A little over seven miles (11.6 km) from the western shore of Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, in the rough Atlantic ocean, sits an amazing island by the name of Skellig Michael. This other-worldly place is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site List due to its uniqueness and cultural significance.
Founded sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, Skellig Michael (or Great Skellig) was originally inhabited continuously by Christian monks until the 12th or 13th centuries.
In order to live a life of servitude and solitude, these monks (it appears no more than twelve at any given time) would climb into a wooden currach (a type of wooden Irish boat with the bottom covered with stretched animal skin and fitted with a small mast and sail) and either row the seven miles from shore to the island or if they were fortunate enough to have favorable winds whisk them along on their treacherous journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Once established on the island, the monks built rock stairs leading from the sea to six hundred feet above where they built their settlement. The six beehive cells constructed were for living and shelter purposes, two monks in a cell at a time. Two oratories and a church were also built on the site, as well as a graveyard. All the structures were built using a technique known as dry stone construction, which essentially means that gravity is holding the stones in place and has been for a long, long time.
Emily and I were fortunate enough to have a wonderful host at our Waterville bed and breakfast (many thanks to Margaret Brown and The Old Cable Historic House). The tours sell out quickly, so during our pre-arrival communications I had mentioned to Mrs. Brown that visiting Skellig Michael would be a nice way to spend a day near Waterville. Margaret was kind enough to set up a tour to Skellig Michael with John O’Shea, a local tour guide who left from the much quieter Derrynane Harbor (instead of the more popular Portmagee). She followed up with Mr. O’Shea after we arrived to make sure the weather conditions were safe for us to take his boat out to the island.
We arrived at the Derrynane Harbor bright and early, ready for an adventure. Our boat L’Oursin (French for Sea Urchin) arrived and our captain John O’Shea and his two small dogs welcomed us onboard. Every year, just thirteen boat operators are given permission to actually dock briefly and unload passengers onto Skellig Michael between April and October. The boats with permission to dock are smaller crafts and can only seat twelve passengers. Other, bigger boat tours will take you out and around the Skelligs, but cannot land or allow their passengers to disembark on the island. John O’Shea, his dogs and L’Oursin out of Derrynane harbor have permission that allowed us the opportunity of a lifetime.
The boat ride was slow and long, roughly two hours to get out to the Skellig Islands. Mr. O’Shea was not much of a talker, so I had to find entertainment watching the sea birds soaring above us and floating below us, as well as one of the other passengers fighting off sea-sickness (which she fought valiantly, poor girl).
Once we arrived at Skellig Michael, we watched a few boats ahead of us in the queue pull next to the pier, drop off their passengers and pull out of there within a matter of minutes. When it was our turn the captain showed us how to safely get off the rocking boat and onto the really narrow, wet stairs. Nervous as heck, I waited my turn. Timing the ebb and flow of the sea with the boat and the cement pier I eventually stepped onto island without slipping, falling or making a scene of any fashion. After he got everybody off the boat safely, John O’Shea pulled away from the pier and headed out to sea for the duration of our visit on the island.
Before you can safely explore the island, everyone is given a fifteen minute safety briefing. The gentleman in charge gives you an idea of what to expect from that point on during your two-hour stay. He covered the fact that this is a protected site and there are hundreds of sea birds on the island that are not to be disturbed in any way. He mentioned that people are not allowed to eat or smoke in the ruins (which we saw people doing anyway) and that they had a designated area for those activities. The gentleman mentioned the fact that the stone stairs we were about to ascend were from the 6th to 8th century and could be slightly loose, so we were to mind our step carefully and go slowly. Most importantly, he mentioned that the island had no restroom facilities.
After the briefing we were allowed to ascend the six hundred feet of homemade stone staircase to the monastic settlement. The top of the island was covered in clouds, so the journey upwards was made more mysterious.
Along the way, we saw hundreds of puffins and gannets. I also happened to catch a glimpse of a rabbit, so wildlife was abundant on the island…in certain forms.
Up at the top of the stairs, there were two guides answering questions and talking about the history of the island, the monks, and the settlement. It was a bit crowded with tourists, but I patiently found ways to take pictures without extra bodies in the way. We walked around the amazing structures and tried to get a sense of how secluded and resourceful the original settlers must have been. It is almost impossible to imagine what these men were thinking when they decided to populate this island and make it their home and place of worship.
We ate a quick lunch where we were allowed to, covered in clouds and then began our slow descent back to the pier. I’m not sure which was harder on my body, the slow, careful hike up or the slow, careful walk back down the rail-less staircase.
Our group of visitors were on it, unlike other boat tours out there that day. We all arrived back at the pier at the appropriate time and L’Oursin swooped in quickly to get us all off the island. Once we pulled away from Skellig Michael, but before we began our journey back to to Derrynane, we had a detour to make. The detour’s name was Little Skellig.
Little Skellig is the smaller of the two Skellig Islands (aptly named). It is an island inhabited by thousands and thousands of seabirds, mostly gannets. From a distance the island looked like it had snow capped peaks, but as we got closer I realized the white “snow” was birds and their poop. We got close enough to the island so that we could smell the stench of bird filth and were easily within the target range of poop falling from the sky. It was an amazing sight, but not something I would do again without an umbrella. There were seals around Little Skellig as well, and they were a curious bunch. As soon as one came up to see what was going on, three more would pop their heads above water to catch a glimpse of us. Seals are the meerkats of the oceans.
The ride back was a bit more eventful than the ride out. Apparently, while we were exploring Skellig Michael, the boat’s captain, John O’Shea was fishing. On the way back to Derrynane, he filleted a few cod, breaded them lightly and baked them in an oven he had in his wheelhouse. That fish was so damn delicious it completely made me forget the two-hour ride out and the two-hour ride back to civilization.
We spent a quick two hours on Skellig Michael, but in that short amount of time the mysterious island made a lasting impression on me. I hope to go back at some point in my life, but if I that opportunity does not arise I know that it is one place I will never forget.
Apparently, JJ Abrams has recently used Skellig Michael as a location to film some scenes for the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII. So if I never make it back, I hope they catch a hint of the island’s beauty and mystique.