For three-quarters of a century the beautiful Skellig Islands off the southwest coast of Ireland have been the main passion of Des Lavelle’s life, as can be seen in these extracts from his book Skellig, Experience the Extraordinary.
The Skellig Islands are many times more important than either their size or location would suggest. In any world map of archaeology, the Skellig stands out in bold, conspicuous letters; similarly, in the ornithological world, the name of Skellig conveys a richness of seabird life that is not easily equaled.
And there is more: fascinating lighthouse history, magnificent cliff scenery, interesting local folklore, incredible richness in the surrounding ocean … and the many, many Skellig questions that do not have answers.
But that is only part of the motivation for this book. The real reason is that these Skellig Islands continue to fascinate me – even after some seventy-five years of visitations. I have sailed around them, flown over them and dived on every sheer underwater cliff face beneath them; I have visited them in childhood and perhaps fifty times each year from 1968 to 2014 to wander and wonder, and by researching, writing and poring over a wide variety of photographs, I can be out there immediately in spirit, savouring, as George Bernard Shaw said about the place, ‘the magic that takes you out, far out, of this time and this world.’
These spiritual visits are too wonderful to hide, but one must try to strike a balance of interest for the historian, the bird-lover, the archaeology student, the Kerryman who hungers for more knowledge of his native ground and for that day-visitor who seeks a jolt of fantasy in his life.
Legend & History
‘Like two mighty ships, sailing along majestically with every shred of canvas set’; such are the Skellig rocks – Skellig Michael and Small Skellig – located eight sea miles (14km) off Valentia Island on the Atlantic coast of Kerry. These great towering sea-crags, steeped as they are in history and legend, become daily more and more important in this age of bustle, pollution and all-consuming ‘progress’. The archaeology of Skellig, the birdlife, the seals, the wide-open, timeless scenery – for one reason or another there is a balm for every soul on the Skelligs.
Visible from so many coastal vantage points between Dursey head in County Cork and Slea head in West Kerry, the Skellig Islands – Skellig Michael and Small Skellig – nonetheless seem to stand aloof, isolated and insulated from any mainland association.
This is but a latter-day impression. In any early age, a sea route was always an easier highway to traverse than the trackless mountains and boglands of the interior or the lengthy indentations of the local coast – Dingle bay, Ballinskelligs bay, Kenmare bay, Bantry bay…
Skellig and its environs were well travelled by such voyagers, local and international, throughout all eras, and it is hardly surprising that the wedge tomb at Cool East, Valentia Island, aligned ENE-WSW – as are many such megalithic monuments – in this instance, offers, from within the tomb, a tranquil scene of a well-known Skellig that is spiritually uplifting for any departing soul of any age or era.