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Skellig Michael Island – A Wealth Of Irish History

Skellig Michael is a unique mountain situated in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Kerry. This dangerous mountain was home to a monestary for hermits who lived a life of penitence and prayer. The seclusion of the mountain, the perilous conditions, the approach and magnitude of the building has made it a popular site for pilgrims and tourists.

The earliest recording of Skellig Micheal was produced in 824 AD when records showed a Norse raid. The small community consisted of no more than 4 – 12 religious at any given time. While no official documentation exists to provide clues on who founded the monastry, locals from Kerry attribute its existence to Saint Fionan.

Life at the monastry included prayer, penance & fasting, and it would have been an extreme work intensive environment. Irish weather would have been cold, wet and windy most of the time, making it even harder. They would have fished for food, searched for bird nests for eggs and grown their own vegetables in a garden. They would have spent the day building new parts of the monastary, rebuilding any walls that the wind would have knocked and taking care of their garden. Their days would begin with prayer and when they were not fasting they would have prepared their breakfast. The vast majority of their time would have been spent in silence, and they would have moved prayerfully through their day. Their life consisted of complete detachment from all luxuries so that they would be free to contemplate God without worldly distractions. Around the 12th century, these monks left the monastary and settled down in a new location. The reasons behind the move are unknown, but it is possible that attacks on the mountain, the worsening weather in Ireland and changes in the structure of the church all contributed to the move. The monks returned to the island in the summer months to upkeep failing stonework, and they organised pilgrims to the mountain in the years that followed.

The whole Island consists of stone structures – from their living quaters, to the steep stair case that leads up to the top of the mountain. Let's take a look at some images of structures these people have left behind.

The stair case they built consisted of 670 steps from the base of the mountain to the top. This gigantic project yielded impressive results with these marvelous stairs still in usable and good condition.  These steps appear to reach the clouds from the bottom and are an incredible sight when looking at the island. They are the reason for much of the recognition that it has received from tourists.

Extraordinarily, beehive shaped huts were used as the sleeping quatres. The outside was shaped like a beehive and the inside was shaped as a rectangle. This ingenious form of building insured no water could enter the beehives – keeping the monks dry. The walls on the huts were 1.2 m wide and the ground underneath is paved throughout.

Saint Micheal's church was made of mortared stone and partially collapsed by the 19th century. The name of this Island is named after this Saint Micheal's church. The word Skellig means stone and Micheal is the arc angel who protects people from evil, he is also known as Saint Micheal, the great defender in battle.

The monastry was built in a sheltered part of the mountain, to provide protection from Irish wind and rain. This was to prevent any damage to the church and beehives. Interestingly, there is evidence that the monks rebuilt the walls of the monastry several times throughout their lives there. The enclosure walls were big and made with heavy stone to protect the community from exposure to the elements.

The monks were not just hard-working prayer warriors, they were also extremely intelligent people. These amazing individuals even made a reservoir of water. They collected water from a sloping rock above the monastry, that had been quarried. When it was dug up and the bed rock became exposed, the monks built two large cisterns underneath the exposed sloping bedrock. These reservoirs can hold 450 liters of water. That's enough water to cook, clean and wash up after the days hard work.

The mountain sits over approx 50 – 55 acres of rock and is around 700 ft high. An unusual split in the mountain known as Christs saddle, has made this section of the landscape inhospitable. The monastary is in remarkable condition considering its medevil time period in which it was built. There are three entrances to the mountain including Cross Cove, Blind Mans Cove & Blue Cove, but Blind mans cove is the most accessible and blue cove is the hardest to reach. These entrances are all built up with stone staircase that lead up into the mountain. Another little Island named little Skellig sits not to far from Skellig Micheal, and this smaller mountain has a rugged rocky formation making it inaccessible.

The highest peak on Skellig Micheal contains an Oratory and interestingly, a study uncovered three terraces including a garden terrace, oratory terrace and an outer terrace. A prayer station is located at the top of the peak, above an area named the needles eye. While research in the south peak is continuing, evidence of large amounts of quarrying are evident. The arrow in the image below shows the point where the forgotten hermitage was found. 

Pilgrimage & Tourist Attraction

While it is a highly sought after trip, only 12000 people get to see the island every year. Tourists & pilgrims are limited because of the weather and to protect the structure of the stone surrounding the area. Access to the mountain is very difficult, even when the weather is perfect and no children are allowed on the mountain. The stairway up the mountain is lethal to walk on when it rains and so the days in which one can go to the mountain is very limited. If you one of the blessed that gets to go on this wonderful trip, please share your photos online with us. Check out Skellig Micheal Tours for more information on how to view this beautiful place. Click here for more information.