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Sailing between the Spectacular and the Spiritual in Ireland

Visiting the 6th century christian monastery of SKELLIG MICHAEL,off the Atlantic coast of Ireland by Ramdas Iyer


Given its ancient history and remoteness of location, Skellig Michel naturally fell into my itinerary during my travels through Southern Ireland in 2013. Skellig Michael is an outstanding, and in many respects unique, example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe. 1996 Skellig Michael became a UNESCO World Heritage Site to protect its archaeological wonders for posterity.

Located 12 km off the coast, access to the site is very limited. Each year 13 boat licenses, carrying no more than 12 passengers are granted to tour operators who each run a single trip to Skellig Michael each day during the summer season (April to October), weather permitting. For safety reasons, because the steps up to the monastery are rocky, steep, and old, climbs are not permitted during very wet or windy weather. Few have ever had enough time to explore at leisure all that Skellig Michael has to offer since the normal visit to the island lasts only a few hours. A lengthy stay involves complex logistical problems because of uncertain sea and weather conditions and the lack of housing, food, and water on the island. Weather alone can wash away all resolve; very few can afford either to sit for days onshore, grimly eyeing the skies, or to huddle on the island in soggy misery awaiting those rare flashes of mercy from the Irish weather
Located in the most beautiful area of County Kerry, the approach to the western most tip of Iveragh Peninsula, where the Skelligs lie, was constantly interrupted by stops for spectacular photo opportunities offered along the way. At one point Pushpa, my wife and I decided to abandon the idea of reaching it given our limited time available in the country. Eventually we reached the peninsula about 3:00PM on our chosen day instead of at 8:00AM to catch one the boats. As I have always done, I struck a conversation with a local in a tea shop and a brief chat led to our going around the Skelligs in a private boat. The gentleman I was talking to offered to contact his friend, a boat owner, asking by phone if he would take us around the Island. An hour later we were walking into the Fisherman’s Pub in Portamagee, looking for Kevin Lavin, who was supposedly known to everyone in town. Essentially we were in the hands of a novice carpenter turned tour operator, who was going to make his first few if not his maiden trip to the Skelligs-I could feel Jesus, a carpenters apprentice, smiling!


Christian monasticism had its conceptual roots in the belief that union with God could best be attained by withdrawal from civilization into harsh and isolated regions. In the third century, Egyptian Christians fled the distractions and temptations of cities to live solitary lives of prayer, meditation, and fasting in the desert. The fame of St. Anthony (ca. 251–356), the great founder of eremitic monachism, spread rapidly throughout Egypt; his duels with the devil while locked in a tomb and his decades of total isolation in the most inhospitable areas of the Egyptian desert became the heroic model for a multitude of followers. Yet St. Anthony's vision of solitary withdrawal into bleak areas where survival is difficult has remained over the centuries the ideal—the purest form of monastic life. From St. Simeon Stylites (ca. 390–459), who lived for decades on a pillar fifty feet high, to the nineteenth-century recluse who established himself on a volcanic plug in the Hoggar Mountains of the African Sahara, Antonian monasticism has continued to be practiced by a few highly motivated ascetics.

One of the most spectacular inaccessible regions of monastic withdrawal is in the province of Thessaly near the village of Kalabaka in Greece, where rock masses have eroded into isolated columns ranging in height from eighty-three to three hundred feet. Some have described Meteora, Northern Thessaly, Greece founded in the 16th century to be the ultimate in isolated living.
Walter Horn, medieval scholar at UC, Berkeley who researched the monastery writes “We had thought of the hermitages and monasteries of Meteora as the climax, the ne plus ultra, of monastic withdrawal until we came to work on the Irish island of Skellig Michael. In the course of investigating the island, we were startled to discover the architectural remains of a hermitage five hundred years older than the earliest hermitage of Meteora. On Skellig Michael, an island at the western edge of the European land mass—at the time the monastery was founded, the western edge of the Christian world—was a hermitage even more awesome than Meteora seven hundred feet above the sea, clinging to the narrow ledges of an austere pinnacle, the Skellig Michael hermitage is a visual wonder and a marvelous feat of construction”
Solitary asceticism was praised throughout Europe, but nowhere was it imitated so faithfully, for so long, or on such a grand scale as in Ireland. Enthusiastically adopting Antonian ideals, early Irish monks began with hermitages and small eremitic colonies The ascetic revival of the late eighth and early ninth centuries was led by a group of highly articulate and persuasive monks who referred to themselves as the Célí Dé, the "companions of God," but were popularly referred to as the Culdees. They have been attributed to the construction of the monastery on the southern peak of the island.
Not much is known about the details of life in the monastery, except that it flourished for 600 years until the 12th century Norman Conquest of Ireland, where it is listed in their coda as a functioning church. The monks of Skellig Michael might have had another reason for their strong interest in supporting the dreams and aspirations of a hermit. In the ninth century the Vikings began to raid Ireland. After a first bitter experience, in which monasteries was brutalized, the monks would have wanted to build a temporary place of safety from attack.
The earliest undisputed reference to Viking raids on Skellig Michael is in the Annals of Inisfallen , where under the year 824 it is stated: "Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Etgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger.
The monks of Skellig Michael had reason to be anxious, for the approaches to their monastery were not easily defended. By the end of the 12th century Skellig Michael had been abandoned by monks in favor of the Augustinian Monastery in Ballinskelligs( Another interesting place to visit in the Inveragh Peninsula). In the early 13th century there was a general climatic deterioration resulting in colder weather and increased storms on the seas around the Skellig isles. Also a shift in the Irish church from a monastic to a diocesan structure, brought the end of Irish eremitic island colonies, which resulted in the community of Skellig Michael eventually moving to the mainland. This was probably not a single event but likely happened over a period of time.
In 1578 Queen Elizabeth I dissolved certain monasteries as a result of the Desmond rebellions, including the Skelligs. In the 16th and 17th centuries Skellig Michael becomes a focus for pilgrims from all over Europe. By the 18th century the Butler family gave up the land to the Irish Government which set up lighthouses on the Island, still functioning.

While waiting for Kevin to show up, we hung out with the local fishermen, friends of Kevin over a pint of Guinness malt. Interestingly an abandoned boat belonging to Kevin’s father had the same name as the “Maria Theresa” that we were told over the phone that we will be sailing to the Isles. The locals had fun indicating that Kevin was a good sailor and he was the only one adept at handling that seagull dropping adorned vessel. One cannot discount the great sense of humor the Irish men and women exhibit for every occasion. It was humor that I believe I kept this hardy Celts from caving into the British, many famines and today a lack of natural resources, failure of the “Irish Tiger” economic phenomenon and a young population ready to emigrate from this beautiful land.

We chugged out into the ocean at 6:00PM on a day considered one of the best by the locals; 70F, blue sky and last sunlight at 10:30PM.It turned out Kevin, son of a fisherman and a carpenter had just bought the boat for 300K Euros and had an economic reason to take us. We observed many seabirds; gulls, gannets, cormorants, shearwaters, terns, guillemots and Razorbills. Little did we realize that one of the two Isles; the lesser and greater Skelligs was home to 70000 Gannets (2nd largest Gannet colony in the World) and the clown amongst seabirds the erstwhile Puffin.
As our 30 ft boat pulled up close to Lesser Skellig, all 130degrees of our vision was absorbing the panorama of surreal rocks from which flew thousands of birds. Pushpa and I were literally dumbfounded and in total ecstasy at such a sight. As a well heeled traveler, it is only occasionally have I seen a locale that made me gasp and gape in dumbfounded astonishment. Over a 1000 birds were overhead in addition to the entire sea around us with bobbing gannets, gulls and beautiful Puffins. As we sailed around the Island for 30 minutes, I ran out of disc space because I shot over a 1000 images in RAW format, despite the fact that my D600 holds 2 SD cards.


We then chugged along towards the Greater Skellig; Michel Skellig (named for St. Michael, the Archangel), an island that could have very well have been a scene from “Lord of the Rings” movie. Faulting of Devonian sandstone and gravels has created a U-shaped depression, known today as 'Christ's Saddle', 400ft above sea level in the centre of the island, and this is flanked by two peaks, that to the north-east rising to 550ft and that to the west-south-west 700ft. The rock is deeply eroded and weathered, owing to its exposed position, but is almost frost-free. Landing is possible at three points, depending on the state of the sea. These communicate by flights of 700 very slippery steps with the principal monastic remains. (The Irish and UNESCO authorities have not introduced anything man-made including railing or chains to hold on to, nor a toilet, lest the site lose its original feel. Every year a couple of deaths have been registered on the steps.
The well-preserved monastic remains have retained a strong spiritual after-life which appeals strongly to the human psyche. Visitors cannot but be awestruck by the physical achievements of these early monks which, when combined with the sense of solitude, ocean and bird sounds evokes a quiet sense of magic. This is beautifully expressed by George Bernard Shaw who, following a visit in 1910, described this ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’ as ‘part of our dream world’...

After circumnavigating the Isle, I requested Kevin to take us back to Lesser Skellig where I could enjoy the birds some more.
My reflections of this 4 hour trip can be concluded as such; The Lesser Skelligs gives the soul an opportunity to commune with nature, while the Greater Skellig gives the same opportunity to do so with the great unknown. This converging communion with nature and the spiritual makes the visitor or pilgrim consider themselves to be blessed with the ability to appreciate the greatness and mysteries of this world. The End.
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Citations: Walter Horn and Jenny White Marshall, University of California Press, UNESCO World Heritage site, Ministry of Environment and Heritage website, Ireland.

Ramdas Iyer ( [email protected])

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 12:37 Archived in Ireland Tagged religion ireland monks monastery michael kerry county christianity skellig

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Pure Spirit...
Ram,you captured the Soul of the Ascetic beautifully while still finding time to honor the mystery of nature. Wonderfully written...I felt as though I was there, and who knows maybe I was or will be.

by Mark Riesenberg

A "true" christian needs to visit these places to understand the depth of penance and sacrifice undertaken by ancient monks & believers of Christ who were actually ascetics; truth seekers.At a higher level all religions offer the same message of Duty, Solace,Peace, Kindness and Salvation. Unfortunately religious wars are fought by the uneducated and uninformed on behalf of informed!.
Mark, you have always maintained and taught me that a bit of daily meditation would calm everyone down and soon there will not be any wars or conflicts.Good idea and I am working on it daily.

by Ramdas Iyer

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