I had heard of the hermits perched high up in the mountains and read stories of sages wandering the dusty paths in deserts, but when I first heard about an ancient monastic outpost in the middle of an ocean, I had to go and see it for myself.
After circumambulating the Iveragh peninsula on the 'Ring of Kerry' in southwest Ireland, we stopped for the night at Portmagee, a rural seaside village named after a notorious smuggler. It was past ten and the August sun was far from setting. Although the village road resembled a ghost town at this hour, the local watering holes were abuzz with enthusiastic travellers who had flocked to the village to make the trip to the sea in the morning.
The village harbour saw a flurry of activity the next morning. The skippers readied their boats to travel to the two lonely, remote crags that protrude from the sea. Skellig Michael, the larger of the two, and Small Skellig, its more diminutive companion, are about 13km off the coast. There are only a handful of small boats licensed to ferry passengers to and fro. A limited footfall is ensured to preserve this fragile UNESCO World Heritage Site. The trip that takes about under an hour can only be made during the summer months. Often, on what appears to be a perfect day, no boats will go out to sea. It is the condition of sea around the landing of Skellig Michael which dictates access to the island.The islands are out of bounds between October-March. Winter brings gale force winds and the wild Atlantic swells lash cliffs from all sides, making a landing impossible.
The first reference to the islands can be found in old Irish writings and date back to the legendary Pre-Celtic tribes. However, it was not until the 5th century that it became a place of pilgrimage for Christian monks, intent on a life of solitude and contemplation. They sought penance and gathered in extreme places that replicated the isolation of the first desert communities. The Vikings, who mastered the sea waves, sacked the monastery on multiple occasions. In spite of the invasions and plundering, the monastic community survived, passing on folklore and tales, fact or fiction, from a bygone past into the present era.
Each boat has about a dozen people on board, trying to contain their excitement during the short sea journey. We soon pass by the cliffs of Foilhammeran and the towers of Valentia's Bray Head and leave the safety of the harbour. The verdant coastal landscape blends into the vast open sea and at last we catch the first faint glimpse of the Skellig Islands rising from the sea. The boat first approaches the small island, which is washed white under gannet droppings. Small Skellig is a birdwatcher's paradise and is home to the second largest colony of gannets in the world. They are in the thousands, occupying every available ledge and precipice, while an equal number hover above in the air. It is impossible to land on the small island. We encircle it, and move towards the twin-pinnacled Skellig Michael, whose sheer vertical face towers above us.
Bound by the cult of seclusion, the eremitical monks of the Irish church were the first to establish Skellig as a monastery after having visions of Michael the Archangel. Monastery on the rock, as Skellig Michael is known, is a small complex of stone beehive huts and oratories, which though long unoccupied still stands to this day near the island's northern pinnacle some 182m above the sea. If this outpost were not tranquil enough for the hardy monks, then the hermitage at the 217m south peak was the ultimate refinement of isolation. Surrounded by eddies of the sea and the sharp gradient of the cliffs, its inaccessibility made it the most famous penitential station in the land.
There are no natural piers on the larger island. Monks had to carve out of rocks a flat landing to alight in low tide. As we approach the larger island, a steep path grabs the attention of the approaching visitor up the vertical cliff face to the monastery complex above the island's horizon. Three such ancient walkways were cut and built into the rock faces from the sea level up to monastery—the direct and steep eastern climb from the Blind Man's Cove; the precipitous northern path from the Blue Cove and the southern, zigzag path (and the only one that is now in use) from the Cross Cove, which joins the northern route at Christ's Saddle, about 120m above the sea.
Our boats drop us off at the landing point at Blind Man's Cove. A gentle zigzag slope leads to a junction just beyond the Cross Cove. From this point, a 600-step stairway leads directly to Christ's Saddle, where all the paths meet, passing besides the moss-encrusted Wailing Woman stone, one of the penitential stations of the cross on the climb to the monastery. The soft shale sandstone ground along the stairs is dotted with rabbit burrows that are occupied by puffins that fly in and out to feed their families. Another flight of steep stairs leads up from Christ's Saddle to the monastery plateau. A small door opens into the monastic terraced vegetable garden, which leads into the main complex via a small tunnel, where stone dwellings are huddled together. Six corbelled bee-hived huts, two boat-shaped oratories and a medieval church are all that is left of the monastic habitat. A few crosses and some graves are all that remain of the solitary lives once lef between the vast skies above and the sea below.
At the end of the 12th century, the ascetic monks moved from the craggy Skellig and settled in the Bay of Ballinskelligs, where they adopted Augustinian rule and established a priory dedicated to St Michael, the ruins of which still stand today. Nevertheless, the remote outcrop of rock in the Atlantic Ocean remained a principal centre for public penance. The pilgrim would follow the nerve-wracking Stations of the Cross and finally end by kissing a standing stone slab overhanging the sea near the isolated hermitage of the needle's eye near the south summit of the island. The slab of stone has long been eroded by the salt-laden sea winds and the hermitage long lost. By the end of the 16th century, the island was uninhabited, following an era of Atlantic storms of unprecedented frequency and ferocity. Later in the 19th century, when the island was taken over by the office of Public Works, two lighthouses were built that supported the increasing maritime traffic. From Argand oil lamps and parabolic reflectors to modern electronics, the Skellig lighthouse still beams out the same basic light signals as it did in 1826.
By late afternoon, the winds pick up and the sea tides begin to surge again. We trace our way back hastily, sure-footing down the steep cliffside. The isolation of the island has a mystical charm that has drawn pilgrims under its spell for over 1500 years, and it continues to enchant. George Bernard Shaw said of the place, "the magic that takes you out, far out, of this time and this world." Of course, it did not come as a surprise to me at all when Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker decided to find sanctuary, refuge and seclusion from the rest of the galaxy on this island.
Historical references adapted from The Skelligs Story by Des Lavelle.