The Civil Parish of Fenit

Dermot Hanifan in his excellent memoir of Fenit entitled “Where Samphire Blooms”, began his book with the following lyrical introduction :

Fenit is a charming little village, sitting on the northern shore of the inner bay of Tralee. It faces the sun as it looks southward to Sliabh Mish and the Dingle mountains, while it dips it toes into the warm waters of Tralee Bay.

The meaning of the placename Fenit or “An Fhianait” is unclear. On some 16th century maps it is listed as Fyened or Fenor Isle, while in The Book of Lismore, compiled in the 15th century, it is written “Fianann”.

Fenit Civil Parish, consists of two townlands -Fenit Within (island), 438 acres, and Fenit Without (mainland), 243 acres, and the Samphire Islands. The parish is in the Barony of Trughanacmy. Civil parishes were frequently based on existing medieval parishes and were used by the civil administration in Ireland up until the Church of Ireland dis-establishment of 1869-71. The civil parish was used in the compilation of the Ordnance Survey of the 19th century and as a foundation for Griffith’s Valuation.

The Catholic parish today is known as Spa-Fenit with a church (oratory) in Fenit built in 1973.

Smith’s History  of  c. 1756 noted :

More to the south is Fenit Island, part of the Earl of Kerry’s estate, on which is an old castle, built to defend the entrance of a small creek, where vessels with the assistance of a pilot, may enter in bad weather.

Fenit  was described in  Lewis’ Topography c. 1837 as :

Fenit, formerly Fenor, an island and a parish … seven (6.8km) miles from Tralee. Between this island and the mainland with which it is connected by a long narrow isthmus 1, is a small creek called Barrow, fit only for small craft. The island (Fenit) has been latterly much improved by drainage and is remarkable for producing good crops of barley (and potatoes). The manufacture of kelp was formerly carried on here to a considerable extent, but it has been long in decline.

The mid 19th century Ordnance Survey map of Fenit Without shows little development prior to the construction of the pier or the railway.

While there were a number of dwellings in Tawlaght, the road that led towards Fenit ended at what was then known as Fenit Lodge (House) which became the property of the Hurlys in c. 1857. There was also a small cluster of farmhouses and farm buildings on the way to the island. The modern island road was built in the 1930s.

The coastguard station was originally based at Kilfenora but in the mid 19th century it transferred to Fenit. Also in the latter half of the 19th century a large building was constructed to house the Fenit coastguards.

Building of the lighthouse on Little Samphire Island began in c.1848 and it became operational by 1854.

Photo by Poshey Aherne Photography

Fenit Pier

Discussions began on the construction of the pier in 1846 for it was felt at the time that something needed to be done both for the safety and well-being of the local fishermen of the Spa, Kilfenora and Fenit. The merchants of Tralee also hoped that an expansion of trade would follow the building of the pier.

A newspaper of the day recorded:

Our readers will be glad to learn that on the last Saturday, the first piles were driven for the viaduct which is to connect Samphire Island with the mainland; and that the works have been continued during this week. It is right that visitors to Fenit should guard against confounding (confusing) this viaduct and the causeway of which it is a continuation, with the main pier The pier will be a different structure altogether, and will stretch from the Island up the bay, at right angles to the causeway. The line of the causeway and the line of the pier will meet at an angle on the centre of Samphire Island, and within this angle will be Fenit Harbour.

As the Tralee canal began to show obvious limitations i.e., larger vessels being unable to enter Tralee harbour, it was proposed that a branch railway line be built from Tralee to Fenit to further trade. Previously the larger vessels lay at ‘’Fenit Roads’’ where their cargoes were discharged and carried to Tralee by small boats called lighters.

An act of parliament in 1880 led to the commencement of work on the pier which continued for three years, with the piles for the viaduct being driven in 1883. The viaduct was originally of wooden construction while the pier was made of concrete.

The railway line was opened for traffic on the 5th of July 1887, and was operated by the Waterford -Limerick Line.

The fishing was very busy at this time and many boats including foreign vessels called luggers and puffers filled Fenit harbour. The railway was a great boon to the expansion of the fishing trade.

The construction of the railway and pier also encouraged building at Fenit with a number of dwelings being built at Samphire Terrace for the Harbour Board employees.

In 1910, a flat-roofed neo-Georgian Custom House was built.

Fenit Custom House
Photos from the Past
1 An isthmus is a narrow strip of land with sea on either side, forming a link between two larger areas of land.