THE BEST OF KERRY – (6) SCEILG MHICHÍL

We try NOT to catch anyone’s eye…. so we examine with extreme interest everything that is happening on shore as excited passengers all around us swap stories – the older couple on my left (well… older than us) announce that it’s their fourth attempt. A much younger couple, whom we recognise from our digs, declare it’s their NINTH time to book!! We CAN’T admit that this is in fact our first effort – we’d be rightly tossed overboard!! The conversation moves on and we can finally join in the craic. It’s 7.45am and 12 of us have seats on one of 3 boats setting off from Portmagee for the enthralling Sceilg Mhichíl.

It’s an absolute pet of a morning – sandwiched between 2 days of bad weather – you couldn’t make it up! We’d been watching the forecast for days, daring to think that our trip might actually happen. The owner of the boat phoned the day before with the news that we’d be going ahead, pending last minute confirmation, first thing in the morning, from heritage staff on the island.

Off we go…..

We head on the 12km trip through the Portmagee Channel and Valentia Sound….

Look at that sky!! Not the norm in these here parts, that’s for sure!

And there she is…

But we veer off course and head to Sceilg Bheag (Little Skellig) for a drive-by…

Gannets start arriving here in March and by April there is hardly a free ledge left in the island! Considered the largest sea bird in Europe, about 27,000 pairs of gannets inhabit the islands, making this their second largest colony in the world. This safe haven is ideal for nesting and rearing the young – the surrounding ocean provides rich feeding while difficult access keeps predators away – landing is not permitted here.

The landscape alone is stunning…

As we approach Sceilg Michíl, we can pick out the monks’ paths from the distance…

Our boat lands at Blind Man’s Cove, shortly followed by the other 2, and 36 of us make our way along the lighthouse road to the base of the climb where we are given the safety talk by a member of the heritage staff. (They work a roster, staying on the island for 2 weeks at a time).

And then we head off – we are the first visitors of the day (180 per day) so we’ve the comfort of knowing that we won’t meet anyone coming against us on the path.

618 steps… I’m determined not to moan!!!

At first it’s one behind the other but, pretty quickly, everyone settles to their own safe and comfortable pace.

This vertical rock is known as the Wailing Woman.

There’s the path below that leads from the docking area…

Most of the trail is ok but there were a few patches that I didn’t like – especially coming back down.

This is Christ’s Saddle – the only reasonably flat part of the island. Its a good place for a rest before the final ascent….

Yep – she’s practicing her Yoga on the steps (and no – it’s NOT me!!!😅 😂 )

Puffins, puffins, EVERYWHERE! We are lucky with the timing of our visit – it’s early August and within the next week or so, they’ll have left the island. Thousands of them spend their summers here, competing with petrels, fulmars, kittiwakes and shearwaters for nesting space. Come August and they leave, first in dribs and drabs but then almost overnight they’ve vanished. Research shows that they can travel as far as Canada in search of small oil-rich fish and spend most of the winter out in the Atlantic, feeding on small fish and plankton.

Other boats appear below us – there is an option of a boat tour around the 2 islands for those who don’t manage to get on a Landing Tour.

Quicker than expected, we reach the top…

…..and it’s everything I could have wished for…..

This was one of several monastic settlements on Ireland’s west coast islands- they made for ideal monastic locations – isolated and difficult to access but with building materials, food and water to hand.

The monks built massive drystone walls to create enclosures and level terraces. They constructed their buildings – round on the outside, rectangular within – in such a way that no drop of rain ever got inside between the stones. The walls provided shelter from the prevailing winds and created a microclimate, allowing for garden areas to grow essential food. There was no natural source of fresh water so channels were carved out to collect rainwater.

Life was simple. Typically, about 12 monks resided here. The beehive shaped huts accommodated three monks – as well as sleeping areas, they each had their own cupboard and stone pegs built into the walls. The Oratory was the communal cell and the most important building in the monastery. The monks would fish in the morning and spend the rest of the day at prayer, gardening or studying.

The monks constructed three sets of steps to their monastery, allowing for access during differing weather conditions. The steps close to the water are rock-cut – changing to drystone once they are out of reach of rough seas. Known as the East, South and North Steps, only the South Steps are accessible by the public today.

Back at Blind man’s Cove, we watch the activity as we await our boat…

….and here it comes…..

We’re not finished yet! The boat doesn’t head straight back to Portmagee but brings us around the island…

We spot another flight of steps…

In the early nineteenth century the island was purchased by the predecessors of the Commissioners of Irish Lights. They built the present landing pier and a road along the south and west side of the island to facilitate the construction of the two lighthouses situated on the west side of the island. The Lower Lighthouse was modernised in the 1960s and is still in use as an unmanned station.

Bye, bye…..

Trivia!

Sorting out the Name!

Sceilg mean splinter of stone.

The island is named after the Archangel Michael (Michíl)

Skellig Michael is the anglification of Sceilg Mhichíl

After the Monks….

During the 13th century, there was a general climatic change which resulted in colder weather and increased storms around the islands. About the same time, the structure of the Irish Church was changing and this combination of events seems to have signalled the end of the monastic community on the island. It is thought that the monks moved back to a nearby Augustinian Priory on the mainland.

In 1578, following the dissolution of the monasteries, the island passed to the Butler family but continued as a place of pilgrimage into the 18th century.

In 1989, the State purchased the island from the Commissioners of Irish Lights, with the exception of the working lighthouse and ancillary areas.

In 1996 Sceilg Mhichíl was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Authenticity

Because of its isolation, the island has been protected from much destruction – alterations made by the 19th century lighthouse builders were documented. Most of the structures within the monastery are almost intact, as are the stepped terraces and paved areas.

Due to the effects of time, extreme environment and increased visitor pressure, a conservation and repair programme has been in operation since the late 1970s. This work is in tandem with archeological investigation and all original features are retained and conserved in situ.

StarWars

Scenes from Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens were filmed here in 2014. (The Skelligs feature prominently at the end of the movie when the audience is reintroduced to Luke Skywalker). Filming took place again in 2015 for Episode VIII The Last Jedi. .

Small Stuff

Tours:

We booked with Casey’s Skellig Islands Tours

Tours are seasonal and weather / tide dependent.

The Boat Tour around the islands lasts about 2.5 hours. (€40)

The Skellig Landing Tour (€103.50) is restricted number wise so booking is vital. If the boat cannot make the journey on your appointed day, you are unlikely to get a space on the following days. 15 boats have licenses and can land just once per day with 12 passengers (180 total per day). Children must be 12 years and over.

The excursion takes nearly 5 hours in total but you are asked when booking to keep the whole day free – times vary at the last minute due to tides, weather, etc. Our 8.30am start was brought forward to 7.45 but could go anytime up to 12.30.

The boat trip is about 50 minutes each way and circa 2.5 hours are allowed on the island.

What to Bring:

Anti-nausea medication if you are prone to seasickness.

Dress for the four seasons! Rain jacket / Sunscreen and sunglasses / Warm clothes for the boat ride – if its a good day wear something you can tie around your waist on the island.

Walking shoes. Sandals or flip flops are a very bad idea.

Water and snacks. You can eat at Christ’s Saddle or along the lower road and pier (you are asked not to eat at the monastery).

Your camera of course and binoculars if you have a set.

Is it Manageable?

In a word YES. I’m not good in exposed areas and have a poor head for heights. But 2 things worked in my favour – we were the first group of the day so no one was coming down as we climbed. For some reason or other, we also met no one on our descent – there was a group getting their pep talk as we reached the bottom but hadn’t as yet set off. I found a few stretches of path challenging – especially on the way down – but we’d started back before most of the group so I knew I wasn’t holding anyone up. Most steps were wide enough for 2 people so there’s room to just stop and let more confident visitors pass by if necessary.

Obviously, anyone with health or mobility issues should carefully consider the trip.

Note – there are NO toilets on the island!

Where to Stay – It’s best to stay close by – either in Portmagee itself or a nearby town. We stayed in Cahirciveen, about 16kms from the boat.

Afterwards

There are plenty of eateries in Portmagee. It’s a busy spot – with daytrippers on the Ring of Kerry as well as the boat trippers. I’d jelly legs after my trip and was glad of the coffee and scones at Skellig Rock Cafe but quickly recovered enough to celebrate our wonderful morning (and great weather) with a mixed seafood platter at the Fisherman’s Bar!!

31 thoughts on “THE BEST OF KERRY – (6) SCEILG MHICHÍL

  1. Wow, 618 steps – I’m not sure I could make it but I can see how worthwhile it is from your photos 😲 The views, the old monastery remains and all those puffins too! The seafood platter looks pretty good too 😆

    1. Actually it didn’t feel like that number of steps – and I HATE steps!! There’s a lot of stopping and looking around so it breaks the climb. It’s a wonderful place Sarah – worth the effort…

  2. What a fabulous tour Marie. Glad the booking worked out. We tried in 2017, but could not get a booking. A harsh way of life for the monks, but they would have little company except the birds. Jealous of your closeness to the puffins, such colourful birds. Thanks for taking us along. Allan

    1. I don’t know how anyone could exist out there – although they were simpler times to be sure. We couldn’t believe the puffins – everyone loved them – they caused as much excitement as the place itself!

  3. Gosh, what a trip – you were indeed so lucky with the timing of your epic trip!
    And your seafood platter looks as though it was well earned, but a good way to end such a memorable day..!

    1. It’s ALL about timing…but spoke to 2 others since then who’d each been trying for a few years and both got out this summer – which is great also for the boat owners and everyone else tied to the trip…
      The platter tasted as good as it looks!!!!😋

  4. I’m glad you published all this pictures, Marie, because it ensures that I will never, ever, attempt that journey. My heart was in my mouth as I read and look at the images, my stomach hit the floor a few times with that awful cold feeling in my innards to follow. I might have made it up but coming down I would have been a total wreck. I remember embarrassing my husband in Turkey while crossing a rope bridge and I broke down and just sat on the floor and screamed. But that was vertigo. Could I have seen Sceilg Mhichíl from the land? I have it in my head that I sat on a rock once and looked at it but I could have mixed it up with something else. I remember it was near Valentia.

    1. I wasn’t mad about the journey down – there were a few spots is which I felt vulnerable to say the least! I’d definitely have panicked if I’d run into a group making their way up.
      You’re absolutely right – it’s very visible from that stretch of coast….

    1. I feel very privileged to have been there – I suspect that further restrictions are not far down the track – Between health and safety issues as well as conservation and heritage concerns, I can see it being closed to the public within a few years…

  5. What an amazing place, and the smaller bird island is incredible, sculptured by the sea! Those 618 steps definitely look challenging, and so close to the edge…… I enjoyed reading the history of the monastery, and the structures look intriguing. What a wonderful experience you had!

    1. Little Skellig was a nice bonus – it is very dramatic isn’t it. And it’s incredible what the monks managed to achieve out there. We’re very lucky to have visited…

  6. What a fascinating place with quite the history! How curious that the monks would build there…but then I guess they wouldn’t have to worry about being bothered by anything or anyone else. Those puffins are toooo cute!

    1. There were many monastic settlements in isolated places on the mainland but this has to be the most dramatic…I can’t imagine that boat trip back then…

  7. Good heavens, I’ve never seen such a place! There are no railings on the steps. What if you’d got dizzy? I suppose then I wouldn’t be reading this blog.

    1. Very true!!!!😅 😂
      I’m just surprised from an insurance point of view – there have been a few serious accidents in the past – that’s why I’m so glad we got out there – it cannot last!

  8. Wow, this is a wonderful secret to explore! I don’t think I could have made it up those steps, and imagine they are usually wet from the weather. The structures at the top are fascinating, and of course the puffins! I saw them in Iceland, after boating out to a remote island, as you did here. Great story and photos.

    1. We’d such a lovely morning that I didn’t think to ask any of the staff about the climb after rain. I certainly wouldn’t fancy the steps if they were wet. Aren’t puffins just the best!!! I’d say everyone came away with just as many photos of the birds as the settlement and scenery! XXX

  9. A terrific account! We took the ride around the two islands and enjoyed it a lot and your photos reminded me of how gorgeous the area is on a sunny day. Excellent photos of your climb, too. Thank you!

    1. Glad it brought back memories- You can see quite a bit from the boat can’t you – even the steps look impressive. And the crew will go out of their way to find any wildlife that might be hanging about! Did you have to prebook or did you just turn up?

Leave a Reply