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 sanctuaries.

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 annually.

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.

Archaeological evidence 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.

The big 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.

If 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.

In 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.

 

"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

 

 

 
Vital Statistics of the Saltees:
 
Location:
 
Latitude 52 degrees 8' 30'' North.
Longitude 6 degrees 41' West off the south coast of Wexford.
 
Distance from shore:
 
Great Saltee - 3 1/4 statute miles from Kilmore Quay.
Little Saltee  -  2 1/2 statute miles from Kilmore Quay.
 
Area:
 
Great Saltee - 219 statute acres, 1 rood and 29 perches.
Little Saltee  -  92 acres, 2 roods and 5 perches. 
 
Highest Point:
 
South Summit, Great Saltee - 198 feet.
 

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