By Jim Devereux
With scenes from the latest Star Wars film filmed on Skellig Michael, it brought back memories of an unforgettable visit I made to the remote island off the Kerry coast along with my brother (aptly named Michael) and an older cousin, a Valentia Island local. I was around sixteen years old at the time, and a boat trip to an unpopulated island in the Atlantic Ocean seemed like a bit of an adventure.
It was one of those rare Kerry summer days when the sun actually shone. We were up bright and early to catch the boat from Portmagee. At that time it was a Des Lavelle who ran trips, weather permitting, out to the Skelligs and my cousin, being local, had negotiated preferential rates for us. We took our seats on the wooden benches and the boat gradually filled with German and Scandinavian tourists, all in vivid yellow waterproofs with cameras at the ready.
The skipper discreetly advised us that the brightly clad tourists would be hanging and heaving over the side of the boat once we were out of the relative calm of the bay and into the Atlantic. We smiled, but ten minutes later the only people hanging over the boat’s side were my brother and me. And there we remained for the rest of the two-hour trip to Skellig Michael, with complexions as green as the water.
We were, of course, grateful for the full Irish breakfast that our aunt had cooked for us that morning although probably not as grateful as the seagulls that were closely following our movements.
Did you know that Little Skellig is home to approximately 27,000 gannets?
Well on that morning a good proportion of them were circling our boat. From our very close proximity to the water we also spotted seals, puffins and all manner of other types of sea gulls.
Eventually we arrived at the quayside on the island, although by quay I mean a small block of concrete jutting out from the rocks. There was some debate as to whether we would get to land as by that time the skipper had noticed that the sea was a ‘touch choppy’ although I am sure he was the type who would have described Hurricane Katrina as a ‘bit of a breeze’. I was desperate for solid ground beneath my feet, and would have swan-dived into the sea to reach land if the boat hadn’t managed to dock.
According to legend, Sceilig Mhichil, to give it its Irish name, is where Daire Domhain (King of the World) prepared for an epic battle with Fionn mac Cumhail (Finn McCool) and the Fianna Army.
No evidence of Daire Domhain’s reputed presence on the island remains. Historians, however, believe that Skellig Michael was last inhabited over 800 years ago by monks seeking to retreat from the world.
Unsteadily, I struggled up the 600 steps, hewn by hand out of the rocks by successive generations of those selfsame monks over 1400 years ago.
Breathless, we eventually managed to reach the stone built terraces and beehive huts built by the monks that formed part of the community’s monastery at the island’s summit, 714ft above the Atlantic Ocean.
When I first arrived on the island I wondered why on earth anyone would ever consider living on Skellig Michael; a desolate rock plonked in the midst of the wild Atlantic and at the time, the edge of the known world. But I recall sitting on the grass gingerly picking over the half-a-hundred weight of ham sandwiches and scones that my aunt had supplied us with, the sun beating down glinting on the sea and listening to the distant roar of the waves and thought what better place on earth could there be to live a life of quiet contemplation.
The monks left the island for good in the 13th Century, probably beaten down by the Atlantic weather, and moved to Ballinskelligs, on the mainland. We managed a short few hours before descending back down the steps to the quayside for the return trip to Portmagee. I’d said a quick prayer for a smoother return journey but unfortunately it was not to be.
The skipper kindly offered to refund myself and my brother’s fare, partly on the basis that we were entertainment for the rest of the passengers, but we both refused.
I would love to return one day to the Skelligs, especially now that my stomach has settled down a bit. But I think that if ever I do return my preferred mode of transport would have to be one of those Star Wars ships that at the present time don’t depart from Portmagee.