SKELLIG ISLANDS on the south west, Atlantic coast of Ireland has become a familiar site since it was chosen for the closing scene of Star Wars, the Force Awakens. German director, Werner Herzog, used the island for the opening scene of his 1976 film, Heart of Glass. JJ Abrams plans to film there again for the opening scenes of the next Star Wars movie. For more than 1400 years since it was first inhabited, these remote islands have attracted people. The first were hermit monks, seeking SOLITUDE.
“But for the magic that takes you out, far out of this time and this world, there is Skellig Michael”
Even George Bernard Shaw conceded that words alone could not capture the awesome splendour of the Atlantic islands of Skellig. There is magic there, the magic of isolation, the feeling of standing on the edge of the world.
If words do exist that describe the primeval sensation of standing atop the larger of the two Skelligs, Skellig Michael, they are probably to be found in the Gaelic language. Sceilig, (pronounced Shkellig) is a word that is as uncompromisingly harsh sounding as the huge splinter of sea rock that it describes. The Scilly Isles, off the western tip of Cornwall, take their name from the same Celtic origin.
The day that our small party took off from Ballinskelligs pier on one of the seven boats that bring visitors, it was ‘a fairly calm day.’ The swell was a cupful less than 20 feet. The Skelligs – Small Skellig and Skellig Michael – lie seven miles off the south west coast of County Kerry, Ireland. Visible from the mainland on just a handful of days in the year, both are virtually inaccessible by sea for all but three months. Even then, the conditions must be right.
The boats make the trip to the Skelligs every day for 2½ months, between June and August, weather permitting. They leave every morning from small ports dotting the Kerry coast – Derrynane, Ballinskelligs and Valentia Island – and they return in the late afternoon, spending the interval, fishing the fish-rich and Gulf-warmed water around the islands.
There were 15 people on our boat that Sunday morning, seven Irish and eight foreign tourists. When we reached the island, I counted 80 visitors.
The islands, as they appear on the horizon of the giant Atlantic wave troughs, look like the ghostly images of two huge four-masted sailing ships. The impression is enhanced by the centuries old blanket of guano that covers Small Skellig, breeding ground of many ocean birds, stormy petrel, gannets, puffins, razorbills, kittiwakes and the Manx shearwater.
Surrounded by mist and mystery, the history of this island outpost of Europe, begins in the 5th century, when it was colonised by a group of hermit, Christian monks. The myth stretches back further, to the days of the giant hero of Irish folklore, Finn McCool, who fought the King of the World, from the nearby mainland.
There is nowhere to go on Skellig Michael but up – 714 feet and an estimated 44 acres of sheer rock. There is a road, 3,200 feet of it, blasted out of the cliff face that it clings to that winds up to the lighthouses – one, 375 feet above sea level and abandoned since 1866; the other, 175 feet above sea level, still in use and now, fully automatic. In winter, the towering Atlantic waves are so high, the lighthouse keepers had to stay indoors, sometimes for weeks.
While the lighthouse road winds its way around the island, the route upward to the monastic ruins is via the 1,400 year old steps built, or rather hewn, from the bare rock face by those early inhabitants.
Looking up, your eyes follow the climbing stairway. Up and up again, until straining for better view, you find yourself leaning dangerously backward.
Two other routes to the top are virtually inaccessible now.
Tourists disembark at Blind Man’s Cove and make their way by the lighthouse road to the beginning of the Southern Stairway. There are 600 steps. There are no railings, no walls, no ditches – just you, the sky, the rock, the sea.
Breathtaking, innervating, thrilling – don’t look up, down, anywhere. Look everywhere. Welcome to the edge of the world.
Already encumbered by excessive baggage and the scorching heat, I was further hampered by a party of tourist, who paused every few minutes, to remark on some aspect of the fauna that had caught their attention. The result was a single file of impatient visitors waiting on a cliff face for the line to advance. As I struggled to keep my balance, I was struck by another group – too young for matrons, too old to be schoolgirls, it was a party of Catholic nuns in mufti.
Sure enough, when we reached the top and the guide from the Office of Public Works had delivered her excellent lecture, the sisters assisted a priest in their company in celebrating an open air mass on the grounds of the monastic ruins.
Bemused tourists looked on. Some kneeled on the hard rock to pray, others set out to explore and still others lay down in the sun.
Asking how or why the monks settled here is a rhetorical exercise. They were members of an eremetical sect – the reclusive life, living here, on the edge of the world, was not an exclusion, I reflected, but an effort to approach their own source essence, their God.
There have been many visitors to the Skelligs since. In the Middle Ages it was a popular place for penitent pilgrimage. Many sailors paid unwitting visits, their ships foundering on the rocks.
Magic, religion, call it what you like. Ornithologists, archaeologists, chroniclers, writers, pilgrims, druids, kings, Norsemen, monks, fugitives and tourists have been attracted to it through the years.
To the experts, I leave the history and the ornithology, because they are, along with the archaeologists and the lighthouse people, the real keepers of the rock.
“But for the magic that takes you out, far out of this time and this world,” Shaw wrote, “there is Skellig Michael, ten miles off the Kerry coast, shooting straight up, 700 feet, out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the graveyard on the summit of that cliff, among the beehive dwellings and their beehive oratory, does not know Ireland, through and through.”
As our small boat ploughed a wake through the Atlantic swell, my companions and I felt, in our private reveries that we had, like Shaw, been taken far out there.
(First published in the Washington Post, November 10, 1985, Author: Dermott Hayes)