In Ireland you’re always among poets and fantasists. The Saltee Islands sound like something from an Enid Blighton story, especially set as they are in the ‘Graveyard of a thousand ships’ a couple of miles south of the holiday village of Kilmore in County Wexford.
For rather un-poetic reasons – to keep some of the favourable tide for the onward journey – we went early in the morning, to Great Saltee Island, anxiously navigating the aforementioned graveyard by steering in a wide arc. We dropped anchor tucked in close to the little beach. A few hundred metres away, between the two islands, the water was a worrying compilation of confused, cresting waves telling of strong currents and a close, rocky bottom. I don’t recall the Famous Five ever concerning themselves with such things. I nearly elected to stay aboard, leaving Mrs C to find the treasure and foil the socially inferior grown-ups alone – or photograph the puffins.
On the beach there is a painted sign telling you the Islands are privately owned and to bugger off by 16.30 if the owners are in residence. Looking on the positive side, there is an implied welcome there is there not? One cannot leave somewhere by a specified hour if one was not allowed to be there in the first place.
Further up the little path there is more signage, carved in stone this time, more explicitly welcoming, under a scrolly header. I love text carved in stone, it’s a permanent communication; someone has thought hard about it, invested in it. In this case that someone is Michael the First.
Prince Michael the First of the Saltees.
I don’t know what is the correct courtesy title for a Prince of the Saltees, so I’m going for ‘His Mickness’. I have a feeling that, were he still alive, His Mickness would not have minded. In fact, I think that His Mickness was poking fun at all those for whom formal social hierarchy is important. And plenty of other people.
It turns out that Great Saltee is well-endowed with two things: birds and carved stone including, wonderfully, a princely granite throne looking yearningly out to sea. We were in our respective heavens, Mrs C and I.
The first stone, the welcome stone, was full of great stuff. It is like a mini-constitution. It began by stating Mick’s (and his heirs’) absolute possession of the islands and the waters around them and asserted ‘No man or assembly of men has any right whatsoever to interfere’ in their affairs. Excellent! We should all have such declarations carved above our front doors. For additional protection I would add something about ‘woman and assemblies of women’ too, though.
Decision-making for the Saltees is swiftly dealt with on the stone – the Prince ‘and his heirs both of male and female line’ call the shots. This is interesting because, as time goes by and the group of heirs expands geometrically, the Saltees will evolve from an autocratic monarchy to something like the property-related democracy which prevailed in the UK until the Representation of the People Act 1918. I like to think His Mickness was intentionally seeking to avoid the big pitfall of universal suffrage: people voting for things that others will have to pay for. So maybe the Saltees will sidestep the fate of the rest of the democratic world – an inexorable trend to huge overspending and debt. Smart move, Yr Mickness! There is a requirement in this mini-constitution for unanimity though, which perhaps needs more thinking through. The provision for appeal to be made to a committee of ‘the Absent Twelve’ (‘fisherman only, who can come from any part of the earth’) sounds vaguely theocratic, in an odd way. Look, I’m not saying His Mickness has all the answers.
There is an obelisk; I love an obelisk, and this one has more great text carved in its stone sides.
Not always entirely sound grammatically, you nevertheless feel confident that Liberty is safe in the Prince’s hands:
‘Nothing is impossible to the man who can, will, then do. This is the only law of success’.
‘No man is free who does not set freedom above all else’
If only the big countries were governed by such simple principles! I was about ready to seek Saltee nationality, but the obelisk has a cameo of Michael the First, in profile, wearing what looks worryingly like a ceremonial uniform and with epaulettes and an odd cylindrical hat reminiscent those favoured by ex President Suharto of Indonesia. Yes, the authoritarian one who invaded East Timor. Did Michael the libertarian dreamer have a militaristic side, perhaps? Maybe we need to be careful in following his teachings too unequivocally. And if I were the Irish minister of defence, I’d keep my wits about me.
Meanwhile Mrs C got some excellent photos of puffins but we missed most of the tide, which waits for no man. Not even those who can, will, then do.