Famous Wexford People in History: PRINCE MICHAEL OF THE SALTEES
PRINCE MICHAEL OF THE SALTEES – whose boyhood dream came true
Prince Michael Neale, the son of farmer John Neill of Ballinglee, Ballymitty, Co. Wexford, born in 1867, sat looking out to the Saltee Islands from the mainland. It was 1920 and he was just 10 years old. Prince Michael was a dreamer and his legal name really was Prince. He called the islands ‘Paradise’ and vowed to his mother that he would one day be the owner of the Saltee Islands and would become a REAL Prince.
The Vikings named them ‘Salt Ey’ (salt island). The name derived from the salty spray which sweeps across the islands in high winds, especially during the winter. The two islands of Great and Little Saltee lie 5km off Kilmore Quay (formerly known as Crossfarnogue).
There is archaeological evidence of settlements dating back to the Stone Age and to early Christian hermits. The Vikings, Normans and medieval monks all lived on the islands. The Saltees lay in the path of one of the world’s busiest routes for merchant ships sailing between Britain and America and between 1500 and 1800 the islands were used as a base for pirates and smugglers from Spain, France and Africa. The treacherous 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.
In 1649, the Governor of Wexford Castle, James Stafford was said to have betrayed the town of Wexford to Cromwell for £500. He later fled to Great Saltee and built a cottage there. The ruin of the cottage was for years known as Stafford’s cottage.
In 1798, following the fall of Wexford town, rebel leaders Bagenal Harvey of Bargy Castle and John Henry Colclough of nearby Ballyteige Castle (with his wife and child) dressed as peasants, hid in a cave on Great Saltee from where they planned to escape to republican France. But they were betrayed by a poor farmer who lived on the island after he was beaten into divulging their whereabouts. They were arrested by officers from a Revenue ship and carried back to Wexford. Along with Cornelius Grogan of Johnstown Castle, they were tried, convicted and hanged on Wexford Bridge that same day, 28th June. Their heads were cut off and stuck on spikes outside the Courthouse and their bodies flung into the River Slaney. Ironically all three had subscribed to the building of the same bridge just three years previous.
In the 1800s the Great Saltee was in the ownership of Hamilton Grogan Morgan of Johnstown Castle. It was rented out to Patrick and John Parle who succeeded the Furlong family as tenants. The Parle family and labourers amounted to about 20 people who made up the island’s population. A farming family of three inhabited Little Saltee. One of John’s sons, Stephen, fell from the top of Cellboy cliff on the southwest end of Great Saltee near the gannet colony and was killed. He was only 13.
In 1904 the Parles sold their lease on the Great Saltee to Martin Pierce of the Pierce’s Foundry family. But in 1907 Martin died having survived a boating accident a few days previous when his boat sank in a storm while departing the island. The island remained with the Pierce family for the next twenty years until it passed to a Dublin sporting syndicate in 1930. It was later farmed by the Francis family. They had their boat burned when it was learned that they were exporting their potatoes to England. In 1943 the island was put up for sale by the Morgans. Two years later the Morgan family handed Johnstown Castle over to the Irish State.
Prince Michael Neale became Ireland’s leading manufacturer of cattle dip, a liquid pesticide. He could now afford to buy the Great Saltee Island and so in December 1943 he realised his dream when he became its new owner.
Michael was a colourful character and a legend in his own lifetime. He placed a personal notice in the Dublin newspapers:
“I, Prince Michael Neale, landowner, will assume the title of Prince of the Saltees at the conclusion of the war. Also I wish it to be known that no one will be permitted to enter the Saltee Islands without a permit issued by me. Anybody caught interfering with the millions of birds or their eggs which inhabit those islands will be severely dealt with.” Hundreds of newspaper articles on the new ‘micronation’ appeared around the world.
Michael was married to Anne, a Liverpool native to whom he gave the title Princess Anne. They had a modest house built on the island and later changed their surnames to ‘Saltees’ by deed poll. Michael Saltees took flying lessons from ex-Aer Lingus Captain Darby Kennedy who set up Weston Aerodrome in Co. Kildare in 1947. He had a field in the centre of the island levelled as a landing strip for his ‘Miles Messenger’ plane which he flew regularly to the island. He began a campaign of intensive reforestation and over the next five years had over 34,000 trees and shrubs planted on Great Saltee. The most successful were cordyline palms, which can still be seen on the island today.
In July 1947, Prince Michael appeared in the High Court, sitting in Wexford, over taxes and also to appeal his claim to the title ‘Prince of the Saltees’. His coronation on Great Saltee, with Michael fully robed, did not take place until July 1956. A ‘welcome stone’, a large throne which was dedicated to his mother, and an obelisk dedicated to himself were shipped to the island. The obelisk bears a plaque with his image in profile. The throne is a memorial to his mother and features a coat of arms and the following inscription:
“This chair is erected in memory of my mother to whom I made a vow when I was ten 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.
In 1949, in an attempt to deal with the rat population on the island, Michael flew a planeload of 46 cats out but in eight years the cats had all died out. In 1950 the original farmhouse on the island was turned into a bird observatory which lasted until 1963. But once his tree-planting was complete, Michael was for the most part content to leave the island as a bird sanctuary for visitors to enjoy.
Prince Michael died in 1998 and is buried in the family vault at Bannow Island next to the old St. Mary’s Church ruin. Great Saltee was passed on to his five sons Michael, John, Manfred, Paul, Richard and his daughter Anne. Michael gave himself the title Prince Michael II. Paul Neale died in January 2018. The Great Saltee Island remains the private property of the Neale family.
Little Saltee has been owned by the Bellew family since 1855. It was rented out until 1992 when Sir Henry Grattan Bellew from Co. Wicklow, a descendant of Henry Grattan of Grattan’s Parliament, returned from Kenya to retire to the island. After 15 years on Little Saltee, Henry and his partner Shirley passed over the custodianship of the island to their children Patrick and Deirdre. In 2007, Sir Henry wrote an account of their time on the island in his book ‘A Pinch of Saltee’ (Justin Nelson Productions). Patrick Bellew keeps deer, sheep and cows on the island. The grazing animals help to encourage the birdlife, giving the birds areas to nest. Bird numbers are up and Puffins now number 500 at peak. Permission of the family is needed before landing on the island. A flagpole above the main landing area, situated below the house, indicates when the family is in residence.
Great Saltee and Little Saltee are mainly known for being Ireland’s largest bird sanctuary with Gannets, Gulls, Puffins, Cormorants, Razorbills and Guillemots. The Great Saltee also has a breeding population of Grey Seals, one of the very few in eastern Ireland. Up to 120 animals are present in autumn and up to 20 pups are produced annually.
“It was never my intention to make a profit from these islands. Day visitors are welcome to come and enjoy at no cost. Bird watchers will always remain welcome”, so wrote Prince Michael the First. Except when the Neale family are in residence, daily trips operate from Kilmore Quay during the summer months.
© Des Kiely
Main photo: Prince Michael Neale (courtesy Saltee Islands)