled – but the bonus is that if there’s room, you get a well-protected alongside berth – free. No fresh water or electricity and the usual struggle to ditch gash…

We set off on our bikes. The Heritage Centre at the top of the town is a treasure trove of nineteenth century communications equipment and I could happily have spent the day there talking about Ireland, the sea, the link to America, BREXIT, the Queen and the remarkable story of Cyrus Field and his dream of connecting two continents. We cycled west to Foilhomurrum Bay where the cable came ashore and looked across to the colourful fishing port of Portmagee. Field and his colleagues spent years on several unsuccessful attempts at the extraordinary technical challenge of connecting our continents before that day in June 1866 when the world changed forever. A glorious combination of seamanship, innovation, engineering, vision, leadership and sheer bloody-mindedness which I for one find inspiring. You could see the Skelligs on the horizon and I wondered what the monks creating their remarkable illuminated manuscripts perched on that isolated rock would have made of that piece of cable in my dining room and the astonishing revolution that it unleashed.

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The view from Foilhomurrum Bay towards the Skelligs

On our way back to the boat, we came to the lookout at Geokawn Mountain (pronounced ‘yo cawn’). Ireland doesn’t have ‘public footpaths’ in the same way that we do in the UK. The land is private and unless there’s a public highway, the landowner is entitled to collect money for the privilege of crossing their land. We met Bernie, the farmer’s wife at the gate. She decided that we needed help to get to the top of the mountain, so summoned Muiris, who was happily mending a sheep pen, and instructed him to drive us up there. The O’Donoghues have made a good tourism feature out of this big old hill and there’s a steady stream of visitors on a fine day to see the stunning views from the top. Most people have to walk, but we had the added bonus of a ride with Muiris and spent about half an hour with him spinning dits about Ireland, the sea, the link to America, BREXIT, the Queen and the rest of it. He wouldn’t take a cent in payment.

The views from the top of Geokawn are spectacular.

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Looking north east over Beginish Island towards Cahersiveen

Knightstown is an unusual place. It was built in the 1830s by the Knight of Kerry as part of a dream to turn Valentia into a key staging post for world trade. So it’s laid out with masses of ambition and is immaculate even today. There’s a fine RNLI station here with a glorious tradition of selfless heroism; there’s a rather grand looking hotel with very few patrons; and the ubiquitous Spar shop.

But not much else. Except an excellent slipway, a splendid promenade, an unfinished, almost empty marina and a ferry to the mainland. Oh, and a Coastguard wireless station. Great if you’re looking for some peace and quiet and the beginning of globalisation and some fine slate and a place to fulfil your dreams.

The next day we slipped across the bay to Dingle.

PS – if you would like to read more about the cable under the Atlantic, I can thoroughly recommend ‘A Thread Across the Ocean’ by John Steele Gordon. It reads like a novel…