A subtropical paradise retreat on Valentia Island

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Throughout the lockdown I was haunted by a childhood memory of looking across the sea at a sunny Valentia Island and thinking it was Spain.

Of course, the name of the island off the coast of Kerry has nothing to do with Valencia but derives from “Dairbhre”, Irish for “oak wood”. It’s not an island anymore either, since a bridge to the island was built from Portmagee in 1971. But it’s still the most exotic place to go without leaving Ireland.

The scenery on this Ring of Kerry coast is stunning and that’s before considering the pointed shape of Skellig Michael, the 6th century monastic site and Star Wars location, on the horizon.

You would be very lucky to secure a place at Skellig Michael on an organized tour from Portmagee before next summer, but you could head to Beginish Island, famous for its beautiful beaches, or take a Dark Skies winter cruise. with Kerry Aqua Terra (kerryaquaterra.ie).

You don’t have to leave Valentia at all to see the recently discovered ‘tetrapod trail’ near the Wireless Point radio station, petrified trails made by one of the first four-legged amphibians that made it. displacement on earth 350 to 370 million years ago.

One of the wrought iron entrance gates to the Glanleam Estate

The beautifully restored lighthouse on an ancient fort at Cromwell’s Point, still open to visitors until the end of October (tel: 066 9476985), guards the entrance to Glanleam Bay with its heavenly beach.

Approaching the Glanleam Estate by land, we began to see subtropical stragglers in the rich Kerry hedges. When the big house appeared, wrought iron gates beckoned us into its secret garden where Chilean myrtles, giant tree ferns and huge cypresses formed a magical awning and an ethereal pale pink fuchsia made a luminous arch through The shadow.

Maybe stumbling across these exotic gardens near the village of Knightstown was the best way to experience them for the first time. They are organized as a network of interconnected paths on the promontory that leads to the lighthouse of Valentia.

Current Glanleam House and Gardens caretakers Meta and Jessica Kreissig and Jessica’s husband Eoin O’Donoghue have built a fairy garden and opened a path to a healing well. They manage the house as guest rooms and there are three independent houses for rent: the former house of the manager of the estate which faces the vegetable garden and can accommodate 10 people; the gardener’s house with a view on the port and which can accommodate two people; and the 250 year old boathouse that faces the beautiful Pocket Beach and can accommodate four to six people.

The gardens are now seriously overgrown, adding to their “lost domain” charm. However, it is important to understand that Glanleam was once the first major subtropical garden in Britain or Ireland, laid out and planted under the instructions of the 19th Knight of Kerry, Peter FitzGerald, in the late 19th century.

Former Glanleam gardener Seamus O’Brien, who now works at the National Botanic Gardens in Kilmacurragh, describes FitzGerald as “an absolute pioneer,” navigating back and forth from his 5,000-acre estate, importing botanicals. ‘as far as New Zealand.

The great Victorian poet Tennyson is said to have composed the lines “Breeze, breeze, breeze, on your cold gray stones, O sea”, during his stay at Valentia.

O’Brien has planted much of the Fernery, which is now a subtropical jungle, and reveals that there is a rare Killarney fern in a secret location in Glanleam, a survivor of the Victorian fern passion known as the terridomania. Glanleam Gold, a special Chilean myrtle with variegated leaves, was discovered on the estate, and Chilean guavas are another specialty.

It is tempting to see in the plantation of this exotic garden on this distant Irish island the symbol of the internationalist history of Valentia, which in 1865 became, thanks to the work of the 19th Knight of Kerry, the first place in Europe to be connected to the North America by transatlantic cable.

The Knights of Kerry were the FitzGerald family, who rented and then bought their estate from Valentia from 1752. While Robert FitzGerald was associated with a flax mill, his son Maurice promoted the famous slate quarry and had the Knightstown village by Alexander Nimmo to face the mainland by Renard Point near Caherciveen.

A small part of the estate's gardens.

A small part of the estate’s gardens.

Maurice dreamed of Knightstown rivaling Liverpool with a transatlantic liner leaving the port several times a week and attracting the reckless investment of a certain Daniel O’Connell. Although this never happened, his son Peter’s success with the transatlantic cable offered a much more modern form of connectivity.

Knightstown, where the Renard Point car ferry docks from March through October, still has an oddly colonial feel, with its clock tower and the grand old Royal Hotel, which serves good food all year round (royalvalentia. ie). He earned his royal title in 1869 when Peter FitzGerald brought in Arthur, Queen Victoria’s seventh son, and he stayed for dinner in the same Glanleam House dining room where you have your B & B breakfast today. hui. The great Victorian poet Tennyson is said to have composed the lines “Breeze, breeze, breeze, on your cold gray stones, O sea”, during his stay at Valentia.

The current knight, Adrian FitzGerald, divides his time between England and County Waterford, but still owns a former boathouse on Glanleam Beach, on the edge of the estate. He has no sentiment towards the Knights, claiming that the Anglo-Irish in general didn’t adapt quickly enough to independent Ireland, and “If you don’t adapt, well, hard”.

He explains that the title of the knights is Norman and Irish rather than English, dating back to 1350 when the Earl of Desmond divided his immense domain of Munster between three “illegitimate” sons, named the black knight (in Glin, Co Limerick), the White Knight (in Mitchelstown, Co Cork) and the Green Knight (the Valentia branch in Co Kerry).

A large chandelier at Glanleam House.

A large chandelier at Glanleam House.

The Earl was assassinated by order of Queen Elizabeth 1: “They were awful, those Tudors, really,” comments FitzGerald. The White Knights died out around 1600 but the Black Knights lasted until the death of Desmond FitzGerald in 2011. The title of Green Knight can pass to Adrian Fitz’s cousin Gerald and his cousin’s son.

While the Knights have brought the industry to the scene, there is no point in trying to erase forced evictions from their history, and historian Nellie O’Cleirigh tells the troubling tale of Knight Peter’s attempt to paying career workers in meals, not in cash in the 1880s. Their tenure ended with a sale to the Congested District Council, and Adrian FitzGerald’s grandparents finally left in 1936.

There were two Anglo-Irish middleman owners, then came the Kreissigs from Germany, who had been encouraged by IDA to establish a knitting factory on the island. Meta Kreissig, now 80, loves to tell, with her heavy German accent, how the former owner said: “We can’t sell it to a foreigner”, when she was “as foreign as me. “.

The house is now decorated in a mix of character styles, with four en-suite bedrooms. Mine had stunning sea views and a gorgeous 1970s gold and avocado bathroom which in itself is a heritage piece. When I return, however, it will be in Valentia’s old boathouse with its bay window full of the sea, surely one of the most romantic places in the country and probably the most exotic.

Glanleam House B&B from € 130 per person; cottages from € 75 to € 140 pp, see glanleam.com

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