• Laura Mc

Ready for Smugglers?


Far in the western tip of Kerry you’ll find the tiny village of Portmagee. As the name suggests there’s a port there and if the weather’s fine you can sail to The Skellig Isles. The larger of the two islands, Skellig Michael, is now arguably most famous for being Luke Skywalkers remote island retreat in Star Wars. Indeed, the real ruins of a sixth century monastery are portrayed in the film as the remains of a Jedi temple.

I recently spoke to a Star Wars fan about the ruins being used, suggesting that the monks who once lived there might come back as ghosts in protest. He told me he’d be more worried about the ghosts of Jedi’s returning than monks. I was joking, he wasn’t.

But let’s focus on what the film didn’t show because the unassuming port, now acting as a gateway to a fictional landscape, has its own real stories to tell.

On my first night in Portmagee, I’m sorry to say, I knew very little of its history. Mesmerised by the sunset, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever witnessed, I wondered who’d stood there before me, what sights they’d seen? Had they been as captivated by the blazing dusk sky as me? I vowed to find out.

Portmagee, previously known as, “Magee’s Port”, was named after, Captain Theobald Magee, an ex-military man who served under King James and fought in the Battle of the Boyne. When Magee retired from service he took to the seas, not as a law abiding merchant but as a very profitable smuggler.

Magee married Bridget Morgell, the widow of a rich Dingle merchant and daughter of the official representative for County Kerry, Thomas Crosby. Bridget, far from taking a back seat in her husbands’ nefarious enterprises, soon became a part of them. This didn’t sit well with her father, a man who valued his own reputation far above anyone else’s character.

Records state that Magee made his last will in 1724, in Lisbon, Portugal. He then entered a local monastery, where he remained until his death in 1727.

The details of Magee’s demise and apparent self-imposed exile, are still questioned today. Most suspicion falls on Thomas Crosby, after all it was no secret that Magee’s father-in-law disapproved of his seafaring activities. If the rumours are true, Crosby’s plan failed because Magee’s death didn’t end the smuggling, or it’s connection with the Crosby family; Crosby’s own daughter made sure of that.

Three days after Christmas, the same year that Magee died, one of Bridget’s ships returned. Initially it anchored discreetly but then the authorities moved in and insisted it be moved to the main harbour. Except they didn’t plan to seize the illegal haul, they wanted a cut and thought a more central sale would increase the overall value of the goods. For Crosby this must have meant public humiliation; unless of course he secretly gained from it too? There’s no evidence either way. As for Bridget, she was simply carrying on regardless.

When I think of the evening I spent at the port, I now wonder, did Bridget ever stand in my footsteps, watching the same sun set, almost three hundred years earlier? And would she ever have imagined that where her smuggled bounty lay afloat, her husband would one day be immortalised? For long before the Jedi arrived, smugglers ruled in Portmagee.

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