George Bernard Shaw captured the weird, other-worldly atmosphere of Skellig Michael best:
“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.“
Skellig Michael feels surreal – there is something undoubtedly mystical in the air. The fact that people actually lived on this tiny, harsh rock battered by the Atlantic is unfathomable.
It takes a bit of effort to get there; stay in Portmagee, Kerry (below), as the boats leave from there, and it’s dinky and colourful. There’s a B&B on the waterfront that will contact the boat men and arrange it for you.
With the mists breaking over Valentia Island, the journey out there in the early morning is pure adventure.
Dose up on seasickness pills: the boat is a bockety old tub that bounces up and down violently for an hour, and there are no life-jackets to be seen. You give your name to the captain before descending a rusty ladder into the craft, and he collects the cash for the passage during the journey (€40 approx):
It’s not for the faint-hearted. There is no harbour on Skellig Michael: you need to haul yourself from the boat onto a makeshift jetty, carved from the rock of the island. You may find yourself, as I did, with one leg in the dramatically listing boat and the other on the rock, with a salty sea-dog roaring at you to ‘JUMP!’:
Once you’re on the rock, the paths up are precipitous and vertiginous:
There have been recent deaths on Skellig Michael, from falls: it’s easy to stop watching your feet and to lose your balance. The steps are unreal, as if built by ancient giants, some of them leading up into the clouds and fairly scary to climb:
There are sheer drops to the side of you on the paths, for most of the way up:
Little Skellig provides the views in the distance; you cannot alight on it but the boats will circle it on the way.
The Skelligs are full of puffins until about July: they are everywhere, and quite used to humans:
At the top of Skellig Michael is the site of the ancient monastery, dating from a thousand years ago.
Here is where a sense of quiet awe takes over – the improbable thought of people living in these beehive huts all year round, lashed by the Atlantic winds, is astounding. There is a real sense of mystery; if I were spiritual I’d say it was, er, spiritual:
The monks are buried here; their misshapen graves overlooking Little Skellig:
They lived here until the 12th or 13th century, when the climate became colder and stormier and the living too harsh, at which point the small community moved to the mainland. It is gobsmacking, when you’re looking into the beehives (where you can still see the rocky shelves they slept on), to imagine anyone staying there permanently.
Views of Little Skellig from the pinnacle
George Bernard Shaw said ‘I hardly feel real again yet’ after visiting Skellig Michael.
The other-worldly atmosphere, and the strange buzz you get from exploring a place so alien and out of place, stay with you for months afterwards. I couldn’t stop thinking about the whole day, from the mental boat ride to the climb up to the beehives and down again.
Boats near Little Skellig
Puffin on Skellig Michael
Coming down is no easier than going up; please do not wear flappy flares, like I did.
There are over 600 steps, all of them vertical, wonky and treacherous.
The view from the steps to the modern pathway below
Puffins on Skellig Michael
At the summit
Wild and rocky Atlantic vistas
Leaving Skellig Michael
Back on the mainland, Skellig Michael exerts a strange, magnetic pull over the landscape: you stare and stare at it, and you hardly believe that you were there:
Views from Valentia Island
Oh! and there are no toilets on Skellig Michael, so go easy on the liquids.