Last spring I had the chance to visit Skellig Michael (UNESCO World Heritage Site), an island of precipitous crags jutting from the Atlantic Ocean, 12 kilometers off the coast of Ireland. George Bernard Shaw visited in 1910 and called it an ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’.
Sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, a small group of ascetic monks chose this remote and inaccessible island for their monastery. The monastic community survived there for 500 years, until finally being forced from the island by Viking raids and a shift in the climate that made the islands more prone to storms.
It was an incredible experience, to climb the steep path up from the boat landing, 600 ft to the monastery. A heavy fog had settled around the island and at times I would look down and see nothing beyond the ledge at my feet. The steps started as rock-cut steps and then shifted to dry-stone once we were out of reach of the rough seas. We were sternly cautioned to take care during this climb, as a wayward step had lead more than one previous visitor plummeting into the sea below.
On the climb I was surprised to see that the island seemed to support just a few plant species. No trees or shrubs, just a low carpet of thrift and sea campion that spread from the path out, up and over the rocky crags above me. I learned later that the entire island is subject to salt spray and thin soils, limiting the diversity of flora, but the island supports 128 lichen species! – that I sadly ignored on my journey.
Skellig Michael (and its neighbor Little Skellig) is also one of the most important breeding sites for seabirds in Ireland. The islands are surrounded by the rich feeding grounds of the Atlantic Ocean and the isolation of the islands keeps them free from predators. Skellig Michael supports some of the biggest breeding populations of manx shearwater and storm petrel in the world. Other seabird species breeding on the islands include fulmar, kittiwake, guillemot and puffin.
As we reached the path’s summit and entered the monastery ruins, the fog lifted and we had a dramatic view of the mainland beyond the clustering of beehive shaped huts. An oratory, with thick dry stone walls and an inverted boat-shaped roof sat near the center of the cluster. The monks graveyard, was just to the east – a scattering of hand chiseled stone crosses pointing vaguely skyward.
Without a source of freshwater on the island, the monks devised a method of water collection, incorporating three cisterns that were designed to collect rainwater from the exposed sloping bedrock above the monastery. The monks tended several terraced gardens that surrounded the monastery enclosure, and survived mainly on fish and bird eggs.
It was lonely – and invigorating – up there on Skellig Michael. Despite visiting with 30 other tourists, I could still sense how it must have felt to those monks, living on the edge of the world. It was not unlike the clarity and perspective you get arriving at the top of a peak. But I imagine it would have sunk deeper into their bones, because it was a way of life – the sustained endurance and sacrifice of living in an unforgiving and isolated place year after year. It makes our adventures seem a little tame.
**A note on puffins : they are as cute as they seem!