In the Southwestern coast of Ireland, the road snakes through undulating landscape, skirting grassy mounds, lush green hillocks and dewy meadows speckled with cows. The sea presents occasional glimpses, from between valleys and stunning vantage points. But every once in a while, the road dips sharply and sweeps into a little seaside village straight out of a picture book. Portmagee in the Iveragh peninsula is one such place.
As much as it is achingly beautiful, Portmagee also seems so tiny that it appears to end even before it begins. In fact, the main road lined with lovely little houses and buildings on one side and the harbour on the other, is pretty much all there is to Portmagee, though a closer look will reveal a few parallel streets and some houses scattered a bit further on. However, it is the main road that is where all the action is in the village. A walk up and down the street is unlikely to take much time but what it lacks in quantity, it amply makes up in quality.
Towards the top end of the street is a bright red building, which houses a 25-year-old boutique hotel with charming rooms providing panoramic views of the harbour, the sea and Valentia Island located just across the water. On either side sit buildings in bright pink, yellow, buttery cream and blue, making a rather striking picture. There’s a restaurant, a souvenir shop, and a café, with windows dressed in lovely curtains and pots of colourful flowers. It all seems far too idyllic, like something out of a movie set for a feel-good romantic movie.
The picture is rather difficult to reconcile with the fact that it is named after Captain Theobald Magee, a notorious 18th century smuggler who made his fortune through smuggling liquor, tobacco, tea and textiles. He died under suspicious circumstances but that didn’t deter his widow and sons from continuing with the family business.
As much as Portmagee’s history is colourful, it occupies a rather important position. It is the main stop on the famous Wild Atlantic Way—a 2500-km diving route hugging Ireland’s west coast. It is the starting point for the trip to Skellig Michael, a tiny, rugged and almost hostile island, which is home to an Augustine Christian monastic settlement built between the sixth and eighth centuries. Built across the steep sides of rocky island, the settlement can be reached by a set of 600 stone steps.
Still visible today are a plethora of ruined structures, including living quarters, storerooms, a chapel and a graveyard. The location was chosen because of its inaccessibility and to withstand Viking attacks. The whole place was abandoned in the 12th century and is home to colonies of puffins. More importantly, it has served as a location for scenes from the latest movie, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has shot it into prominence all over again.
However, trips to the island are heavily restricted and predicated by weather. If weather is unsuitable for Skellig Michael, a visit to the Kerry Bog Village Museum in Glenbeigh (45 km) might be an alternative. Entering it might seem like stepping back in time as the model village is designed to depict life in the 18th century Ireland. This part of Ireland has plenty of bogs—wetland that accumulates peat, which is a good source of fuel, and village life revolved around it.
The museum has recreated this aspect as an educational tool, and it is fascinating to learn how people lived and worked. There are recreated thatched houses, one of them was even transported from an original village. There’s also demonstration of how peat is extracted, and various farm implements are on display. Adding a rather lovely touch to the place is the presence of actual bog ponies in a huge meadow and Irish wolfhounds, both essential to village and farm life.
Fascinating as the village is, it is also a relief to step back into reality and head back to Portmagee for the evening for another spectacular sight. As the sun begins to set, it bathes everything in golden orange and Portmagee looks almost ethereal. As last impressions go, that’s quite a striking one.
Factfile Portmagee is on Ireland’s
Southwest Coast in County Kerry, about 160 km west of Cork. How to reach: Fly to Cork via transit in Europe or London. Take a bus or hire a car for the three-hour scenic drive to Portmagee. Where to go: Skellig Michael—a tiny, rugged and almost hostile island, and Kerry Bog Village Museum in Glenbeigh.