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.
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An Ancient Monastery
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.
Skellig is home to one of Ireland's most important ancient monastic treasures.
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 Star Wars: The Force Awakens
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.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries couples would take a priest to the island on Shrove Tuesday to get married. You can read all about this and other Shrove Tuesday Irish traditions here.
A Nature Preserve
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.
Lighthouses of Skellig
In the early 1820s, the island was purchased from the Butlers by 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. Another wonderful reason to travel the Wild Atlantic Way.
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)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade
Here are some Pinterest friendly images for anyone who might like to share this information on Pinterest...
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Thanks for these beautiful photos and story. We have been to Ireland 3 times now and still have not made it to Skellig! This will be a MUST stop when we return in 2019. As soon as I saw the last scene of Star Wars I had no doubt where it was filmed. Ireland is just so beautiful..
Irish American Mom
I'm so happy to learn you plan to return to Ireland, even after visiting three times already. It makes my heart sing to know visitors continue to experience a warm welcome in my homeland and return again and again.
Wow...how beautiful! I had no idea about these islands. I have only been to Ireland once and am still learning. Thank you so much for the information and pictures. This is why I love your blog/website!
Irish American Mom
Hi Sheila - I'm so glad you enjoy my recipes and ramblings. Ireland appears to be a small, compact island on a map, but it's only after visiting I think we come to realize how much there is to see and do there.
Just yesterday CBS News featured Skellig Michael and hinted at the tourist invasion that is sure to follow because of the connection to the latest Star Wars movie. I hope those lucky visitors will value the history and rugged beauty of this place and treat it gently and reverently, just as those early monks did.
At least CBS did inform future tourists that the walk is steep and there are no handrails or restrooms on the island!
I am so glad to have found your blog, with your descriptions of the places I missed on my first trip in 2013. My next trip to Ireland is only 7 weeks away. This time, thanks to you, I have even more appreciation of its history and beauty. Maybe I will come back to the U.S, ...maybe not.
Irish American Mom
Hi Karen - What a coincidence that CBS and I have had the Skellig on our minds this week. It's wonderful that one of the main US networks has featured the beauty and history of the Skellig islands. Like you, I hope that visitors treat these precious archaeological sites and ecosystems with care and reverence.
How exciting for you to be heading back to Ireland this summer. Wishing you a vacation full of wonder and joy, peace and fulfillment, and a hundred thousand warm Irish welcomes. Have a safe trip.
Amazing testimony to Faith, sacrifice & trust in God! Beautiful pictures, and such fun info about the birds! Thank you, Mairead*!
Irish American Mom
Hi Irishannie - Imagine living in one of those beehive huts in the middle of winter during a wild Atlantic storm - not for the faint of heart for sure.
All the best,
How beautiful!!!! I wish I had known about this lovely place when I was in Ireland! The photos are breathtaking, and you can feel the peace of the monks who once lived there! Thank you so much!!!!
Irish American Mom
Hi Maury - I'm so glad you enjoyed this post. I've only ever seen the Skellig from the mainland, and hope to take the boat trip to explore its ancient monastery someday. Ireland has so many beautiful places, and when the sun shines, there's no where on earth quite like Ireland.
Love this post and grateful for the photos you were able to share with us! My nephew and his new bride will be told today to read your blog! They are going to Ireland in June for honeymoon. (Family celebration for them today!)
Irish American Mom
Hi Kay - Thanks for recommending my blog to your nephew and his new bride. I hope they have a wonderful honeymoon in romantic Ireland. Here's hoping the sun shines for them in June, because Ireland is extra special when the sun shines and blue skies highlight the green, green fields.