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Ireland’s Skellig Michael: that fantastic, impossible rock

Finally arriving at the 600th step in our climb, we crossed the ridge line to the other face of the crag. Little Skellig surged from the sea before us, framed by the Kerry coastline in the distance and the gray rock and sparse green grass on which we stood, as if the founders had planned their site for the perfect photograph. Three or four now-tiny boats lay offshore awaiting the return of their passengers to the landing. Our path led up a few more steps and passed through an archway in a rough stone wall. A few dozen more paces, and we stood before a low opening in the now massive gray wall. We had arrived at the early medieval monastery high on Ireland’s Skellig Michael.

Skellig Michael Ireland

Christian monks settled on Skellig Michael, eight miles off the Iveragh Peninsula of County Kerry, Ireland, in the 6th century. Over the next six centuries, they occupied a small settlement high up on one of the two peaks of the island, building stout walls and solid buildings–beehive-shaped cells and oratories–as defense against the elements on this isolated and inhospitable spot. Today the island is a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its outstanding universal cultural value. Along with the book of Kells, Skellig Michael is one of the most significant links to the Irish church and culture of the early middle ages. We had seen the Book of Kells during our stay in Dublin; now we sought to explore this rugged, remote island.

Earlier that morning, my wife, Celeste, and I had driven to the pier at Ballinskelligs on the mainland and met Sean Feehan, owner of Feehan’s Boats, who operates several boats specializing in tours of Skellig Michael, as well as fishing and diving in the area. His are two of only 15 boats licensed to land on the island each summer day, with no more than 12 passengers per boat, owing to the fragility of the site. Access to the island is further limited by weather and sea conditions, which cause cancellations on an average of two days a week.

Skellig Michael IrelandAfter an hour’s delay because of the low tide, we watched Ballinskelligs Bay retreating through the propeller spray. Bolus Head with its checkerboard of stone walls and isolated houses slipped by on our right, and we turned our attention towards our destination.

In the distance, two jagged rocks emerged abruptly from the ocean like alpine peaks improbably peering over the horizon. Even at a distance, the island twins differed in appearance. On the left, Skellig Michael was gray-brown with a greenish patina, while the smaller one, Little Skellig, our first destination, shone whitish-gray. To add to the Tolkienesque effect, a cloud of steam seemed to hover over that island.

As we drew closer to the Little Skellig, that shimmering white cloud came into focus. Birds. Thousands of birds, swarming and circling over the island. As we drew closer still, the cause of the snowlike whiteness of the island also became clear. Tens of thousands of birds were perched on every possible ledge and crack on the face of the rock, squawking and chattering. The island is home to a colony of northern gannets said to be one of the largest in the world, as well as populations of Manx shearwaters, storm petrels, puffins, and other sea birds. “Nobody really knows, but they estimate that there are 60,000 pairs of birds nesting on the island,” our boatman said as we moved slowly past the cliffs. Here, about 100 yards offshore, the presence of birds and their guano was obvious to the senses. Imagine a dirty parakeet cage multiplied by 60,000.

091115ireland skellig michael3Landing is prohibited on the Little Skellig, so in a short time we had crossed the mile and a half to Skellig Michael and were docking at Blind Man’s Cove, a deep crevice in the face of the rock. The landing there accommodates only one boat at a time. We quickly unloaded. Our captain told us to be back in 2 1/4 hours. That seemed like plenty of time.

The Lighthouse Road, really a path, leads upward around the periphery of the island to the two lighthouses built in the 1820s. We paused at the inlet of Cross Cove, where various species of birds dart from one perch to another on the sheer rock walls and puffin hatchlings sit within arm’s reach on the ledge by the retaining wall. Skellig Michael’s bird population is large, but nowhere near as overwhelming as the Little Skellig’s.

Soon after Cross Cove, a short flight of rock stairs signals the beginning of the ascent to the monastery. A placard instructs visitors on preserving the island’s ecology and warns that the steps to the top are uneven and have no handrails: there have been serious injuries and even fatalities.

The clock was ticking on our stay, so we started up the steps, divided roughly into three long flights up a steep grassy incline. The climb wasn’t as difficult as I had expected, as the increasingly inspiring views were a distraction. But it was easy to see how a misstep could lead to a serious tumble.

The second flight brought us to Christ’s Saddle, which stretches between the island’s two peaks, affording a view of the sea on both sides of the island. We joined several other groups of climbers having a snack and watching the antics of the birds doing aerial acrobatics. From this vantage point at the very outer edge of Europe, the ocean stretches uninterrupted to North America. Speculation has it that St. Brendan visited Skellig Michael. Had he stood on this spot and wondered what lay out there before embarking on his storied voyage?

My wife suddenly interrupted my reveries. “Hey, we’ve got to get going.” We began the final climb to the monastery.

Skellig Michael Ireland

Passing through the opening in the stone wall, we stood before a small village made completely of flat gray stones—a monochromatic scene given life by occasional patches of green. Straight ahead, entrance to the partially collapsed chapel was barred by metal scaffolding with the puzzling sign “Scaffolding not in use.” To its left, from a raised terrace five igloo-like domes made of layer upon layer of flat stone overlooked the chapel and a smaller oratory.

We rushed to the domes—the beehive cells that were the main attraction of the visit. Ducking down, rubbing against the rough stone as we went, we wriggled into each of the beehive structures and found them larger than they seemed from outside, amazing considering the five-foot thickness of the walls.

After we had explored a bit, one of the island guides invited those present to sit down for an orientation on the site. The monks, she said, had been influenced by the monasticism of the Christian East, transplanted to Gaul, and thence to Ireland. Surprisingly little is known of the history of the monastery or the life of the monks there. They had built the terraces, walls, and buildings from stone they had quarried on the island, using no mortar in the construction. They had also built cisterns to ensure a supply of water. Food, as far as is known, was supplied by vegetables grown in the enclosure’s garden and fish from the surrounding waters. Considering the swarms of birds that make their home on the island, eggs probably were included in the diet.

The island was abandoned in the 1200’s possibly because of deterioration of sea and weather conditions, or because of the political and religious changes that had taken place, namely the Norman occupation of Ireland and the centralizing trends they had imposed on the church. The monks relocated to the Augustinian priory at Ballinskelligs . . . .–

Suddenly I felt Celeste’s hand grasping my arm. “We’re going to be late for the boat. We’ve got to go right now!” she said with alarm. We excused ourselves from the lecture, gathered up our things, and scurried toward the stairs.

Skellig Michael IrelandGoing down the steps was speedier than coming up, and threatened to be much speedier, as I remembered the sign at the beginning of our climb. I tried to temper the need to get to the boat with the need to move deliberately on the uneven steps, made of the same irregular rock slabs as the other structures on the island. Down one flight of steps, down the next. Finally, the bottom. We raced around the base of the island, now ignoring all the things we had found fascinating earlier in the day. At last we arrived at Blind Man’s Cove. But where was our boat?

To our relief, we saw some familiar faces, and learned that it had not yet returned from the fishing expedition offered for those not interested in exploring the island. This gave us time to examine our surroundings, watch and listen to the birds on the cliffs above us, and reflect about the island and those who once lived there.

It is easy to ponder with disbelief on how men could have settled and lived in this place. Was this a peculiarly medieval Irish form of asceticism? Well, not completely. My thoughts went back to a long ago visit to Mount Athos in Greece. Then, a small boat took me past the large, fortress-like monasteries looming over the peninsula’s west coast until I arrived at the pier of St. Anne’s Skete, or small monastery, which perches high up on the side of the mountain near the end of the peninsula. The long climb up meandering steps to this cluster of houses and chapels scattered on the side of the mountain was not made easier by the cold November drizzle. Then, the next day, a walk around the tip of the peninsula brought me to Karoulia, the most remote part of Mt. Athos, where the severe landscape is not very different from that of Skellig Michael. Here small numbers of hermits have lived for centuries in small houses on terraces overlooking the sea. A few tiny houses balance precariously on almost inaccessible ledges on sheer vertical cliffs over an unruly sea. Boats are often unable to pick up or drop off passengers for days on end owing to the turbulent sea. My stay was prolonged for this very reason: morning waves swept completely over the concrete pier making a boat pickup impossible.

So, no. Skellig Michael is not unique. But, as on Athos, it would take a rare type of person to live there.

Skellig Michael Ireland

As my thoughts came back to the here and now, I saw that my wife had struck up a conversation with one of the workers who had been repairing the wall along the Lighthouse Road. “We stay here Monday through Friday, then go home for the weekend,” he said, “but the island guides stay here for 14 days at a stretch. And there’s no running water or electricity.” We watched as a red and white boat pulled up to take him and his colleagues home after their five days on the island. The glass crash of the large black garbage bag thrown unto the boat gave some hint of life on the island without modern entertainment.

Finally our boat arrived. We boarded one by one, jumping on as the boat bobbed up and down, back and forth on the newly turbulent ocean. Finally, everyone was boarded and we backed out of Blind Man’s Cove and followed a course past Little Skellig, past the occasional round orange float marking a lobster pot on the sea floor below, back to Ballinskelligs, perhaps tracing the last journey of the monks as they abandoned the island. Our mood was undoubtedly better than theirs, cheered by the clear sky and bright sunshine, and lightened by the school of dolphins that played alongside our boat.

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