The Skelligs

Skellig

On the western edge of Europe, two stone sentinels point to the heavens. These are the Skellig Islands, Skellig Michael and Small Skellig, always home to a multitude of sea birds and in times past the refuge of visionary monks and, more recently, lighthouse keepers. The Skelligs perch eight miles off the coast of the Iveragh peninsula in Kerry. A holy land in the early middle ages, they now draw pilgrimages from scientists and tourists. But it is no certain place of pilgrimage. The rocks are perilous of themselves, but the sailing from Portmagee is dependent on benign weather conditions.

This year has not been benign, underlining the fascinating isolation of the rocks but frustrating the would-be visitor. This is my second attempt at the Skelligs but, again, it was not to be. The last time mist was the enemy, this time it was the simple savagery of the sea.

The Skellig Experience on Valencia Island was as close as I could get. The heritage centre gives a comprehensive account of the various aspects of the island, well illustrated with models, photographs and a video presentation. I learned of the arrival of monks in the sixth century, the purity of their faith and the skill of their constructions. They built three stairways to the pinnacle, some 750 feet above the surface, over two thousand steps in the original stairway to heaven. Their unique beehive huts still function today as do the wells they built to collect rainwater. Indigenous plants, fish and seabirds were their bounty, augmented by some gardening and local trade. Above all, the joy of their faith sustained them.

Despite their isolation, they suffered several attacks from marauding Vikings. Some holy men were killed, others enslaved. Still, the community survived. In fact, in the eleventh century a medieval stone church was built here, but the standardisation of the faith meant this robust style of worship was on the wane. Sea storms contributed to the demise of the community and the island returned to the birds for seven hundred years.

In the 1820s people returned. Two lighthouses were built on Skellig Michael and the island remained colonised by intrepid men, and women, for a century and a half. The exhibition recreates a portion of the lighthouse interior, setting the scene at midnight, 21st April, 1987, the eve of the lighthouse crew’s final departure. The modern lighthouse is now automatic, with only the occasional visit  for maintenance purposes.

I am reluctant to leave the centre, as if by staying there longer will magically transport me to those elusive rocks. It is close enough, as good as it gets for now. Meanhile, I must make my own adventure in this spectacular location.

The drive through the Ballaghbeama Pass is hair-raising enough, the view at the foot of Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s only thousand meter peak, breathtaking. It’s late September and the ocean crashes on an emptying shore. Derrynane gathers its cloak of crumpled forest, still whispers the story of the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell. The only layman with a church named for him, it’s in the regional capital of Cahirciveen, massive but uncrowned by the spire you would expect. Also unexpected is the gothic castle of the 19th century barracks, with its homely museum it stands on a perch above the once spectacular, lamented railway. Of an evening I can sing of the boys of bar na sraide, put my anchor down in the Anchor Bar, with ex pats and locals, from London, Scotland and Zanzibar.

I will leave it now for another year, but the vision in my mind is indelible, two jagged islands like stone hands clasped in prayer. One day I hope to go there and see what those wild monks saw, the poetry of God written in stone on a sheet of boiling sea and sky. They were drawn to the endless ocean, beyond that last horizon where God weaves sea and sky into the cloth of heaven.

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