A subtropical paradise on Valentia Island


Throughout the lockdown, I was haunted by a childhood memory of looking across the sea to 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 is derived from ‘Dairbhre’, the Irish for ‘oak wood’. It’s also hardly an island since a bridge to the island was built from Portmagee in 1971. But it’s still the most exotic place to visit without leaving Ireland.

The scenery on this Ring of Kerry coast is breathtaking and that’s before you see the top shape of Skellig Michael, the 6th century monastery site and Star Wars location, on the horizon.

You are very lucky to get a seat for Skellig Michael on an organized tour from Portmagee before next summer, but you can also go to Beginish Island, known for its beautiful beaches, or take a winter “Dark Skies” cruise with Kerry Aqua Terra (kerryaquaterra.ie).

You don’t have to leave Valentia to see the recently discovered “Tetrapod Trackway” near the radio station at Wireless Point, fossilized traces of one of the earliest four-legged amphibians that landed 350 to 370 million years ago.

One of the wrought iron gates to the Glanleam estate

The beautifully restored lighthouse on an old fortress in Cromwell’s Point, which is open to visitors until the end of October (Tel: 066 9476985), guards the entrance to Glanleam Bay with its heavenly beach.

As we approached the Glanleam Estate by land, we began to see subtropical stragglers in the rich Kerry hedges. When the big house appeared, wrought-iron gates lured into its secret garden, where Chilean myrtles and giant tree ferns and giant cypresses formed a magical canopy and an ethereal pale pink fuchsia spanned a bright arch through the shadows.

Perhaps the best way to discover these exotic gardens near the village of Knightstown was. They are organized as a network of interconnected paths on the headland that leads to the Valentia lighthouse.

The current administrators of Glanleam House and Gardens, Meta and Jessica Kreissig, and Jessica’s husband, Eoin O’Donoghue, have created a fairy garden and paved the way to a healing well. You run the house as a B&B and there are three self-catering houses for rent: the former estate manager’s house with a view of the vegetable garden and for 10 people; the gardener’s house with one bedroom overlooking the harbor and for two people; and the 250 year old boathouse overlooks the breathtaking pocket-sized beach and can accommodate four to six people.

The gardens are now overgrown, which reinforces their charm as a “lost domain”. It is important to understand, however, that Glanleam was once the first large subtropical garden in Britain or Ireland, created and planted in the late 19th century under the instructions of the 19th Knight of Kerry, Peter FitzGerald.

Former Glanleam horticulturist Seamus O’Brien, who now works at the National Botanic Gardens in Kilmacurragh, describes FitzGerald as “an absolute pioneer” who sails back and forth from his 5,000 acre estate and imports plants from New Zealand.

The great Victorian poet Tennyson is said to have written the lines “Break, break, break, on thy cold gray stone, O Sea” during his stay in Valentia.

Planting much of what is now a sub-tropical jungle, O’Brien reveals that in a secret location in Glanleam there is a rare Killarney fern, a survivor of the Victorian passion for ferns known as terridomania. Glanleam Gold, a special Chilean myrtle with variegated leaves, was discovered on the property, and Chilean guavas are another specialty.

It is tempting to see the planting of this exotic garden on this far-flung island of Ireland as a symbol of the internationalist story of Valentia, who in 1865 thanks to the work of the 19th via transatlantic cable to North America.

The Knights of Kerry were the FitzGerald family who leased their property on Valentia from 1752 and then bought it. While Robert FitzGerald is associated with a linen factory, his son Maurice mined the famous slate quarry and had the village of Knightstown built by Alexander Nimmo at Renard Point near Caherciveen across from the mainland.

A small portion of the property's gardens.

A small portion of the property’s gardens.

Dreaming of Knightstown Liverpool competing with a transatlantic parcel steamer that departs from port several times a week, Maurice attracted the ill-advised investment of a Daniel O’Connell. While this never happened, his son Peter’s success with the transatlantic cable provided a much more modern form of connectivity.

Knightstown, where the Renard Point car ferry docks from March to October, still has a strangely colonial atmosphere with its clock tower and the grand old Royal Hotel that serves good food all year round (royalvalentia.ie). It received its royal title in 1869 when Peter Fitz brought inGerald Arthur, Queen Victoria’s seventh son, and stayed for dinner in the same Glanleam House dining room where you have your B&B breakfast today. The great Victorian poet Tennyson is said to have written the lines “Break, break, break, on thy cold gray stone, O Sea” during his stay in Valentia.

The current knight Adrian FitzGerald divides his time between England and County Waterford, but still owns an old boathouse on Glanleam Strand on the edge of the property. Unsentimental to the Knights, he says that the Anglo-Irish in general have not adapted quickly enough to independent Ireland and, “If you do not adapt, well, harsh.”

He explains that the title of the knight is Norman and Irish, not English, and dates from 1350 (in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork) and the Green Knight (the Valentia branch in Co. Kerry).

A magnificent chandelier in Glanleam House.

A magnificent chandelier in Glanleam House.

The earl was murdered on the orders of Queen Elizabeth 1: “They were really hideous, these Tudors,” 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 be passed on to Adrian Fitz Gerald’s cousin and his cousin’s son.

While the Knights brought industry to the place, there is no point erasing evictions from their history, and historian Nellie O’Cleirigh doesn’t co-ordinate the troubling story of Knight Peter’s attempt to pay quarry workers with food in the 1880s Money. Her tenure ended after a sell-off to the Congested Districts Board, and Adrian FitzGerald’s grandparents eventually left town in 1936.

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

The house is now furnished in a characterful mishmash of styles and has four ensuite bedrooms. Mine had stunning ocean views and a gorgeous gold and avocado bathroom suite from the 1970s that is inheritance in itself. However, when I return it will be the old boathouse slated by Valentia with its picture window full of sea, certainly one of the most romantic places in the country and perhaps the most exotic.

Glanleam House B&B from € 130 pp; Huts from € 75 to € 140 p.p. P., see glanleam.com


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