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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Ireland’s Ancient East

Castletown House, Celbridge, Co. Kildare

‘This I believe the only house in Ireland to which the term palace can be applied.’

Richard Twiss, 1775

Jumping on the #67 bus on the quays early on Sunday morning, I make a little wish for clear skies. We trudge along passed Heuston Station, Chapelizod, Liffey Valley, Dublin’s northside filing passed from the uncomfortable seat. Trying to remember the sequence of bus stops, I stop counting after Chapelizod. We pass bridges and rivers, churches and community centres. The city is just waking up. Still we slouch on.

Forty-five minutes later, I jump out of the stuffy bus to take in Celbridge. I’ve never been here before. Looking for those familiar brown tourist signs, I follow the groups of ramblers and early morning risers towards gates of stone and steel. Castletown House estate.

It’s an eye-opening ten minutes to get to the house itself. I try to spot birds and flowers and watch as locals and their local dogs romp through the fields ignoring every sign posted along the way. This is nature. No traffic, no noise, just green.

I pass by a pond with warring ducks. I spot a happy golden retriever with a joyful trot returning to his master. Children kick stones and parents shout to ‘watch out’.

Up at the house, my coffee is delivered hot and sweet. I find an empty bench outside to sit and watch people come and go. This must be Sunday life in Celbridge.

I wander around the 18th century Palladian house, inspired by Italy. It has orange wings on either side that would make a nobleman proud. Inside, the wallpaper speaks of centuries of parties, audiences and respectability. Impressive portraits adorn each wall. Ticking clocks announce the passing of time. The Ikea-inspired pathway winds its way through the house ushering visitors to the Print Room, the glorious first floor sitting room with three stunning chandeliers. Threadbare chairs and dressed tables, this was wealthy Ireland two hundred years ago.

These manor houses stand as a reminder of Ireland’s complicated past. English-influenced and continental in aspiration, they remind us that we haven’t quite yet thrown off the shackles of empire. Wealth is once again concentrated in certain areas. Obedience is demanded and dissent is not welcome.