Steve’s Sojourns – Skellig Michael’s puffin doorman
If you ever get involved in a staring contest with a puffin, back down. There’s no way you’re going to win. I had climbed halfway up the 600 steps that lead to the top of Skellig Michael and it’s 6th century stone monastery to stop for a rest and a drink, turning round I was met with a look of such disdain by the bird that it has stayed with me ever since.
Rising like the end of a giant Toblerone from the Atlantic the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Skellig Michael is simply incredible and amazing. If for nothing else that very few people know it exists.
This is due in no small way due the fact that often the gigantic Atlanic rollers come in so high and fast that landing is impossible. With it smaller sister Little Skellig it sits some six miles from the village of Portmagee off the coast of Kerry, south west Ireland in splendid isolation.
It is however this isolation that has resulted in the site being so exceptionally well preserved. Just think about the great monasteries of the Middle ages such as Riveuax and Fountains Abbey and the state of ruin they are in today.
So remote and beautiful are they that George Bernard Shaw described them as “this incredible, impossible, mad place, part of our Dream World”. It can be quite a haul getting up those steps and even when you get to the top there is a steady rise on a path that simply stares down to the Atlantic some seven hundred feet below.
But treasures await when you make it this high. A female peregrine hurtled past us no more than fifty yards away with the light so superb making all all her colours stand out. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better her two chicks soared over our heads binding together in the way they do.
The suddenly opening before you are the walls and the Monastery gateway which reminded me of those photographs of Mycenae one sees in those history or Greek guide books. Walking under the portal and a winding stone staircase I entered the interior and just sat down and took it all in for a while.
The monastery buildings are unique in the world with stone beehive huts and Maccu Piccu like walls. The island was the chosen destination for a small group of ascetic monks who sometime in the sixth or eight century, in their pursuit of greater union with The Almighty, withdrew from civilisation to this remote and inaccessible place giving rise to one of the most dramatic examples of the extremes of Christian monasticism.
It was these beehive huts, called clochans that indicate the bareness of life on the rock. that were in fact the individual cells for the monks that captivated me, and of course how did they manage to eke out a living on this barren place for so long? Walking down 600 steps the back up again each day to catch fish for sustenance must have been a hard life even on a sunny day when the sea was calm never mind driving rain and salt spray of the winter storms.
Considering their isolation it’s perhaps a surprise the Vikings found the place and sacked it on a few occasions. The monks however would not attempt any resistance but simply retreated to the top of the island and left the Vikings to it.
There is one other thing you have to realise about this place and that is get away from the other visitors after you’ve look round. Put your camera down and just sit for a while.
I had read before my visit that the well-preserved monastic buildings have retained a strong spiritual after-life which appeals strongly to the human psyche. Something I had dismissed initially as tourist board hype.
Having now visited I must say that you cannot be anything but be awestruck and overawed by the physical achievements of those early monks which, when mixed with the sense of being so alone, the sounds of the birds and sea stretching from horizon to horizon brings a quiet and subtle sense of bewitchment and serenity.
These islands are more that the monastery though the birds will also create a lasting impression with you. Storm Petrels nest in cracks in the walls and steps and stone huts whilst the very air is alive with the sounds of tens of thousands of Guillemots and Razor bills living on the cilffs.
Half a mile away is the sister island of Little Skellig where 26,000 pairs of gannets can be found. The birds make their nests out of flotsam, jetsam and seaweed and use their excreta to bind the materials together hence the all pervading smell that wafted towards us over the waves as we approached. As I gazed out towards the mainland once again my thoughts turned to how on Earth those early monks could have lived here but I also knew why now that I was leaving. I began to look forward to a cup of coffee and a piece of carrot cake on the mainland.
After all I concluded going down those steps was going to be a lot easier than coming up. But of course, I had forgotten about the puffin.
The Irish Tourist board site will give you a good idea about the Rock and what to expect as well as some useful links.