June 1st, 2016
“But for the magic that takes you out, far out of this time and this world, there is Skellig Michael ten miles off Kerry coast, shooting straight up seven hundred feet sheer out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the graveyard and their beehive oratory does not know Ireland through and through.” – George Bernard Shaw
My Plan for the first half of the day: Get up early, eat breakfast, visit one of the most spectacular places on Earth: SKELLIG
7AM in Cahersiveen: I waited close to the hostel doorway, along with the Dutch woman whom I met the evening before, for our ride to show up. I considered myself lucky to get a spot on a boat, needed transportation to get to one of the most remote and rugged places in Ireland. Our captain personally picked us up directly from the hostel and drove us to the docks in Portmagee from which our vessel would shortly depart. Skipper Casey was an older man, with a thick Kerry accent. He told us stories about his life on the Wild Atlantic and how he recently had an injury that made walking quite difficult. He admitted his sea legs were steadier than his legs on land.
Preparation in Portmagee
In town, we had a few moments to walk around the small village, buy some snacks at the shop and go to the washroom while we still had a chance. Once we got on the boat and to the island, there would be no facilities or suitable places to pee for a few hours. Packed with snacks, water and donning a second hand pair of vintage old leather army boots, I was ready to venture out to this epic topographical wonder, this magnificent medieval monastic site that currently provides an out-of-this-world locale for the biggest name in sci-fi. I was going into the Star Wars ‘verse. Well, perhaps current promotional schemes might be marketing it that way, with their lightsaber wielding puffins and theme title fonted t-shirts.
Closer to reality though, I was in Ireland, in a small harbour, boarding a small boat crewed by our morning driver and accompanied by up to 12 passengers. It was a limited capacity, we quickly discovered everyones names and occupations in preambles that were bound to take place on a confined 45min ride. The folks closest to me were my Dutch friend, 2 Americans, a father and son from Florida and Boston respectively if I recall, an Aussie and their local partner and myself the Canadian. The harbour was filling up with other small vessels like ours, headed to the Skellig Rocks and we were 2nd to pull out and make out the headway.
The day was once again stunning. I was very concerned about the weather, knowing if it was rough we would not go out to the island. These waters can be particularly nasty in rough weather. Right where we boarded there was a large anchor memorial for those who died fishing and sailing from this harbour. Today’s fair weather ensured that we saw seals basking in the sun. The white washed and stone houses gleamed comfortingly from the oceanside cliffs. We chatted amicably over the sound of the motor.
As we past the headland and hit the ocean proper we could see the pair of islands jutting abruptly out of the blue expanse. Closest, Little Skellig, a blackened rock, stained with bird guano excreted from one of the largest masses of seabirds (gannets and guillemots) in the world. The other, green and idyllic, straight out of a fantasy world, Skellig Michael. We are warned to take extreme caution when exiting the boat and it’s not easy leaping off of the rocking boat edge onto the small platform on shore. We are then cautioned again, to continue heading up the path, not stopping to take photos or chat. The gorgeous sunny weather has caused the cliffside to dry up and start to crumble, so unless we wanted to get caught in a shower of pebbles, the single file line of people must not display tardiness at this point. Apparently someone had recently been injured by falling stone. I am realizing how lucky I am to have come here and wonder for how much longer people will be allowed to visit such a fragile and unpredictable location.
I was hoping and hoping to be fortunate enough to spot a puffin on this trip and was I ever in luck. While on another day there might not have been a single puffin on the rocks, on this day I could barely walk the path without nearly kickin’ one of them. I kid, but every few steps there was another puffin and they wouldn’t fly away until I was within a step or two of reaching them. Puffins are super adorable and much smaller than I thought. They are about the size of my outstretched hand, plus a beak. So dear.
Early Medieval Staircase
The monastery at Skellig Michael sits on a rock plateau on the NE summit, positioned for shelter and water collection. It is credited to Saint Finian’s time, around the sixth century! We access the summit via the South Steps, the only set of stairs (out of 3 sets the monks constructed) accessible to the public. Each set starts out cut right out of the rock, then they become dry stone constructed as you ascend the over 600 steps to the monastery 550 feet above sea level. It’s a number you don’t forget, as that very sea is churning far below you, with nothing but scraggly mountain plants and the plentiful puffins to slow your descent if you happened to fall. We climb slowly, but purposefully, excitement and anticipation growing with every step.
The North and South stairs converge at Christ’s Saddle, the only bit of flat on the island, (other than the new helipad used for Star Wars camera crews). The path’s continue as one up to the monastery. I pass through the Needle’s Eye, a narrow passageway filled with hatched puffin chicks cooing and chirping out of the rock crevices, pleading for some food.
The monks had all the stone they needed on hand to build their home and retreat. They even designed a system of retaining walls to build terraced gardens tiered off from the main enclosure. This island provided isolation and security for medieval monks to escape the hustle and bustle of Ireland. There was even a hermitage for the monks who wanted to get away from the other monks on Skellig if they were feeling particularly antisocial. Seriously though, monks would often undertake self-exile and spend years separated from towns and villages. The monks on Skellig subsisted on eggs, birds, local flora and what meagre harvest they could nurture from their rocky gardens.
The Monastic Community
Their beehive like structures are all dry stack in a special method called Corbelling, laying horizontal stones overlapping and overhanging the inner edge slightly. The stones are angled slightly allowing rain to wash right off, rendering the buildings watertight. One of these was the communal dwelling, complete with a loft level. These housing cells date from different periods and exemplify the advancements in building technique. A chapel is located nearby and there are over 100 stone crosses recorded on the island. Stone cisterns were used to capture rainwater.
St. Michael’s Church is the only structure made with lime mortar. It dates much later, to the 10th or 11th century, with further updates in the 12th century. It had decorative sandstone from Valentia Island and probably a wooden roof. Despite being newer and having mortar, much of the church has succumbed to antiquity.
We were told stories of the Viking raids that persisted over generations. While the islands natural defences and hostile environment discouraged some raiders, there was still bloodshed and abduction of monks from Skellig. The brutalization began in the 9th century. The Annals of Inisfallen (Medieval Chronicles) document the plight of Etgal, who was carried off by the Vikings and starved to death in the hands of his captors. When the winds and storms raged was when the monks felt the safest in their island refuge. No ships could approach the island in rough weather. On clear days, attack was a continual threat. The hermit on his South Peak had a 360 degree vantage point to warn the colony of impending doom if a Viking fleet was spotted. Given warning, the monks could prepare a defence. They had the advantage of heavy stones and gravity on their side.
The wind is rough tonight
tossing the white combed ocean.
I need not dread fierce Vikings
crossing the Irish Sea.
Is acher ingaith innocht
fufuasan fairggae findfolt
ni agor reimm mora minn
dondlaechraid lainn ua
-St. Gall Priscian. Contained in Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus
The Party’s Over
Skellig Michael was most likely inhabited up until the 1500s when Henry 8th dissolved all monasteries, however the area was still used for retreats and pilgrimages and nowadays, of course, many visitors come out to see this spectacular place. And there sure are a lot of us! Our boat was the first to arrive and I was leading the pack for much of the ascent. Looking down, I see another boat has unloaded and has started the climb, another just disembarking and a 3rd, circling the small landing harbour. It may be off the beaten path, but these crowds are starting to beat that path down! I’m frankly surprised they allow so many visitors, especially given the heat and the dry conditions unfavourable for rock preservation. The place is crumbling away in this drought. I am grateful to have had an opportunity to be here, but I hope my presence causes no detrimental effects to this world heritage site. I share the environmental concerns of the National Trust (An Taisce). It’s a incredibly significant place after all.
The Avian Colonies
The Skelligs are home to one of the most important nesting sites for breeding seabirds. Nearly 70,000 gannets nest here on Little Skellig, forming the 2nd largest colony of gannets in the world. With a wingspan of 2m they are Irelands largest seabird. Puffins, arctic terns, black guillemots and herring gulls also call these two rocks home.
The boat slows around the elephant shaped rock of Little Skellig (see the trunk) before dipping around and speeding back towards land. The day was satisfying and I’m thrilled to cross that journey off my bucket list. Incredible.
Back to Reality
On the way back, we discover that our Captain is going out for another trip, with a new load of folks. Since he was our ride back to the hostel, we had to scramble for ideas. The captain left it up to us to ask our boating companions who could give us a lift. Luckily the Americans beside us assured it would be no trouble, as long as we had some food first! All of us had worked up an appetite and a pint and fresh fish and chips was again on the menu, which is definitely my recommended staple diet on the wild west coast of Ireland, especially when you can see the Atlantic from your seat.
Watch the video from my Odyssey to Skellig and check out more images below: