Pioneer magazine

Christian Heritage on the Edge of the World

March 2017With fact and legends colliding, SINÉAD MOLLOY takes a brief look at the history of the two Skellig Islands, the larger famous as a Christian heritage site, located in the Atlantic Sea off the coast of County Kerry.

A small group of men could not have chosen a more isolated location to practise their religious fervour than the Skellig Islands – Skellig Micheal (Sceilig Mhichíl, Michael’s Rock) or the Great Skellig and Small or Little Skellig. It is said that its name was derived from the word for ‘rock’ and in the eleventh century, this ‘skellig’ was amalgamated with an unlikely but legendary story of St Michael and a host of heavenly angels making an appearance here to help Saint Patrick banish all the snakes from Ireland! It was then that it first became known by its present day name.

The jagged pinnacles of Devonian sandstone stand in the Atlantic Ocean approximately twelve kilometres southwest of Valentia Island, a small island itself linked to the mainland of Ireland by the Maurice O’Neill Memorial Bridge at Portmagee in County Kerry. Skellig Michael is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, described as being ‘of exceptional universal value’ and a ‘unique example of an early religious settlement’. It is ranked alongside the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China as an important place of interest in the world, while Small Skellig boasts its prominence in the ornithological world as it homes upwards of 55,000 gannets – the second largest colony of such seabirds in the world – and quite a few bright-beaked puffins and storm petrels among others.

Skellig Michael rises from the Atlantic Ocean, climbing 218 metres above sea level and the wild Atlantic waves. Atop the steep slopes of this larger island stand the remnants of a sixth century monastic settlement. Despite being lashed by the sea for thousands of years, this settle still remains well preserved, thanks to the various organisations over the past two hundred years that have taken guardianship of it.

The earliest record of the island being inhabited dates back to the sixth century, when it is claimed that Saint Fionán founded the monastery on the island. The first definitive reference to the monastic life of the island’s inhabitants is a record of the death of Suibhini of Skelig dating from the eighth century. Note the name ‘Micheal’ was still absent from its title at this time. Over the subsequent years, generations of monks and holy men hand-carved steps –today numbering as many as six hundred - up the rocky incline of the island to find shelter as far away from the stormy sea as was possible. There, on the edge of the cliff some 180 metres above the Atlantic, they built a fine monastic settlement consisting of six beehive huts (clocháin) – round on the top and rectangular on the inside, stone crosses and two boat-shaped oratories. Later, a medieval church was built, probably around the tenth century. Also visible are three separate stone terraces, retaining walls and stairways. It was estimated that around thirteen men, perhaps twelve monks and an abbot, lived on the island at any one time - a significant similarity to the Last Supper table of Jesus and His twelve apostles might not be lost here. Given the nature of the rocky land they lived on, where very little food could be cultivated, it is no surprise that their staple diet consisted of fish and eggs. Interestingly, they created a very sophisticated twin-cistern system for purifying water to drink. The monks would spend their days in prayer, fishing, gathering what little variety of food there was to be had, tending their small gardens and studying.

By the ninth century, the Great Skellig had become the prey of the invading Vikings and suffered several attacks. According to legend, one of the hermits of Skellig baptised the great Norseman, Olav Trygvasson in 993AD. Olav later became King of Norway and fathered Olav II, (or Olaf ) who is the patron saint of Norway. It was noted in the Annals of the Four Masters that an entry for the year 1044AD makes the first reference to the island being dedicated to Saint Michael. In the thirteenth century, climatic changes meant that the monks could not stay on the island all year round. They moved to the edge of the mainland in County Kerry and settle in a religious community at Ballinskelligs. Incidentally, the parish church in Ballinskelligs is dedicated to the Archangel Michael to this day.

SkelligDuring the Penal times, Catholics used Skellig Micheal as a haven to escape their cruel persecutors. Queen Elizabeth I, during the Protestant Reformation, dissolved a number of monasteries across Ireland, including the Skelligs and the abbey at Ballinskelligs on the mainland of Ireland. Ownership passed to the Butler family where it remained until the early 1820s. It became a place of penance right through until the eighteenth century and pilgrims came from as far away as mainland Europe to make the Stations of the Cross. It was taken over by a corporate body which later became the Commission for Irish Lights, which purchased the island from John Butler. The corporation erected two lighthouses and its adjacent living quarters in 1826 facing out into the foreboding Atlantic waters. This development prompted Samuel Lewis, editor and publisher of topographical dictionaries and maps of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to write in 1837, ‘the erection of the lighthouses has been a means of preventing much loss of life and property. Scarcely a winter previously elapsed without frequent and fatal shipwrecks.’ The Office of Public Works became guardians of the remains of the monastery in 1880 and made repairs to some of the collapsed structures. One of the lighthouses was discontinued in 1870, and the other was automated in 1987.

Today, Skellig Michael and Little Skellig have become major tourist attractions, in no small part due to the popularity of the most recent instalments of the Star Wars films that were filmed on the island. It was a   somewhat controversial move to allow this blockbuster to be filmed on Skellig Michael, given the potential damage that could have been done to this precious ancient site. Even the director of Star Wars, The Force Awakens, said he was ‘shocked’ on receiving permission to film here. To limit any damage to the island’s natural environment and heritage, only a handful of tourists are allowed to climb the stone walkways of the Island.

The Skellig Experience Visitor Centre located beside the Valentia Island Bridge at Valentia allows visitors to study the works and lives of the Skellig monks of the early Christian period through recreations and models. The Skellig Experience’s 80-seat auditorium, through a fourteen-minute film presentation allows visitors to follows the footsteps of the monks and wonder at the legacy of architecture that they created and left behind for future generations. They also offer cruises from April to September around the Skelligs Islands, weather and sea conditions permitting.