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).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition