Skellig Michael is a craggy island off the coast of Ireland’s County Kerry. Every summer this rocky outcrop in the Atlantic ocean welcomes tourists to climb its steep, jagged steps to explore an ancient monastery built upon its stony ledges.
Beehive huts and stone oratories, constructed by monks of olden days, have stood the test of time, and now bear witness to their builders’ self sacrifice and eagerness to live solitary and devout lives.
A reader in Boston, plus another from County Cork, recently sent me some amazing photos of the Skellig.
I am honored to share this Irish cultural and historical gem with you.
And thanks to these readers for their generousity in allowing me to use their photos to create this post and video.
Together, we’ll take a trip off the Irish coast to discover the wonders of Skellig Michael.
This island is breathtakingly beautiful, especially when the sun shines and azure skies reflect in the choppy waters of the Atlantic ocean, highlighting Skellig’s steep and rugged cliffs.
Skellig Michael is also known as the Great Skellig because it is the largest of a group of three rocky islands. Little Skellig or An Sceilg Bheag is a sea bird sanctuary and can be seen in the photo above, taken from the Great Skellig.
In the summer months puffins, gannets, kittiwakes, petrels and shearwaters balance on the jagged slopes of Little Skellig.
Puffin Island, the third of the Skellig threesome, lies farther north and is also a bird sanctuary.
Featured in the last scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this little island, 12 km or 8 miles off the coast of Kerry, looks spectacular as Rey rushes up the steps in search of the long lost Luke Skywalker.
With 670 steps leading to a sixth-century monastery, this national monument has been deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site. The monks who lived there, at a dizzying height of 230 meters or about 720 feet above sea level, were exceptional men with a head for heights.
This incredible ascent is over 1000 years old, and leads to one of the most amazing monastic sites on earth.
Dating from around the 6th century the stone beehive shaped huts are surprisingly well preserved, considering they are exposed to ferocious gales and Atlantic winter storms each and every year.
Monks seeking solitude and sacrifice built this monastery on the steep slopes of the Skellig. How they survived on these rocky cliffs is nothing short of a miracle.
These tenacious men lived in these tiny dwellings which seem to cling to the cliff’s edge.
It is thought a small group of men crossed the open ocean off the Kerry coast in search of a place to practice their religion in solitude and isolation. And the extraordinary location they found takes the meaning of penance to a whole new level.
Survival in such inhospitable surroundings seems impossible to us today, but survive they did. A religious community lived on the island for over 600 years.
Skellig boasts an international reputation for its archaeology, but it is also recognized as a home to many species of birds, including puffins, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.
It has been deemed a special protection area for these bird colonies.
Sometimes I think these islands look like volcanoes, but don’t worry, there’s nothing volcanic about them, or any mountain in Ireland.
During the Protestant Reformation instigated by Elizabeth I, or Good Queen Bess as many Irish like to sarcastically call her, Skellig Michael was removed from the possession of the Catholic Church and ownership was transferred to the Butler family of Waterville.
In the early 1820s, the island was purchased from the Butlers by the predecessor to the Commissioners of Irish Lights using a compulsory purchase order.
Two lighthouses were opened on the Atlantic side of the island in 1826.
The photo above shows how the lighthouse is tucked in amongst the rocks. What a feat of engineering to build these structures in such isolated, dangerous conditions using early 19th century technology.
In 1880 the Office of Public Works (OPW) took over the remains of the island’s monastery, and eventually purchased the whole island, except for its lighthouses.
And luckily for tourists, the good folk at the OPW continue to manage this island and prepare it for exploration each summer season.
In 2016 some large boulders fell from the top of the Skellig and landed right in the middle of the main pathway. Thanks to the OPW, the rocks were removed and this ancient monastic site is ready and waiting for today’s devoted tourists to brave the Atlantic waters in search of its wonders.
For anyone planning to visit the Skellig why not first stop in Valencia Island at the Skellig Experience Visitor Center. Their exhibitions are beautifully design for visitors to further understand the wonders of these islands.
They organize a boat trip around the Skellig, but landing on the island is coordinated through private boat owners. The information required for planning a trip is available on Heritage Ireland’s Skellig Michael web page.
Wishing you all happy trails through Ancient Ireland.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom
Here are some other ramblings from around Ireland which you might enjoy…