Summer weather was at its best while we were driving south along the Ring of Kerry, which is also a stage of the famous Wild Atlantic Way with sea-salted shores and blowing winds.
The scenery was breath-taking – it was like stepping into a picture book. Our destination, the Skellig Islands, lie 12 km off the Kerry coast and the boats there depart from Portmagee and Ballinskelligs. The Islands are actually two very steep rocks, protruding proudly out of the wild roaring Atlantic. Skellig Michael, which peaks at 217 metres above sea level, was the home of a group of 13 monks in the sixth century AD. This monastic settlement became then designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. The smaller island, Little Skellig, which is a haven to various seabirds, has the second largest gannet colony in the world.
“You can do Ireland in a day, but you really only do Valentia properly in a lifetime”
 Karen O’Connell (2018). “Explore Valentia”. In: Valentia Island. Come on in. Valentia Island Development Company.
We had booked our B&B on Valentia Island – one of Ireland’s most picturesque westerly points. It lies off the Iveragh Peninsula in the southwest of County Kerry and is accessible either by the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge from Portmagee and by car ferry from Renard Point, Cahersiveen, which operates from April to October. The ferry crossing takes around 5 minutes. After a night-sea journey from Wales, and having travelled across a large piece of Ireland, from Rosslare, we felt only like going to bed. B&B (like the very few houses scattered around the island) was an isolated and charming place of the home-stay atmosphere of remote villages.
Out of reach …
We were planning to take our Skellig Michael landing tour in one day and I was praying just for god weather conditions as the landing on the rock is always subject to this natural factor and the Irish weather is really unpredictable… We arrived in Ireland at the end of July having had the visit booked already at the beginning of May, as one must do it much in advance before heading off to the Skelligs. It was in 2015, just before the Star Wars’ Episode VIII was filmed at its top and Luke Skywalker won its place on the island, removing its real and fascinating characters in the shadow. Due to that, nowadays it is even more difficult to land on the island as there are hordes of Star Wars’ fans and thus government restrictions are applied now more than ever, not to mention a very high price for this major tourist attraction that could be the highlight of every holiday.
First of all, tours with landing can only be taken from May to September. All bookings are usually taken online with no waiting list. If there is a cancellation the spots automatically become available again on the booking page, which happens very rarely. There is one trip per day for this tour departing at approximately 9:00 am daily, usually from Portmagee Marina (depending on the tour operator) if the sea and weather conditions are suitable. As I have mentioned, availability for this tour is very limited so you really need to book well, well, well long … in advance: there is a maximum of four persons per booking and the tour itself is not suitable for children under 12 years of age.
When I am looking at the availability now, I can see the whole season is nearly booked out (there is only one date available!) Also you would require a reasonable amount of fitness to undertake climbing the rock at its summit. In case your boat tour is cancelled, you can take instead a tour around two islands but without landing …
In the morning of the tour day, our B&B’s hostess welcomed us with a wide smile assuring us the boats were going to departure. I also responded with a beaming smile and came back to my full Irish breakfast composed of crumbled eggs, fried sausages, crunchy toasts and milky butter. I had already phoned my tour operator and he assured me the weather would be perfect for our journey.
‘Would you like some pudding?’, – the hostess asked. ‘I’ve got delicious black and white pudding if you wish’.
‘I’d love to’ – my friend said in Polish – ‘I feel like having something sweet …’
Pudding is a type of food that can be either a dessert or a savoury dish, which comes from French boudin, meaning ‘small sausage’. My friend who shudders at any kind of red meat definitely was for the first option, whereas the hostess had meant the second one. When my friend finally found out, she refused point-blank to try anything of that kind.
Off we go …
Good walking shoes, mostly hiking boots with an ankle support, and waterproof clothes are essential for the tour! The boats are small fishing vessels and the open sea crossing takes approximately 45 minutes.
Rough seas make you get soaked to the skin, even if a day is full of sunshine. The boats are being constantly hit by high waves and so it’s quite unstable as the boats are rocking all the time. Hence it may be a very difficult experience for people who are prone to seasickness. The site is also difficult to walk around, as well as may pose problems for anyone with a fear of heights. There are no visitors’ facilities of any kind on the island, such as toilets or a shelter. This is a bare and high rock exposed to the weather. Make sure you bring with you enough food and water. All your stuff should be packed in one small backpack to allow your hands to be free while climbing up and down the steep staircases.
A camera should be with you but only hung around your neck. Sun cream is also very important. Even if the sky seems cloudy, there’s enough sunlight reflecting from the water to cause sunburns. While our cruise to the Skelligs, the sky was completely covered in grey clouds. On the island there was already the sun and on our way back I got a strong sunburn on my face. After drinking a pint of Guinness in the end, my face looked like a red berry on the background of green Ireland. Well, it’s not to discourage you, just let you know what you can expect … One more thing! Once landed on the island beware of seagulls and albatross hunting for meal! It can be your sandwich or a cookie you have just grabbed in your mouth … You may have a literally close encounter with a huge bird flying onto your face. As I did myself!
Without a doubt, one of the most graceful and friendliest bird visiting the Skelligs is a puffin. They arrive and breed on the island from March to early August. It’s a cute, colourful seabird with a huge, yellow-reddish beak and curious eyes. While the birds are walking around, they look like black-white balls rolling down the hill. It’s really worth seeing!
Just before our heading off, there was a warm shower. I sat by the side of my friends, back to other people. We were eight altogether, not counting two men, probably fishermen driving the boat. Although it was a rather wet and rough journey, I really enjoyed it. This is one of these moments you may really feel a unique atmosphere of ancient Ireland. We were on the open sea and our crossing seemed to go on forever. I also thought about ancient monks and pilgrims who must have made just the same distance in simple boats – coracles, and without modern navigation devices down the centuries. I wondered how many of them had survived.
The Loneliest Place on Earth
Two black pinnacles of pointed rocks thrust out into the Atlantic Ocean. The smaller of these two is known as Lesser Skellig, which is home to a great number of gannets, and grey seals lying airily on their backs and enjoying the warmth of the summer sun. Visitors cannot land on it as it is the birds’ reservation. The larger island and our destination is called Great Skellig or Skellig Michael. The latter name probably originates from a legend saying that St. Patrick once saw the Archangel Michael hovering over the island. Here, in the wilderness of the Atlantic Ocean and isolated from the comfort of the mainland, early Christian hermits lived for centuries fighting with natural forces and invaders coming from the sea – the Vikings.
Their harsh life many a time is similar led by Christian monks in Egypt who started this kind of an isolated existence, dedicated to God – monasticism. I believe that in their desire to imitate the lives of the Egyptian Fathers, Irish monks found their substitute for the desert in the sea and ocean. On numerous islands like Aran, Inishkea North, Duvillan, Iona, or Skellig Michael, Christian Celtic monks were looking for their own desert. Just like an Egyptian desert of the Coptic hermits, an ocean is huge, desolated and deprived of sweet water. On the other side, it must have seemed attractive, unknown, inhabited by fantastic monsters, and so became an escape from the earthly world. The ocean has been a symbol of trial, weakness, heroism, and as in the unfriendly desert, the help of God becomes indispensable there.
The waters were calm on the open sea but as we were getting closer to the rising pyramid of the rock, the waves became stronger fiercely crushing against the shore. Our drives moored the boat properly and we carefully climbed out of it. The rock-solid land beneath my feet seemed to jump up and down as much as our boat. I looked upwards at this soaring rocky sanctuary covered in a green coat, and I could just felt the loneliness of this place fulfilled with the ghosts of the wandering monks.
Soon we reached the staircase of ancient rock-cut steps made by the hermits and polished by countless pilgrims’ feet. There are over 600 uneven and steep stairs leading up to the monastery. I felt my great respect for the monks who chose this remote island for their home. It called for extraordinary self-discipline and great courage. As modern pilgrims, we entered into the monks’ enclosure almost suspended in the sky. The views were stunning!
We passed through a low archway breaking the silence of the past. A small monastic garden sheltered around with rough stones. Another archway led us higher to the tiny chapel and a cluster of dry-stone beehive huts look like bulbs or swallows’ nests clinging to the rock. These extraordinary shelters are circular from the outside but square in the inside. Perhaps the hermitage on the Skellig has preserved the original pattern of monastic buildings, existing once at monastic sites on the mainland. The beehive huts resemble the stle of stone constructions of the neolithic period typical to insular tradition.
However, after some researchers, the shape of these monastic structures was reminiscent of the monastic areas in Egypt. Desert fathers built similar huts in the shape of bee hives, most often from silt, initially in isolation, later probably in order to provide themselves with greater security and mutual support, they began to gather in small communities, putting together a number of such structures. Before the belly-like huts became the home of the hermits, they had been first simple houses. Similar constructions are traditional for the desert regions of the Middle East and for millennia they have been used as such by the rural community, such as by one in the territories of today’s Syria, in the town of Sarouj.
There are dry-stone cells, a square oratory, a church dedicated to St. Michael, two small wells for collecting fresh water, and a miniature graveyard of those who lived and died on the island. I learnt that there were apparently thirteenth hermits occupying the monastic sites, which is a symbolical number that stands for twelve apostles led by Jesus Christ. One legend – a treasury of knowledge on the past – ascribes the founding of the monastery to St. Fionan in the sixth century. Still the first historical reference goes back to the fifth century and says of the King of West Munster being pursued by Oengus, King of Cashel. The former fled to Scellec (Sceillic), which means a steep rock. Hence the name f the islands. In the following years, there were three recorded attacks on the monastery by the Vikings who put many monks to death. During one of them, the Abbot, called Eitgall was chained up and starved to death to amuse his captors. Some monks escaped slaughter by hiding in rocky crevices, still they were left on the rock without their coracles burnt by the leaving Vikings.
To my surprise, one story says that King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway met there a hermit who impressed him so much that he became baptized. After his return to Scandinavia, he is said to have introduced Christianity there before he died in the year 1000 AD. The Skellig monastery had greatly flourished since the sixth century and lasted famous till the twelfth century, when the Celtic Church was overtaken by the Church in Rome and the meaning of monasticism started long ago by Coptic hermits ceased. What is more, around 1200 AD, the climate had changed. Cold weather and fierce storms made the island even more inhospitable than before. As a result the monks moved to Ballinskelligs Bay on the mainland leaving behind their desolate rock.
It was not until the late tenth century or early eleventh as the monastery is first referred to as Skellig Michael in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. Probably, the small church dedicated to St Michael was built at that time. Its architecture is thus different from the earlier dry-stone constructions built by the monks. It is believed to have had a hollow stone of miraculous properties fixed to its wall. Some scholars consider the Libellus de Fundacione Ecclesie Consecrati Petri from the mid thirteenth century to be one of the most important written sources on Skellig Michael. The manuscript originates from the Consecratus Petrus, an Irish Monastery in Regensburg, in Bavaria. Since the seventh century on, the Irish monks had been travelling to the mainland, founded monastic sites and preached … but it is another story … Anyway, the manuscript reveals a tale from Irish Monks in medieval Germany. It provides a context for its dedication to Archangel Michael.
As the story goes Ireland suffered under a plague of demons, dragons, serpents and toads. People called upon St Patrick who banished the demons to the highest mountain (Skellig), cutting off all access for safety. Still, the evil was still present there. St Patrick then raised his arms in invocation and suddenly, the skies illuminated. Out in the Ocean, on top of Great Skellig, stood Archangel Michael with the host of angels surrounding him. Angelic forces battled with the demons and eventually cast them into the Ocean. Eventually, the angels returned to Great Skellig, and from the peak, Archangel Michael ascended back to heaven, leaving his miracle-working shield behind.
It was the early Christian age of Skellig. The pagan one is even more hidden in the misty legends of Irish history. Unfortunately, such records are usually treated as purely mythical, without historical value. According to them, the fabled rulers of Ireland – Tuatha de Danaan, once used their magical powers to overcome new invaders (1400 BC). They caused a shipwreck and brought death to two sons of the invaders’ leader – Milesius. Skellig became a burial place to one of the brothers, who was called Irr. Another legendary visitor was Daire Domhain – the King of the World, who stayed on Skellig in around 200 AD before attacking the mainland. Irish stories are full of legends of old and new invaders, of victors and defeated.
Skellig Michael is the last of three islands dedicated to St Michael I have seen. All of them lie on the same invisible path, aligned to the direction of 60 degrees NW-SE. The so-called Apollo/St Michael Axis stretches further south-east to run not only across the tree islands but also two Archangel’s monasteries suspended high in the mountains, and finally reaches the sites in Greece, dedicated to Apollo, the pagan counterpart of Archangel Michael.
Featured image: Little Skellig seen from the Skellig Michael. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Ecole France Langue, Paris; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.