Experiencing the Skellig Islands

By Sarah Hager

Mammoth waves crash against the side of the fishing boat. Salt spray stings the passengers as the bow breaks through the Atlantic. The Irish mainland disappears into the distance as two floating mountains rise up on the horizon. These colossal chunks of rock are known as the Skellig Islands, two land masses off the coast of the Irish village of Portmagee.

The larger of the two islands, Skellig Michael, was once the home of Irish monks. It is now a historic site that can be visited by the everyday tourist. This remote retreat provides travellers with a uniquely serene experience.

Due to the geography of the secluded island, Skellig Michael can be reached only by boat. Visitor Annette McMichael described her trip to the island as a great adventure.

“I love being a passenger in a boat on the sea,” McMichael said. “It’s exhilarating.”

However, when conditions are rough, the relentless jolting of the ocean waves proves to be too much for some passengers.

“I haven’t felt this sick in years,” tourist Jim McMichael recalls thinking during his trip to the island.

Seafaring or land loving, this 8-mile ocean excursion is only the beginning for Skellig visitors. Upon arrival, passengers clamber one-by-one onto shore as the boat bounces in the water, constantly rebounding off the edge of the island.

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With feet firmly planted back on land, visitors begin their 600-foot ascent to the top of the island. An astounding 618 ancient stone steps trail a sheer cliff edge. Visitors must climb to the island’s peak without the comfort of any sort of hand rails. A few inches of land is all that separates them from the sinister drop into the Atlantic.

“I wasn’t expecting the trail to be so potentially perilous,” said tourist Matt Hager.

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At the top of Skellig Michael, visitors are presented with a view of distant, lush green land masses floating in a sea of glistening blue.

“It was a beautiful, beautiful day,” Hager said. “You could see mainland Ireland, where we had come from. But I think what was more amazing was looking at that other Skellig Island.”

The smaller of the two islands, known as Little Skellig, is home to the world’s second largest colony of gannets, Ireland’s largest seabird. 70,000 stark white gannets perch upon jagged rocks, swarm the island, or dive into the watery depths of the Atlantic.

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But gannets have not been the Skelligs’ only inhabitants. The small, beehive-shaped huts of the Catholic monks that once called these islands their home are still in place at the top of Skellig Michael.

“You saw a piece of the past, and it was just hard to imagine that these monks actually lived there,” said Christin Hager. “How’d they survive? It was real evidence that people had lived there.”

Now that the island is deserted, all that can be heard from the island are the calls of the gannets and the faint rushing of the ocean far below.

“It was very, very peaceful up there,” Matt Hager said.

Whether tourists travel to the Skelligs for a one-of-a-kind adventure, the organic, breathtaking views, or a quiet escape from the bustle of daily life, travelers are left with a sense of calm that stays with them long after they have departed from the island.

“Sitting on a ledge on the island with my back up against the rocks. The sun was shining brightly. The view was beautiful. The salty air smelled wonderful,” said Annette McMichael of her most memorable experience on the trip. “It was one of those moments where time sort of stands still and you feel like the most blessed person on earth.”

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