The Saltee Islands, St. George's
Channel consisting of the
Great and Little Saltee, are situated
approximately 5 kilometers off the coast of Kilmore Quay
Co.Wexford. The larger island Great Saltee is the most
famous bird sanctuary in Ireland and is very popular with
both day-trippers and birdwatchers alike. These Islands are
privately owned and are one of the world's major bird
The Saltees are a haven
for sea birds, nurturing an impressive array of birds, from
Gannets and Gulls to Puffins and Manx Shearwaters. They also
lie on an important migratory route and a popular
stopping-off place for spring and autumn migrants. The Great
Saltee also has a breeding population of Grey Seals, one of
the very few in eastern Ireland. Up to 120 animals are
present in autumn and up to 20 pups are produced
The Saltees are among the
ancient islands of Europe, based on Pre-Cambrian bedrock
i.e. between 600 and 2000 million years old. Primitive Stone
Age man first settled there before history was recorded
and carved out an existence. As long ago as 3,500 to 2,000
B.C. there were people on the islands. There is a
recently-identified promontory fort, the remains of an
ancient grave, an Ogham stone (now in a local museum) and
traces of what appear to be ring forts.
show that Neolithic man
settled there, and traces of religious settlements still exist.
Early Christian hermits, Vikings,
Normans and medieval monks also inhabited the islands. Small
communities of farmers and fishermen made a humble living
there. There is also evidence of buccaneering and
smuggling. A flourishing period
in the history of the islands was from about 1500 - 1800.
The Saltees were in the path
of one of the world's most important sea trading routes -
between Britain and the American continent. They were used
as a base for pirates, wreckers and smugglers. Pirates from
Spain, France, North Africa and America plundered the busy
merchant ships within sight of the islands. And in the days
of sail the waters around the islands became known as " the
graveyard of a thousand ships" and the islands their
tombstones, so dangerous was the area to shipping. The gains of the wreckers and smugglers could very
well be hidden in the many caves which have mysterious and
romantic names - Lady Walker's Cave, Happy Hole, Otter's
Cave and Hell Hole, enough for any Treasure Island.
In 1798 an island cave became
a brief hiding place for two leaders of the Rebellion. John
Henry Colclough and Bagenal Harvey. They took
refuge in a cave on the Saltee Islands from whence they
planned to escape to republican France. They were betrayed, arrested
and brought to Wexford town. There they were hanged on the
bridge on 28 June 1798. Folklore has it that soldiers saw
soapy water coming from a cave where both men were washing
which led to their capture.
island was extensively farmed in the nineteenth
century. Farming ceased in 1900 until 1939, when early
potatoes and barley were important crops. Other crops
included oats, beans, onions, etc. Farming ended in 1943.
the Saltees had any other name before their present title,
it has been long lost. As for the origin of the name there
are two possible theories, Norse or of Old or Middle English
derivation. However the name suggests a Norse origin (Salt
ey - salt island) derived from the phenomenon of the salty
spray which sweeps across the islands at times of high winds
and waves, especially during the winter.
December 1943 the Saltees were purchased privately by the
late Prince Michael the First. Since his death in January
1998 the islands are now owned by his five sons Michael, John Manfred,
Paul, Richard and daughter Anne. He is
buried in the family vault in Bannow Bay, Co.Wexford. His
title was passed on to his eldest son Michael.
One of the most
spectacular sights on the Great Saltee in mid-Summer
are the sea birds colonies on the cliffs to the north-east
of the Gannet headland. Vast numbers of Guillemots and
Razorbills pack the ledges and create a frightful incessant
din which only at night abates a little. The Fulmars too play their
part in this splendour. Towards dusk the sight of the
Puffins congregating in small groups near their nestling
sites presents a marvellous sight.
Permission for day visits to the Great Saltee, by courtesy
of the Neale family, is not needed. Permission to visit the
Little Saltee can not be granted due to the hazardous
landing conditions. However we would like all visitors
to respect these islands.
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