Skellig Michael is one of the two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Republic of Ireland. This seemingly uninhabitable island rises from the Atlantic Ocean, 12 km off the coast of Kerry. The island is named after Saint Michael the Archangel.
“Skellig” comes from the Irish word sceilig, meaning “a splinter of stone”. The island, along with some of the Blasket Islands, are the most westerly part of the Republic of Ireland.
At first glance, the island’s sharp peaks and harsh landscape look just like any other craggy rock, but further inspection reveals Skellig Michael’s connection with early Irish Christianity.
Skellig Michael: A Rich History
The first settlers on Skellig Michael are thought to have reached the rock around 60 AD. The ruins of the monastic settlement which can still be seen today are over 1000 years old and were home to the monks on the island for over 600 years. The monastery stands 600ft above sea level on a flat strip of rock.
The monastic ruins consist of two small oratories, a cemetery, crosses, a church and six beehive cells. These cells are perhaps the most famous feature of the manmade structures found on the island. They are domed structures which completely insulated their inhabitants from the harsh weather conditions of the island. In total, over 100 crosses have been found on the island over the years.
Life on Skellig Michael
The monks are thought to have sought out Skellig Michael in order bring themselves closer to God. They led simple lives, devoting their time to praying 7 times a day and attending daily mass. They lived self-sufficiently, growing vegetables in their gardens and fishing and foraging for their meals. Time would also have been spent maintaining the stone structures they had built as well as copying manuscripts.
The monastery is thought to have been home to about a dozen monks at a time and was occupied up until the 12th or 13th century. It is not known why the monks left Skellig Michael. Historians have theorised that the land may have become uninhabitable over time, with the cold and stormy climate driving the monks back to the shores of County Kerry.
Others believe that the Vikings may have raided the island, taking what they could of the monks' possessions and rendering their survival on the island unfeasible. After the monks left the island, the monastic site became a place of pilgrimage. The monks who once lived on the island settled on the mainland in Ballinskellig, where they built an Abbey.
The Skellig Michael of Modern Ireland
Today, the island is home to a diverse array of wildlife. Puffins, gannets and approximately 50 grey seals call the island home. It is of course a popular tourist attraction, with boats departing the port of Portage during the summer time.
Film buffs may recognise the island from films such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Star Wars: The last Jedi (2019) or the 1976 film Heart of Glass. The fascinating history of the island has also been the subject of numerous documentaries over the years.
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