Sacred Skellig is a UNESCO site
Those Skelligs are like two huge cathedrals rising out of the sea.
This description by an English visitor sums up the awe inspired by the two otherworldy islands that loom eight miles off the coast of Kerry.
Skellig Michael (700ft, 213m) with its black cliffs and needle-like peaks was home to a community of hermit monks between the 6th and 12th centuries. The significance of the sacred site has earned it designation as one of only three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ireland.
The monastic settlement is comprised of stone beehive huts set 600ft above sea level. A hallowed centre of pilgrimage through the ages, it was the subject of a Viking attack in 823AD.
The English writer and aviator, Daphne Pouchin Mould, delivered the following humorous take on the monks.
They were fat, had a great life living on puffins, and donations from pilgrims, and free from women.
Because of the popularity of the day trip to Skellig Michael, visitors are booking the Skellig boat trip one year in advance. Too late for that? Some local boat operators will tell you that if you turn up at the main departure point, Portmagee, at 8am on the day, there are ‘always cancellations’, but that’s a long way to drive on a chance or gamble (allow two hours to drive comfortably from Killarney to Portmagee and to park).
The other option is a two-hour Eco Tour cruise AROUND the Skelligs to take in the sealife, bird life and absolute majesty of the towering ‘cathedrals’. Note that these cruises do NOT land on Skellig Michael (https://skelligislands.com)
There are also panoramic views of the Skelligs from the Skellig Ring (see Lonely Planet listing) and from Valentia Island where the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre (skelligexperience.com) is to be recommended. The centre is located minutes drive from Portmagee village via the Island bridge. Portmagee, the main departure point, has a fishing pier, excellent seafood restaurants, coffee shops. It’s the stuff of postcards.
Fifteen boats licensed to carry 12 passengers each sail to Skellig Michael from mid-May to the first week in October – weather permitting. The trip lasts roughly from 9am to 2.30pm (www.skelligsrock.com)
Passing Small Skellig with its 27,000 pairs of nesting gannets en route brings Hichcock’s film, ‘The Birds’, to mind.
The Skellig Michael visit lasts a little over two hours. Be aware that there is a very steep ascent on stone steps hewn from the rock. Colonies of puffins, guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars nest on the island between April and August.
George Bernard Shaw, Irish dramatist and 1925 winner of the Noble prize for Literature, wrote in 1910
But for the magic that takes you out far out of this time and this world, there is Skellig Michel ten miles off the Kerry coast, shooting straight up seven hundred feet sheer out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the grave-yard on the summit of that cliff among the beehive dwellings and beehive oratory does not know Ireland through and through.
As well as being a place of historical pilgrimage, the forbidding islands also shelter a surprising link with romance and marriage in tradition and folklore. For several centuries, the Catholic Church forbade marriage during the season of Lent. Bachelors and single women who hadn’t married by Shrove Tuesday were pilloried in comical and often savagely satirical verse collectively known as the Skellig Lists.
Shrove Tuesday, also known as Pancake Tuesday, is the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent; the liturgical season comprises the forty days before Easter and is associated with fasting and doing penance. Because the monks observed an older church calendar and celebrated Easter twelve days later than Rome, couples could circumvent the Lenten marriage ban by making a pilgrimage to Skellig and getting married there. The ballads and poems, composed anonymously for the Skellig Lists, exhorted altar-shy couples to take the Skellig boat and opt for an island ceremony. The sensitivities of the unwed weren’t spared, for instance, in this example of ribaldry in which the names have been changed.
John Doe with his felt hat, his name must enrol,
He’s always doing the devil in some polluted hole,
My advice to John is before he takes a wife
Is to go to some strand to wash his yellow hide.