Skellig Michael

Fourteen hundred years ago, an unnamed Irish monk decided to head out into the wilds. He was a rugged survivor, and his goal was to grow closer to God by living a simple life. Inspired by Saint Anthony of the Desert, he went to the literal end of the world—a tiny, inhospitable island seven miles off the coast of western Ireland.

Clinging to the island’s steep rocky cliffs, the first monk eked out a humble existence by fishing and hunting for puffins. Bad weather often isolated him from the mainland for days or weeks at a time. He spent hours each day praying and meditating, and almost no time at all sleeping. Slowly but surely, he gathered rocks—sometimes he had to smash them loose with a crowbar—and began constructing a stone staircase from his usual landing point.

Eventually, more monks joined him. They took their crowbars to the highest point on the island, broke the rock down, and built a flat terrace out of it. On top of the terrace, they built walls and stone beehive huts. Through sheer perseverance, they transformed the place into a home—not a fancy or comfortable one, but one that suited their desires. The island, now known as Skellig Michael, became the site of a small monastery that endured for over six hundred years.

Even today, getting to Skellig Michael presents a challenge. Boats are only able to land during the summer, and usually only three days out of a week have suitable conditions. Even when it is possible to land, the island is often a dark and rainy place.

I was fortunate enough to recently visit the Skellig Islands (Skellig Michael and the nearby Little Skellig) on a rare sunny day. Words and pictures can’t really describe the trip—but I’ll try to use them anyway.

Heidi and I arrived in Portmagee the day before our trip. It was a fitting place to begin an expedition to the Skelligs—small and quiet, surrounded by natural beauty—it encouraged stillness and prepared our minds for the journey to come. Skellig experts checked the sea conditions in the morning, and everything seemed fine. We got on a small motorboat—practically the only modern convenience of the whole trip—and started the choppy ninety minute trip to Skellig Michael.

From far off, the islands looked featureless and gray. Skellig Michael appeared on the right and Little Skellig on the left.

But as we got closer—passing Little Skellig and approaching the pier on Skellig Michael—they became alive with color.

We landed, jumped off the boat, and started the climb to the top. The monks did this all without engines or a pier—what was it like for them? Partway up the path, we encountered our first puffins—a source of beauty for us, a source of food for the monks.

We paused to rest at a place called Christ’s Saddle, where the staircase—the original, thousand-plus-year-old staircase—looms upwards at an ever-increasing angle. Part of the thrill of Skellig Michael is that even in this modern age, it remains a remote and untamed place. Two tourists died in 2009 after falling from this particular portion of the path.

Closer to the top, we were treated to a glimpse of Little Skellig sitting like an uncut jewel in the great blue expanse of sea and sky.

Out of breath, we finally reached the monastery at the top. The monks had built a chapel, a kitchen, a graveyard, a toilet, and several houses. There are even rumors of a secret underground tunnel somewhere in the complex. All of these structures were built entirely out of stone; not even mortar was used. Each stone piece was carefully placed to fit tightly with its neighbors and angled outwards to deflect rainwater.

A closer view of the kitchen reveals that the monks even gave it vents to allow smoke to escape. I wish I could meet one of these monks: fisherman, hunter, engineer, laborer, ascetic, scholar, and meditator, all rolled into one person.

Our pilgrimage complete, we walked back to the bottom and began our journey back home. On the return trip, we made a close pass by Little Skellig. Little Skellig is even less hospitable than Skellig Michael, and it is nearly impossible to land on. People are actually forbidden to go there. It is a haven for gannets; tens of thousands of gannets make their nests on Little Skellig each year. The whole island is white with them.

I think I could have spent weeks on Skellig Michael in a state of constant amazement, and I was sad to leave after just two hours. At the same time, I’m extremely grateful that I was able to experience such a rare and interesting place—even if it was only for a short while.

Further Reading

  • Official UNESCO World Heritage Site webpage
  • Wikipedia and Wikitravel articles about Skellig Michael
  • Boat operator’s website with info and pictures
  • Article about the recent deaths on Skellig Michael
  • A free online book about the South peak of Skellig Michael. The main monastic settlement was on the North peak, but a few extremely dedicated monks led even more solitary lives on the steeper South peak.
  • A book about all aspects of the Skelligs.