Skellig Michael

This island off Europe’s own Emerald Isle offers austere beauty, rugged terrain, a 600-step ascent, and a rare glimpse into the country’s religious past.
Skellig Michael at a Glance
Name: Skellig Michael, Ireland
Date of Inscription: 1996
Why Go: Ireland's island monastery is a rock of the Early Christian age.

No man is an island—unless, of course, you count the monks who inhabited Skellig Michael, a pointy chip of granite eight miles off the coast of Ireland's County Kerry. For centuries, the early Christian practitioners lived a solitary existence on the waterfront property that even the most dogged real estate agent would be hard-pressed to list. Yet for this band of ascetic clerics, the land's inhospitable and isolated nature was its major selling point. The monks wanted some alone time with their higher being, and Skellig Michael answered their prayers.

Some 20 island hermitages rise from Irish waters, but Skellig Michael differs dramatically from its neighbors; while the other sites have undergone makeovers or been trampled upon by interlopers, Skellig's natural and monk-made surroundings remain pure—no major retouching, no trinket shops. In fact, visitors who want to reach the 715-foot-high hermitage must endure their own personal test of endurance on the 600 stone steps, bottom to top.

It was exactly this type of hardscrabble, Spartan lifestyle the monks sought. The monastery—founded in the eighth century and dedicated to St. Michael, the patron saint of high places—followed the precepts espoused by organized monasticism: The harsher the living conditions, the clearer the connection to God. The Irish monks' simple lifestyle, however, did not preclude a bit of drama beyond trying to figure out how to grow a garden on rocky terrain high above sea level. In the ninth century, Vikings invaded Skellig, kidnapped one of the monks, and murdered the abbot. Three centuries later, the storms at sea and in Christian politics hit Skellig Michael. Soon after, the monks permanently retreated to the mainland.

For 400 years, though, the first Irish Christians lived quietly in their survivalist settlement built out of ancient Devonian sandstone. Most of their monastic activities took place atop the North and South peaks, where buildings cling to the mountain like abstract versions of Mount Rushmore. A ribbon of land called Christ's Valley, or Christ's Saddle, bridges the two crags. The monastery sits on the south side, somehow defying gravity from its 607-foot perch. Its assorted buildings include both a large and small oratory with a nearby beehive-shaped toilet cell; six domed communal dwellings, some of which still have cupboards, original flagged floors, and stone projections that predate coat hooks; and St. Michael's Church, a mostly intact rectangular space, minus its timber roof. Stone crosses provide the only bit of home decoration. On the higher north peak is the hermitage, hidden from the ground, and three stepped terraces, two of which are connected via a passage. In addition, the Oratory Terrace contains the remains of a leacht, or altar, turning the offering of relics into an extreme sport.

The island's ruggedness is integral to Skellig's charm and self-preservation. After the monks decamped, the island became a popular pilgrimage site and wedding destination for 16th-century lovebirds. In 1826, two lighthouses were built. But besides some caretakers, archeologists, and puffins that summer on the island, Skellig Michael remains forlorn and abandoned.

To protect the island's history and architecture, officials strictly oversee visitation rights. A handful of guides run trips to and from Skellig Michael. The journey requires Dramamine, thick shoe soles, and confidence that your legs won't quit on step 599. And while Skellig's stairway might not lead to heaven, it gets pretty close.

A globetrotter and travel writer, Andrea Sachs contributes frequently to the Washington Post.

Published: 30 Jun 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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