- 13 Aug 10
An off-shore excursion to a nature sanctuary proves surprisingly haunting, evoking the spirit of The Wicker Man and Lord of the Flies.
It was our own private episode of Lost. Within minutes of disembarking there was talk about the weird gravitational pull of the island, the eerie absence of ambient 21st century noise, the way the remoteness cancelled all thoughts of the outside world.
We had risen early on that Sunday morning, paid our fare, boarded a boat from Kilmore Quay, and motored five kilometres out into St George’s Channel before transferring to a motor dinghy which deposited us on the shores of the Greater Saltee Island. A ten-minute hike brought us to a rocky promontory where we spread a picnic, peered out at the sea and lapsed into a sort of communal trance akin to a Victorian romance.
Before long we were all talking about The Wicker Man and The Beach and Lord of the Flies and surmising about cutting all ties to the mainland, founding a utopian cult, maybe sending a messenger back once a month for supplies. One thought led to the next and soon we were taking bets on how long it’d be before someone went Waco and we devoured each other.
The island, the larger of the two Saltees, privately owned but open to daytrippers, is one of the most famous bird sanctuaries in the country. The coastline is thronged with colonies of puffins, gulls and gannets. Grey seals breed up to 20 pups a year. A hike through jungle-thick foliage to the edge of the island and you’ll clap eyes on a mountain-sized rock outcrop swarmed in Guillemots and Razorbills. Thousands and thousands of them. The din they produce is akin to the Ligeti music in 2001 – A Space Odyssey, but even stranger. Powerful stench too.
The place hums with history. The name derives from Norse or Old English, and refers to the sea spray that drenches the island in high winds. The bedrock is pre-Cambrian, between 600 and 2,000 million years old, and there’s archeological evidence of neolithic man. The inlets harbour caves with names like Lady Walker’s Cave, Otter’s Cave and Hell Hole. Between 1500 and 1800 the island was a hotbed of smugglers, wreckers and buccaneers. It was a hairy business – the surrounding waters were known as the Graveyard of A Thousand Ships.
The boat returned to take us back to the mainland at four o’clock. None of us were ready to leave.