Ireland's 'Impossible' Skellig Michael
|When the weather and tides allow it, a day-trip to Skellig Michael is one of Ireland's most rewarding travel experiences.|
By Pat O'Connor
As Irish travel experiences go, my visit to Skellig Michael has been my most treasured. Visiting this jagged, isolated pyramid — the Holy Grail of Irish monastic island settlements — rates as truly magical. After visiting Skellig Michael in 1910, Nobel Prize-winning Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw called it "the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world."
It's 10:30 a.m. in Portmagee, as I board a small boat with a dozen other eager passengers. This little County Kerry hamlet is just a row of snoozy shops, pubs, B&Bs, and one hotel. But as our boat chugs past the headland guarding the harbor, I get my first glimpse of the two Skelligs (Gaelic for "splinter") crouching aggressively, seven miles off the coast. A little ways into the 45-minute voyage, the captain explains to me that our departure is carefully timed to make best use of the tides. "In an average summer week, I can make the pier on Skellig Michael five days out of seven. If the seas are rough, I can see from the mainland — and I just don't go. Otherwise, with that wee pier, it would be like trying to jump off a trampoline onto an ice rink!"
Today's seas are calm, but I still need to shield my camera from the saltwater mist being tossed up from the bow.
I can make out the smaller island of Little Skellig the distance, with its huge colony of gannets — large, graceful birds with six-foot wingspans. The entire island is a bird sanctuary, protected by law from visitors setting foot onshore. Fine with me, as its whitewash appearance is the result of years of doing what birds doo.
The larger of the two, Skellig Michael, is over 700 feet tall and a mile around. As the captain throttles down the engine near the jagged shore, I can make out a tiny cluster of abandoned beehive huts clinging like stubborn barnacles near its summit. Dropping us off on the cement pier, our captain waves and tells us he'll be back for us in a couple hours. Other small boats are queued-up behind him, waiting patiently for their turn.
I turn my back on the ocean and survey the massive and steep rock that I've been deposited on. Skellig Michael — like its more accessible Normandy cousin, Mont St. Michel — was dedicated to the archangel and was first inhabited by pious, sixth-century Christian monks. Inspired by earlier hermit-monks in the Egyptian desert, they sought the purity of isolation to get closer to God. Ireland is a little short on deserts, so her monks looked out to sea and chose this massive rock as their refuge from earthly temptations.
Neither Viking raids nor winter storms could dislodge the monks, as they patiently built a half-dozen small, stone, igloo-like dwellings and a couple of sturdy oratories. Their remote cliff-terrace perch is still connected to the sea 600 feet below by an amazing series of craggy stone stairs. One legend claims that Viking Olav Trygvasson — who later became king of Norway and introduced Christianity to his country in the 10th century — was baptized here. As I reach the bottom of these stairs, I contemplate the sweat and scraped knuckles that the monks put into building them centuries ago. With a deep breath, I begin trudging up the steep slope. Above me stretches an uneven ribbon of stone slabs with no handrails...and no end in sight.
About half way up, I take a much needed breather and survey the amazing views. This would have been the edge of the known world to the few hardy souls who populated this rock over a thousand years ago. My camera explores the terrain like it's got a mind of its own. It's a target-rich environment and I can barely stop clicking. Best of all, I'm surrounded by a half dozen puffins waddling among the rocks and moss less than 15 feet away. The captain had told me they would be here between late April and early August. But I didn't realize they would be this fearless with their distinctive rainbow beaks and clown make-up eyes.
I slowly become aware of the sound of a distant chainsaw and absent-mindedly wonder what wood is being cut on this barren treeless island. Then it dawns on me that the sound is coming from beneath the stone stairs in front of me: Puffins are nesting here. They dig burrows for their nests and their swallowed cooing is the bizarre sound I hear. These portly little birds live off fish, and divers have reported seeing them 20 feet underwater in pursuit of their prey. As one takes off in front of me like a flying spud, it's far from graceful. But its furiously-flapping wings propel it into the distance.
After a half hour on this medieval stairmaster, I reach the monastic ruins. I duck through a low doorway in the outer wall and gaze at the compact little maze of stacked rock structures. Something about the way the outer wall clings to the island's contours makes it resemble a miniature Machu Picchu. It's all sharp-edged grey stones, green moss, and slate blue water blending into hazy sky on the horizon. I try to imagine this environment in lashing rain on a freezing January night, dressed only in a monk's simple clothing.
My photography has delayed me and I almost miss the start of the talk being given by the ranger who camps here over the summer months. Chiseling the most rudimentary life from solid rock, the monks lived a harsh, lonely, disciplined existence here. Six times daily (including the middle of the night), they would pause to recite memorized scriptures and psalms. The Abbot in charge might also enforce a vow of silence. Penance would be performed by imitating Christ on the Cross — standing with arms outstretched for hours. The brothers collected rainwater in cisterns and lived off fish and birds. To supplement their meager existence, they collected bird eggs and feathers, offering them to passing boats in exchange for cereals, candles, and animal hides (used for clothing and for copying scripture). Their colony here survived for more than 500 years. They moved ashore to Ballinskelligs in the early 1100s.
At the end of the short talk, I look at my watch and budget my time. Since boat landings are subject to tides, I have a little over an hour left to explore the island. I poke my head into each hut and try to imagine the dark, damp, and devoted life one would live here more than 1,000 years ago. A cramped and humble grave yard (not much bigger than a flower bed) sprouts a row of barely recognizable chipped-stone crosses. Lost in thought, I begin my descent...carefully directing each step down the primitive, uneven stairs.
On the way down, I pause in the saddle between the two main peaks of the island. Turning away from the lower summit with its primitive monastic ruins, I study the higher peak. One monk, not content with the isolation of the monastic complex, decided to build his own hardscrabble hut high up on this brutal perch. The exposure to the elements on this ledge has long-since knocked down any trace to the naked eye below. Talk about a loner...
When I reach the pier, I find the least painful rock to sit on and await the boat. There are two lighthouses on the far side of the island (both now automated) and no WCs or modern shelters of any kind anywhere. Other visitors are gathering nearby. Each of us planned on roughing it, so we'd brought along rucksacks with our essentials (camera, sandwich, water, sunscreen, rain gear, etc). We munch our lunches and pass the time comparing experiences. Each of us has filtered the visit through our own contemplative databases. But the thing we all have in common is our enhanced sense of wonder at this otherworldly place.
On the boat journey back to the mainland, we pass within 50 yards of Little Skellig, which now looms like an iceberg with its white coat of guano. The captain slows the boat to an idle as we scan the rock. An estimated 20,000 gannets call this home, and most circle overhead like feathered confetti. Occasionally, one suddenly morphs into a sleek dart and dives from high above to impale a fish. I also glimpse, camouflaged on a flat rock near the water's edge, a couple sleek seals lazing in the sun.
In half an hour I'll be back on shore. But these islands will be on my mind for a long time to come. We travel to collect experiences — and this prized possession is locked firmly away, to savor again and again.
Getting to Skellig Michael
Book a boat trip from Portmagee by contacting Murphy Sea Cruise (€50, April-Oct, mobile 087-676-2983, 087-234-2168, or 087-645-1909, www.esatclear.ie/~skelligsrock, firstname.lastname@example.org), Joe Roddy (tel. 066/947-4268, mobile 087-284-4460, www.skelligstrips.com), Brendan Casey (tel. 066/947-2437, mobile 087-228-7519), or Des Lavelle (tel. 066/947-6124, mobile 087-237-1017).