Editor’s Note: Ever since Skellig Michael made its guest appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s been one of the most sought after tourist experiences in all of Ireland. It’s not an easy one, either. A limited number of people are allowed on the island each day, due to its protected status as a UNESCO World Heritage site – a worthy limitation, given that the remains of a 1,400-year-old monastery sit at the top. Some days, due to the weather, the tour boats can’t set out for Skellig Michael at all, and others they approach the island only to find that the conditions are too dangerous to dock. Anne Daly, a Kerry native now living in New York, was lucky enough to encounter the perfect weather conditions for a trip to Skellig Michael earlier this summer. Here she shares her photos and impressions.
The boat journey took us out of Portmagee, a tiny, gorgeous Kerry town that now stocks Star Wars paraphernalia in its shops! As you leave, Valentia Island is to the right. The size of Skellig Michael is deceptive, and it took much longer to get out there than I expected. The island seems to loom for a while and you keep thinking you’ll be right there any minute, but it becomes a real journey! A good hour or so. We were lucky with a gorgeous day and calm water. Our guide explained that in the past there were many choppy journeys out there with aborted landings to the island. The entire time I was imagining what it was like for the monks who lived there and how arduous it would have been to row out.
Our boat was mostly filled with people from the US and UK but on the island there were also many Irish and Kerry folks. I saw a lovely older Kerry man who had taken the day trip by himself and was eating his packed lunch and watching the world go by. It was a real treat to explore your own county on such a gorgeous day!
We spoke to the US and UK tourists, and they seemed to be a good mixture of people interested in the island because it’s a UNESCO world heritage site and others who were big Star Wars fans – wearing the film t-shirts and posing with light sabers.
Even though I’d seen photos before, I was expecting a smaller island with more space for wandering as opposed to the very large steep rock that is Skellig Michael. We were met by guides and given many safety warnings - again not something I was expecting as I didn't think the island was that 'dangerous,' but apparently people have been critically injured from falling, etc.
Next we began to climb the famous steps, as we walked we learned how the monks built the steps over a long period of time to give themselves an easier journey to the top and to bring up stock and animals
The climb to the top was very, very steep - you definitely had to watch your feet and be mindful. Our guide told us that they will even stop people who seem unfit to climb from going up and that it’s important that there’s enough space between each person, hence the photo of me saying “slow down!”
Along the way we were so excited to see rabbits, as well as puffins and gannets and birds of all sorts. You walk right by the burrows that puffins share with the rabbits and you can see them coming in and out.
The island next to Skellig Michael is known as Little Skellig – - it looks white because it’s covered in bird poo! It’s renowned in the field of ornithology as the home of some 27,000 pairs of gannets – the second largest colony of such seabirds in the world.
I was amazed by the history of the monastery - how inventive and progressive the monks were. They had a kitchen and many ways to make the beehive huts warmer and cooler depending on the weather. They must have had great patience as it would have taken many years to complete what now structurally remains. People were captivated.
The monastery is not extensive and you don't have all over access since it’s so steep, so once you have toured all the bee hive huts really it’s really about taking it all in, imaging what it would be like to be living on this island day to day, thinking about what the monks did. Later on in history, the island was inhabited by lighthouse folks, who were still removed in a sense from the real world. Two children were born and buried on the island and never set foot on the mainland.
Today there are three keepers that actually live on the island, taking care of it and welcoming the tourists. They rely on a lot of solar power but managed to get a TV working for Euro 2016! They return to Portmagee every 15 days or so.
All groups have to depart the island by 3pm, but you do have enough time to take everything in and then let it sink in as you depart.
My final impression? On a good day, Kerry really is the Kingdom.
Anne Daly is a Dublin/Kerry native who has been living in New York for over three years and has run through all five boroughs in the NYC Marathon. She is a Customer Engagement Strategist working for Havas Health (think ‘Mad Men’ but for Big Pharma). Follow her on LinkedIn or Twitter.