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.
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.
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.
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. .
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.
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!!