Skellig Michael, Ireland. Not many people know the history of this island, where legend seems to impose itself and to overcome present reality.
By Alessandra Ivaldi / 20.6.2017
First of all we should explain that what we are talking about is the first point of an imaginary route which goes right up to Jerusalem. Along the same route we will find other six sites: St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, Le Mont-Saint-Michel in France, the Sacra di San Michele in Val di Susa and the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo in Apulia, both in Italy, the Symi monastery in Greece and finally the Mount Carmel monastery in Israel. Seven holy sites, dedicated to Saint Michael (in fact Skellig Michael in Gaelic means Michael’s Rock) and standing at a distance of around 1000 kilometers from one another.
At this point it is clear that the story we are going to tell is deeply connected to the religious world. Going into detail we could add that the island, which became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, is the example par excellence of the extreme asceticism and the rigorous way of life of Gaelic Christian monasticism.
Skellig Michael is the largest of the two Skellig Islands, located 17 kilometers from the Kerry coastline. A place where the ocean fully manifests its fearsome power, which makes the two islands almost inaccessible for the rest of the world.
Skellig Michael was inhabited solely by sea birds until the 6th century… And then what happened? A group of courageous monks managed to reach the island on board rudimentary boats. They colonized it in 588 and built one of the most incredible monasteries in the world on the top of its breathtaking cliffs.
The only way to reach the monastery is by climbing 600 arduous steps, carved into the rock, high up above the sea. An ancient High Cross watches over the monks’ spartan cells. Everything is derived from the rock.
The way of life in this monastery was very different from that of the monks living on the mainland. The lack of arable lands, which were necessary for grain production, made vegetable gardens indispensable. The walls of the monastery offered shelter for these gardens. Even fish and the meat and eggs of the birds nesting on the island represented a significant part of the monks’ nourishment.
Historians are divided over when the monastery was finally abandoned. It is thought that a dramatic change of climate took place around the 12th century. The island became colder and more prone to storms, which made it even more inhospitable. For the monks on Skellig Michael it was time to come back to the mainland.
In the 16th century the island and its extraordinary monastery were rediscovered by devout travellers, who every year went on a pilgrimage to Skellig Michael. The only real inhabitants of the island, however, were once again the sea birds, especially the playful puffins.
In the meantime, the wild beauty of the island has enchanted and inspired artists of all kinds, from writers and musicians to film directors. Unconvinced? Watch 2015 film Star Wars: The Force Awakens and pay attention to the closing scenes of the movie. That wonderful and inaccessible island you will see is Skellig Michael, which you will see again in the next movie of the Star Wars series, entitled The Last Jedi, set to be released next December.
Tempted to immediately plan a trip to Ireland? Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, Skellig Michael is not the most popular of tourist destinations. Tourists are discouraged by its remote location and by numerous restrictions imposed by the Irish government. In fact, only ten boats with a maximum capacity of 12 passengers are permitted to sail from the Kerry coastline once per day.
Such strictness is obviously tied up with a decision to preserve as well as possible this place unique in the world. What causes most concern for the authorities are the impressive steps which lead to the monastery. On the one hand the presence of numerous visitors would lead to unavoidable degradation of this ancient structure; on the other the arduous steps could pose a real danger for those visitors brave enough to undertake the climb.
Moreover, landing on the island is absolutely prohibited in case of bad weather, which would make visiting Skellig Michael extremely dangerous.
That being said, no obstacle is too great when afforded the opportunity to visit such a magical and inspiring place. The journey will definitely be worthwhile.