All You Need to Know About Touring the Skelligs
Twelve kilometers off the coast of Kerry, way out in the Atlantic Ocean, movie stars have trodden. Hollywood gets everywhere! When Luke Skywalker, aka actor Mark Hamill, climbed the famous rock of Skellig Michael to film ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, the whole movie world took notice when he said it was ‘indescribably beautiful’. Other members of cast and crew described Skellig Michael as ‘unbelievable’ and ‘a sort of miracle’. In earlier times, George Bernard Shaw stated Skellig Michael was an ‘incredible, impossible, mad place.’ There’s a theme running here somewhere! If you want wild tourism in Ireland, it doesn’t get much wilder than the Skelligs.
Long before Star Wars, this Unesco World Heritage Site has long been known to be hauntingly stunning. Those who have visited always believed that Skellig Michael and its baby brother Little Skellig were special places of myth and magic.
The Skelligs take their name from the Irish word ‘Sceillic’ which means steep rock, formed from Old Red Devonian Sandstone which dates back about 350million years. It’s thought that when sea levels rose around 100 million years later in this part of Ireland, the Skelligs were cut off from the mainland.
The first mention of the Skelligs in legend is as the burial place of Ir, son of Milesius, who drowned during the landing of the Milesians in Irish pre-history. There may well have been monks on the larger island, formerly known as Great Skellig, as early as the 5th Century. But the first recorded clue to the religious connections of the Skelligs comes from the 8th Century, with the recording of the death of the monk ‘Suibhne of Scelig’.
The Skelligs were chosen as a special place to dedicate themselves to the worship of God by monks who wanted to withdraw from ordinary life, to a place of extreme inaccessibility. This resulted in the founding of a monastery on the larger rock sometime between the 6th and 8th Century. The monastic settlement still intact here gives a perfect example of the penitence and hardship early Christian monks took upon themselves, in order to prove their devotion.
How they survived, 12km off the mainland on a rock amid an often raging ocean, with extremes of weather and very little shelter or food, is something beyond our understanding. The name of the larger rock was dedicated to Michael the Archangel some time before 1044, becoming known as Skellig Michael with the recording of the death of ‘Aedh of Sceilic-MichÁel’. Skellig Michael was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1996.
VISITING SKELLIG MICHAEL
A visit to Skellig Michael is not for the faint hearted. The early Irish did not name this island ‘steep rock’ for nothing. Skellig Michael soars 715 feet into the sky at its highest point. The climb to the top should only be attempted by those who are fit and don’t have a fear of heights or suffer from vertigo. It’s also important to note that there are no toilet or tourist facilities of any kind on Skellig Michael or on the boats. The journey including boat trip takes around 6 hours, so it's important visitors bring waterproof clothing, water and food with them in a rucksack. It’s highly recommended you check out the OPW’s safety guide short film on the World Heritage Island site for Skellig Michael before you visit. This talks you through from arrival to the island, plus the ascent and descent to the monastic site and what hazards you can expect en route.
WHAT YOU WILL SEE
For those who do visit the island, and there were over 14,000 visitors recorded by the Office of Public Works in 2016, an amazing experience awaits. The trip is well rewarded with far reaching views, the sounds of the ocean and the cries of seabirds, a completely unspoiled natural environment and a sense of wonder at the sheer resilience of those humans who lived in this isolated environment.
Skellig Michael has over 600 steps to the monastic site which is over 600ft above sea level. A walled monastic settlement contains six beehive huts where the monks lived. There are two oratories here, plus the remains of Saint Michael’s Church. The monks graveyard has a full set of high crosses which are still in their original places.
All in all, you’ll be in awe at how this place of worship was created. All these buildings were made by hand with stone from the rock, probably excavated from Christ’s Saddle which is a stop along the way on your journey up and down the steps.
WILDLIFE ON THE SKELLIGS
These rocks are two of the most important breeding sites for sea birds on the island of Ireland. The Skelligs support some of biggest breeding grounds for Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrols in the world. Little Skellig has the second largest colony of breeding Gannets in the world. Gannets look spectacular when they fold back their wings and dive like a torpedo into the waves to catch a fish.
You may also see puffins here till August, or spot Fulmars, Kittiwakes, Guillemots, Choughs, Ravens and majestic Peregrine Falcons soaring high in the sky.
Grey seals hang out on the rocks of Skellig Michael, which is also home to mice and rabbits.
SKELLIGS EXPERIENCE ON VALENTIA ISLAND
If you decide a boat journey and long climb isn’t for you, you can still get a sense of the Skelligs and their history at the Skelligs Experience on Valentia Island. The visitor centre shows a documentary about the Skelligs and the monks who chose this as a place of religious solitude, giving an insight into their lives. Exhibitions showcase the history, wildlife and lighthouses on the Skellig Michael.
WHERE TO EAT AND SLEEP ON THE IVERAGH PENINSULA
The Iveragh Peninsula is one of Ireland’s stunning fingers of rock into the Atlantic Ocean in the south west of the country. There are a clutch of Good Food Ireland members in this region.
THE SMUGGLERS INN
Located on Ballinskelligs Bay, The Smugglers Inn in Waterville is owned and run by the Hunt family. Henry Hunt is head chef, churning out a stunning array of local specialities including seafood, Kerry lamb and local vegetables. Smugglers is right on the ocean and a short walk down from the garden leads you straight onto the golden beach. Rooms here are comfy and cosy and make a great place to get your head down for some Zs before or after you visit Skellig Michael or the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre.
QUINLAN & COOKE BOUTIQUE TOWNHOUSE AND SEAFOOD RESTAURANT
In Cahirciveen on the Wild Atlantic Way, Kate and Andrew Cooke have created the wonderful QC’s Seafood Restaurant, specialising in the freshest fish caught by Kate’s family’s fishing boats. Add to this a spectacular boutique townhouse accommodation which encompassies stylish interiors and excellent residential facilities.
After a delicious meal in the restaurant, you’ve got a designer bedroom to rest your head. Quinlan & Cooke Townhouse makes a great base for exploring this stunning area which is close to Velentia harbour for boat tours to the Skelligs, plus a few other historical attractions like Daniel O’Connell’s Memorial Church in the town and some ancient stone forts and monuments close by.