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A pilgrim journey to the Skellig Isles


Ten pilgrims, a small boat and a distant island… Eight miles off the coast of County Kerry the stark pointed rock of Skellig Michael explodes out of a 280 foot deep sea and soars up a further 720 feet. For years Great Skellig, the larger of two adjacent islands, was home to perhaps the most isolated Christian community the world has ever known.

Pilgrims take risks – the Christian journey is an adventure! Marooned on an island, becalmed on a boat without fuel, towed to land by the rival firm! Our previous trip to these shores had been a time of high adventure… But on this particular June morning, with the sun shining and a well equipped boat waiting to whisk us off to the Skelligs, there could be no thought of such daring escapades… ‘to be sure, you could almost see the islands from the harbour…’

Gathering on the quayside at Knightstown on Valentia Island we looked around for our hire boat. A passer-by waved us in the direction of several craft moored beyond the Clock tower. Which one could be ours? The elegant twin-hull with wooden deck, covered cabin and rather nice seating – about forty feet long she looked just right. Another, slightly smaller and red, would certainly do. Perhaps it was boat number three, a newer vessel with chrome railings, upper deck and dazzling array of aerials – although we suspected this belonged to the survey team working in the channel. We settled on boat number two and started to search for the skipper… “Hi, are you the pilgrim group going to Skellig Michael?” We turned and looked across the quay to a man dressed in sea denims aged about forty-five. “The boat’s over here.”

We crossed the tarmac quay and looked down into the water – there was nothing visible above the quay.  A small open boat, maybe twenty feet long bobbed about below… we looked at each other. No-one said a word… thoughts of Captain Bligh cast adrift from the Bounty, or Robin Knox-Johnson rowing the Atlantic came to mind. Still, the skipper, we’ll call him Diormot, was likeable enough and as we putt-putted our way along the channel toward the open sea he managed to put us at ease with stories of life in the West, of cutting turf and the sending of the first telegraph message to America. The wind was slight and the sky blue with occasional clouds drifting over the hills. Maybe our trip wouldn’t be too bad after all…

“Pass the cover, put this over your legs, here comes another…” CRASH! A wave broke over the bows and sent several gallons of salty water across the wooden deck. “I’m told if you keep your eyes on the horizon you won’t feel sick,” a pilgrim voice called from one corner of the boat. We all clung to the horizon trying not to be the first to disprove his theory. And all the while, out there on the horizon, the distant peaks of Skellig Michael and its sister island, Little Skellig, seemed to remain as far off as ever…

It must have taken hours – but Diormot assured us it was only two “and that wasn’t bad” – before the boat eventually jostled its way alongside the jetty at the base of the rock. Wobbly, but relieved, we made our way from the boat up the relatively new concrete steps to the top of the landing stage. Diormot said we had no more than three hours as the weather was turning. Somehow I didn’t think it was for the better!

Skellig Michael is a remarkable place. An imposing ‘rock’ of some forty-two acres, it attracts up to 50,000 breeding birds each year – puffin, kittiwake, manx-sheerwater, storm petrels, razorbills. Human habitation on the rock goes back thousands of years. Legend has it that Ir, the son of Milesius, leader of the Mlesians, first invaders of Ireland, died on the rock in 1300 BC. In 856 AD Olaf Trigussaon, the heir to the throne of Norway, was born and baptised here… and before that during the sixth century St. Finan and his monks chose Skellig, ‘the shining rock,’ as the site for their monastery.

Climbing skyward the enormity of the task facing those early Christian settlers became apparent. This is a harsh environment – a small steep-sided island, with little vegetation, open to the full force of the Atlantic. Amazingly, the location chosen for the monastery lies just below the summit on a ledge facing east, 650 feet above sea level! It is a truly salutary experience to stand among the well preserved beehive huts and walk the narrow stone pathways of this tiny ‘village in the sky’. What God, what presence of mind inspired man to live here…?

Returning to the jetty, mindful of each step as we negotiated the precarious, ancient stone stairway, occasionally drawing eye to eye with a Puffin making its nest along the lee side of the path, we began to straggle out, with the more agile finding time to make a detour to the highest peak – an alarming climb that took the intrepid pilgrims up through a stone ‘chimney’ with hand holes and steps cut into the face of the rock and up two grassy gulleys, until eventually, out on top, a large rocky outcrop was visible, with a rusted weather-vane set into it – this was definitely not a place for anyone nervous of heights! On a small platform immediately underneath the peak one monk had lived his solitary life of prayer. The remains of his cell and grave are still to be seen.

Diormot had the engine running and was awaiting our arrival. “Put these on” he called, handing out oilskins, “you might need them!”

Clad in our new outer layer, and covered from the waist down by a ribbon-like blanket of canvas, we sat around the edge of the boat, waiting for the worst. Diormot at the front of the boat facing the open sea, had his back to us so we couldn’t see his face, but I could tell by the way he gripped the wheel that he was almost as apprehensive about the crossing as we were. Friendly nervous banter tried to keep spirits afloat as we inched away from the shelter of the rock. But with the first lunge of the boat as it began to fight its way through the green heaving waves, the banter ceased and the steely expression of people about to experience a disaster returned…

An hour out with the boat rising and falling with increasing vigour, a strange calm descended. Difficult to describe, it was almost as though the boat and its passengers had become one with the elements. Together we were cutting a safe passage… There was a sense of time and timelessness, of early pilgrims with us, battling their way to and from that remote outpost ‘on the edge of the world’.

We were caught up in the pilgrim experience. We felt close to God, the elements and fellow pilgrims stretching back to who knows when. We were on a journey but we were not alone – it was a great feeling.

Feel like making a pilgrimage yourself? Find out more here.

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