Skellig Michael (also known as Great Skellig) is a steep rocky island in the Atlantic Ocean, located about 15 km off the coast of Country Kerry, Ireland. It is one of the best known monasteries in Europe but also one of the least accessible.
It is the largest of the Skellig Islands and has been a center of the Irish Christian life for 600 years. Since 1996, the Gaelic monastery located almost at the summit of the rock, has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
About the site
The site is very well preserved, as it has only been recently discovered by visitors. The site comprises the 6th century church of St. Michael, 6 intact clochans, 31 early grave slabs, 2 oratories and a monolithic cross.
The monks lived an ascetic life and their “homes” were stone ‘beehive’ huts (clochans) , perched above cliffs. The site was originally approached by three flights of steps, leading from different landing places and meeting at Christ’s Valley. The modern path to the lighthouse, meets the southern flight of steps.
The monastery survived a number of Viking rides and was later expended. However, the community here was never large (about 12 monks and an abbot). In the 12th century, the monks abandoned Skellig Michael and went to the mainland.
From the 16th century, Skellig Michael became a popular pilgrimage site but it didn’t have any permanent residents.
In the 19th century, after two lighthouses were built on the island, the Great Skellig was again inhabited (but this time by the lighthouse keepers). One of the lighthouses still operates, although it was rebuilt in the 1960s.
In Irish mythology it is said that Skellig Michael is the burial grounds of Ir, one of the sons of Miled. Ir died by the hands of Tuatha De Danaan during the ‘Coming of the Gael’.
After the battle of Tailltin, Eimhir (Ir’s son) would inherit the province of Ulster.
Christ’s Valley (Christ’s Saddle) is a depression rising 130 m above the sea , which connects the two peaks: Southern peak (218 m) and Northern peak (185 m). The Northern peak is home to the ruins of the eremitic monastic community which used to live here.
The Needles Eye is s rock chimney about 7 m high which can be climbed with the help of stone supports.
The spit is a narrow ridge located at the summit of the Southern peak. At the end of the spit there was a stone slab (the Celtic Cross) that served as a popular pilgrimage destination. Today, only the base of the slab remains.
The Hermitage is left from the Northern peak community. It is located on the Southern peak and comprises three terraces.
Together with its smaller neighbor island, Great Skellig is an important nature reserve , home to a nationally important populations of a number of seabirds.
Although there has been a tourist center dedicated to the island since 1986, restrictions have been imposed lately as it was believed that large numbers of tourists caused too much damage to the site. Therefore, every year, 13 boat licenses are granted to tour operators (and each run a single trip to Great Skellig). Due to the winter weather the boats only sale between April and September. The trip to the island takes about 45 min and you’ll have about 2-3 hours to tour the island, before you return to mainland. The fees are pretty much standard (€40 during the off peak season and €50 during the summer).
The main route to the summit is via the southern steps. While the steps are not dangerous per se, they do require a good dose of courage and a good pair of shoes.
Aside from being rewarded with the monastery ruins and the huge amount of sea birds, the view of the Southern peak from Christ’s Saddle is one of the highlights of the trip.