Situated 12 kilometres off the Kerry coast, Skellig Michael is a 218m (715ft) high lump of exposed rock. It was also the site of a unique monastery for 600 years.
Skellig Michael is one of two Skelligs. The other, The Little Skellig, is uninhabited by man but is the second largest gannet breeding ground in the world; 23,000 pairs of the birds gather here.
Skellig Michael itself is home to puffins and cormorants. And from the 6th century until the 12th it was how to a community of Augustine Monks.
When the first monks decided to establish a community on Skellig Michael is not clearly known but is believed to be sometime in the 6th century.
The community here was never large, not surpassing given the isolation and hardship. But the settlement itself was surprisingly sophisticated.
The monks lived in 6 beehive cells near the top of the island. These cells were built of stone without use of cement or mortar. This traditional dry technique was very effective and ket the cells completely dry. Also in the community was a small church and a sophisticated water management and purification system.
Since the early history of the settlement is vague it is not known how long it took to develop the habitations but it is know that they were all in existence by the 8th century.
To reach the settlement a stone staircase of 670 steps was built up the face of the island.
Given the exposed nature of the islands life here was harsh. Every day the monks descended the face of the cliff to catch fish. They also maintained vegetable gardens and collected the eggs from the wild birds.
Apart from the basics of maintaining life the monks spent the rest of their time in reflection and prayer. The isolated nature of the islands lends itself to this very well, which is of course why they were chosen.
After The Monastery
The Augustine monks maintained a continuous presence on the island for 600 years. But in the 12th century a decision was made to depart to a new monastery on the mainland. They did however maintain ownership of Skellig Michael.
In 1572 Queen Elizabeth imposed harsh restrictions on Catholics throughout her realm, abolished the monastery and handed the island to the Butler family.
In the 19th century a lighthouse was built on the island, and later the island was taken into public ownership by the Office of Public Works.
In 1995 the site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of just two in Ireland) for its “exceptional universal value”, and as a “unique example of an early religious settlement.”
While it is possible to visit the island today the numbers allowed to do so are strictly controlled. Only licensed operators may land on the island and only during the summer months. Even then bad weather often makes such trips impossible.
Visitors must access the settlement via the same 670 steps the monks used to climb the cliff. These do not have any guardrails and often become slippy. Injuries and even fatalities are not unknown.
A visit is well worth the risk however as the view from the top of the island alone is worth it. Spending some time considering the life the monks led and why they chose to live here will cause you to reflect on what is important in life.
Skellig Michael is about to become a lot more famous. In 2014 the crew of the Star Wars spent 4 days shooting scenes for Episode VII, The Force Awakens on the island. This was somewhat controversial given the limited access given to the public. However the government defended the decision by noting the limited number of people involved and that because, this was a controlled group, it would probably do less damage to the structures than the regular tourists.
A further 4 days shooting are expected in September 2015 for Episode VIII.
Whether you agree with the decision or not it is certain that the island is going to be a dramatic scene in the movies.
Visiting Skellig Michael
A visit to the island is not for the faint-hearted. Not only are there no facilities of any kind on the island but the safety structures are also limited. Fatalities have occurred more than once.
The Office of Public Works has prepared this video about visiting the island and what visitors should expect.
Want To Learn More?
There are a few books that look good about Skellig Michael if you’re interested…