Skellig Islands: Ireland's familiar-looking jewel in the wild AtlanticTravel News from Stuff - 03-10-2022 stuff.co.nz
It’s the jewel in ’s Wild Atlantic Way, and it’s taken me four decades to get here.
Around 12km off the coast of County Kerry but a world away are the Skellig Islands. This Unesco Heritage site consists of two rocky islands with jagged pinnacles, a rich birdlife and a fascinating history that attracts visitors from around the globe.
Having grown up in Ireland and inspired by the Skelligs lore from my school days, I’m finally on my way to the islands on an unusually hot Irish summer’s day. Every other attempt to get here during my trips home from New Zealand over the years has been thwarted by rough seas, limited visitor numbers and tours being sold out months in advance.
featured in two recent Star Wars films, which has also brought fans eager to see the where Luke Skywalker holed up. Dubbed Ahch-To in the trilogy, the island was shown on screen as the site of the first Jedi temple.
But here I am with my brother Eamon – neither of us Star Wars fans – relishing in the prospect of seeing the famed islands at last. With Captain Pat at the helm, a boat skipper on the Ursula Mary for 30 years, and Con our guide, we make our way out from the charming seaside village of Portmagee.
“It’s the best day of the season so far,” remarks Con before – in typical Kerryman wit – a reminder that the life jackets have a whistle if we fancy blasting out a tune should we be tipped into the sea.get quote or book now in New Zealand
Our first stop is Skellig Beag. It’s the second-largest gannet colony in Europe and home to more than 70,000 gannets between April and October. As we approach the island, the huge birds circle overhead and we see the cliffs of the island stained white. The sheer number of birds is testament of how good the fish stocks are to be able to sustain such a population.
The area gets humpbacks, fin, minke and Bryde's whales passing through during the year, along with dolphins and porpoises. Alas, on our trip we only see seals lazing on the rocks, basking in the late morning sun.
Before landing on Skellig Michael, we tour around the base of the island. Its craggy pinnacles rise dramatically in the sea ahead of us. Con points out the various lighthouses and lookout points as well as the monastic settlement up top and the precarious path to it.
Our boat docks on the narrow jetty and we make our way to the foot of the steep 640-step climb ahead. We are met by one of the Office of Public Works staff, who manage and maintain the island on behalf of the Irish State. The gregarious Wicklow man says his job is to “scare the shite out of us” and warns of the unsteady path, absence of handrails, and other hazards ahead. Two people plunged to their deaths in separate incidents in 2009 and several more have been injured. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
Duly warned, we slowly begin our ascent marvelling at the stone steps, carved out by hand centuries ago by the monks who first settled here. We pass an older couple making their way back down from the top. The woman says her legs are like jelly and advises that the walk down is a lot more taxing than the climb up. We have lucked out with a calm and dry day, but Ireland’s often inclement weather would add another challenge to the trip.
After puffing our way to the top, we are rewarded with a visit to the well-preserved monastic settlement. Very little is known about the early Christian hermit monks who came here. They are thought to have been inspired by saints like St Anthony who went to the desert to be closer to God and nature. What fortitude these men must have had, rowing out from the shore in currachs (a type of boat made with wooden and animal skins) and starting a life here from scratch under the stars.
The monks developed a number of beehive-shaped stone structures some time in the 6th and 7th centuries that stand here to this day. As well as literally carving out a life for themselves, they survived on birdlife, fish and vegetables they planted on the island. The Skelligs were also subject to invasions by the Vikings in later years with some monks taken hostage. In later centuries more orders of monks came to the island but it was abandoned as a place of residence in the 13th century, mainly due to worsening weather. It remained a pilgrimage site for many more centuries for these men of prayer.
The island usually has around 8000 puffins in residence from April to August, but our tour guide at the settlement tells us that they left two days beforehand to make their way to the east coast of Canada. We groan at the news. Just two days! Seeing the black and white cuties with their distinctive, colourful beaks had been something we were eagerly looking forward to.
The guide lives on the island two weeks on, two weeks off and says the puffins provide endless entertainment when they are ashore, living up to their nickname of “clowns of the sea”. They flap about awkwardly with their pudgy bodies and are constantly squabbling on the steps, she says.
But we’ve had perfect weather and calm seas. As far as trips to islands in the Atlantic go, we’ve hit the jackpot. Our first visit to Skelligs will not be the last. We’ll be back. We have puffins to see.
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