Located 13km off Valentia Island on the Atlantic coast of county Kerry are two jagged rocks (Skellig Michael and Little Skellig) that shoot 200m into the sky and have a very special place in Irish history. Recent filming on the ‘Skelligs’ for the latest Star Wars movie will no doubt catapult these mystical rocks into the global domain but if by any chance you find yourself in West Kerry and get the opportunity to head further west and onto Skellig Michael- take it. George Bernard Shaw wrote of it in 1910 “I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived in: It is part of the dream world”.
To get to the island one must book one off the local ferry boats atleast a day in advance and hope that the weather and in particular the seas will allow you get to your destination. Booking the boats is a simple phone call and there are a number of operators, all advertised on the internet, running small boats to the Skelligs from the village of Portmagee. The boats usually depart at 9.30am and the 45 minute ride will take you to Skellig Michael. Off course if you are travelling with trekkingtrutime (www.trekkingtrutime.com) our adventures include a guided visit of these remarkable Islands.
Notorious swells make landing at Skellig Michael only possible when the seas are relatively calm and even then involves a leap (literally) of faith to reach dry land. Once landed though you are ensured a memorable experience. A narrow roadway winds up from the harbour and leads to a series of 600 stone steps cut into the cliff edge that bring you to the monastic treasure of Skellig Michael. The islands have been designated a world heritage site since 1996 and today visits to Skellig Michael during the summer months are overseen by a number of helpful guides.
Believed to have been inhabitated since the 6th century Skellig Michael represents an Island hermitage removed from the rest of the world. The practice of isolating oneself from society was not new in the early christian world as we know from St. Anthony, St Jerome and others (commonly known as the desert fathers) venturing out into the deserts of Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries to remove themselves from the world and devote all of their daily lives to worship, prayer and contemplation. Skellig Michael- a jagged rock- located deep in the Atlantic ocean provided the ultimate statement in removing oneself to live a life of what must have amounted to extreme hardship. Here over a number of centuries lived a community of monks -and today their stone beehive shaped huts huddled together on the cliff edge are a testament to their lives. The main site consists of six corbelled beehive huts, two boat shaped oratories, the ruins of the medieval church as well as an arrangement of stone crosses. A second hermitage site is located on the island’s southern pinnacle.
Having struggled up the 600 steps you are presented with a large fortress like wall of dry-stone that enclosed the community that once inhabitated this bare rock. A narrow lintelled doorway gives access, through the wall, initially to a terraced rock that appears to have functioned as a garden, and then to the stone huts that represent the places of refuge, habitation and worship. It is hard to imagine that people actually managed to survive living here with little but rock battered by winds and waves for most parts of the year. Fresh water was collected by the monks and no doubt their diet was meagre and must have included both fish and the birds that still play such a dominant role on the islands today.
While the Skelligs are famous for their remarkable monument perched high on the rocks they are equally famous for the the vast array of birds found perched throughout both islands. The approach to Small Skellig can seem almost ‘out of this world’ with over 20,000 gannet pairs vying for position on the open rock face. However amazing you consider the gannets it is the image of the puffins ambling around Skellig Michael that confirms the uniqueness of this wonderful place. Arriving back to the Skelligs in late March each year the puffins spend a short while in the water before descending on the island in mid-April and remaining there until the middle of August. Nesting in holes and rabbit burrows the birds depart in mid-August as suddenly as they arrived. Their presence enhances the island experience and adds to its dream like status..
Skellig Michael is also the location of two lighthouses -constructed there in the early part of the 19th century and operated by fulltime crews. Manning the lighthouses must have been especially hazardous in winter gales and there are a number of deaths recorded. In 1900 the lighthouse families were moved to the mainland but it wasn’t until 1987 that the lighthouse was fully automated signalling the end of an era.