I doubt there’s anyone who grew up in Ireland in the 70s and 80s who hasn’t been for a drive. In our house, it usually happened on a Sunday. After dinner. Dinner was served (and is still served) at 1pm sharp every day and when we were on dessert (Sundays only), I’d sit and wait to see if Boss was in the mood. The words I was waiting for? ‘Sure, we might go for a drive.’
There would be no plan. We’d just get in the car and drive. I’d try to guess where we were going depending on the right and left turns he’d take. Some days, we’d to go Kilkenny. Other days we’d head to Wicklow. On special days, we’d go to the airport and watch the planes land and take off. Half the joy was in not knowing where the Sunday drive would take us.
Now, a drive is subtly different from and not to be confused with a spin. A drive has the element of surprise; a spin has a destination in mind, as in: ‘Let’s take a spin over to see XYZ.’
Earlier this week, while visiting my cousin in Wexford, the weather wasn’t cooperating. She suggested we go for a drive. No plan. Just a drive.
The first signpost of interest was to Our Lady’s Island, a pilgrimage site that I’d never heard of – and I thought I knew my shrines. The village church has been described as ‘an ecclesiastical architectural gem unsurpassed by any other in the kingdom’ (E.Hore 1875). And it is rather lovely. But it wasn’t the church that caught my interest; it was the island and the pilgrim walk.
There’s a pilgrimage season that runs from 15 August to 7 September with clear rules of engagement with nine circuits needed during the season.
- The pilgrim begins with a visit to the Parish Church
- The pilgrim now walks along the causeway to the Shrine at the entrance to the Island and prays there for a few moments.
- Next the pilgrim follows the path to the left of the Island.
- The Rosary with its fifteen decades (the Mysteries of Light are optional) is recited as the pilgrim walks around the Island.
- A stop is made at the Shrine at the head of the Island, which is at the halfway point, for another quiet prayer.
- The pilgrim continues the Rosary and walks back to the Shrine at the entrance to the Island.
A final prayer of penance is said in the Church.
I had no idea this place existed. And surprises like this are all part of ‘going for a drive’.
We passed another signpost, this time for Kilmore Quay. I remember being mad about chap from this part of Wexford back in my Banking days and was up for a visit, especially when I heard about the nineteenth-century, mud-walled thatched cottages. Not for the first time, I wondered how long you’d have to live in Ireland to know it all.
I had a vague notion that the village was noted for its fishing and its seafood. And when you have the trawlers landing within a salt-chuck of a local chipper, there’s no question about where you’d choose to eat. The Saltee Chipper is an institution. Famous the length and breadth of the county for its fish and chips, it’s a very unassuming place with a menu that goes above and beyond your usual chipper fare. I had scallops and black pudding to start with. And then beer-battered haddock, chips, and mushy peas for my main. I like my fish and chips. I like my mushy peas. And my eyes were bigger than my belly. This was Wednesday evening. It was Friday before I needed to eat again.
The chipper is named after the Saltee Islands, a pair of privately owned islands that sit some 3-5km in the distance. I must have missed my geography class the day we did Wexford, because I’d never heard of them. The bigger of the two, the Great Saltee, is home to the most famous bird sanctuary in Ireland. The islands have been around forever. Back as far as 3500 BC, people lived there – from Neolithic man to hermits, from Vikings and Normans to medieval monks.
The islands had their heyday from 1500 to 1800 AD.
The Saltees were in the path of one of the world’s most important sea trading routes – between Britain and the American continent. They were used as a base for pirates, wreckers and smugglers. Pirates from Spain, France, North Africa and America plundered the busy merchant ships within sight of the islands. And in the days of sail the waters around the islands became known as ” the graveyard of a thousand ships” and the islands their tombstones, so dangerous was the area to shipping. The gains of the wreckers and smugglers could very well be hidden in the many caves which have mysterious and romantic names – Lady Walker’s Cave, Happy Hole, Otter’s Cave and Hell Hole, enough for any Treasure Island.
Back in 1798 (I was in school when we did the 1798 Rebellion but this story didn’t make the history books), two of the leaders hid out in a cave on the islands planning their escape to France. Rumour has it that when the boys took a bath in the cave, the soldiers spotted the soapy water running out and their hideaway was blown. They were hanged for their trouble.
But stranger still, is the story of Prince Michael the First. The Saltees are a micronation – a principality. Purchased by Prince Neale in 1943, Prince crowned himself Prince Michael the First, fulfilling a childhood promise to his mother that one day, he’d own and rule the Saltees.
This chair is erected in memory of my Mother to whom I made a vow when I was 10 years old that one day I would own the Saltee Islands and become the First Prince of the Saltees.
Henceforth my heirs and successors can only proclaim themselves Prince of these Islands by sitting in this chair fully garbed in the Robes and Crown of the Islands and take the Oath of Succession.
Michael the First
It’s amazing what you learn when you go for a drive.