The Skellig Islands

The Island of Skellig Michael,
off the coast of Co. Kerry, Western Ireland

If you’ve ever wondered whether the Celtic world of Tir na n-Og, (the Land of the Ever Young, which lies beyond the setting sun) really does exist, standing on the cliffs of the County Kerry coast watching the sunset over the Skellig Islands will certainly help to make your mind up! On a clear, calm day (which is a rarity), two small jagged black granite cones are silhouetted against the horizon, beyond which is an infinite expanse of golden space. To the rational Western mind of today, America is ‘somewhere 3000 miles west of here’, but to the Celts, this was and still is the land of the setting sun, or the land of eternal youth.

The two jagged black cones are the magical islands of Little Skellig and Greater Skellig, once seen never to be forgotten! Little Skellig, seven miles from the coast, is a haven and sanctuary for seabirds of many kinds. The wild, storm-beaten Greater Skellig, otherwise known as Skellig Michael, nine miles off the coast, embraces the finely preserved remains of the most remote early Celtic monastic community in existence. To look at this uninhabited and treeless island from a distance, rising straight out of the Atlantic ocean like a small volcano, you would think there was no conceivable way that anyone could possibly have lived here, yet soon after 600 AD intrepid Irish monks, true to their love of remote and desolate places where they could establish communities for prayer and meditation, defied all odds (and almost the laws of gravity as well!) by building a settlement of stone beehive huts within a walled enclosure on a ledge almost 600 ft above the ocean. The logistics of building this settlement has to be one of the most extraordinary feats of sheer will -power and ascetic dedication in the early Celtic Christian world.

To imagine living on Skellig Michael for a week is daunting enough for most of us, taking into consideration the raging Atlantic storms that perpetually batter the island, the complete lack of trees and shrubs, and the acutely steep angle at which it rises out of the sea. Yet for over 200 years this was home to Irish monks, who brought much of their building material across from the mainland in tiny coracles or hide-covered boats, carrying it up precariously steep and slippery steps cut into the side of the rock-face, to the settlement 600 ft above. It would have been possible to keep a few hardy goats on the island, and surprisingly there is a small freshwater well close to the settlement. Otherwise that food which was not brought from the mainland must have consisted mostly of fish and sea bird’s eggs. It is said that the monks actually brought soil over from the mainland and carried it in bags on their backs right up to the settlement to establish a small vegetable garden, but due to the extreme climate the produce yielded must have been minimal.

After over 200 years of an existence that was nothing short of miraculous on this bleak granite cone, it is recorded that marauding Vikings invaded the community in the year 823. The abbot, by the name of Eitgall, was dragged down to their boats, chained up and left to starve to death for the amusement of his captors. Those few monks who managed to escape slaughter by hiding in crevices on the island must have been mortified to discover that the Vikings had sunk all their coracles before departing. Subsequently there was no way back to the mainland, and when food supplies finally ran out the remaining monks also starved to death. The community was never re-established, and today the only building on the island is a lighthouse, whose occupants during the later years of this century had their food delivered by helicopter, and took advantage of daily radio contact with the mainland. Not quite the same as rowing nine hazardous miles in a fragile coracle!

For centuries after the demise of the monks Skellig Michael was seen as the most sacred of pilgrimage sites, and hardy individuals or small groups managed to make the crossing to the holy island. Today, with modern motor boats (and a careful eye on the weather forecast) pilgrims are able once more to land on the island and make the precarious ascent to the monastic settlement. Here follows a personal account of one such recent journey.

‘From Glendalough we travelled south to Kilkenny where we spent one night.Then we passed on through Killarney’s lakes and fells, on towards Kerry, and the little town of Cahirseveen, where we had planned to spend a few days, in the hope that, weather permitting, we might visit Skellig Michael. It was quite late when we eventually arrived at ‘Valentia View’, a charming old-style farmhouse overlooking Valentia Island. Next morning, after breakfast, we set off with great excitement for Portmagee, a tiny fishing port a few miles along the coast, from where small motor boats leave for the Skelligs. Arriving at Portmagee, we quickly parked the car and went in search of Murphy’s cottage, where we paid for the boat trip. Then, with some time to spare, we wandered down to the harbour, ordered a coffee from the local pub, and sat outside while mixed feelings of anticipation and apprehension coursed through us as we contemplated this pilgrimage to Skellig Michael, this bleak granite rock standing nine miles out to sea.

Just before eleven o’clock Frank Muphy hailed us, and with five other passengers we clambered aboard his small motor boat. I gave thanks that we had been blessed with a beautiful summer day - blue skies and most of all, a calm sea! En route we passed Puffin island, where we were greeted by flocks of gannets and puffins, plunging, diving and wheeling overhead in wild excitement. Then, as we approached the smaller of the two Skellig rocks we saw what appeared from a distance to be limestone, but what was, in fact, thousands of nesting gannets and gulls. As we came nearer to the island we were spellbound by the number of seals, contentedly basking at the base of this bold rock which stands in the middle of the ocean. Skellig Michael, which now loomed clearly ahead, the larger of these two rock-like islands, rises a sheer eight hundred feet (260m approx) from the sea. We sailed round to the western side, to a small landing stage built into the rock. After saying farewell to our boatman, who was returning later to collect us, we then began the slow, steep climb to the peak of the rock, in search of the monastic settlement which had, amazingly been established here in the 7th century and where Celtic monks had lived for long periods.

At the beginning of the ascent the path was narrow, gently spiralling upwards. Then, rounding a bend, we were faced with steps hewn out of the rock, rising higher and higher. Every now and then we would stop to watch the many puffins nesting between the steps and boulders, or to gaze in wonder at the ocean all around us, and the phenomenal rock formations. Just as our legs were beginning to feel the strain of the climb, we arrived at a green, grassy ledge. It was like a large, shallow basin wedged between the rocks - the ideal place to rest and eat our picnic lunch! So we unloaded our packs, found a boulder for a backrest, sat down and tucked into the most delicious lunch that our hostess had prepared for us. It was a beautiful spot - a little oasis!

Refreshed, we were now ready and eager to continue the climb towards the monastery - of which there was still no sign!. The steps became steeper, the path narrower, and at nearly every corner there was a sheer drop. Unwisely at one of those corners I stopped and looked down. What a mistake. All the old fears and nightmares of the past swept through me and I stood rooted to the spot, trembling from head to toe.

After what seemed an eternity, and several prayers, I said to my husband ‘I will be alright, keep going and I’ll follow slowly behind’. When we finally arrived at the top of the rock and saw what lay before us, we were completely awe-struck. It was like having climbed up ladders to a loft, and on reaching the top rung, to discover a completely new world before you - perhaps a bit like going through C.S Lewis’s wardrobe again! In front of us lay a monastic settlement, enclosed by stone walls dating back to the seventh century. Within the enclosure stood a number of beehive huts built of dry stone, in which the monks had lived, and two small chapels where they had worshipped. We stood there transfixed. I don’t think we moved until I became aware that tears were running down my cheeks.

* The beehive cells were very well preserved. Inside, they were entirely dry. As we wandered around the site, exploring the cells and the ruins of the chapels, where part of the Celtic cross still stands, there was an overwhelming feeling of God’s presence, and we marvelled that man could build a settlement in such a wild and isolated place. How did they survive? On fish, or gull’s eggs? And did they perhaps grow herbs and vegetables on the small grassy ledge where we had picnicked, and maybe keep a few goats and chickens for milk and meat? (Goats most probably, but chickens unlikely as the ferocity of winter storms would have either sent them rapidly to a watery grave or blown them right back to the mainland..Ed)

Both the ascent and descent from the monastery were tortuous at times, but well worth the effort. Near the landing stage our boatman was patiently waiting for us. When we were all aboard, he started the engine, and soon we were riding across the sea, which had become a little choppy. It was around 4pm when we arrived at Portmagee, and as the day was still beautiful and sunny we decided to drive round the Skellig Ring. The views were breathtaking. We finally stopped at a cottage tea-room, and sitting outside on a hillside overlooking the sea it began to feel as though we were living in a dream world, for in the distance we could see Skellig Michael and our thoughts went back to our experience there. Dream or no dream, it is a pilgrimage that we will always remember.'

- © Joan Bardsley