The Skelligs / Na Scealaga are dramatic islets of needle-sharp rocks rising from the Atlantic about 12km / 5mi off the Iveragh Peninsula. Despite their vaguely volcanic appearance, they are in fact made of the same 350-million-year-old Devonian Sandstone as most of this part of Co. Kerry. Wisps of cloud often cling to the pinnacles, making the islands resemble ships steaming out into the ocean.
The two main islands and the islets and rocks nearby hold nationally important populations of fulmars, black-legged kittiwakes, razorbills and common guillemots; storm petrels and Manx shearwaters also nest in large numbers. Thousands of Atlantic puffins summer on the islands. Smaller numbers of choughs and peregrine falcons can also be seen. Depending on the time of year, dolphins, porpoises, basking sharks, Minke whales, and leatherback turtles can be spotted in the surrounding waters. Seals can often be seen hauled up on the rocky ledges at the foot of the cliffs. The islands have many interesting dive sites due to the clear water, abundance of life and underwater cliffs down to 60 m / 200ft.
The Skelligs are mentioned several times in Irish mythology. The Milesians were supposedly shipwrecked here nearly 3,400 years ago, and the King of the World is reputed to have visited the islands in the year 200 AD.
Sceilg Bheag (Little / Small Skellig) is white primarily due to the second largest gannetry in the world, with about 27,000 birds. Landing is virtually impossible, and is anyway forbidden by law.
Sceilg Mhichíl / Skellig Michael / Great Skellig is the site of a strikingly austere monastic settlement founded by Saint Finian in 588 AD on Christ’s Saddle, the relatively flat area beneath the higher peak, called the Needle’s Eye. The community comprised about 12 monks and an abbot. These extraordinarily ascetic hermits dwelt in tiny clochain, mortarless but rainproof stone beehive huts perched near the top of the nearly vertical cliffs, reached by steps cut into the rock. They spent their lives in solitary prayer and meditation, meeting once a day for Scripture readings or Mass in the simple Oratory, and otherwise only crossed paths on the way to tend their meagre terraced vegetable patches or engage in occasional communal tasks of building and maintenance.
The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 as “being an exceptional, and in many respects unique example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe“.
In this context, the dedication of Skellig Michael, Mont Sant Michel in Normandy and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall to the Archangel Michael is clearly more than mere coincidence.
George Bernard Shaw, who visited the island in 1910, wrote: “But for the magic that takes you out far out of this time and this world, there is Skellig Michel ten miles off the Kerry coast, shooting straight up seven hundred feet sheer out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the grave-yard on the summit of that cliff among the beehive dwellings and beehive oratory does not know Ireland through and through “.
The Annals of lnnisfallen, Annals of Ulster and Annals of the Four Masters contain accounts of Viking raids on the monastery from 812 AD onwards, most notably in 823 AD, when the peace-loving Scandinavian visitors starved the Abbot to death in their zeal to find out where he had hidden the monastery’s non-existent Treasure. In 993 AD a future King of Norway, Olav Trygvasson, was baptised by a Skellig hermit.
The monastery significantly expanded around the start of the Second Millennium, with the construction of a new chapel. However, the C13th saw general climatic deterioration throughout Europe, and living conditions on the islands must have degenerated to such a degree that year-round occupancy probably became impossible. Colder weather and the increasing frequency and severity of sea storms are probably what forced the monks to withdraw to a site on the mainland on Ballinskelligs Bay.
The monks of Ballinskelligs monastery almost certainly continued to use Skellig Michael, perhaps for summer retreats. They were proud of their association with its venerable history; in fact, in later centuries the prior of Ballinskelligs was still addressed in papal letters as “Augustinian prior of St. Michael’s Roche (de Rupe)“. The Augustinian s must also have been actively involved with the pilgrimages to the island that became popular in the early C16th. Skellig Michael remained in the hands of the Ballinskelligs Augustinians under the protection of the Geraldine Earls of Desmond until 1578, when the Desmond Rebellions led to Queen Elizabeth I dissolving all such remaining monasteries, and the island passed into secular hands.
According to a certain reputable Guidebook, Spring weddings were fashionable on Skellig Michael after the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar; forbidden to marry during Lent, eager couples took advantage of a technicality whereby the island was still running on the old Julian system to celebrate their nuptials sooner than would be permitted on the mainland. Having regard to the dates involved, this does not make any sense.
The island has two lighthouses, erected in 1820 by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin, predecessor of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, accessed by a new road blasted out of the island’s southern flank. One is now disused, and the second was subsequently rebuilt and automated. The solitary keepers must have been terrified by gales and storms, with massive waves crashing against their high towers.
Since the remoteness of Skellig Michael discouraged visitors until relatively recently, the site is exceptionally well preserved. Expert restoration work was carried out in 1986, and an official tourist bureau associated with the island was established.
Weather permitting, Skellig Michael can be reached by regular boat from Portmagee, or from Bunavalla Pier, and trips can also be arranged from Dingle. Even on a fine day, it can be a rough, white-knuckle ride as you cross the swell of the open sea, lasting at least 45 minutes, and is not suitable for small children. Up close the island looks rugged and uninviting. The tiring climb up the almost seven hundred steep steps to the summit is not for the faint hearted. Nevertheless, a trip to this ancient monastic site is often described as the highlight of an Irish holiday.
Restrictions have recently been imposed on tourist access, as large numbers of visitors have begun to cause a worrying degree of damage to the site. 19 boats are licensed to carry a maximum of 12 passengers each, so there should be no more than 250 people on the island at any one time.
The Skellig Story by Des Lavelle is a highly recommended guide to the history, folklore and wildlife of the islands.