“… the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world … the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world.“
These are the words of George Bernard Shaw on Skellig Michael and it is difficult to disagree.
Also known as the Great Skellig, this is not so much an Island as an outcrop of rock, rising over 700ft above sea level and with an early Christian Monastery perched on a ledge close the top.
Its international importance is recognised and it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
For over 600 years this remote and unlikely spot was an important centre of monastic life. A small cluster of six beehive huts and two boat shaped oratories remain, stark and silent now but an eloquent testimony to the austere life led by the monks whose home Skellig Michael once was.
Anyone visiting is bound to wonder how on earth anyone ever thought to chose such a place to live and to create a monastery.
History of Skellig Michael
While its historical importance today is primarily due to the Christian Monks who lived there, this was a place of pilgrimage long before Christianity came to Ireland.
Ancient legends tell of “Daire Domain”, the King of the World, living there and the place is also mentioned in tales of the Tuatha De Danaan, who arrived in Ireland more than 3000 years ago.
How and when the monastery came into being is not clear. Its foundation is most often tentatively attributed to St Fionan a Kerry saint who lived around 500AD, but it is known than from the 6th to the 12th centuries monks lived and worked there.
Precisely why they choose such an inhospitable place, nobody knows. There was definitely a taste for the ascetic in early Irish Christianity though, as these lines from a 9th century poem illustrate:
“I wish, O son of the Living God, ancient eternal King, for a secret hut in the wilderness that it may be my dwelling.”
The Great Skellig would certainly fit the bill beautifully!
During the 9th century the Island was raided a number of times by Vikings, in search of ecclesiastical treasures, and although remote it was a fairly easy target.
At times the sea and the weather provided their own protection, as well as an obvious sense of relief judging by this comment in the margins of a manuscript of the period:
“The wind is rough tonight, tossing the white combed ocean. I need not dread fierce Vikings crossing the Irish Sea.”
The monks prevailed however and in about 1000AD a new chapel was added which suggest that the monastery was thriving.
The distinctive beehive huts in which the monks lived are remarkable, not just because they are still standing and intact centuries later, but because of how they were constructed.
There is no mortar, they are entirely made of dry stones. While circular outside, the inside is rectangular, with a corbeled roof and shelves for storage built into the structure as well as larger platforms for sleeping on.
Simple they certainly are, but with a great deal of sophistication in their structure just the same.
The community at Skellig Michael was never large – probably about 12 monks and an abbot. Sometime in the 12th century the monks abandoned the Skellig and moved to the Augustinian Monastery at Ballinskelligs on the mainland.
The island continued to be a place of pilgrimage with several accounts of penitential visits during the 1600′s and later.
In the 1800′s two lighthouses were built and the Great Skellig was again inhabited, this time by a changing rota of lighthouse keepers. The second lighthouse still operates, though it was largely rebuilt during the 1960s and is now automated.
Anyone who wants to know more about Skellig Michael and its monastic history is in luck. The University of California Press have kindly made available the fully illustrated book “The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael” free of charge online.
Wildlife on the Skelligs
Both Skellig Michael and its smaller neighbour, Little Skellig, are filled with bird life and together comprise possibly the most important seabird colony in Ireland, in terms both of population and of species diversity.
Among the birds you can expect to see are Storm Petrels, Gannets, Fulmars, Manx Shearwaters, Kittiwakes, Guillemots and Razorbills and less commonly, Clough and Peregrine Falcons.
But the perennial favourites are the Puffins, with some 4000 or more of them on the Great Skellig alone. They treat visitors with an indifference that borders on contempt and it is possible to get very close to them.
The surrounding waters team with life also. During a cruise you would be unlucky not to see Grey Seals and may also see Basking Sharks, Minke Whales, Dolphins and if you are really lucky a Leatherback Turtle.
Access to Skellig Michael
The settlement on Skellig Michael survived the battering of the elements for many centuries, but the greatest threat to its continued survival is more recent and comes not from the weather or from pagan looters, but from tourism.
From the 1970′s on, as the importance of this place became evident, many thousands of visitors tramping up and down the ancient steps and in and out of the buildings began to take their toll.
So now there are restrictions on the number of tourists who can visit, with just 10 boats licensed to land on the island, each permitted to sail just once daily and carry no more than 12 people. As boats can only land in good weather, this means that no more than about 12,000 people annually now land on the island.
If you are not lucky enough to get there yourself, this video record of a visit to the Skelligs is excellent and gives a real feel of the place:
Visiting Skellig Michael
We highly recommend the trips run by Des & Pat Lavelle, who both have expert knowledge of and a great love and respect for the Skelligs. Des is the author of an excellent book, The Skellig Story, which is widely available locally.
The climb to the monastic settlement is arduous with many uneven steps, well over 500 of them, to be negotiated. Access from the boat requires visitors to climb steep steps also. For this reason a visit is only recommended for those who are relatively fit and is simply not possible for anyone with mobility problems.
Visitor Centre and Cruises
There is an excellent visitor centre, The Skellig Experience, on Valencia Island, close to the Ring of Kerry, where visitors can learn about the history and wildlife of the Great Skellig and can see reconstructions of some of the buildings.
There are also many boats offering cruises around Skellig Micheal – without landing – which give a close up glimpse without endangering either the ecology or state of preservation of the monuments there. These leave from the area around the visitor centre every day of the year, weather permitting.