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Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichil) is a dramatic and remote medieval monastic settlement off the coast of Ireland. In fact, it was one of Ireland’s earliest examples of monastic life.
First mentioned in writing in the 8th century, it is not clear as to exactly when the monastery of Skellig Michael was first constructed. Some say it was built by St. Fionan, to whom it was dedicated, in the 6th century, others that it was there from the 7th century. Whatever the truth, this magnificent remnant of early Irish Christianity is still incredibly well-preserved, having been abandoned sometime in the 12th to 13th centuries.
Visitors to Skellig Michael can still view the distinctive rock-hewn buildings of the monastery, which have been compared in shape to beehives. Among them, there are former communal areas, an oratory and even a remaining toilet building. The earliest structure there is St Michael's Church.
Part of what makes Skellig Michael such a fantastic site is its evocative nature. In particular, there is still a real sense of the simple, even sparse, lives of the monks who lived here.
It’s well worth noting that a visit to Skellig Michael involves a steep climb up 618 steps and that there are no facilities at all at the site.
Skellig Michael has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1996.
The Skellig Rocks, Sceilg Mhichíl (also known as Great Skellig) and Little Skellig, are towering sea crags rising from the Atlantic Ocean almost 12 kilometres west of the Ivereagh Peninsula in County Kerry. Located at the western edge of the European landmass, Sceilg Mhichíl was the chosen destination for a small group of ascetic monks who, in their pursuit of greater union with God, withdrew from civilisation to this remote and inaccessible place. Some time between the sixth and eight centuries, a monastery was founded on this precipitous rock giving rise to one of the most dramatic examples of the extremes of Christian monasticism.
The monastic community appears to have moved to the mainland by the thirteenth century but the island continued to be venerated as a place of pilgrimage in the following centuries. In the nineteenth century, two lighthouses were built on Sceilg Mhichíl, establishing its importance in Ireland's maritime history.
Sceilg Mhichíl is also one of Ireland’s most important sites for breeding seabirds both in terms of size of colonies and diversity of species.
The well-preserved monastic remains have retained a strong spiritual after-life which appeals strongly to the human psyche. Visitors cannot but be awestruck by the physical achievements of these early monks which, when combined with the sense of solitude, ocean and bird sounds evokes a quiet sense of magic. This is beautifully expressed by George Bernard Shaw who, following a visit in 1910, described this ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’ as ‘part of our dream world’.
In 1996 UNESCO inscribed the island of Sceilg Mhichíl onto the World Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding universal value.
Skellig Michael - History
Skelligs occurs in legend when it is given as the burial place of Ir, son of Milesius, who was drowned during the landing of the Milesians. Skellig is referred to in the annals of the ninth and tenth centuries and its dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044 when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded.
It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery. The earliest reference in history to the Skellig Islands dates back to 1400BC. During the time of the Penal Laws, Skellig Michael and Little Skellig became a haven for many Catholics whose beliefs and rights were being suppressed.
The largest of the Skelligs is Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichil) and was home to one of the earliest monastic settlements in Ireland. These monks of St. Fionan’s monastery led simple lives and lived in stone, beehive shaped huts.
The church of Saint Michael was mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in the late twelfth century. In the early nineteenth century the island was purchased by the predecessors of the Commissioners of Irish Lights in order to erect two lighthouses.
They built the present east landing and built a road along the south and west side of the island to facilitate the construction of the two lighthouses situated on the west side of the island.
The monastic site on the island is located on a terraced shelf 600 feet above sea-level, and developed between the sixth and eighth century. It contains six beehive cells, two oratories as well as a number of stone crosses and slabs.
It also contains a later medieval church. The cells and oratories are all of dry-built corbel construction. A carefully designed system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns was developed. It has been estimated that no more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time.
Skellig Michael was made a World Heritage Site in 1996, at the 20th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Mérida, Mexico. The date of the foundation of the monastery on this island is not known.
There is a tradition that it was founded by St Fionan in the 6th century however, the earliest written records come from the end of the 8th century. It was dedicated to St Michael somewhere between 950 and 1050.
It was customary to build a new church to celebrate a dedication, and this date fits in well with the architectural style of the oldest part of the existing church, known as St Michael’s Church.
It was occupied continuously until the late 12th century, when a general climatic deterioration led to increased storms in the seas around the island and forced the community to move to the mainland. The Large Oratory has the usual inverted boat-shaped form, with a door in the west wall.
It is built from coursed stone, rectangular at the base and becoming oval as it rises in height the elongated dome terminates inside in a row of large slabs. The Small Oratory is more carefully constructed, and is considered to be later in date. Nearby are the unique remains of a beehive-shaped toilet cell.
A trip to the island’s monastic site is an experience which, in Peter Harbison’s words, “the expectation aroused by photographs and oral accounts is only not disappointing but is actually far surpassed.”
Today only the 618 steps of the southern stairway, ascending more than 180 m (600 ft), are maintained and accessible to visitors. These steps however are “maintained” only in the sense that stones are put back in place as required. Individual steps, made of irregular and roughly hewn stones, have no standard measurement for their risers or treads.
Skellig Michael Staging Point
Monastery for pilgrims going to Skelligs Rock
Illaunloughan is an island monastic settlement founded around AD 670 shortly after the Christian monks started building the monastic settlement on Skellig Michael. It is thought to have been a stopping-off point for pilgrims travelling to Skellig Michael. There are 8th century stone oratories and altars on the island. Archaeologists have found eating utensils containing the remnants of fish, birds, meat and oats. Decorated relics covered in quartz and scallop shells were also found providing a possible link between here and the Camino de Santiago or perhaps the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Duach King of west Munster, he took refuge at Skellig Michael. When pursued by Aengus, King of Munster, Duach fled for his life to this isolated island off the Atlantic coast of Kerry.
6th Century – Monastic settlement founded
With the introduction of Christianity to Ireland came the founding of the monastery on Skellig Michael. Although it is not known who is the founder of the monastery, tradition gives it to St. Fionan. The monastery consisted of a small enclosure of stone huts and oratories, which still stand to this day on the island.
795AD -First Viking invasion
Although isolated Skellig Michael and its monks did not escape being attacked by the Vikings and in 795AD, Skellig Michael was under attack from the Vikings. Early Irish manuscripts give little information on these attacks.
812AD -Viking invasion
The Skelligs was again under attack from the Vikings and this time they took Eitgal, Abbot of Skelligs and starved him to death.
833 – 839AD -Viking Invasions
These years saw the island once again being attacked. However, in spite of these attacks, the monastic community continued to live on the Skelligs and in 860AD some rebuilding was done. The life of the monks on the island is still much of a mystery. Unfortunately, few artifacts have been found to provide, information on the occupation of the Skelligs monastic community.
The Skelligs Michael (the bigger of the two islands) was a place of pilgrimage and penance for many years. In the 16th century it was a prime place of public penance. Two centuries later pilgrims were coming from all over Europe and Ireland at Easter-time to say the stations of the cross before finally kissing a stone carving over-hanging the sea at the ‘Needles Eye’.
Skelligs lighthouse is one of the main lights off the south west coast and is located on the outer and larger of the Skelligs Rocks eight miles (12.8km) from the mainland. Compared with the monastery the lighthouse presence is comparatively short (1826). Nevertheless its history, in its own way is just as fascinating.
Early in 1816 Maurice Fitzgerald, Knight of Kerry, reminded the Corporation preserving and improving the port of Dublin that over twenty years previously the grand jury of the county of Kerry had looked for a lighthouse on Bray Head, Valentia Island, which had been agreed but suspended until the opinion of Trinity House had been taken. Fitzgerald also reminded the Board of two merchant ship casualties in Dingle and Ballinskelligs bays both for the want of a light between Loop Head and Cape Clear Island. Mr.Fitzgerald was informed that the subject would be looked into.
Eighteen months later Inspector of lighthouses George Halpin made his report to the Board in which he recommended Great Skelligs rock instead of Bray Head as the best position for two lighthouses. His reason for two lights was so as not to be confused with the fixed light on Cape Clear Island to the south. The Board agreed and Trinity House was informed, who at first queried the size of Great Skelligs before giving sanction in November 1820.
Tourist falls to her death on Skelligs
A COMPLETE review of all safety features on Skellig Michael will be carried out after a second American tourist fell to her death from the precarious ledge leading to the summit of the world famous heritage site at the weekend. Fifty seven-year-old mother of two Christine Danielson Spooner from Rochester New York, who was holidaying in Kerry with her husband, died after she plunged 30 feet from the ledge near the top of Skellig Michael shortly after 11.30 on Sunday morning.
M rs Danielson Spooner suffered serious head injuries when she fell from the ledge. A doctor and nurse who were visiting the island when the accident occurred provided medical assistance but her injuries proved to severe and she died at the scene.
Valentia Lifeboat and the Shannon-based rescue helicopter attended the scene, with the helicopter arriving around an hour after the fatal accident.
Boatmen listening to the unfolding rescue drama on the open radio emergency channel heard there was a problem finding a key to a gate leading to the helipad before the helicopter arrived at the scene. However, the helicopter did not need to land and the tourist's body was winched aboard.
Her remains were taken to Kerry General Hospital where a post mortem examination was carried out on Tuesday afternoon.
Christine Danielson Spooner's tragic death comes just five months after 77-year-old Joseph Gaughan from Pennsylvania died after a fall from the same ledge, near the top of the 600 steps that wind up the side of the 230 metre high island.
Following his death there were calls for a safety rope or handrails to be installed in the island but these were rejected by the Office of Public Works who said a safety rail would give visitors to the site "a false sense of security."
A sign warning tourists of the dangers they faced when climbing to the top of the island was installed recently.
Following Sunday's tragic events the OPW has confirmed it will carry out a "fundamental review of all operations, including safety," on Skellig Michael.
Dr Martin Mansergh, Minister with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, made the announcement on Monday. He said the issue of access, fencing and the number of guides on site will be part of the review.
Dr Mansergh added that boat operators and emergency services will be consulted for their input into measures required to make the island safer.
One of these boatmen, Kenneth Roddy of Joe Roddy and Sons a company which has provided transport to and from the island for over 40 years, was highly critical of the OPW's failure to install greater safety measures on the island.
Mr Roddy, who was in his boat at Skellig Michael on Sunday when the accident occurred, believes a simple railing would have been sufficient to prevent the tragedy.
"Calls have been made over the years before and after the first incident for a simple, short guardrail to be installed along this ledge, which is just a few short metres in length," he said.
"The OPW have already installed many fences, gates, stone walls and warning signs throughout the island which have been in place for many years now. What is preventing them from installing a simple guard-rail along this one ledge where the accidents have happened?" said Mr Roddy.
"So I believe that these recent deaths were totally preventable had a simple, short guard-rail been installed similar to others visible in other sections of the island. This most recent unfortunate woman lost her life in the exact same place as the earlier accident yet no guard-rail was installed throughout the summer," he said.
Skellig Islands Eco Cruise
Our Skellig Islands Tour departs daily from Portmagee marina at 9:30 – 10:00 – 12:30 – 3:00 – 5:00pm.
It is also more affordable for individuals and families at less than half the price of the landing tour.
Our Skellig Islands tour lasts approx. 2.5 hours.
The Skellig Islands Tour is suitable all ages and abilities especially for families with children, disabled, also people who are unable to climb 640 steps to the monastery.
Enhance your once in a lifetime tour and let us take your picture in front of this amazing Unesco World Heritage site (Skellig MIchael) or do a selfie. (You can see a sample of such pictures in our gallery.)
Your journey will take you first to the small Skelligs where you see the second largest colony of gannets in the world and see lots of wildlife such as seals etc… You then continue on to Skellig Michael where you get up close to see the birds, the bee hive huts, the monastery, the light house at the back and the steps the monks carved into the rock in the 5 th Century. This was the old path taken by the Monks – something you do not always get to see on the landing tour.
What is the Sword of Saint Michael?
Quis ut Deus? Who is like unto God? This was the battle cry issued by Saint Michael the Archangel at the beginning of the first war in history, a war which will be fought until the end of time. That is, the struggle between the children of God and the children of the Lucifer, that old serpent. It is no surprise, then, that this glorious champion of God’s cause in heaven would be a suitable patron for those devoted to His most sacred cause on Earth.
Devotion to Saint Michael flourished in the Middle Ages, particularly among the monastic orders as they viewed themselves as warriors of Christ. It follows naturally that these spiritual “special forces” in the combat for the salvation of souls would name their monasteries and shrines after Saint Michael the Archangel.
A great, yet largely unknown, sign of this devotion is the existence of a perfect ley-line, known as the Sword of St. Michael, which connects a line of monasteries from Ireland to the very heart of the faith, the Holy Land. Let us take a journey through these spiritual battlegrounds.
Skellig Michael (Ireland)
The first shrine to Saint Michael is known as Skellig Michael, a craggy mountainous island off the West coast of Ireland. In the VI century, Saint Fionan occupied the island and founded a Celtic monastic community there. The monks lived in stone huts and were not only subject to the deprivations inherent to their ascetic life, but also the hardship of sustaining themselves given the difficulty of maintaining crops and herds in such a hostile environment. Despite harsh living conditions, the monks remained faithful.
In return for their fidelity, God rewarded the small community with miracles. As Giraldus Cambrensis, a XII century Cambro-Norman Archdeacon in Wales, recounts, the wine used for the consecration in the Mass was constantly in full supply, despite the lack of grapes on the island. Another event that is certainly due to the work of Divine Providence was that after a hundred years of Viking raids – which resulted in the death of countless monks – a hermit of Skellig Michael baptized Olaf Trygvasson, the King of Norway, who in turn brought the multitude of his subjects out of the darkness of heathenism.
It is also said that Skellig Michael is the location where St. Patrick waged his final battle against the serpents, expelling them from Ireland forever.
Saint Michael’s Mount (Cornwall, United Kingdom)
Next in line is Saint Michael’s Mount, the lesser known sister-site of the famous Mont-Saint-Michel in France. Like Mont-Saint-Michel, it is on an island accessible by foot only when the tide permits.
Interestingly enough, many of the religious structures on the island were built by the same monks of Mont-Saint-Michel who received the island as a gift from Saint Edward the Confessor, the King of England in the XI century.
Long before it was occupied by any order, the island was a site of pilgrimage because of frequent apparitions of Saint Michael. According to sources from the Early Medieval period, the Archangel who is also the patron saint of fishermen, would guide nearby sailors to safety.
Later, the property was seized by the crown and used as an outpost against the anti-Monarchist, anti-Catholic forces of Oliver Cromwell. Today, the site can still be visited, although much of the monastery has been assumed by secular buildings.
Mont-Saint-Michel (Normandy, France)
Like its holy patron, Mont-Saint-Michel reflects the harmony and sacrality of the union of the religious and military spirit. Easily one of the most recognizable landmarks of Christendom, the abbey-fortress on the Norman coast of France traces its origins to the VIII century when St. Albert, bishop of Avranches, was instructed by Saint Michael in a series of visions to build an abbey on the island.
Around that time, France was plagued by attacks from the Vikings. Because of this new pagan threat, the Franks placed themselves under the patronage of Saint Michael, their defender. Eventually, the Northmen – or Normans – settled down and converted to Catholicism. Naturally, their affinity with all things military brought them into the fold of St. Michael’s devotees.
Under Abbot Hildebrand II, the plan for the structures of Mont-Saint-Michel that we recognize today began. Despite setbacks, the monumental project was finally completed in 1520.
Unfortunately, the Congregation of St. Maur was forcibly removed from the shrine by French Revolutionaries, who turned the monastery into a political prison ironically named Mont Libre.
Sacra di San Michele (Turin, Italy)
The origins of this shrine to the Archangel are steeped in history. Roman Legions used the location as a base and later the Lombards occupied the strategic outpost.
The Catholic history of the Sacra di San Michele begins in the X century, when Saint Giovanni Vincenzo, a hermit, was commanded by Saint Michael to build a shrine. Located on Mount Pirchiriano, the task before the Saint was practically impossible. By a miracle, however, all of the necessary building materials appeared precisely where the shrine stands today.
Not surprisingly, the site quickly attracted pilgrims throughout Italy and beyond, including notable visitors such as Saint Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, whose nephew was a monk there.
Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo (Mount Gargano, Italy)
Like the other shrines, the Sanctuary of Monte Sant’Angelo sits high above the surrounding countryside. However, aside from being the oldest shrine of Saint Michael in Western Europe, it is unique because it was consecrated by the Archangel himself.
In the V century, while Elvio Emanuele, 33rd commander of the armies of Siponto and local lord, grazed his large herd of cattle on the mountain, something unusual happened: His prized bull went missing. After a laborious search, Elvio finally found the bull at the mouth of a cave used for dark pagan practices. To get the bull to move, the nobleman fired an arrow towards the animal, but the missile bounced back.
Startled, lord Elvio told the local bishop about the incident. The bishop, equally disturbed, prayed to heaven for guidance. After three days, Saint Michael appeared to the prelate and told him to build a place of Catholic worship at the cave. The bishop procrastinated.
Another miracle associated with the shrine took place not long after when the local town was besieged by a large army. Despite the apparent hopeless situation, Saint Lorenzo beseeched Saint Michael for aid in battle. In turn, the Archangel appeared to him and assured him of victory. When the soldiers of the town met their attackers on the battlefield, lightning and thunder from heaven broke out. When the struggle ended, the enemy was destroyed.
Following this extraordinary victory, Saint Lorenzo, by his own accord and at the behest of the Holy Father, went to consecrate the grotto to their celestial defender. Before he was able to do this, the Archangel announced to the bishop that there was no need to consecrate the site, for Saint Michael had already done so. In thanksgiving, Saint Lorenzo, seven other bishops, and multitudes of clergy and laymen processed to the sacred shrine. As they went, eagles shielded the bishops from the sun with outspread wings and when they arrived, they found a complete altar in place, along with a footprint of the angel.
Saint Michael interceded again in the XVII century. At that time, there was a great plague ravaging southern Italy. The archbishop, Alfonso Puccinelli, realized the crisis was beyond a human solution and dedicated himself to prayer. Accompanied by an earthquake, the Archangel appeared to him in splendorous array. He instructed the archbishop to go to the grotto, gather stones, inscribe them with the initials MA (Michael Archangel) and bless them, and distribute them to the sick. The archbishop did as he was commanded and all who possessed the stones were delivered from the pestilence.
Stella Maris Monastery (Haifa, Israel)
The “tip” of the sword rests in the Holy Land, not in Jerusalem, but in Haifa, the site of the Stella Maris (Our Lady Star of the Sea) monastery on Mount Carmel. This is the same place where the prophet Elias resided, who, like St. Michael, wielded his sword against the enemies of God. Is it any surprise then that the spiritual children of this prophet, the Carmelites, live in the same spot as their father once did?
The first Carmelite community on Mount Carmel dates back to the time of the Crusades, when European pilgrims decided to emulate the life of Saint Elias, who they considered to be the first monastic. But their desire to live in isolation and prayer was shattered by the conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East.
The Carmelites were driven out of the mountain by Saracens in 1291. Four centuries later, the discalced branch of the order returned to Mount Carmel under the guidance of Venerable Fr. Prosper. Only 130 years after rebuilding their community, they were again expelled by Muslims who destroyed the monastery. Undeterred by their setbacks, the holy monks moved their location closer to the mountain cave of the Saint Elias, this time building over the ruins of a Byzantine chapel.
In a subsequent conflict, Muslim forces massacred all the friars at the shrine, dismantled the monastery and used its stones to build an summer palace. The current monastery, a minor basilica, was built in 1836. Today it is still home to a Carmelite community.
Skellig Michael is the site of an old Irish monastery. It is one of the most famous and impressive sites from the ancient christain world which can still be seen today in its orignal and true form. It is a monastic site sitting on the top of a rock in the middle of the wild Atlantic Ocean. The site represents an Irish expression of the Christian search for solitude, a solitude they believed would bring them closer to God. In the sixth or seventh century when this site was founded it must indeed have been a solitary place. The monastery and associated buildings the monks founded on Skellig were occupied for over 600 years after its initial establishment. There is no documentary evidence available to define exactly who or when the site was founded but tradition affords its creation to St. Fionan and it was most probably built around the sixth century. The site was attacked on a number of occasions by Vikings since its establishment the first recorded instance being in 824. Sometime in the mid tenth century the monastery was dedicated to St. Michael. It was abandoned by the thirteen century but still seems to have been used by the monks (who settled in nearby Ballinskelligs on the mainland) as a place of pilgrimage for centuries to follow. During this period it seems likely from the evidence available that they continued to maintain the structures on the island. It is most probable that they left Skellig for the winter months and returned to the mainland only occupying the monastery for pilgrimage during the summer months.
To truly appreciate that which is Skellig Michael (Skellig rock) you must first change your mindset. You need to cast yourself back to the sixth or seventh century AD and try to visualise the landscape. A landscape that would have been largely covered in woodlands and scrub with no roads or infrastructure of any sort. It would have been an extremely harsh environment particularly in winter where daylight would have been limited to between eight and ten hours, climatically it would have been wet, damp and cold. Next you have to visualise the location of Skellig Michael, a rock sitting some 12 miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean off the most western point inEurope. If you think its difficult to get to Kerry or the Skelligs today remember that when the monastery was founded on the Skelligs it is most probable that it would have been accessible only during the summer months for two main reason. One is weather conditions. It would not have been possible to brave theAtlantic ocean and land on the rock on winter time (seas would have been too rough and dangerous) and secondly lack of daylight would have been a major factor. It would most probably have taken a boat of its time some eight to tens hours to reach the rock from the mainland and daylight would have been a must to land on the rock. It is in this context that we must view the monks that founded this holy place.
There are two main elements to the site on Skellig Michael (both of which are a testament to the amazing engineering skills of the monks), the hermitage and the monastery. Both are built in perfect harmony with their environment. The first element the monastery is located just below the top of a steeply sloping plateau on the east side of the island. The monastery is made up of churches, bee hive huts (habitation cells) a cemetery and garden. It is accessed by three spectacular sets of steps which extend upwards from sea level. The second element, the hermitage is located just below the islands south peak and can be reached after climbing from the flat centre part of the island know as Christ&rsquos saddle. (The island of Skellig is made up of two very distinct peaks with a U shape in between)
The monastery which is best known for its bee hive huts also encompasses the ruins of a church, a large and small oratory, a garden and graveyard. The monastery was carefully planned and built sheltered to the northern side by the natural rocks and protected to the southern side by a series of man made retaining wall. The retaining walls were fundamental to site providing shelter from the prevailing southerly winds and also to create level terraces upon which the remaining structures were built. Given its exposed location many of the walls have collapsed over the years, some during the original period of habitation by the monks and some in later years. There is much evidence of rebuilding of the walls by the monks themselves down the centuries initially during the paid when they were in residence on the island and afterwards when they visited for pilgrimages.
Life on Skellig would have been a demanding experience for the monks. Living quarters consisted of the bee hive hut shaped habitation cells which while functional did not afford any luxury. Their diet would most probably have consisted of fish and bird eggs. (There is a bird colony on the adjoining rock, landing on this is not permitted). Their days would have been filled with a combination of prayer and physically demanding work. The building and maintenance of the structures on Skellig would have been very labour intensive.
The monastic site on Skellig Michael is to this day is in a very impressive state largely due to its isolated location of the site and the unique building skills of the monks who built this truly magnificent structure over 1,500 years ago. A visit to this site is highly recommended.