Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Skellig Michael, County Kerry

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If you sail twelve kilometres (eight miles) into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Kerry you can see one of the most remarkable heritage sites in the world – the monastery of Skellig Michael. The site is one of only two of Ireland’s World Heritage Sites (the other is Newgrange), and it is possibly the most rewarding, remarkable, beautiful and atmospheric heritage site in Ireland.

Skellig Michael or Sceilig Mhichíl meaning The Steep Rock of Michael appears like a craggy pyramid standing proud of the ocean. It is formed of the same 400 million year old Old Devonian Sandstone that runs all the way to the MacGillycuddy's Reeks. Perched on top of this craggy island is an early medieval monastery, that legend says was founded by St Fionán in the sixth century.

Going into exile for the love of God (‘peregrinatio pro Dei amore’), has conceptual roots in the belief that greater understanding of God can be achieved by withdrawing from civilization into harsh and isolated regions. In the wonderful RTE Radio Documentary Skelligs Calling, archaeologist Michael Gibbons speaks very eloquently about the possible motivations behind the monks decision to leave the comparative safety and comforts of the mainland to travel to a place of danger and hardship. In these early days of western Christianity, God and the Devil were very real, so for the monks these islands on the edge of the known world, like Skellig Michael, are the places you are likely to encounter the devil to drive him back through prayer before he reached the mainland to corrupt the people and drive them to sin. These islands acted as the equivalent of radar stations or early warning positions, surrounding and protecting the newly Christian Ireland from the depredations of the Devil. 
Life in a community like Skellig Michael must have been contemplative rather than active. Once the building work had been completed there was relatively little for the monks to do – catching seabirds and gathering eggs, fishing, perhaps even hunting seals, maybe a small amount of gardening, there is no firewood or turf on the island, perhaps they had to gather driftwood – so most of their day must have been given to prayer. Though with all the seabirds, eggs, fish and even seals on hand they must have been comparatively well fed compared to some other monastic hermitages.

The monastery is reached by a series of steep stone steps carrying you up 160m to the site. A large stone wall protected the monastery, within which you can find six circular corbelled drystone cells known as clocháins, these are dark inside with little natural light, but they are surprisingly dry and spacious – the largest being around 5m (16 feet) in diameter and 5m (16 feet) high. There are also two corbelled rectangular oratories (small chapels) similar in style to Gallarus Oratory and a later church dedicated to St. Michael. This church is the only one on the island to have been constructed using mortar, this was sampled and returned a radiocarbon date of AD 690–880. 

A number of small outdoor altars in the complex suggest that prayer may have involved a processional aspect, the largest of these altar type structures is known as ‘the Monk’s Graveyard’, it is unknown how many of the monks are actually buried at this spot, but there are around 20 grave slabs, including one with markings that may indicate it is a sundial.
The 'Monk's Graveyard', notice the marks on the graveslab in the foreground, could it be a rudimentary sundail?
There is another small hermitage just below the south peak at the highest point of the island, however I’m afraid we did not chance visiting it, as it is a dangerous place to reach so please do not attempt it unless you are with a suitably qualified and experienced guide with safety equipment.
Plundered by the Vikings twice in the ninth century, it was recorded that Etgal of Skellig Michael was carried off by the Vikings in 824 and died soon after of hunger and thirst. The monastery on Skellig Michael was abandoned in the tenth or eleventh century for a new monastery on the mainland at Ballinaskelligs.

On the return trip from Skellig Michael the boat brings you to Little Skellig, home to tens of thousands of gannets, who wheel and soar around the craggy island, coating it in thick layers of their guano. At the base of Little Skellig intrepid divers may find cannons from an eighteenth century shipwreck, locally known as The Lady Nelson, there are a number of stories about the ship, such as that the ship had a cargo of wine coming from Portugal, and an argument erupted between the ships captain and first mate who had been having an affair with the captains wife, in the heat of the row neither captain nor mate paid attention to the ships course and it struck the Small Skelligs and sank. 

Little Skellig (foreground) with Skellig Michael (background), note all the gannets swirling round the island

Getting There

We took a boat from Portmagee though there are a number of people that can take you out from Ballinskelligs or Valentia too, the journey will cost around €45 per person. (there is no charge on the island) I recommend you bring waterproofs for the boat journey as you can get a decent drenching! The boat takes around 45mins to reach the island and you generally have about two hours on the island itself. The season begins in May and ends in September see for details of when the OPW Guides are present. I’ve been told that June is the best time of year to go as all the Puffins and seabirds are there, they all migrate by the end of August so we only saw gulls and gannets (and three very camera shy seals on Little Skellig)

Safety Warning!


The trip is extremely weather dependent, and a visit is only suitable in calm weather. We were very fortunate with calm dry conditions but I wouldn’t be keen on attempting the steps if they were wet and slippy or in strong gusty winds. The steps themselves can be daunting and unfortunately serious injuries and fatalities have happened on the island, in the perfectly calm day we had there were still one or two places that were a little freaky, so take your time and wear comfortable but sturdy boots. Never walk off the stairs or path as you can dislodge the loose stones that may injure someone below you.

I would not recommend this site for children below the age of around 15, and given the steepness of the steps it requires a reasonable level of fitness and a decent head for heights.

There are no toilet facilities on the island and no rubbish bins. It is a very vulnerable site so please be careful not to disturb any of the structures or flora or fauna.

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