‘IT IS up there with Machu Pichu,” was the verdict of one of the Americans when asked how he rated the Skellig experience as we headed towards the landing pier for the boat back to Port Magee.
Never having been to Machu Pichu, I can agree with the sentiment nevertheless. It is up there with any of the great standalone moments, to be recalled and recounted over a lifetime. Finding a reference against which to rate it, though, is fairly pointless because Skellig Michael, in its natural and human history, is like nowhere else on earth.
Along with Newgrange, it is one of the two Unesco World Heritage sites that Ireland possesses. It is open to visitors from May to September, weather permitting. During the visiting period, a flotilla of about a dozen boats, with a capacity of 12 passengers each, sails from Port Magee and Ballinskelligs to the island. The distance is about 13km and the trip takes around 45 minutes.
From the viewing point of Ballinskelligs, the Skelligs look uninhabitable if not inaccessible, each a jagged mass of vertical contours, scrawled against the sky. This impression proves accurate for the smaller of the two islands, Skellig Bheag. It offers a habitat only to winged life. Viewed from Skellig Michael, the 50,000 gannets that nest there each year look like a blizzard of thick snowflakes, almost blotting out the rockface. It is a spectacular sight but not as spectacular as the view close up, when the boat, on the return journey, skirts along the long south shore of the smaller island.
These are super gannets with wing spans of up to 6ft and their swooping and manic screeching as they jostle for landing space on crowded ledges is a rare sight indeed. It is a bit like passing down a bustling, densely populated street with residents tumbling out of their dwellings for lack of room. They make a humorous contrast with the fat, dozing seals, sunning themselves on the rocks below.
While they are almost as big as the slabs they are sprawled over, there seems to be room enough for all and they appear oblivious to the mighty din in the apartments overhead.
What a contrast this island is to the main event of the trip, the visit to the larger island dedicated to St Michael, patron saint of elevated monasteries across Europe. Here, no more than 13 monks lived at a time, from the 6th to the 13th century. To say they left their mark would be an understatement.
The Skelligs have long been a fascination for adventurous travellers.
In 1910, George Bernard Shaw made the trip for six shillings in a large fishing boat. It took two and a half hours. His description of the experience, in a letter to a friend, reveals that he believed he had made something of a discovery which he wanted to share with the world.
“It does not belong in any world that you and I have lived in,” he wrote. “It is part of a dream world.”
His description of the island’s topography — as “pinnacled, spired, arched, and minaretted... a cathedral rising 700ft above the water” — is spot on. As you draw close to it, it looks like a mighty edifice, constructed for some arcane purpose; majestic, intimidating, vast.
The vertical contours do not flatten out to anything that suggests ease of access until you are actually ashore. Then, the 600 steps to the monastery, about two-thirds of the way to the top, open up the island for anyone with reasonable agility, exercising due care. Due care means watching your step and stopping fully before taking photographs or even admiring the spectacular views that shift dramatically with every twist in the more than 1,000-year-old dry-stone staircase.
The monastery, with six beehive huts, the remains of two oratories, and traces of walls around an enclosure known as the monks’ garden, is knitted into the island’s structure. Slabs of stone, hewed and hacked from the rockface, are layered and ordered neatly into primitive dwellings that have proven as impregnable to the ravages of time as the rocks themselves. Signs of later developments, influenced perhaps by emerging ecclesial architecture in Europe, are represented by a fragment of wall with a small gothic window that perfectly frames the neighbouring Skellig Bheag.
It is strange to imagine the monks, in such an austere, desolate place, painstakingly copying and illustrating the sumptuous manuscripts that would help preserve not only the Christian faith but learning itself during the dark ages of medieval Europe.
Stranger, when you recall that the new religion of Christianity was little more than 100 years old in Ireland when the monks crossed in currachs to form their first settlement in the 6th century. Everything they needed had to be ferried from the mainland, even firewood and turf, as little grows on the thin soil except sea campion and small tuffs of rock thrift. Apart from what they could ferry to the island, they survived on fish which they dried in a smokehouse, and the puffins that still inhabit the island.
These exquisite creat-ures are one of the island’s attractions. It is their island now, with no hungry monks to worry them, and they are slow to move when you approach, making them obliging subjects for the camera. As well as food, these little creatures also provided feathers for the trading necessary to keep the monks supplied with altar wine and other essentials.
There is evidence from human bones excavated on the island that boys as young as 12 lived with the community. This fits with the reputation of the Skellig as a seat of learning as well as sanctity.
Wealthy chiefs would send their children there to acquire literacy and perhaps also formation in a religion of extraordinary promise that was expanding throughout the whole of the known world.
The Viking raids of the 9th century did not disperse the community, despite one of their abbots, Etgal, being kidnapped and starved to death by Norsemen when no ransom was paid. Interestingly, it was a climate shift in the 13th century that brought prolonged and ferocious winter storms that forced them off the island to set up a new foundation in Ballinskelligs, overlooking their previous home.
Here, a new compound of beehive huts was built. Thereafter, the primitive community, founded on the inspiration of the desert fathers of early middle eastern Christianity, became absorbed into the expanding structure of Augustinian monasticism.
The early visitors to the island who accompanied Shaw, were locals continuing the tradition of pilgrimage and penitence that had developed over the centuries. Extreme penances, for sins such as the murder of a family member, could involve a treacherous climb to the peak on which the intrepid monks built a hermitage, their fortress of last resort during invasion. Not alone did this involve a hazardous climb but it also necessitated sidling along, astride over a narrow rocky pass. Nowadays, to get anywhere near the hermitage, a certificate of fitness has to be produced to the OPW.
It is a different kind of visitor that comes to the Skelligs today.
They are tourists exploring natural wonders and beauty on a picnic outing to a far-flung, storied, and spectacular corner of the world that has the added cachet of being frequented by relatively few. My Australian companions and myself were among Americans hailing from Boston, Sacramento, and Hawaii. These particular visitors were not Star War fans by any means but they did hear about the Skelligs from the film.
Places like the Skelligs draw out the inner pilgrim as tourists, like the monks of old, search for the elusive liminality through what is most beautiful and thrilling in the natural world, Accounts from the guide of how the monks knelt on prayer rocks protruding from the island’s upper reaches, creating the illusion of suspension between sea and sky, may not be what anyone would want to emulate but they certainly make one reassess the boundaries we set for ourselves back in the mainland of human living.
Imagine a monk, hands outstretched in praise and prayer, in such a position as the sun sank below the waves invites speculation. What would he, a man well learned in the lore of faith, have known of planetary systems? In the later centuries, after the invasions of Norsemen, it was clear the world did not end on the shores of the Skelligs. The monks could not have known, however, that the sun that was sinking below their horizon was at that same moment rising over the islands of Hawaii where others would greet it in another language and with other rituals. They would not have known people from that place would one day visit their island and marvel at what they had created there.