To be honest, munching white pudding for breakfast in Moorings and contemplating my imminent visit to Skellig Michael, I wasn’t thinking about sixth century monks. I was thinking about my head for heights – or lack of it. Six hundred steps doesn’t sound too bad but I’d seen pictures – the “steps” looked more like rock ladders, heading straight for heaven. A sign on Portmagee pier warned visitors to consider the climb “mountaineering” and not to attempt it in wet or windy weather. The statement, both bald and vague, that “There have been fatalities” was chilling. Was I up to this?
At the next table four Irishwomen were discussing their visit the day before. “Look at your feet – not up, not down,” they advised. One gave me the staff she’d had the forethought to take. “It’s worth it,” she assured me, scanning my face and patting my hand.
The island of Skellig Michael, about 12 kilometres off the Iveragh Peninsula, is part of the mountain range that makes the Ring of Kerry so spectacular. Skellig Michael is the pinnacle of an underwater mountain – and that’s exactly what it looked like as our boats converged on Blind Man’s Cove, one of only three landing-places among the sheer cliffs of the coastline. Despite the sunny almost windless day and calm sea it took all our boatman’s concentration to bring Shelluna safely alongside the concrete pier.
“It’s a mountain,” agreed Katherine the guide, meeting us at the foot of the South Steps. “Treat it like one.” She had two priorities for us: safety, and understanding the place we’d come to. “Pilgrims came here for hundreds of years. You guys are pilgrims too.”
As I started up the South Steps I began to understand what she meant. My fellow-visitors were buzzing: eagerness mixed with awe. The mountain demanded respect. The steps were every bit as steep and exposed as they looked in the pictures: rough, uneven, each slanting in a different direction. I tried to imagine the monks carrying these slabs, or standing precariously on the almost-vertical slope to hack at the bedrock. The steps are maintained by the guides but there’s only so much you can do in the interests of safety without destroying history. Hand-rails on the most exposed sections helped, but I was careful to follow the advice of the ladies at breakfast: sitting down was the only way to appreciate the view.
In every direction it was dizzying. The ocean, breaking against cliffs far beneath my feet, sparkled in the sun and stretched forever. The crags overhead, lichened boulders springing from beds of short green grass speckled with yellow and white flowers, loomed against the blue sky and seemed to tilt eternally forward.
I had the panicky sensation that in this place gravity wasn’t strong enough. Any moment my body might leave the ground, free-floating as an untethered balloon, and be blown into the sky – or dropped into the sea. This was true vertigo – the familiar irrational urge to jump from a bridge onto a moving train or the spinny feeling of looking down a spiral stairwell paled in comparison.
Katherine had warned us, “There’s something about this place. Experienced mountaineers get disoriented here.” And I wondered if this vertiginous sensation was the real appeal for the monks – maybe it confirmed the place as truly close to heaven. They wrote accounts of “angels and demons fighting overhead” which modern-day scholars interpret as mere metaphorical descriptions of wild Atlantic storms. But gripped by the spooky sense of unseen forces pulling at my mind and body, even on a sunny day, I wasn’t so sure.
I remembered a fascinating anecdote from a guidebook The Skellig Story. In 1945 two friends visited Skellig Michael. One climbed down to visit the lighthouse while the other inspected the monastery. The lighthouse keepers flatly refused the visitor’s request to stay the night, telling him the island was haunted. When he rejoined his friend at the monastery he found him shaking and anxious to leave, claiming “something” had tried to push him over the cliff below the oratory. Without believing in ghosts, I was also now doing battle with “something”.
Fortunately Skellig Michael is well-provided with one thing guaranteed to distract an anxious climber from the struggle with vertigo: comical seabirds. “Hope you see lots of pumpkins,” a well-meaning lady had wished me, in the Limerick bus station, when told I was heading for Skellig Michael. “Pumpkins?” I asked, puzzled. “Little birds that eat fish,” she nodded.
It was nesting season for pumpkins (aka puffins) so whenever I passed a hole in the ground it would emit the sound of a small lawnmower. The nesting birds might growl to warn trespassers away, but those outside posed calmly enough for close-up photos. Their triangular eye-markings made them look friendly, mournful and bewildered all at once.
Puffins aside, it was a relief to gain the safety of the little monastic enclosure. This ledge of comparatively flat ground is artificial – again, back-breaking work by the monks created the terraces which allowed them to build here. Despite its elevation the monastery is the most sheltered spot on the island – the massive summit, towering south-west, bears the brunt of the prevailing winds. A drystone wall, built without mortar, surrounds a number of “beehive” structures in a remarkable state of preservation.
“The sea’s protected them,” explained another guide. “On the mainland, similar monasteries have been knocked down, ploughed over, the stones reused as building material.” You’d have to be pretty motivated to raid this place – though the Vikings did it several times, on one occasion carrying off the Abbot and starving him to death.
Ducking in and out of the five stone huts, believed to be where the monks slept in twos and threes, I marvelled again at people choosing to live in such an inhospitable place. In winter especially it must have been cold, dark, and wild. A tiny graveyard like a raised garden bed marks the last resting place of at least thirty monks. A relatively modern gravestone lies within the nearby remains of a much later medieval church: Patrick and William Callaghan, sons of a lighthouse keeper, were buried here in 1868 and 1869 aged two and four. The grave is another reminder of the loneliness of this island, where lighthouse men and their families lived until full automation of the Skellig light in 1987.
Monks and lighthouse keepers, it occurred to me, had a lot in common. Both subjected themselves to the privations of life on this island for the good of others. “The monks felt themselves to be at war,” explained the guide. “They were praying for humankind, trying to defeat the forces of evil. As spiritual soldiers mere physical hardship was irrelevant.”
Certainly nothing about the monastery seems designed for comfort or decoration. A larger hut, probably the communal kitchen and dining room, faces a boat-shaped oratory, built over an earlier shrine marked with a high cross. Outside the main complex are a smaller oratory and various outbuildings. A lower terrace, known as the Monks Garden, was where peas, beans and vegetables were grown. Elsewhere on the island are the remains of single-person hermitages: apparently for some ‘Exiles of Christ’ their monastery, 12 kilometres from land and 200 metres above sea-level, wasn’t remote enough!
The guide was keen to make us understand the cosmological worldview that sustained this monastery and others like it throughout the British Isles. He explained the Celtic concept of liminality. Sacred places were those where two worlds met: water and land (islands and beaches), land and sky (mountain tops and cliff edges), surface and underground (wells, springs, caves). Celts believed at liminal places like these the veil between worlds was thinner than normal. Pagan beliefs flowed into Christian ones, and the mysterious “other realm” of spirits and fairies became the heavenly realm of God and His angels.
“Early Christians in Ireland were aware of the Desert Fathers – people like St Anthony of Egypt, who spent his life as a hermit in the desert,” said the guide. “Ireland’s desert was the sea. In the sixth century Skellig Michael was the edge of the known world, so the monks were pushing the boundaries – leaving behind the comforts and distractions of human society, to get closer to God.”
It occurred to me that today’s guides, like the monks and lighthouse keepers before them, live and work on the island, and experience its loneliness and stark beauty when the visitors have gone. Being custodians of the monastery puts them in another liminal spot – between past and present. I asked what that was like. “It’s a special place,” the guide said simply.
I remembered the waitress at Moorings rolling her eyes. “You wouldn’t catch me spending one night on that spooky island,” she said emphatically. “But the guides are like the monks – they’re all into meditation and that.”
It was time to leave the guides to their solitude: we’d been firmly instructed to be back at the pier by 1:30pm and to leave plenty of time for the perilous descent. Pressing my gift staff into active service and pausing frequently to snap puffins voguing in burrow doorways, I regained the safety of Lighthouse Road in half an hour. Wandering back to the boat I chatted with fellow-visitors and Office of Public Works workmen. Everyone used the same quiet, inadequate words: “It’s a special place.”
After the heart-thumping ascent and the sense of accumulated centuries in that village of sunlit stone, being back on the boat felt anticlimactic. Nearby Little Skellig put on a wildlife show to rival the puffins, offering nesting gannets in their thousands, a trio of basking seals, and a magnificent sunfish waving a lazy fin above the water. But as the boat skimmed back to Portmagee I felt like a pilgrim: I’d been to a place between worlds, and could never be quite the same again.