Remote and serene – The Skelligs.
Skellig Michael and Small Skellig stand like Irish Bali Hai sentinels about 12 km off the coast from Portmagee. From the highlands of The Ring of Kerry the islands are seen as spectacular pinnacles on a clear day. A wisp of cloud adorned the tips of Skellig Michael as the boat pulls up in heaving seas next to the slippery stone quay. The island is not a good tour for the disabled.
Locally, Skellig Michael is known as the Machu Pichu of Ireland , but also known throughout the world of archaeology as the site of a well-preserved monastic outpost of the Early Christian period — now designated a World Heritage Site.
The Machu Pichu of Ireland.
Small Skellig is equally renowned for its ornithology, the home of some 27,000 pairs of gannets — the second largest colony of such seabirds in the world. The islands are not volcanic, although the sharp spires made them appear so, but they are created of the same 350–million-year-old Devonian Sandstone that runs right through the backbone of Kerry — from the county’s south-western headlands to the shores of Killarney’s lakes.
Once ashore I look up at the twisting path that leads to the monastery 600 feet above me, but that is the old route used by the monks before they modernized the three ancient stone step routes with sandstone flagstones. The new route winds around a rock ledge and under a tin roofed canopy below a colony of puffins. You will know the logic of the canopy when you smell the bird guano.
The monastery on Skellig Michael.
To get to the top of the Skellig Michael there are no hand rails along the steep stone steps, and just when you think you have them tackled, another set rises around the bend. Vertigo may be a non-priced addition to the tour.
At the top of the island, I bend over to go through a small passageway to get to the central courtyard of the monastery. Many famous monks are buried in the small cemetery, marked with crosses. The beehive shaped domes are wedged rocks, built with no mortar, thus preserving them since the 12th century. Skellig Michael is a national park and there is a park interpreter on duty at all times.
Little Skellig from Big Skellig.
After walking through the complex and sitting on a rock listening to the history of the religious shrine, I can feel the humbleness and serenity blow in with the wind like no other site that I have visited in Ireland, even on St. Patrick’s Island in the middle of Lake Corrib . The monastery is a truly enlightening experience and a testament to the spirit of the soul, the uplifting from sacrifice and struggle in the midst of nature.
As I video tape puffins in every nook and cranny on every ledge and rock on the climb back down, I notice a single egg under a rock guarded by an angry black and white chirping seabird. I am sure that Monastic McDonald’s served up Egg McPuffins during their tenure on the island outpost.
It is unbelievable that the cliff dwelling gannets migrate from here to Portugal, and that the shearwaters fly to South America, and the storm petrels, Europe’s smallest seabirds, travel to the warm waters of South Africa for winter vacations! En route to the islands we were met by the seabirds of Skellig — gannets, puffins, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, manx shearwaters, and fulmars.
It is great that the site is preserved and the Skellig Centre on across from Portmagee, called the Skellig Experience Centre, has an 80-seat auditorium and a 16-minute audio visual tpur, but to me no recreated model is needed when you are seated in the living laboratory of life.
But the Skellig Experience Centre does have a wonderful underwater gallery of still photographs and videography.
If diving Skellig waters, see the steel blue of the Conger Eel, the brilliant orange of Cup Coral, the multi-hued mauves of the Dahlia Anemone, the milky transparency of the Compass Jellyfish, and the ballerina-like grace of Skelligs’ Grey Seals, as they weave their way among the kelp fronds, always peering with a wide-eyed curiosity at the divers who daily visit this virtual ‘seal garden’ on the underwater cliffs of Small Skellig.
If you ever get to this remote southwestern corner of Ireland, the Skellig Islands must be on your itinerary.