Early in the 19th century, the Parle family bought the islands and started cultivating wheat, barley and potatoes, with the majority of the island used for pasture. One of the family, John, had a great reputation as a strong man; he could lift up two sheep, one under each arm, and put them into a cot (small boat) to take them to the mainland. By 1860, about 20 people were living on the Great Saltee. The bird colonies on the islands had become famous during the 19th century, and it was a popular place for shooting parties. In 1943 Great Saltee Island was bought by Michael Neale, who declared himself Prince Michael of the Saltees.
The wonderful National Folklore Collection has a number of tales about the Saltee Islands. One of the more common folktales describes how the islands were formed, when St. Patrick chased a devil from Tipperary all the way to Wexford. During the chase, the devil took a big bite out of a mountain and he spat two mouthfuls in the ocean off Kilmore Quay forming the Saltee Islands.
Another story describes how General Bagenal Harvey and John Colclough fled to the Saltee Islands after the defeat of the 1798 rebels at the Battle of Vinegar Hill. They hid in a cave for some time, before being discovered when soldiers noticed smoke coming from a crevice in the rocks. The men were captured and brought to Wexford, where they were executed.
A rather odd tale describes a time when cattle used to be left to graze on the islands. One day the men went in a boat to the island and they saw a little woman in a shell. The little woman used to milk the cows and make butter. The men told the little woman they would tell and she said “You may when you will think of it.” They never thought of it until the day she died.