The photographs in the newly published Book of the Skelligs focus on their monumental form. The two islands rise almost sheer from the sea, at an angle never less than 90°, apparently without beach or landing place, devoid of greenery, and lacking any place to shelter from the driving Atlantic wind and rain. Striking in appearance, compelling to the eye, the Skelligs (their name is derived from the old Irish word sceillec, a small or steep area of rock) have all the right characteristics to attract myths and legends. With nothing but ocean and sky beyond, the islands have often been taken to represent the edge of the world. The author and cleric Giraldus Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales (c.AD 1146-c.1223), referred to Ireland as ‘the farthest island of the West’ and wrote ‘beyond those limits there is no land, nor is there any habitation either of men or beasts… only the ocean’.
The larger of the two islands – Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichíl in Gaelic) – plays a part in the Irish origin myth as the burial place of one of the three sons of Míl Espáine, the ancestors of the Gaels. This myth is first recorded in the Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’), which was written by the Welsh monk Nennius c.AD 830 but is probably considerably older. It seems to have arisen from the idea that Ireland was first populated by people from the Iberian peninsula (Míl Espáine is probably a corruption of Miles Hispania, Latin for ‘Soldier of Spain’) and the belief that Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland, came from Hiberia, the Graeco-Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. Skellig Michael is thus portrayed as a place that witnessed the very beginnings of Irish history.
In his Confessio, composed in the 5th century AD and surviving in manuscripts dating from the 800s, St Patrick emphasises the liminality of Ireland in boasting about his own role in fulfilling the prophecies (in Matthew 24:14 and Acts 1:8) that the message of the Gospels would eventually spread from Jerusalem to the remotest ends of the earth. This gave Ireland a very special place in the unfolding of the history of Christianity, and the Skelligs themselves were endowed with even greater significance as marking Christianity’s western edge.
Add to this rich mix the fact that islands and mountains have been regarded as especially holy or numinous places since long before Christianity and it is not surprising that Skellig Michael attracted the attention of early Christian ascetics. There, on this isolated twin-peaked rock, they could practise their faith in imitation of the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, with no chance of a quick escape back to the mainland.
A long time ago on an island far, far away…
Later medieval tradition attributes the founding of the monastery to St Fionán (Finnian) of Iveragh in AD 549, but there is no written or archaeological evidence to support this. The earliest reference to monastic activity on the island is found in annals written by later medieval monks recording key events in the lives of the Irish kings. The Annals of Inisfallen, compiled in 1092, is one of three chronicles that records a Viking raid on ‘Scelec’ in AD 824, during which the island was plundered and the abbot Etgal was ‘carried off into captivity’, presumably in the hope of a ransom being paid. Unfortunately, he ‘died of hunger in their hands’ (probably starved to death), a later commentator says, for refusing to reveal where the monastery’s treasures were to be found. We also learn from the annals of a second Viking attack in 838 and the names of three further abbots: Flan (882), Blathmhac (950), and Aedh (1044), the latter described as ‘the noble priest, the celibate, and the chief of the Gaedil in piety’.
Tomas Ó Carragáin and John Sheehan, the authors of the chapter on the early medieval archaeology of Skellig Michael in The Book of the Skelligs, say that the modern visitor only sees the final stages of the monastery’s development, and that we are only beginning to understand the foundational work and the subsequent phases. They suggest, however, that the island’s three sets of stone steps must have been an important element in the foundational phase, enabling the island’s early inhabitants to negotiate the island’s rugged and fractured terrain.
The east landing, on the sheltered landward-facing side of the island, was and remains the primary place to come ashore, but long flights of stone steps also ascend from the south landing (little more than a cleft in the rock and a shallow inlet) and the north (with its narrow shelf of rock), each being used according to the prevailing weather and sea conditions. All three staircases combine steps cut into the bare rock with those made from one or two flagstones supported by coursed stone foundations.
From these landing stages, steep steps and paths climb the 130m to the relatively sheltered col – the U-shaped hollow that lies between the island’s two summits. Once known as ‘Christ’s Valley’, and now as ‘Christ’s Saddle’, the col is the point from which further paths lead upwards to the monastery in the lee of the North Peak (185m) and the hermitage near the summit of the South Peak (218m).
The monastery itself stands on a series of terraces, created by constructing massive drystone retaining walls and backfilling the space behind them. The massive revetment walls were constructed with great skill from high-quality stone to withstand the pressures they came under from the infill material used to create the level terrace. The masonry shows signs of constant collapse and repair, although one section of the oratory terrace, standing to a remarkable height of 5m, is thought to be unaltered since its construction 1,500 years ago.
The carefully paved main terrace has a church, large oratory, graveyard, and six domed beehive cells that were occupied, perhaps, by 12 monks and an abbot. This overlooks a smaller paved terrace with a small oratory and a ‘monks’ toilet’ at the northern extremity of the site. Rainwater was captured in rock-cut channels and stored in a number of stone- lined cisterns dotting the site, and there are two further sheltered south-facing terraces referred to as ‘the monks’ gardens’.
In addition to the monastery, there is a further series of early medieval structures collectively known as ‘the hermitage’ just below the South Peak, the highest point of the island. These exposed, dangerous, and inaccessible structures are not visible from lower levels and their existence, along with the routes linking them to Christ’s Saddle, remained unknown and unrecorded until surveys were carried out by rope-supported archaeologists and a helicopter in 1982 and 1986.
Reaching the hermitage involves following a narrow ledge that winds round the western edge of the peak, with a 70m vertical drop in places, to the Needle’s Eye. This 7m-high vertical crack in the rock has to be scaled using the technique that mountaineers call ‘chimney climbing’. Above lies a 15m-high gulley that is reached by clinging to natural spurs and fissures, as well as toeholds and handgrips chiselled into the rock face. A second route, only recently discovered, begins easily enough with four terraces supporting a drystone stairway, but then involves ascending a near-vertical rock face using rock-cut steps and toeholds. Those who have made the climb testify to its challenges – especially on the descent and in high wind.
Anyone courageous enough to make the journey, or sufficiently trusting in divine protection and with a strong enough desire to come closer to God, would emerge on to the lowest of three terraces; this one is called ‘the garden terrace’ because it lacks structures. The second terrace, 4m higher up, is named after its tiny oratory, with its partly preserved altar and a cross-slab; it also has a clear view down on to the main monastery. A third terrace – the most exposed and difficult to reach – is located higher up on the western side and has been interpreted as the location of a hermitage or shelter. Together the three terraces and their structures, colonising a precipitous, dangerous, and inhospitable peak, show a remarkable level of skill and faith.
Sheehan and Ó Carragáin say that building on this scale is without precedent. Taken together, Skellig Michael’s terraces, churches, oratories, and beehive cells represent the largest number of drystone structures at any site in Ireland. The other examples are restricted to the Dingle and Iveragh peninsulas, and a well-defined typological development has been proposed for these examples, spanning the period AD 700-1100. By analogy with some of those mainland structures, the Skellig Michael examples have been provisionally dated to the earlier stages of development in the 8th century, with the hermitage slightly later then the monastery because the latter would have been needed as a logistics base for building the summit structures.
Such buildings were probably beyond the skills of the monks themselves, who were most likely aided by specialists in quarrying and drystone construction imported from Dingle and Iveragh. Both peninsulas lay within the kingdom of Corcu Duibne (‘the tribe of the goddess Duibhne’), famed for its impressive stone ringforts and for being the part of Ireland where ogham script was developed. It is likely that local kings supported the foundation of Skellig Michael’s monastery by paying for and provisioning the necessary skilled labour force.
The geology of the Skelligs is continuous with that of the nearby mainland, so those early medieval masons were already familiar with the characteristics of the local stone: a mix of sandstones overlain by harder volcanic rock, overlaid in turn by further sandstones, all uplifted and folded by the tectonic mountain-building events of the Variscan orogeny, 370 million to 290 million years ago. One quarry has been identified on the slopes below the monastery, where the frost-fractured and laminated sandstones are relatively easily to lever away from the rock face.
The presence of these labourers, who might not have been as willing as the monks to endure a plain and repetitive diet, suggests provisioning from the mainland via the constant to-and-fro of coracles carrying food, people, tools, and materials. Analysis of the soil from the monks’ garden shows that barley and oats were grown, and the presence of quern-stone fragments confirms that grain was processed on the island. Insect remains indicate that seaweed and human excrement were used to fertilise the soil.
Additional grain supplies were probably brought from the mainland, along with wood and charcoal, since there are no trees on the island. Also recovered from excavation were the butchered remains of goat, sheep, cattle, pig, and seal. Fish were (and are) abundant in the waters around the island, and seven species of fish have been identified in the bone assemblage, the most common being sea bream. Manx shearwater and puffin bones were also found, charred by roasting, and no doubt the monks made use of the plentiful supply of eggs. All in all, the dietary evidence suggests a much richer menu than one might expect of an ascetic monastic regime.
In addition to the island’s buildings, some 90 pieces of cross sculpture have been recorded from Skellig Michael, mainly of early date. One of these, standing to the north of the oratory, is the tallest of its type in south-western Ireland, at 2.4m in height. It is embedded in one of three leachta (simple drystone platforms that could have served as an altar base, prayer station, or burial platform) dotted around the terraces. One excavated example was found to overlie a stone-lined cist containing a human skull – possibly the relics of a saint or venerated individual, who was radiocarbon dated to the period AD 779-920.
Three burials were found beneath the paving of the main terrace, too, dating from the 10th to 13th centuries, and it is possible that there are many more within the 2m to 3m fill of the terraces. In addition, there is a raised rectangular platform feature traditionally known as the Monks’ Graveyard on the main terrace, to the east of the main oratory, featuring at least 30 stone crosses and cross-slabs. Limited excavation confirms the presence of human remains, but these have not been dated.
The monastery in modernity
If the monastery was dependent on the patronage of the kings of Corcu Duibne for its supplies, the site’s decline might have begun in the 12th century, as local power waned in the wake of the Anglo-Norman settlement of the region in the 1120s. The island came into the possession of the Augustinian priory at Ballinskelligs when it was founded in 1210, during a period of climatic deterioration and one of shifting emphasis within the monastic orders towards collective worship and away from ascetic solitude. It was at this point that continuous monastic occupancy of the island probably ended, with perhaps seasonal occupation at first and then abandonment.
The island remained attached to the priory until its dissolution by Elizabeth I in 1578, after which it was acquired by the Butler family. By then, the island had already become a pilgrimage destination: the early 16th-century register of Archbishop Dowdall of Armagh mentions Skellig Michael as one of the main penitential stations in Ireland, to be visited by Christians seeking forgiveness for their sins while praying and fasting. William Tirry, Bishop of Cork from 1623 to 1645, records a pilgrimage to Skellig Michael as being one of the most significant events of his life.
Over a century later, in 1756, Charles Smith published an account of the island in which he stated that though ‘many persons about 20 years ago, came from the remotest parts of Ireland to perform these penances… the zeal of such adventurous devotees hath been very much cooled of late’. In 1845, the French writer Joseph Prévost explained that more than one unfortunate pilgrim had fallen to his or her death on the island and that ‘these days, most [penitents] are happy to embark on less dangerous pilgrimages’.
The first major intervention in the island’s infrastructure for many centuries occurred in the 1820s after the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin (the predecessor of today’s Commissioners of Irish Lights) compulsorily purchased the island from John Butler for £500. The corporation improved the east landing and blasted a new road out of the rock around the steep southern flank of the island, using the stone thus gained to construct two lighthouses facing the Atlantic, on the western side.
The lighthouse-builders used the well-preserved beehive huts at the medieval monastery as temporary accommodation and as an explosives store (we must be grateful that no mishap occurred!). Once the lighthouses were completed in 1826, the island was occupied by four families and a resident teacher. In the 1870s, the families of the keepers and assistant keepers were moved to new homes on Valencia Island, closer to the mainland, and the lighthouses were then manned on a rota of four weeks on and four weeks off. Even after automation in 1987, a keeper visited regularly to maintain the lights until 2017.
By then, Skellig Michael had become Ireland’s second World Heritage Site (after the Brú na Bóinne complex at Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth). The UNESCO inscription states that Sceilg Mhichíl is a unique example of an early religious settlement that illustrates the extremes of early Christian monasticism. Because of its isolation it is remarkably well preserved and has been protected from alterations and adaptations, other than those of the 19th-century lighthouse-builders. To conserve the island’s medieval remains and its thriving bird population, the Office of Public Works limits visitor numbers to 180 a day from mid-May to the end of September. Visitors travel for an hour across rough seas in one of the 15 boats based in Portmagee that are licensed to land on Skellig Michael. Guides are on hand to keep visitors safe and give them information about the history of the island.
Visiting is an adventure (and not one for those prone to sea-sickness or vertigo), as many writers, artists, and archaeologists have testified, for the spirituality and otherworldly character of Skellig Michael are powerful stimulants for the creative imagination – that is why the island served as a filming location in several Star Wars films (as the home of the first Jedi Temple and the place chosen by Luke Skywalker for his self-exile). For George Bernard Shaw, visiting in 1910, the place was the essence of Ireland but also ‘part of our dream world’, an observation whose truth is borne out by the stunning photographs that adorn almost every page of the remarkable Book of the Skelligs.
John Crowley and John Sheenan (eds) The Book of the Skelligs, photography by Valerie O’Sullivan (Cork University Press, ISBN 978-1782055396, £45).