An island of ghosts in the shadow of a cross

Skellig Michael was once a monastic retreat. But Marcus Tanner found only puffins and fulmars nesting on the barren rocks

The mist came down the first day I wanted to sail to Skellig Michael. The ruined monastery on the rock in the sea lay hidden from my gaze, shrouded in a thick Atlantic fog. That night I slept uneasily at the village of Portmagee. Would the next day be the same and the long journey wasted to the south-west tip of County Kerry? I was in luck. When I awoke, the mist was lifting already and I hurried down to Portmagee harbour to find John Casey ready to ferry me out on his small fishing boat. In an hour we would be on Skellig Michael, the last outpost of Europe before the Atlantic ocean and beyond that, America.

The mist came down the first day I wanted to sail to Skellig Michael. The ruined monastery on the rock in the sea lay hidden from my gaze, shrouded in a thick Atlantic fog. That night I slept uneasily at the village of Portmagee. Would the next day be the same and the long journey wasted to the south-west tip of County Kerry? I was in luck. When I awoke, the mist was lifting already and I hurried down to Portmagee harbour to find John Casey ready to ferry me out on his small fishing boat. In an hour we would be on Skellig Michael, the last outpost of Europe before the Atlantic ocean and beyond that, America.

As we puttered out of the harbour the mist descended once more. But it was not so thick that we would have to return. It merely made the first sight of the Skelligs more momentous, as a vast black crag emerged through the haze. Was this, I wondered, the sight that greeted the dozen or so Irish monks who sailed out of Kerry to found their monastery on these rocks in the seventh century? Even from 100 yards, the stench was terrific. Tens of thousands of gannets made the smaller of the two Skellig islands their nesting place long before the monks arrived. And there they were still, covering the rock in malodorous guano and wheeling and diving into the Atlantic in search of pollock and mackerel.

Ten minutes later and Skellig Michael, the island of the archangel, loomed into view. Mr Casey said: "You've got two and half hours. I'll be fishing a few hundreds out to sea while you're up there." I started up the steep stone steps. They wound up what looked like almost sheer rock, up through the clouds of steamy mist that periodically obscured the summit and hid from view the remains of the old monastery. These were the steps carved by the monks when they landed on Skellig some 1,300 years ago, though the lighthouse keepers certainly improved and deepened them when they came to the island in the 19th century. The climb brought me to the first resting place, a small flattish area more than halfway to the top known as Christ's Saddle. How old Ireland is, I thought, as I recalled that the drone of prayer ascended from the peaks of Skellig some 500 years before Henry II claimed Ireland for the English crown in the 1200s.

The noises that accompanied me on my ascent were disconcerting. While the smaller of the two Skellig islands is home to gannets, Skellig Michael is the nesting place of puffins, gulls and fulmars. By the time I landed, the puffins had raised their young and moved off to spend the rest of the summer in their mid- Atlantic fishing grounds. But the gulls and fulmars were still nesting and their cries came wafting up through the mist, echoing strangely round of the rock. Some sounded horribly like the cry of the child; others resembled a witch's cackle.

These days Skellig Michael's nesting sea birds have nothing to fear from human visitors and some came padding after me in search of snacks. A thousand years ago they might have been more wary. Skellig has no fields. The rock affords just enough room on the summit for the monks' homes, chapel and a tiny vegetable garden, and then plunges down the other side. The monks had no source of food on this wind and rain-lashed crag other than fish caught in the sea and birds and eggs snared and snatched on the rock. Perhaps they rowed the eight or nine miles to shore in the summer for supplies. That could hardly have been feasible in the harsh winter months when the Atlantic batters the Skelligs for weeks on end.

In truth we know almost nothing about this mysterious community. An ancient Irish chronicle, "The Martyrology of Tallaght", which dates from about 823, mentions an abbot of Skellig. Archaeologists know the monastery fell victim to the Viking raids that struck Ireland with increasing force in the 900s.

Other than that, only the stone, beehive huts in which the monks lived and prayed are left to testify to the existence of this remarkable outpouring of early Gaelic piety. They speak of an age when monasticism meant total withdrawal from the world, and when Irish men and women found their biblical desert on the lonely crags and islands off the western coasts. They left no jewels, illuminated Bibles or chronicles. If they felt lonely, or plain terrified on their crag, trapped between the Vikings and the roaring sea, we know nothing of it. The wall of history has come down between us and them.

But the stones are in remarkably good condition. The lighthouse men repaired them a little, but the Skellig monastery is not a reconstruction. It stands now much as it stood then, a little circle of windowless huts and a chapel, clustered around a courtyard in which there stands a High Cross. A dry-stone wall protects the enclosure from the outside elements to an astonishing degree. Several hundred feet up on that crag it was windless and almost snug inside the enclosure. The design, complete with a big water cistern carved out of bare rock, is as much a testament to the building skills of the monks as to their piety.

The monks left Skellig in around the 12th century. As Ireland was drawn into mainstream European culture the old semi-independent Celtic church began to change. Perhaps the last monks on Skellig felt embarrassed by the very simplicity of their ways, as they compared their beehive huts with the lavish Gothic abbeys being built by the English invaders on the Irish mainland. At any rate, they abandoned Skellig to the gulls and puffins. But the Irish did not forget Skellig. For generations afterwards, the faithful sailed out to the island on pilgrimage, to tread and pray in the footsteps of the long-gone but not forgotten monks.

In the 19th century, a little community of sorts returned with the building of the lighthouse. A flat gravestone records the death of two children of one of the lighthouse keepers, aged two and four. But when the lighthouse was modernised in the 1980s, the island's last residents left. Once more there was nothing but to disturb the ghosts on Skellig Michael but the wind and seabirds .

We sailed back to the mainland in the afternoon. Casey's bucket was full of wriggling pollock. Back we went, past little Skellig, with its screaming gannets, towards the mainland, followed by a group of dolphins. Casey was in a good mood, laughing and throwing some of his pollock at them. The Skelligs retreated behind the veil of mist that never seems to lift, even in the height of summer.

Getting there

A return flight to Shannon with Ryanair (0870 333 1231; www.ryanair.com) and a week's car hire starts from £270 in July.

Boat trips from Portmagee to Skellig Michael cost £25 return with McCrohan (00 353 66 947 6142) or Casey's (00 353 66 947 2437). Book in advance.

Further information

Irish Tourist Board (0800 039 7000).

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