Great Saltee

A visit to the Saltee Islands in June

It was my second visit to the Saltee Islands. A photograph trip to capture the wild and natural landscape and wildlife that live on the island, undisturbed except for a few ambitious photographers. We were there to shoot the birds. I mean, shoot the birds, not shoot the birds.

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According to Lonely Planet, it was once the haunt of smugglers. It is now an important bird sanctuary, one of the world’s major sanctuaries. It can be found 5km from Kylemore Quay in Co. Wexford. A ferry takes passengers on the 30 minute journey across to the Great Saltee (the Little Saltee is not open to visitors). You scramble out of the ferry onto a dingy and clamber onto the sand hopefully with your dignity, although that is not always guaranteed.

The Great Saltee is privately owned by the Neale family, since 1943, and visits are limited to certain times of the year. An empty house can be found on the island, close to the pier. The curtains are drawn and even thinking of peering in the windows is somehow forbidden. Leaving the pier and the house behind, you walk past the throne (a memorial to the owner’s mother complete with coat of arms and an inscription) and out onto the cliff edge, where you will find puffin and razorbills. The island is also a breeding ground for gannets, guillemots and lots of other birds. Spring or early summer is the best time to visit. It’s nesting time and once nesting is over, the birds leave.

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My goal this time was to get that elusive shot of a puffin with fish in its mouth. We spent about 7 hours on the island, from the pier to the southern tip that is home to thousands of noisy gannets. It is a green oasis away from technology and the intrusions of modern life. Photographers are the only things you will have to grapple with. Bring a camera, lunch and beware there are no toilet facilities on the island. It’s a beautiful quiet place, a sanctuary for more than just the birds.

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Visting Inishbofin – Part Four The West Quarter Loop

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Sunday arrived. The last day of my Inishbofin adventures. The rain was intermittent. I layered on my clothing before I left the hostel and four minutes down the road, before the sheep and its hungry lamb appeared, I pealed it all off again. The sheep weren’t interested in my rolled up water proof protectors. Looking briefly before resuming their interrogation of a clump of grass, I set off again, towards the western side of the island. My last day and my last loop walk.

I passed the double decker bus, but the shutter was down. Birds perched on the roof, flitting off to chase insects. The grass around the wheels shuddered in the breeze. In the distance sheep bleated messages to each other. Life started later on a Sunday. I followed the coastline passed whitewashed cottages and a hotel, and a triumvirate of cows on what looked like a regular stroll down the quiet Sunday road. Representing all colours, sandy, then red, then brown, they neatly stuck to the left hand side, allowing for passing traffic. They’d obviously taken this route before.

Further up, passed the ram’s head skull, I came upon the gate into the loop path, guarded by a sheep mother and infant. Horned and purple streaked, like gate keepers from a sci-fi movie, I cowered. I stood and went through all possible outcomes of this standoff. The sheep gazed back and eventually moved off, through a very convenient hole in the wire. I breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled over the ladder and followed. The track was accidental, created by farmers’ vehicles as they rounded up their livestock I imagined. I was bracketed on one side by the grassy mountain itself, dotted with sheep of every colour. On the other, the wild Atlantic ocean, made wilder on this day by unforgiving winds that lashed the ruins of abandoned houses on Inishark. Bring binoculars to see them more clearly, for they are a strange sight. Abandoned in 1960, the ruins are a reminder of the cost of progress.

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I kept going, following the track passed Inishark, grazing sheep and napping lambs to Dún Mor cliffs, all the way to the sea stags and the island’s seal colony, where two seals frolicked among the rocks. I sat for a while, watching the other visitors as they took in this breathtaking landscape. This was by far my favourite walk. It even included bog in the process of being cut. Mounds of turf were protected under tarp, awaiting their owners return, and soft white bog cotton held onto their roots as the wind whipped them around. Bikes were strewn here and there as cyclists abandoned their horses for escapes up hills and out onto cliffs.

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I could have stayed there forever, just watching the water, feeling the wind wrap itself around me. I saw a vision of Ireland I thought was long gone. Stone houses, wooden gates, wandering sheep and colonies of seagulls, all existing effortlessly beside each other. It seemed to have sprung straight from a Paul Henry canvas. I trudged back to the hostel three hours after I took off that morning with a heavy heart. I was leaving the following day. I was leaving behind this landscape, soft and resilient.

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Visiting Inishbofin – Part Three Cloonamore Loop on a Bike

I need a short bike, so I can hop off at a moment’s notice and not feel like I’ve jumped from a height. Not the black mountain bike for men, but the ones behind: blue, smaller, for short women like me. I test the seat and the brakes and then I’m off. Today, the East End of the island to uncover the treasures of the East.

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The dunes are lined with old boats, some left to decay, others rescued from the salty air. A currach bobs gently on the water below. Children laugh and run back in to see if there are any more crab shells floating around. The seagulls only venture ankle deep, pecking seaweed and hoping for a delicious surprise. Mothers cheer their offspring’s latest accomplishment with a bucket and spade.

It’s 13 degrees and partly cloudy in Ardnagreevagh according to the weather app. I put my phone away as the pings announce another work situation. It can wait until Monday. The lapping of the water calls me and I silence the interruptions.

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A black and white collie teases its owner, bounding back into the warm Atlantic water each time the middle-aged hopeful comes close to catching the dog. Cries of ‘come back’ reverberate across the beach. Never in mankind’s history has animal or child obeyed the instruction and today is no different. Children continue their construction of complex castles with motes and land agreements, and the world is slow for just an afternoon on the East End beach on Inishbofin.

I have parked my bike against a green wooden bench and watch two industrious bumble bees gather enough pollen for the rest of the hive. They hover and hop. Eventually they move off to a bunch of honeysuckle at the next bench. Visitors gather outside whitewashed cottages at the edge of the beach, soaking in the calm.

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The sun dips a little, but the currach keeps its rhythm, bobbing up and down to the sea’s cadence. Conversations continue, dogs run, children build more and more elaborate structures, making the castle a complex of dwellings. Quickly a town appears, lined with shells and protected at the gate by two mismatched crab claws.

The water ripples blue to green and back again. The wind picks up a little but the mountains in shadow across the bay stand firm. Mother Nature has worked hard here, carving out for her rocky fortress a sandy paradise for people, animals and her hard working bees.

Gorse bushes and brambles, honeysuckle and wild daisies, the roadside is a jungle of plants. Stepping in to take a photo, I tread carefully, in this eco-friendly place, a flattened plant is an affront to lamb calling down from high to passing walkers, the corncrakes flitting from bush to briar, the cows who sit idly as chickens peck the earth around them.

I gather my bike and bag and keep going along the Cloonamore Loop walk, straining to get up slopes and jumping off in time to allow cars to pass. I catch a sun shower on the way back to the hostel. It comes quickly and leaves promptly. It’s warm. Like a thief, I wait for the rainbow to complete the postcard of rural island life. I return the bike with droplets gathering on the frame. People move towards evening as the light changes. My feet ache; my hands are sunburned. I’ll be doing it all again tomorrow.

Visiting Inishbofin – Part One

Island of the white cow

Like a painting, distant mountains in shadow, shy to reveal themselves. Blue skies interrupted by white clouds spun straight from a candy floss machine. Even whiter sheep grazing in the fields below, one stumbling to keep up with his injured leg. All marked electric pink like a teenager at a concert.

The music is the howling wind, tossing birds about like paper planes. Smaller birds dart in and out of hedgerows, dive bombing in front of me as I amble down narrow roads.

Inishbofin, the island of the white cow, is a soothing haven from a noisy, chaotic Dublin. ‘Haven’ is the word banded about on travel sites, and the island does not disappoint. There is something calming about its landscape.

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Getting There

If you are planning to get there, and don’t have the luxury of driving, there is the patience-testing public transport option. Buses from Dublin to Galway are frequent, with City Link there are seventeen buses daily. From Galway’s new bus terminal, you can then catch the Cliften bus to Cleggan Pier for the ferry to Inishbofin. The Cliften bus only goes five times a day, so timing your connection is crucial. Winding through breathtaking Connemara, the bus takes almost two hours, delivering passengers right to the harbour as the ferry starts to depart. If you’re organised, you can just jump off the bus and onto the boat with seconds to spare. Sailing three times a day over the summer period, the ferry takes just over 30 minutes to cross, revealing some of the most beautiful coastline and preparing you for a feast for the eyes on your Inishbofin adventure.

I sit on the deck, hoping to get a glimpse of dolphins or other sealife, but sadly none appear. In no time, a boatful of tourists are hopping off onto Inishbofin pier. Even the air is different. I immediately feel recharged.

Little boats of blue and red bob gently on the water, as seaweed gather by the barriers. Three geese are picking lunch from among the plantlife that floats near the pier. I walk to the end of the pier and read every sign, not that there are many, looking for an illuminating arrow pointing me towards the hostel. None appear, so I follow the crowd of luggage draggers towards the church spire. Some divert off towards flags, others take the slope towards ‘The Galley’ and ‘Bike Hire’. I scroll through my emails to see if in the correspondence I’ve received directions. I haven’t, but it can’t be far. I follow some people with backpacks, stereotyping the whole way. Who has a backpack and doesn’t stay in a hostel. It works. 700m up the road from the harbour is Inishbofin Hostel & Campsite. A yellow painted old house, converted into low cost accommodation for city visitors looking for that elusive sense of quiet.

Houses nestle on hillsides. Some from the past; some from the future.

The walk to the hostel takes me past lush green fields. I peer in to watch lambs follow their multicoloured mothers around. Undulating hills are broken up by stone walls. Houses nestle on hillsides, some from the past, some from the future. I pass the bike hire place and make a mental note to come back tomorrow to rent a bike to see the outer parts of the island, not knowing that I would spend more time walking the bike around than cycling. But I’m here, on Inishbofin, and it is enough for today.