An incredible, impossible, mad place…I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world…
– George Bernard Shaw
A voyage to the Skellig Islands (Na Scealga, “the crags”), rising sharply from the sea 10km off the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, is one of the most exciting and inspiring trips you can make in Ireland. On top of the larger of these two inhospitable, shark’s-tooth islands, Skellig Michael (or Great Skellig), a monastery was somehow constructed in the late seventh or early eighth century, in imitation of the desert communities of the early Church fathers, and dedicated to St Michael, the patron saint of high places. The exposed, often choppy boat-ride out, followed by Manx shearwaters, storm petrels and puffins from Puffin Island, a nature reserve at the edge of St Finan’s Bay, only adds to the sense of wild isolation. Little Skellig is a nature reserve too, crawling with over fifty thousand gannets and now officially full (the excess moved to the Saltees off County Wexford); landing is forbidden here, but the boatmen will come in close so you can watch the gannets diving for fish and hear their awesome din.
If you come in spring or early summer, you’ll have thousands of cute breeding puffins to keep you company on the 200-metre ascent from Skellig Michael’s quay. The compact, remarkably well preserved monastery in the lee of the summit is a miracle of ingenuity and devotion. It was built entirely on artificial terraces, facing south–southeast for maximum sunlight, with sturdy outer walls to deflect the winds and to protect the vegetable patch made of bird droppings; channels crisscross the settlement to funnel rainwater into cisterns. You can walk into the dry-stone, beehive huts, chapels and refectory, which would have sheltered a total of twelve to fifteen monks at any one time and have withstood the worst the Atlantic can throw at them for 1300 years. The high cross beside the large oratory probably marks the burial of the founder, reputed to have been St Fionán, or an early saint.
At least three Viking raids in the ninth century were not enough to dislodge the monks, but during the climatic change of the twelfth century, the seas became rougher and more inhospitable. Around the same time, pressure was brought to bear on the old independent monasteries to conform, and the monks adopted the Augustinian rule and moved to Ballinskelligs on the mainland. Pilgrimages to Skellig Michael, however, continued until the eighteenth century, even after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.