Travel Writing by Cory Hanson

The Changing Moods of Valentia Island

I’ve had some time to rest after the surprisingly strenuous climb of Mullaghmore in the Burren yesterday. The four of us — my brother, his two friends, and myself — are now at the very tippy tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, home of the famed Ring of Kerry.

But we’re decidedly off the beaten track now; we haven’t seen a tour bus in hours. And why would we? We’re only surrounded by some of the world’s most beautiful coastline, within sight of two of the world’s most famous islands.

We park the rental car at the Valentia Island Heritage Centre at the southwest end of this small island, connected to the mainland by a bridge from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it-I’m-not-kidding village of Portmagee. I’ve been on this island before, seeking out the touristy-but-fun Tetrapod Trackway, a set of fossilized footprints rumored to be the first steps of sea life coming onto land — it’s a stretch.

But today, we’re tackling the hill of Bray Head at the westernmost tip of the island. Looking up from the parking lot, we can see the narrow road heading up and up and up to a squat, rectangular tower on the point of the island in the far distance. With the sun still shining, we head up the small road past the adorable, well-kept homes characteristic of rural Ireland. We conjecture — in hushed voices so as not to disturb the dead quiet of the island — what daily life must be like here as we walk the steady incline. Pretty chill, we decide.

The Skelligs Bray Head Valentia Island County Kerry Ireland

The Skelligs

The lane follows the coastline, with a buffer of pasture on both sides. Brave — or skilled, or stupid — sheep graze all the way to the edge of the cliffs. Beyond them, we can clearly see the jagged, bare-rock faces of the Skellig Islands against the clear, blue sky. Great Skellig, or Skellig Michael, or Sceilig Mhichíl has recently been made doubly famous thanks to Star Wars Episode VII. The final scene, in which Luke Skywalker delivers his most classic line ever: [nods], was shot on-location atop that windswept crag.

The Skelligs Bray Head Valentia Island County Kerry Ireland

Sheep above the bay

Long before Luke, however, the island was home to a stubborn community of cloistered monks, who valued privacy and security so much that they literally carved and scraped a living from the inhospitable rock. We can’t see them from Valentia, but the drystone “beehive huts” the monks built 1200 years ago are still standing today, now home to puffins and gannets rather than brothers and bibles.

We reach the Martello tower — part of the series of guard towers meant to repel a Napoleonic invasion that never came — at the summit of the cliffs, a few hundred feet from the crashing sea. The ground floor of the tower is open, so we poke around and admire the view the watchmen would have had from the windows. The energetic youngsters with me dash away, chasing each other along the knife-edge of the point to its end, triggering in me an unfamiliar, paternal urge to grab them by the napes of their necks and haul them away from the stony ledge. I resist.

The Skelligs Bray Head Valentia Island County Kerry Ireland

The Bray Head Tower

Not two weeks later, I’m back at Bray Head, this time with a big group of my family enjoying one last Irish hurrah. My mission is to get them off the beaten tourist path — and keep them there. After scouting the route with the agile twentysomethings, I’ve decided to return to Bray Head to show them the tower, the cliffs, and the Skelligs here at the end of the Ring of Kerry.

The only problem is the weather.

The pea-soup fog that puts a damper — literally — on so many Western Ireland adventures has descended on the Ring today, bringing with it a steady, soaking rain. As we made our way from our Kerry base in Killarney to Cahersiveen, we passed bus after bus packed with disappointed tourists, looking out their windows in vain for a glimpse of this “Ring of Kerry” thing.

From the Heritage Center, we can’t see the tower, we can’t see the Skelligs, we can’t see the road. We can’t see much of anything. But we decide to tackle the fog and the rain, and I take responsibility for making sure no one falls off the cliffs. I don’t expect any of this crowd to start chasing the others in a deadly game of tag, so I think we’re ok.

The Skelligs Bray Head Valentia Island County Kerry Ireland

The most scenic view of the day

The fog obscures more than our vision; the sound of our voices and footsteps are strangely muffled as we climb higher and higher into the cloud. We don’t think we’re disturbing the folks in the cute houses that I assure my family are just out of sight on both sides of the road.

Suddenly, I can see a darker gray shape in the pale mist: the Martello tower has somehow jumped in front of us and is now only a few feet away. That really snuck up on us, I think as we take shelter inside. I’m glad we saw this before we hit the cliffs. Said cliffs are nowhere to be seen, but the group politely listens as I point in their general direction, describing them as best I can. “And there’s another cliff…Oh! And over there is an even bigger cliff! It’s really amazing! You should see them sometime!”

My fun-loving family is undeterred by the fog, saying that it wouldn’t be an Irish vacation without a long trudge through the wind and rain, only to be robbed of the views by fog. I’m glad they have the right attitude. Something tells me that the folks in the tour buses passing by aren’t quite as peppy.

Maybe they should get out for a walk, I think. They still wouldn’t see anything, but they’d all have a better story…and their foggy photos won’t have that awful through-the-window glare that screams, “I struck out at the Ring of Kerry!”

Hey, that’s a good idea for a T-shirt…

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