After eight hundred years of solitude Skellig Michael has suddenly became famous. It is now a must see exhibit on the circuit of Irish places of interest, thanks in some part to its role in the most recent Star Wars film. Skellig however, is not the typical exhibit, nothing like The Book of Kells or The Giant’s Causeway. It lies six miles out on the Atlantic and the relics of its antiquity are especially fragile. Unless we now plan how to manage the burgeoning numbers of visitors that it now attracts, that fragility is in danger.
What is so unique about Skellig Michael that requires such protection? The answer is in its history.
The rock of Skellig Michael was formed some 350 million years ago. The period of its creation is called The Devonian, named for Devon in south-west England where the period was first identified. It was the time when the great continents of Euramerica and Gondwana drew closer together and embarked on a process that gave us the formations of continents and seas of our present era. Time, and the evolution of nature’s forces, worked upon the rock, separating it from the mainland of west Kerry, washed away all its neighborhood formation, and gave us what Skellig looks today. If for no other reason than its stands alone in glorious isolation, displaying its picture of layered topography, Skellig would be a place to see and marvel at. But the foundation of another layer, that of total devotion to a religious regime of great hardship, has placed Skellig in the forefront of places to see and wonder at.
Around the end of the fifth century A.D, a monk called Fionan, set sail with two others from an unknown monastery, aiming to find a place that was inaccessible to the outside world. Other’s followed, driven by the zeal of the founder and his regime. The regime lasted seven hundred years. We know little about it. Little about its rituals and its organisation. There was no written description of their worship. What we know is that this little band of men, never more than seven, spent their lives in prayer, fasting, and shaping the rock to their humble needs.
And it is that shaping that the true wonder of Skellig emerges. They had nothing but the most basis tools to build cells, a place of worship, graves for the dead, the flights of stair ways that curled up from the rock base to the shelf of habitation. Think of it. Rock forming rock. There was no cement then, no iron pickaxes, no trowels, no levelling systems. Only in the later period of seven hundred years habitation was lime mortar used. And yet, what the monks created, has mostly survived as a monument to their ingenuity and skill.
The monks used the ancient technique of drystone corbelling. Individual stones are laid horizontally, each one placed over the previous one in such a way that it overhangs on the inner face. The interior space reduces as it rises up to form a dome-like structure. All the stones are positioned and shaped so that they slope outwards allowing for wind-borne rain to run off and so keep the building watertight.
In its own perspective, Skellig Michael, as it stands to days, is as valuable to posterity as any great cathedral of antiquity or an illuminated book of gospels from an ancient scriptorium. But it is far more vulnerable. The rock cannot be placed in a sealed glass case or be surrounded by protocol and regulation. And that is the dilemma that now faces Skellig Michael. Its fame is worldwide, more and more visitors will want to see the wonder of it all. It will be a mecca for mass tourism because very little of its kind survives. Even without the future surge of visitors Skellig Michael is living precariously. It is a limestone porous rock. What you see from the mainland is the survivor from a once great shelf of stone that ran out to sea and along by the coastline. Limestone is prone to deterioration. It is laid down on shelves that lift and break as the sea beats upon it and all the other forces of nature collude in its downfall.
The greatest colluder of all may become Homo sapiens sapiens. We humans, being so wise, that the word appears twice in our genetic description. For the sake of Skellig Michael we need to apply that double source of wisdom now. The bald judgement is that the rock, and particularly what is built upon it, will not survive without damage if mass tourism decamps upon the island. It is now time--if not somewhat late, because some effects will not show immediately -- to bring all the forces together: government, tourism companies, boatmen, local providers, and develop a system to manage the effect of a growing demand. That does not mean to drive people away. Rather the opposite. What might be done is to develop a process that will cater for those who are allowed on the island and for those who cannot. Perhaps it might be that visitors would follow a supervised route throughout the island and its places of worship. The trek is not a walk in the woods, don’t mess about, follow the direction of the wise ones.
That does not mean to drive people away. Rather the opposite. What might be done is to develop a process that will cater for those who are allowed on the island and for those who cannot. Perhaps it might be that visitors would follow a supervised route throughout the island and its places of worship. The trek is not a walk in the woods, don’t mess about, follow the direction of the wise ones.
And what for those who cannot make it to the home of St. Fionan or may not be comfortable with the crossing? Not far from Skellig, in the same county of Kerry, there is another famous island, An Blascaed Mor, one of the Blasket Islands. Many people come to see the island but are daunted by the boat trip across the sound. In Dun Caoin, from where the boats ply, there is now a wonderful ‘Blasket Heritage', presentation, an audio-visual exposition. It brings you to the island as if you were landing at the pier, making your way to the deserted village, you look on the faces of people who lived there, hear the waves break. You might as well be on the island. Perhaps that too would work for Skellig.
Tom Nestor is a writer living in County Offaly. For almost forty years he wrote a column in the Limerick Leader - My Life and Times - about the Ireland that he grew up in during the fifties and sixties. It ran from 1964 to 1998. That column became the basis for two works of memoir, published by The Collins Press, titled "The Keeper of Absalom's Island" and "Talking to Kate."