Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael is the site of an old Irish monastery. It is one of the most famous and impressive sites from the ancient Christian world which can still be seen today in its original and true form. It is a monastic site sitting on the top of a rock in the middle of the wild Atlantic Ocean. The site represents an Irish expression of the Christian search for solitude, a solitude they believed would bring them closer to God. In the sixth or seventh century when this site was founded it must indeed have been a solitary place. The monastery and associated buildings the monks founded on Skellig were occupied for over 600 years after its initial establishment. There is no documentary evidence available to define exactly who or when the site was founded but tradition affords its creation to St. Fionan and it was most probably built around the sixth century. The site was attacked on a number of occasions by Vikings since its establishment the first recorded instance being in 824. Sometime in the mid-tenth century, the monastery was dedicated to St. Michael. It was abandoned by the thirteen century but still seems to have been used by the monks (who settled in nearby Ballinskelligs on the mainland) as a place of pilgrimage for centuries to follow. During this period it seems likely from the evidence available that they continued to maintain the structures on the island. It is most probable that they left Skellig for the winter months and returned to the mainland only occupying the monastery for pilgrimage during the summer months.

To truly appreciate that which is Skellig Michael (Skellig rock) you must first change your mindset. You need to cast yourself back to the sixth or seventh century AD and try to visualise the landscape. A landscape that would have been largely covered in woodlands and scrub with no roads or infrastructure of any sort. It would have been an extremely harsh environment, particularly in winter where daylight would have been limited to between eight and ten hours, climatically it would have been wet, damp, and cold. Next, you have to visualise the location of Skellig Michael, a rock sitting some 12 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean off the most western point in Europe. If you think it's difficult to get to Kerry or the Skelligs today remember that when the monastery was founded on the Skelligs it is most probable that it would have been accessible only during the summer months for two main reasons. One is weather conditions. It would not have been possible to brave the Atlantic Ocean and land on the rock in winter time (seas would have been too rough and dangerous) and secondly, lack of daylight would have been a major factor. It would most probably have taken a boat of its time some eight to tens hours to reach the rock from the mainland and daylight would have been a must to land on the rock. It is in this context that we must view the monks that founded this holy place.

There are two main elements to the site on Skellig Michael (both of which are a testament to the amazing engineering skills of the monks), the hermitage and the monastery. Both are built in perfect harmony with their environment. The first element of the monastery is located just below the top of a steeply sloping plateau on the east side of the island. The monastery is made up of churches, bee hive huts (habitation cells) a cemetery, and a garden. It is accessed by three spectacular sets of steps that extend upwards from sea level. The second element, the hermitage is located just below the island's south peak and can be reached after climbing from the flat centre part of the island known as Christ’s Saddle. (The island of Skellig is made up of two very distinct peaks with a U shape in between)

The monastery which is best known for its bee hive huts also encompasses the ruins of a church, a large and small oratory, a garden, and a graveyard. The monastery was carefully planned and built sheltered to the northern side by the natural rocks and protected to the southern side by a series of man-made retaining walls. The retaining walls were fundamental to the site providing shelter from the prevailing southerly winds and also creating level terraces upon which the remaining structures were built. Given its exposed location, many of the walls have collapsed over the years, some during the original period of habitation by the monks and some in later years. There is much evidence of rebuilding of the walls by the monks themselves down the centuries initially during the period when they were in residence on the island and afterwards when they visited for pilgrimages.

Life on Skellig would have been a demanding experience for the monks. Living quarters consisted of the bee hive hut-shaped habitation cells which while functional did not afford any luxury. Their diet would most probably have consisted of fish and bird eggs. (There is a bird colony on the adjoining rock, landing on this is not permitted). Their days would have been filled with a combination of prayer and physically demanding work. The building and maintenance of the structures on Skellig would have been very labor-intensive.

The monastic site on Skellig Michael is to this day in a very impressive state largely due to its isolated location of the site and the unique building skills of the monks who built this truly magnificent structure over 1,500 years ago. A visit to this site is highly recommended.

Skellig Michael was included on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1996.