On Saturday I met a sailor, Ireland’s first surfer, a spear-fishing medalist and a ballroom dancing champion – and that was just one man.
Joe Roddy was a small, unassuming gentleman around eighty-years-old, with bright white hair and a kind face. We met on the seafront at Portmagee in Kerry, where he enthusiastically embraced me with a beaming smile, linked our arms and marched me to our vessel for the short journey to Skellig Michael. I was the last to get on the boat and Joe insisted I sit up front with him at the wheel.
Immediately he began chatting away. As he handed me various laminated newspaper cuttings detailing his achievements, I realised he wasn’t exactly a modest man – although that’s hardly surprising. It was only shortly before landing that we finally got onto the subject of Skellig Michael – the purpose of my trip. Having been a sailor for the last fifty years, Joe told me he had landed on the island 20,000 times. He spoke of how magical it is, and promised that the tough climb to the monastery would be worth the effort. In his thick Irish accent he explained how he marvelled the hard work and dedication of the Christian monks who lived here.
Minutes later we landed, the first boat on the island that day. “Twenty-thousand-and-one”, grinned Joe as he helped me off the boat like a true gent. Our boat party had been told to make the most of being first on the island, so before I could even turn to wave the boat was already pulling off and we were left to ascend the steep steps of Skellig.
Before embarking on the climb we were given a starkly honest safety briefing; two people fell and died here a few years ago, and not because they were being careless – the rocks really are that dangerous. Now a little fearful, we began the advance. After ten steep steps I was already breathless: Skellig Michael was about to give me the ultimate fitness test and I was determined to reach the top before any other boats landed.
The steps zig-zagged upwards on the side of the steep island, colourful little puffins nestled in holes and on rocks and the views out to sea, the mainland and Little Skellig were spectacular. I passed sheer drops on either side of the steps in some places, there were rarely safety railings to clutch onto and the novelty of those adorable puffins wore off as I became more focused on not tumbling to my death.
A taxing forty minutes later, after numerous rest stops and water breaks, I arrived at the monastery, panting and disorientated. Laid out before me, standing humbly among the rocks, were the foundations of ancient buildings and the famous beehive-style huts that you see in every brochure, calendar and postcard of Kerry. Over the years Skellig Michael has seen all kinds of attacks, from battering winds to charging Vikings in the eighth and ninth century – yet the buildings still stand over a thousand years later.
It is thought (no one really knows for certain) that the monks arrived on the island in the sixth century and brought with them all the masonry needed to construct this modest home. Even the plateau itself is man-made, as the island has no naturally flat surface. This was monasticism to an extreme degree.
Looking out on the stunning blue canvas of sea and sky towards Little Skellig, home to the the largest gannet colony in Europe, I reflected on the sheer bravery of those monks. But just as soon as I began to search for that “magical” feeling, the rest of the tourist throng reached the top of the steps. Among the 50-odd people that had joined me, my tranquility was ruined and the magic – if it was there at all – was well and truly gone. I decided it was time to make my descent.
“So, how was it?” Joe Roddy asked me expectantly back on the boat. “Great,” I replied, “very beautiful.” I wasn’t lying, but the doubt in my voice conveyed that I wasn’t as touched as some visitors have been. He hid any disappointment well and was soon in high spirits again, teaching me the four-step as we careered through the ocean. Dancing has got him into trouble a few times, he told me, as he believes every lady deserves to dance, whether her husband approves or not. When we landed back in Portmagee we shook hands and he sent me on my way, merry as ever.
It was only when I was in the car later that afternoon, exploring the circular coastal Skellig Ring road – a route without the coach-congestion of the more popular Ring of Kerry – when I finally felt that “magic”. As I turned a corner and drove up a slight hill onto the cliff tops, Skellig Michael rose up from the edges and sat solitary, proudly and determinedly in the choppy North Atlantic. Slowing to a standstill, only then did I really understand the gravity of the island’s history and the lives its inhabitants led.
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Photography in this piece is by fine-art photographer, graphic designer and artist Madeleine Maria Weber – you can find out more about her work on her website. All images © Madeleine Weber.