Off the coast of southeast Ireland lie the two small Saltee Islands. Their simple, low-slung landscapes, four or five kilometres of the Wexford fishing village of Kilmore Quay belie their layers of history, folklore and bizarre stories. On approach, there are few warnings of the extent of the islands’ abundant wildlife, but more than 220 species of birds live, nest, or migrate through the Saltees, including gannets, fulmars, kittiwakes, puffins, shearwaters, razorbills and guillemots, all completely unfussed by human visitors. Curious grey seals eat fish scraps from the hands of fishermen, and stalk daytrippers who walk the cliffs – their big doe eyes staring up plaintively from the azure waters below.
Nothing is ordinary here. So I didn’t write anything ordinary.
The Saltees have their own Prince, Michael the First, now succeeded by his son – Michael the Second. An extraordinary man, Michael Neal – brought up on the nearby mainland, he bought the land here in the 1940s, and declared himself ruler in answer to a vow he made to his mother around 1920. After a protracted bureaucratic battle with the authorities, Prince Michael was left alone to rule.
“All people young and old, are welcome to come, see and enjoy the islands, and leave them as they found them for the unborn generations to come see and enjoy.”
– Michael the First
Salt. Saltwater. Salt Ey, in Old Norse: Salt Island, Saltee Islands Great and Little, whipped, licked and spat on by the wild Atlantic waves. Graveyard of a thousand ships, lured onto savage reefs and rocks. Shipwrecks, born of shipwreckers, tied lanterns to grazing cattle to lure homesick skippers into the jagged shores. Countless lost, more lost saving them, or fighting for the salvage booty of booze, sugar, maize. St. Patrick’s Bridge sometimes usable at low ebb, thrown together by a roman Welshman – unknown for his civil engineering acumen – in a fit of rage while pursuing the Devil himself from Co. Tipperary. Pirate caves full of gold, smugglers of brandy and wine. Unwilling revolutionary hero, Bagnel Harvey found hiding in the caves, hung on Wexford Bridge, beheaded.
The island’s own prince, Michael the First, Lord of this wondrous micronation off the coast of Wexford. Boat out of kilmore with barefoot Cap’n Bates. Salt in the eyes from the ocean spray, on a good day, gannets kiting behind. Ashore via rubber boat, and up to the flag and Welcome Stone. The strange presences of the Absent Twelve. Past the house, through the bracken to the windward side, stone throne – dedicated to the Prince’s Mother. An obelisk, “symbol to all children that by hard work, perseverance, their dreams and ambitions may also be realised”.
The sudden silence, unbothered by the wind of cacophony of seafowl. A loomery of sad, comic puffins, the occasional bury of rabbits, a bazaar of bespectacled guillemots. A strop of sceptical razorbills, offset by the chaotic potential of a plunging of gannets, only reached by running the gantelope through a hangout of hissing black shags. Doe-eyed seals stalking walkers from their azure kingdom below, countless millions or orange and black cinnabar moth caterpillars festooning every known blade of grass. An absolute improbability of shearwaters. A missing Ogham stone, stolen, sold – the perpetrator long passed.
End of day, punting back to Bate’s boat on a low tide. Another seal spies on us. Sunburned and saltee and quiete, Kilmore Quay grows larger. The Saltees grow smaller to the eye, larger in the imagination.
From the Welcome Stone on Great Saltee:
The Saltee Islands
And the waters surrounding them are an absolute possession of the prince of the Saltees and his heirs.
No man or assembly of men has any right whatsoever to interfere in the affairs of the Saltee Islands
All decisions affecting the islands are made by the prince of the Saltees and his heirs both of the male and female line.
Any decision not unanimous can be brought before the absent twelve”.
The “absent twelve” will consist of twelve fisherman only, who can come from any part of the earth.
All people young and old, are welcome to come, see and enjoy the islands, and leave them as they found them for the unborn generations to come see and enjoy.
Michael the First