Most mornings, adventurous souls wait at the harbour, hoping to visit one of the wonders of the world. The early-Christian hermitage of Skellig Michael – described by George Bernard Shaw as “part of our dream world” and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is 8 miles out to sea. Clearly visible on a fine day, it can only be reached when the weather allows
But no matter. Portmagee – now named Ireland’s first-ever ‘Tourist Town’ (the highest accolade, for the exceptional way the whole place welcomes visitors) – is “perfect for hanging around waiting for the weather to clear for the Skelligs”, says Lonely Planet.
And whether en route to the Skelligs or not, you’ll want to slow down and stay a while … watching cloud shadows on the mountains, walking on the strand or along the cliffs, counting stars in the darkest night skies, and rainbows as the Atlantic fronts blow through.
There are waves of busy-ness: gulls circle as trawlers return, catches are landed, fish sold, nets mended. There’s banter from the boatmen.
And stories are shared of Portmagee’s seafaring and smuggling past. Colourful RIBs and dinghies take folk offshore to dive, sail and see the wildlife. People come from across Ireland to take part in Portmagee’s annual festivals – Set Dancing and the traditional Old Year festivities
Come the evening, there are friendly locals and turf fires in the pubs, the freshest seafood to eat, traditional music and set dancing, year round … in this warm-hearted place at the far western edge of Europe.
Portmagee was first mentioned and got its name from the famous smuggler and pirate Captain Theobald Mcgee.
During the early 1700s the seamen of Portmagee were not noted for their fishing, for we find in a government document the harbours of Valentia and Dingle were regarded as the chief haunts of the Munster smugglers. The O'Sullivans, aided by Captain Theobald Magee, were at this time carrying on a prosperous trade several continental countries - illegally of course as there was no mention of Common Market or Free Trade in those days.
Magee himself was officer in King James' army who retired after the battle of the Boyne and, becoming a sailor, commented a merchant ship trading between France, Portugal and Ireland. He must have been doing rather nicely, as we find that he acquired a large amount of property in Cork and Kerry and married Mrs Bridget Morgan. Records show that in 1724 Magee made his will at Lisbon, Portugal, after which he entered a monastery where he remained until his death in 1727. After his death bold Bridget did not spend too long mourning her husband and was soon busy carrying on the family business - smuggling.
Right in the channel just off Portmagee you find a tiny island called Illaunloughan. It was inhabited from the 7th. -9th. Century by monks. The site has been fully excavated. There are 8th.Centuries oratories and altars and a large gable shrine for the relics of the community’s saints. The community were buried close by. White quartz stones and scallop shells were placed on the bones of the saints; this may reflect knowledge of a large scallop shell over the Tomb of Christ in Jerusalem