Six hundred steps to heaven

OUTPOSTS OF THE BRITISH ISLES 1: THE SKELLIGS; Hell to get to but heaven once you arrive, the Skelligs are just off the Kerry coast. Peter Cunningham makes a journey to the eighth wonder of the world
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All 33ft of the Shelouna stood upright, then shot off the crest of the eight-foot wave. A second later the bow whacked the trough, followed a second later by myself, hitting the deck hard enough to make my fillings pop. Straight away we gunned up the next wall of water, throttle at full, the face of skipper Pat Joe Murphy locked in a grin somewhere between the piratical and the demented. And this was only four minutes out of Portmagee.

I thought it was a joke, or worse, a mistake. On what from shore appeared a mildly breezy late April afternoon, we were headed for Skellig Michael, a mystical island seven sea miles into the Atlantic off the coast of County Kerry. Once before I had tried to make this trip, but the extraordinarily turbulent seas around the Skelligs make landings possible only from April to September. As we skimmed up another wave like a surfing cockroach, the tiny pocket of my remaining energy took in the face of our photographer, a man who had earlier mentioned a previous career in the Swedish navy: his expression was locked in a disbelieving rictus as he braced, one white-knuckled fist gripping the back of Pat Joe's seat, the other on the cabin door. I now understood why a state-of-the-art Skelligs Experience heritage centre has been opened in Portmagee to cater for those to whom the sea voyage might not appeal. Tim, Pat Joe's assistant, was guiding our course via on-board radar. Four times in succession he was crashed down face first on the screen; each time he shook himself and tried again. "We'll be there in 10 minutes," shouted Pat Joe in a tone immediately recognisable as one of friendly deception. Men at Mons and Ypres were spoken to in the same way before going over the top. "You'll be alright, don't worry."

I had been vaguely aware of these three, uninhabited rocks which bear the full force of the mighty sou'westerleys hatched in Caracas. The Skelligs' teeming bird life is renowned - but then you don't have to spend an hour or more, prostrate on the floor of a boat to see seabirds on Ireland's coasts. The Skelligs' utter solitude is fabled - but if its solitude you're after, all over Ireland there are mountains and lakes and beaches untouched by man. The same goes for majestic peaks, sheer 600ft drops, azure water, seals, rabbits and dawns and sunsets of incomparable glory; Ireland has them all in spades. Yet 1,500 years ago, monks made Skellig Michael their home, and it is their untouched legacy, the finest in western Europe, that makes Skellig Michael so special.

Staying overnight on Skellig Michael - named after the Archangel - was not easy to arrange. The Skelligs are an Irish National Monument and the officials in charge are torn between the need to preserve their treasure from tourists and the goldmine which the Skelligs have become to the local community. Fifteen thousand day trippers visited Skellig Michael last year. I imagine most of them arrived in the same condition we did; and I imagine all of them left it groping within themselves to come to terms with what they had seen. The rock on which we were about to be decanted is one of the wonders of the world. My feeling for monks and hermits comes in stereotypical wrapping: I acknowledge their right to stand on their heads if they so choose, and simultaneously concede a nod to their undoubted resolve, but nevertheless harbour deep suspicions about such behaviour.

"Just go there," a friend told me, a calm man with an eye for quality. "I'd be interested to hear what you think." So here I was, puking my very donor parts over merciless Pat Joe's open aft deck and then, with great tenderness, being laid out by Tim on a pier of lethal slippiness as above my head in the slowly resolving sky gannets circled.

The boat trip from Portmagee in south-west Kerry to Skellig Michael is only the first daub on a symbolic collage for which Carl Jung would have given his spectacles. For no sooner had the engine of the Shelouna receded than the life strength began to drip back into me and I was able to pick myself up and appreciate that the only worthwhile things in life are those that have been hard fought for.

"Some days they just lie on the floor of the boat and won't stir," said Richard Foran, the genial lighthouse keeper on Skellig Michael of other visitors. By rare concession, the Commissioners of Irish Lights had allowed us to sleep in the lighthouse, which although fully automatic, was undergoing a service and thus needed a keeper present. Richard showed us to bedrooms. It was 4.30 in the afternoon and all I wanted was oblivion.

Fifty minutes later we were climbing. This must be carefully explained. Skellig Michael is dominated by two peaks of 712 and 597 feet respectively, gigantic stalagmites rearing from the bed of the tumultuous ocean. In the early sixth century, the monks who sought God here built their monastery atop the lower peak. In order to reach it they hewed three separate sets of access steps from three different points at the base of the island. By both carving into the solid rock and by lifting into place tens of thousands of flat stones, they built staircases, one comprising 600 zig-zagging steps, defying gravity and gradient to reach their summit. Then they were ready for work. Over hundreds of years, a project of terracing was underway. Not by gouging into the mountain, for the rock was mainly too hard and they had not the means to do so; but by building upwards from tiny ledges great retaining walls with further tens of thousands of stones, each flat upon the other without a thimble of mortar, until terraces grew from vertical slopes. On these they built their corbelled, beehive-shaped cells and their oratories, all up in the clouds. They had a vegetable garden, and a sophisticated method for capturing and channelling rainwater. They ate seabirds, gulls eggs and fish. And when they died - or were killed by pirates - they buried their dead in a walled mound in their cloister and put on their graves the carved stone crosses that are seen today.

The first impact on my convalescing, late-20th-century mind was the sheer scale of the monks' engineering achievement, which, given the location, ranks at least equally with that of the Pharaohs or the Aztecs. Groping for the key to the minds of the men who came and built here - and they all had to have been young and strong, for they were dead on average at 40, and weaklings could never have survived - we made our way back down the steps, blind for the moment to the natural panorama at every side of us in the gathering dusk.

Thirteen hundred years after the monks, another engineering miracle was wrought on the rock. Two lighthouses were constructed in the 1820s. Using the dry stone construction methods of the monks, early Victorian builders with their boundless horizons and love of pulleys, winches and levers, built their structures of iron and granite on the south-west side of the island. One of these lighthouses, abandoned in 1866, is in ruins but in the other I fell asleep in one of Richard Foran's armchairs watching television.

Dawn in the lighthouse. Gulls woke me at 5.30. A full moon laid down a plate of nickel on the Atlantic, broken three times every 10 seconds by the light from the lantern house. Alone I crept out. Cold. Damp. I crept back in and found an extra coat. Crunching down the path made by the lighthouse men, I came to the monks' steps. In the still, half dark, shearwaters called invisibly. I climbed.

Who were these monks? What did they want? Or achieve? I was climbing steps laid down1,000 years before America was discovered, when the earth was presumed flat, when Europeans still counted in Roman numerals and the legend of Jesus Christ was recent news, eagerly discussed. The steps to the monastery were marked periodically by upright stones, crosses worn into smooth rectangles, to encourage the climber on his way. On his way, because these steps were built by men who had renounced the world and women, and in their early Christian fervour decided to live a life both celibate and chaste.

I came to a plateau known as Christ's Saddle between the two peaks from where Skellig Michael falls away sharply in both directions. As if on the headiest stage of the headiest theatre in the world, the cliffs on either side both soared and plunged, their pits, parterres, stalls, dress- circles and gods crammed with kittiwakes, gulls and razorbills. Puffins, endearingly comical, whirred in and out to ledges, their short, red feet stuck out behind them like infants in nappies. Rabbits gambolled on slopes of budding campion. From this spot, up through hovering mist and into tiny diamonds of nascent sunshine soared the final staircase, a vision of heaven as imagined by a child and carried throughout its life.

It was 6.30am when I reached the monastery. The sun was coming up behind the Small Skellig whose jagged majesty accommodates the world's largest gannet colony. The monastery was still in semi-darkness as the sun was not high enough yet. Peace was all I could think of, but without quite knowing why. In the centre of the tiny oratory, the stones of its east- facing window gone askew, a tablet marks the deaths of two children, sons of a lighthouse keeper, who died out here within three months of each other in the late 1860s. Their grave that morning seemed to be that of all the dead children of the world.

I began to shiver. My exertions had taken place in too many layers of clothes and now I was drenched through with my own sweat. Should I endure and shiver on, or go back down and change but miss the dawn? A raven landed on the roof of a cell and began its morning grooming, arching its head so that the sunlight could catch its throat and neck. Six hundred feet below, the mist cleared suddenly and I could see white foam in spewing eddies where the ocean met the rocks. The sun had cleared the Small Skellig making it momentarily invisible. I undressed. Laying out my wet clothes on the curved side of a stone cell, I stood alone in the monastery of Skellig Michael and was suffused with warmth. Involuntarily I stretched my arms out, in the way of seabirds on rocks, realising as I did so how natural my reflex was. And as I came slowly aglow I also understood the source of the peace that had earlier puzzled me. It sprang from hope. The monks had realised, as do Zen masters, that only true hope transcends the human condition. They found it here on Skellig Michael.

It was almost impossible to accept that right on top of the higher peak is the cell of a hermit. I could see its roof peeping out. Trying to climb to it but unsure of the way, alone and faced with crossing a six inch wide ledge above a vertical drop of 650ft, my nerve failed me. He knew what he was doing, this hermit. He is said to have baptised the future King Olav of Norway into Christianity in 993. I don't know who came to whom.

On the edge of the then known world, Skellig Michael is today a place on the edge of experience. It can be hell to get to. And when you get there has no modern facilities. It can be lost in mist, cold and wet, slippery and dangerous. You need the whole of your health, first to make the trip and then to make the arduous climb. Skellig Michael was abandoned by the monks at the end of the 12th century when a global climatic shift made it too cold to endure. They went to the mainland, to Ballinskelligs (the town of the Skelligs), bringing with them a clear image of paradise and leaving behind the heaven they had created on earth.

! Murphy's Sea Cruises from Port Magee, County Kerry to the Skelligs charge pounds 20 per person, special rates for groups by arrangements. Telephone 00 353 66 77156/77157 for reservations and weather report. Eighteen other boat operators in the area are also licensed.

The Skellig Experience, Port Magee, Valentia Island, County Kerry (00 353 66 76306), is open from Easter to the end of September. Daily: 9.30am to 6.15pm. Average length of visit: 1 hour.

! Next week: the Isle of Jura