Skellig Michael: It's living on an island - with a difference

Michelle Walshe recalls the three months she spent living in the early monastic site on Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael: It's living on an island - with a difference

Michelle Walshe recalls the three months she spent living in the early monastic site on Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael rears out of the sea like a prehistoric monster, a hulking, ferocious dinosaur about to fling back its head. Little Skellig squats beside it, you hear it before you see it, this squawking, cackling colony of birds. It is completely white, guano covered, unlike it’s greener, towering, imposing twin. Skellig Michael points upward, the island shaped like hands raised in prayer.

Twenty years ago, an Irish journalist described his visit to Skellig Michael as the three most vivid hours of his life.

I spent three months there.

Then, it was a rocky, neglected outpost for archaeologists, bird watchers and the occasional intrepid tourist. Now, it’s the Star Wars Island and everyone wants to go there. It’s not easy though. Fortunately, the Irish weather acts like a burly security guard outside a nightclub. No-one is being asked for ID, but you are being asked for patience and perseverance.

The islands lie eight miles into the Atlantic Ocean, off Ireland’s west coast which seems like no distance at all but even on a calm day the crossing is harsh. Sea sickness is a certainty. Don’t eat before you go. Bring a picnic and eat there, high on the rock, with the parading puffins for company.

The Skellig islands seize even the laziest imagination and forces it into overdrive.

They physically, mentally and spiritually lift you out of this world and into the past without the aid of gadgets, touch screens, computers, explanatory panels or dressed-up mannequins; they simply exist in their pristine glory, their awe-inspiring ‘there-ness’. You are wet on arrival from being splashed by the sea, your legs unsteady as you disembark on to the simple pier. As you look up, you feel dwarfed by the reality of nature. No amount of book reading or looking at photographs can prepare you for the onslaught of sensations.

The smell of the sea permeates all things. It clings to your hair, your clothes, your skin. You inhale the fresh air, rejoicing in the feeling of solid ground beneath your feet.

You begin the steep climb. You pray to St Michael, patron saint of high places, to whom this rock is dedicated, to keep you safe. Was Led Zeppelin here you wonder because you are climbing a literal stairway to heaven? The stairs are open on both sides with a sheer drop below, where the waves crash loudly. Up and up you go until the roaring sound of the sea diminishes and the monastery appears, unassuming at first, a simple doorway in front of you. It is a portal to another dimension. Maybe that is what the location scout for Lucas Productions thought. You dip your head and enter this sacred space. There is even a tiny frisson of fear as you cross this earthly threshold from laity to holiness. We can guess, but we don’t really know what possessed this community to live here. How much strength did it take to physically build it, to maintain it, to cope with the silence and the isolation? Can anyone from this modern age of intertwined technology and indolence imagine?

There it is — this tiny cluster of beehive huts floating high above the world in time and space and imagination. The monastery clings to the cliff face, egg shaped proof of devotion to God, this barren, rocky place — the monks desert in the sea. The ultra-hermitage. This stone testament to faith, to simplicity, to belief in the human spirit, the power of nature to provide and of God to protect. Standing in an empty cell, you close your eyes and try to imagine what life was like here centuries ago. It’s hard. It’s so far removed from modern reality. The stones are silent. You alone must do the thinking, the imagining.

The monastery is sheltered. That’s the first thing that strikes you. No wind. At all.

After the exposed ascent, this is a welcome respite. In front of the monastery lies the monks garden, flourishing in a micro-climate, created by the south facing location and a low wall. Simplicity, barrenness, beauty. Three words that describe so much of Ireland and its spectacular scenery but that are particularly apt here. Wells were tunnelled out of solid rock.

Fresh water was and still is gathered from rainfall. You gaze out at Little Skellig and imagine the highway that once was this waterway, ferrying not only monks but food, provisions, water, writing materials and clothing. The sea was a battlefield too, marauders, pirates, Vikings, invaders, this was their path, their medieval motorway.

There is a lighthouse, automated now. It stands serene in its solitude and calls to mind an image from a recent book cover — The Light Between the Oceans, now a movie starring Michael Fassbender who, incidentally, is from Kerry. Did he seek inspiration here too?

Memories that are forever imprinted on my mind from my time spent living here are of frying freshly caught mackerel at eleven o’clock at night over a gas stove under a starry night straight out of a Vincent Van Gogh painting; of sitting alone in the monastery after the last tourists had left, feeling the stillness, absorbing the serenity, tucked into the comfort of this tiny metropolis. Even the neighbouring birds on Little Skellig were quiet. Every morning in June and July, almost tripping over the puffins sticking their rainbow beaks out of their burrows, on the way to work in the monastery. Once a week, feeling the rising excitement of meeting the supply boat, having familiar faces to see and talk to and catch up on news from the mainland, and hauling the huge water barrels up the hill to our primitive portable buildings.

In bad weather, hearing the gales lash the exposed rock, watching the rain beating against the windows.

Reading books to the soundtrack of wild Atlantic storms. In good weather, diving off the pier into the wake of the last departing tourist boat, shrieking at the coldness of the Atlantic, staying in just long enough to feel clean, as there was no running water on the island. Watching the sun set over the horizon from the Wailing Woman, the stone structure that stands mid-way to the monastery, the ocean stretching beyond imagination.

Spotting a school of dolphins from high on the rock, swimming in playful formation, oblivious to this sacred place of dry stone walls and corbelled cells on this corner of our coastline, simplicity and creativity woven into what George Bernard Shaw called ‘this impossible rock’.

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