By Nicole Buckler
This is nothing less than one of the most special places on the entire earth.
With the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens every man and his parrot heard about the Skellig Islands off the coast of Kerry. And, the place deserves to be discovered. Here’s why: I have travelled all over the world, from the Pyramids of Giza to the night markets of Taiwan. I have seen the Jamaa el Fna in Marrakech and the scuba-dived on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. I have walked the streets of Jerusalem, and stolen grapes off vines in Crete. However my favourite place in all of my travels is the Skellig Islands in Ireland. It is because of what significance the Skelligs hold for modern-day Irish people. And because they are fascinating, beguiling, and mind boggling.
The Skellig islands are two rocky peaks that jut savagely out of the ocean, lying isolated in the sea off County Kerry. One of the rocky peaks (named Small Skellig in English) hosts so many birds that their droppings have made it look like a snow-covered peak in the Himalayas. It is a nature reserve and no boat is allowed to land there. And none would…the seas around it are treacherous and whirlpoolish, like a drain to hell itself. So the seals and birds are left to their own devices, becoming fat and relaxed in the haven it provides them.
But the other rocky outcrop, which also juts violently from the dark ocean, is a place worth seeing, if you are game. Sceilig Mhichíl in the Irish language (meaning Michael’s rock) or just Skellig Michael for English speakers, is a place of mind-boggling historical significance.
It was probably founded in the 7th Century as a monastic centre for Irish Christian Monks. But I don’t say “founded” very lightly. The settlement itself is perched nauseatingly on the summit of the pointed rock, 230 metres above sea level. Here, at this height, the monks lived in stone beehive huts, which cling to the top of the rock. They are situated above vertical cliff walls which plunge dramatically into the sea as their only perimeter to the dwellings.
Because of its extreme isolation, the settlement, once deserted, remained almost perfectly preserved, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe’s most intriguing but least accessible sites. This makes it all the more attractive for the adventurers amongst us.
To get to the Skellig Islands, first you must station yourself at the tiny town on the coast called Port Magee, named after a famous smuggler who ended up in exile somewhere vile. His wife took over the dark and nasty business in her husband’s absence, needing to support her family, and became one of the best smugglers around. So Port Magee hasn’t been somewhere in history where you lived a life of relaxed piety. It’s more a place of relaxed piratetry.
There are a handful of B&Bs near the pier at Portmagee, almost as far away from Dublin as you can go without getting on a plane. The tiny town only has around ten buildings. This place really is out in the periphery of nowhere, in a grey and stormy wind-blown part of Europe. The isolation here is palpable. The only people around are the fisherman who catch the lucky fish living in the pure waters of the bay, and a few tourists.
Convincing the local fisherman to take you out to the Skelligs on your timescale is another story altogether. For most of them their primary income is fishing, tourism is tidy second income but not their primary mode of operation. So it can take some effort to fling yourself out onto the jagged rocks.
After a couple of days of bad weather, me and mine found a fisherman to take us out to Skellig rock on the next Saturday; however they can only go on a very clear calm day. This is because the waves crash against the rock on most days. The fishermen can’t approach close enough for passengers to disembark the boat without the punters losing a limb or even their life. Alas, Saturday came and went without us being able to convince anyone to take us due to the weather. Not one sailor would go for our money, whiskey and tall tales from the big smoke, so we amused ourselves with castles and ruins in the area (of which there are plenty).
Finally we found a guy with a rusty boat who had old tyres tied to his vessel instead of life preservers. Hmmm. We were the first tourists to go that year. The boats do not go in winter due to even more treacherous seas than those of the warmer months. Because we were the first tourists to go that year, we had another problem: disuse.
To scramble onto Skellig Michael, you must jump from the boat onto stone steps carved into the rock. However the rock steps were covered in slime and ice from not being used. So then with every downward motion of the boat we had to throw sand onto the steps to give us some sort of traction as we threw ourselves at Skellig Micheal and hope that he would catch us and not throw us into a swirling sea.
The process was a little heart-grabbing. We were warned that there would be treacherous seas that needed to be overcome while getting onto the island. The waves en route had already put the fear of God into me (and I don’t even believe in him). But this was next-level stuff. While I was busy being nervous, the old sailor who took us out to the Skelligs said that is was actually a great day for the trip! I decided then that I would never like to see a bad sailing day at the Skelligs.
We managed to get on the rock after much boat-to-rock acrobatics. We also had two German girls on the boat with us, they had also tried for days to get someone to take them to the Skelligs, and were happy to finally get there. We were glad for the company. The sailor yelled at us, “See ye in two hours!” and took off. He said he couldn’t stay close to the rocks or his boat will get smashed up against them and sink like it did last year. Say what? His boat sank last year? CAN WE EVEN TRUST HIM TO COME BACK?
The good news was that he anchored about a mile from the Skelligs in calmer water and thumbed through his Fisherman’s Weekly Digest or Fishtail Review or whatever modern sailors read these days. Phew.
Armed with sensible shoes and two litres of water, we set out for the treacherous climb up the rock to the monk’s settlement. The settlement was set up in the sixth century, when some monks thought it a good idea to “punish” themselves by living on the edge of existence in borderline starvation conditions to show they knew what sacrifice and poverty and discipline were. I personally think they were a bit bonkers. No actually they were a lot bonkers. Not only did they build a monastery out on a god forsaken rock in the middle of the sea, they built it at the top of the rock which seemed a mile high. To live at the jagged peak, they had to hand-build 1000 rock steps to the top. And there wasn’t any soil to grow anything. So they imported it from the mainland, a laborious process that no one who didn’t believe in God would ever attempt.
Mainly the monks’ diet consisted of dried seagull (if they could catch any) and seal steaks (if they could spear any) and scurvy grass, also sought by passing pirates to fend off scurvy. It was a very lean diet in a cold and windy place. It made getting into the afterlife seem not so worth it.
It is the very rock steps the monks used in their daily prostrating that are still there today, all of these lifetimes later. All of us climbed all of those steps, one at a time. They snaked their way skinnily along sheer cliff drops. In windy moments I started to reassess what I knew about God. The trip is not for the faint-hearted or the even mildly uncoordinated.
I can’t believe anyone lived on this rock and made their life there. It was an exercise in insanity. The web page told the story before I arrived and I still didn’t believe it until I was standing there in horror and wonder:
“It is a damp, windy, sterile crag rising from the sea, so barren that the monks had to import soil to grow their food in, so gusty and bedeviled by storms that the monks could count the clear, calm sunny days of each year on two hands. Getting there, even across the relatively short distance from County Kerry, was never an easy proposition. Choppy seas, volatile weather, terrible anchorages and the sheer, slippery steepness of the place discouraged casual visits.”
What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer thumpingly terrifying climb to the top. One slip and we would have been toast. By the time you reach the top, you fail to understand even further that this place was close to God. No. This was a place of self-hatred, self-banishment and self-punishment.
All that said, it was sooo worth it. It is an amazing place. For me, it’s right up there with the Pyramids of Giza. It was an absolutely breathtaking experience to look down from the top and see the boat we arrived in so far down. The monastery itself is remarkably preserved from when it started its life in the dark ages. To think that monks lived here writing manuscripts is a fantasy that is so good it seems to be weaved for the sake of tourism. But no, it really happened. Not only was it hard to even survive here, but it was also a place that was being constantly attacked by pirates, who were looking for the manuscripts that were lovingly produced by the monks. Plus they helped themselves to other religious items of value and what little food the monks survived on.
To modern eyes, the place is absolutely haunting, and I can’t imagine these monks being anything other than lonely, isolated and bloody cold. They really must have believed in Paradise, and that they were going there on a direct ticket. There was no other reason you’d voluntarily make any kind of life in such an obnoxiously uncomfortable place.
At the end of the treacherous climb, the sky cleared and it was sunny for about two hours, which according to the fisherman, only happened about 5 times a year at the Skelligs. It was truly an intriguing experience. My best travel experience, ever.
What I would say however, is that if you think you’d be scared climbing up the stairs, climbing down is ten times worse. It takes a fair bit to scare this chick, and I was shaking like an alcoholic in withdrawal. This is because when you go down you are looking right over the cliff, and vertigo takes a hold of you and offers to show you your God at any given time. If I was one of the monks, I knew that once up there I would never come down. I would have had to stay there eating dried seagull and seal steaks and scurvy grass and other dead monks, probably.
If you visit Ireland, you cannot go anywhere without first seeing Skellig Michael. Ireland is known as the land of scholars. Even in its most desperate and poor times, of famine and of war, people here sought to be educated. They had a thirst for the spiritual and the intellectual. And Skellig Michael is testament to the fact that this type of Irishness still remains: Irish people are intellectuals above all else, even above starvation and weather and winds and pirates and dried seagulls.
Skellig Micheal is one of the most remarkable remnants of ancient Ireland and the dark ages. It is completely intact after all of this time…which is incredible. It’s completely haunting and is a testament to both true religious worship and deep dark human insanity.