Skellig Michael

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Skellig Michael
Native name:
Sceilg Mhichíl
Skellig Michael03(js).jpg
Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael is located in island of Ireland
Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael
LocationAtlantic Ocean
Area21.9 ha (54 acres)[1]
Highest elevation218 m (715 ft)[2]
Republic of Ireland
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Official nameSceilg Mhichíl
CriteriaCultural: iii, iv
Inscription1996 (20th Session)

Skellig Michael (Irish: Sceilg Mhichíl) (or the Great Skellig; Irish: Sceilig Mhór) is a twin-pinnacled crag situated 11.6 kilometres (7.2 mi) west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland. Its twin island, Little Skellig (Sceilig Bheag) is smaller, practically inaccessible, and is closed to the public. These two islands, along with some of the Blasket Islands, form the most westerly part of the Republic of Ireland.[3] The name "Skellig" is derived from a Gaelic word for a splinter of stone (sceilig). Skellig Michael is named after the archangel Michael, said to have appeared there to help Saint Patrick banish serpents into the Irish sea.[4]

The island was formed during a period mountain formation across southern Ireland some 374-360 million years ago when the region was part of a larger continental land mass, and became apart from the mainland after tides rose around 300 million years ago. Today Skellig Michael is defined by its twin peaks and the intervening valley known as "Christ’s Saddle". The island is of interest to archaeologists as the remains of its early monastic settlement and hermitage remain in unusually good condition.[5] Skellig Michael consists of approximately 54 acres of rock, with its highest point, the Spit, 714 feet (218 m) above sea level. It is known for its steep inhospitable landscape, the Gaelic monastery founded between the 6th and 8th centuries, and its variety of inhabiting species, including gannets, puffins, a colony of razorbills and a population of approximately fifty grey seals.[6] The rock contains the remains of a tower house, a megalithic stone row and a cross inscribed slab[7] known as the "Wailing Woman". The monastery is situated at an elevation of 550-600 feet; "Christ's Saddle" is 422 feet; and the flagstaff area is 120 feet above sea level.[8]

Skellig Michael's monastic remains can be approached by a number of narrow and steep flights of stone steps which ascend from three landing points. The island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.[2] Because of the often difficult crossing from the mainland and the exposed nature of the small landing spot, the island is only accessible to the public during the summer months.

Geography and features[edit]

Map of the island

Skellig Michael is a steep rugged mass of rock (or "crag")[9] of circa 45 acres, located on the Atlantic coast off the Iveragh peninsula of County Kerry. It is 7.25 miles (11.67 km) west north west of Bolus Head, the southern end of Saint Finian's Bay. Its twin island, Little Skellig, is one mile closer to land, even more inhospitable and has never been inhabited. The small Lemon Rock island is 2.25 miles further inland.[8] the nearby Puffin Island is named after the variety of birds nesting there.[8]

The islands are formed from old red sandstone and compressed slate similar to that making up of the backbone of the mountains across south Kerry and West Cork, including the MacGillycuddy's Reeks and Caha Mountains, and were formed the Devonian period, between 360 and 374 million years ago, when Ireland was part of a larger continental land mass and located south of the equator.[10][5] The region's topography of valleys are separated by steep ridges formed during the Hercynian period of folding and mountain formation some 300 million years ago.[10] Sea levels later rose, creating deep marine inlets such as Bantry Bay, and leaving the Skelligs detached from the mainland. The rock on Skellig Michael is highly compressed and contains a number of lines of fracture and jointing. Due to erosion along a major major north–south-trending fault line, which contains bedrock much more brittle that that on the surrounding areas, much of the rock broke away from the main elevation, leading to a depression (today known as Christ’s Saddle) situated between the north-east and south-west peaks.[5]

Because of its exposed location, Skellig Michael's rock is deeply weathered and eroded, however as the variation is temperate is quite low, the island does not sustain much wear from frost.[9]

Path to Christ's Saddle

The main landing cove is on the recesses of the eastern side. Known as "Blind Man's Cove",[11] it is exposed to sea swells and high waves, making approach difficult outside of summer months. The bay's pier is positioned under sheer cliff face, populated by high numbers of birds. It was built in 1826 and from an area known as the "Flagstaff", leads to a small stairway leading to the now disused lighthouse. The steps split into two staircases, with the earliest and largely abandoned path leading directly to the monastery.[12] In total, the island has three landing areas, each with a long flights of steps (known as the East, South and North Steps) leading to the monastery. The steps were initially rock-cut, and later replaced with more stable dry stone.[5]

The "Wailing Woman" rock is found low on the main ascent, below the "Christ's Saddle" ridge. The rock is located in the centre part of the island, 400 feet above sea level, and is situated on three acres of grassland. It is the only flat and fertile part of the island, and archaeologists have found traces of medieval crop farming. The path from the Saddle to the summit is known as the "Way of the Christ", a nomenclature reflecting the still present danger that such a steep climb presents to visitors.[13] Notable features on this stretch include the "Needle's Eye" peak,[12] a stone chimney 150 metres (490 ft) above sea level,[14] and a series of 14 stone crosses with names such as the "Rock of the Women's piercing caoine", further references to the harsh climb. Further up is the "stone of pain" area, including the station known as the "Spit", a long and narrow fragment of rock approached by two feet wide steps.[15] The ruin of the medieval church is lower and approached before the older monastery.[12]


Skellig Michael largely consists rocky sea cliffs and exposed rock, with only thin soil on steep ground which is exposed to salt sea spray, and thus contains only bare patches of vegetation.[5]

It has has historically contained unusual seabird populations, now protected by the island's status as a nature reserve, owned by the state,[16] The Skellig islands were classified as a Special Protection Area in 1986, when they were recognised for containing both an usually large variety and population of birds.[17]

It is known as an eyrie for Peregrine Falcon. Other birds of interest include Fulmar, Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus), Storm petrel, Gannet, Kittiwake, Guillemot and Atlantic Puffin.

A herd of goats lived on the island until recently, and it supports a population of rabbits and house mice, both relatively recent introductions, probably introduced in the 19th century by lighthouse attendants. Grey Seal haul out on the island's ledges.[18]



View of the "Wailing Woman" rock with Little Skellig in the distance

The word "Skellig" derives from the old Irish word sceillec which translates as small or steep area of rock. The word is unusual in Irish placenames, and appears only in two other instances; at Bunskellig, County Cork, and Templenaskellig in Glendalough, County Wicklow. It has been suggested that the word is of Old Norse origin, from the word "skellingar" (the resounding ones). An early but rarely used alternative Irish name for the island is "Glascarraig" (the green rock).[19]

Except as an isolated location for temporary refuge, Skellig Michael was uninhabited before the founding of the Augustinian monastery,[2] and was used only for refuge. According to folklore, Irr, son of Míl Espáine, was buried on the island following a shipwreck c 1400 BC. Although from a prehistoric legend, the event appears in the Irish annals as the earliest extant record of the island:[20]

Irr lost his life upon the western main;
Skellig's high cliffs the hero's bones contain.
In the same wreck Arranan too was lost,
Nor did his corsp e'er touch Ierne's coast.[3]

Daire Domhain ("King of the World") is said to have stayed there c 200 AD before attacking Fionn mac Cumhaill's army in nearby Ventry.[20] A text from the 8th or 9th century records that Duagh, King of West Munster, fled to "Scellecc" after a feud with the Kings of Cashel sometime in the 5th century, although the historicity of the event has not been established.[21] Other ealy mentions include in the narrative prose of the Lebor Gabála Érenn and Cath Finntrágha, as well the medieval Martyrology of Tallaght.[22]


The "Annals of Inisfallen" record a Viking attack in 823. The site had been dedicated to Saint Michael by at least 1044 (when the death of "Aedh of Scelic-Mhichí" is recorded).[23][21] However, this dedication may have occurred as early as 950, around which time a new church was added to the monastery (typically done to celebrate a consecration) and called Saint Michael's Church.[2]


The monastry is positioned on a terraced shelf 600 feet (180 m) above sea level, and contains two oratories, a mortared church, a cemetery, crosses, cross-slabs and seven clochán-type beehive cells. It is situated on a very steep part of the face (of which only one has fallen), two oratories, a number of stone crosses and slabs, and a later medieval church. The cells and oratories are all of dry-built corbel construction. A system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns was developed. It has been estimated that no more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time.[24] The hermitage is on the south peak.

The exact date of the monastery's foundation is not known,[21] and, like many early Christian remnants in Kerry, it is sometimes attributed Saint Finnia (470–549), though this is often questioned.[25] The first definite reference to monastic activity on the island is a record of the death of "Suibhini of Skelig" dating from the 8th century; however Saint Fionán is claimed to have founded the monastery in the 6th century.[26] References in the Annals of the Four Masters record a number of events occurring at or around the Skelligs between the 9th and 11th centuries. Eitgall of Skellig, the monastery's Abbot, was taken by the Vikings in 823 and died of starvation thereafter. The Vikings again attacked in 838, sacking churches in Kenmare town, Skellig and Innisfallen Island. The Augustinian Abbey in Ballinskelligs was founded in 950, the same year that Blathmhac of Sceilig died. Finally, the annals mention the death of Aedh of Sceilig Michael, in 1040.[27]

The diet of the island monks was somewhat different from that of those on the mainland. With less arable land available to grow grain, vegetable gardens were an important part of monastic life. Of necessity, fish and the meat and eggs of birds nesting on the islands were staples.[28]

The monastery was continuously occupied until the late 12th or early 13th century,[2] and remained a site for pilgrimage through to the modern era. Theories for its abandonment include that the climate around Skellig Michael became colder and more prone to storms, Viking raids[29] and changes to the structure of the Irish Church. Probably a combination of these prompted the community to abandon the island and move to the abbey in Ballinskelligs.[21] The move was recorded by the Cambro-Norman Cleric and historian Giraldus Cambrensis during the end of the 12th century, when he wrote that the monks had moved to a new site on the continent".[30]


The hermitage is located below the South Peak, on the opposite side of the island to the monastery. It is approached from Christ’s Saddle via a steep series of steps that pass through the "Needle’s Eye". It comprises of a number of enclosures and platforms situated on three main terraces cut into the rock.[31] The main oratory is still largely intact, and contains its original altar, bench, a water cistern and what is likely the remenatns of a shrine.[5]


Skellig Michael remained in the possession of the Catholic Canons Regular until the dissolution of the Ballinskelligs abbey during the Protestant Reformation by Elizabeth I in 1578.[2][32] Ownership was then passed to the Butler family with whom it stayed until the early 1820s, when the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin (the predecessor to the Commissioners of Irish Lights) purchased the island for £500[33] from John Butler of Waterville in a compulsory purchase order.[21][32] The Corporation constructed two lighthouses on the Atlantic side of the island, and associated living quarters, all of which was completed by 1826.[34]

The Office of Public Works took the remains of the monastery into guardianship in 1880, before purchasing the island (with the exception of the lighthouses and associated structures) from the Commissioners of Irish Lights.[1][2][21]

Skellig Michael was made a World Heritage Site in 1996, at the 20th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Mérida, Mexico.[35] After being nominated for inclusion on 28 October 1995, an evaluation of the site by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (an advisory body of the World Heritage Committee), recommended that the island be inscribed on the basis of criteria (iii) and (iv) of the World Heritage List's selection criteria, which relate the cultural significance of a site.[32] The Committee approved this recommendation, describing Skellig Michael as of "exceptional universal value", and a "unique example of an early religious settlement", while also noting the site's preservation as a result of its "remarkable environment", and its ability to illustrate "as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterising much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe".[35]

Several films have used the island as a filming location. The island was used as a location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).[36][37] It also served as a location for the final scene in Heart of Glass by Werner Herzog.[7]


Skellig Michael receives an average of 11,000 visitors per year. To protect the site, the Office of Public Works limits the number of visitors to 180 per day. The local climate and exposed terrain makes crossing from the mainland to Skellig Michael difficult. Once landed, the island's terrain is steep, unprotected and dangerous. The rock is ascended via 600 medieval stone steps leading towards the main island peak.[38]

View of approach

This remoteness and inaccessibility has long discouraged visitors, and so the island is exceptionally well preserved. Tourism began in the late 19th century, when a rowing boat could be hired for 25 shillings.[6] It did not become a popular tourist destination until the early 1970s when small chartered passenger boats become more frequent; five were available in 1973 at a price of £3 per person. By 1990, the level of demand had grown to the extent that the Office of Public Works began to organise ten boats departing from four individual harbours.[39]

Each year at least four boat licences are granted to tour operators[40] who run trips to Skellig Michael during the summer season (May to October, inclusive), weather permitting. Even when conditions at the mainland are calm, the sea around the island itself can be turbulent. The area is a landing point for sea swells travelling in from distant depressions in the Atlantic. The island is lashed by water from all sides, with wave crests breaking at up to 10 metres over the pier and 45 metres along the lighthouse. When such large wave troughs recede, they can often expose ragged seaweed stumps, sponges and anemones on the rock faces, further hampering approach and landing.[6]

A typical visit lasts about six hours. The Office of Public Works emphasises that the journey presents safety challenges. The steps do not contain grips, safety rails or barriers, and it is not recommended that children visit the island. The island does not include any visitor facilities, including water, shelter or bathrooms. Waterproof clothing and strong walking boots are recommended. Snacks, liquids and changes of clothes should be held in an over-shoulder carrier bag to allow the visitors' hands to be free for balance and safer walking the steep climb.[38] For safety reasons, mainly because the steps are steep, rocky, old and unprotected, climbs are not permitted during wet or windy weather. Dive sites immediately around the rock, mostly around Blue Cove, are permitted in summer.[41]


Historical population
Source: Central Statistics Office. "CNA17: Population by Off Shore Island, Sex and Year". Retrieved October 12, 2016.




  1. ^ a b Edward Bourke; Alan R. Hayden; Ann Lynch. "Skellig Michael Co. Kerry: the monastery and South Peak" (PDF). Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Retrieved 28 Dec 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "Skellig Michael". UNESCO. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  3. ^ a b S.M. (1913), p. 164
  4. ^ Lavelle (1976), pp. 11–12
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Skellig Michael World Heritage Site Management Plan 2008–2018". Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, July 2018. Retrieved 12 December 2018
  6. ^ a b c Lavelle (1976), pp. 31-32
  7. ^ a b O'Shea (1981), p. 28
  8. ^ a b c O'Shea (1981), p. 3
  9. ^ a b De Pao (1955), p. 174
  10. ^ a b Bourke et al (2011), p. 3
  11. ^ Lovegrove (2005), p. 156
  12. ^ a b c O'Shea (1981), p. 8
  13. ^ S.M. (1913), pp. 166–167
  14. ^ Goldbaum, Howard. "Skellig Michael. Voices from the Distant Past. Retrieved 24 June 2018
  15. ^ S.M. (1913), pp. 167
  16. ^ "Great Skellig Nature Reserve". National Parks and Wildlife Service. Retrieved 12 Dcemeber 2018
  17. ^ "Skelligs SPA". National Parks & Wildlife Service.
  18. ^ Burke et all (2011), p. 16
  19. ^ Burke et all (2011), p. 18
  20. ^ a b Lavelle (1976), p. 3
  21. ^ a b c d e f Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. "Skellig Michael: Historical Background". Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  22. ^ Burke et all (2011), p. 17
  23. ^ Bourke et all (2011), p. 25
  24. ^ "Holy Places – Skellig". Diocese of Kerry.
  25. ^ Paor (1955), p. 80
  26. ^ Lavelle (1976), 18
  27. ^ S.B. (1913), 166
  28. ^ Walter Horn, Jenny White Marshall, and Grellan D. Rourke (1990). "The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael". Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520064102.
  29. ^ S.M. (1913), p. 165
  30. ^ Lavelle (1976), p. 19
  31. ^ Bourke et al (2011), p. 5
  32. ^ a b c International Council on Monuments and Sites (October 1996). "World Heritage List: Skellig Michael" (PDF). International Council on Monuments and Sites. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  33. ^ O'Shea (1981), p. 6
  34. ^ Bourke et al (2011), p. 24
  35. ^ a b World Heritage Committee (10 March 1997). "Convention Concerning the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" (PDF). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. p. 68. Retrieved 31 May 2012.
  36. ^ Siggins, Lorna (13 February 2016). "Concern over 'incidents' during 'Star Wars' filming on Skellig Michael". Irish Times. Retrieved 15 February 2016.
  37. ^ National Monuments. Dáil Éireann Debate, 11 September 2017. Retrieved 12 December 2018
  38. ^ a b "Visiting Skellig Michael – A Safety Guide". Office of Public Works, 2014. Retrieved 24 June 2018
  39. ^ Lavelle (1976), 32
  40. ^ "Public Competition for a Permit to carry passengers to Skellig Michael" (PDF). OPW.
  41. ^ "Diving around Skellig Michael". Ballinskelligs Watersports. Retrieved 12 December 2017.


External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°46′16″N 10°32′26″W / 51.77111°N 10.54056°W / 51.77111; -10.54056