A Traveller’s Tale by Mike O’Shea
On Monday this week, I fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit the Skelligs. I was part of a group of 19 from Killarney who had arranged the trip some weeks back, subject to weather conditions even in the height of summer. Skellig is a remote, rugged rock, deep into the Atlantic and landing on it can be a tricky operation. Our drive to Portmagee took about an hour, passing through Cahirciveen, which seemed like a ghost town, compared with the busy, bustling port that would be our takeoff point for the island.
Some ten boats, each carrying 12 passengers, depart from here every day, during the season. Weather permitting of course, and Monday was a marginal call. By 11 o’clock, word finally came through from the rock that we could set out. Once we cleared the headland of the harbour, the boat journey took about an hour and a half, and it was quite a ride. The weather was pretty wild and once we got into the broad Atlantic, we were tossed up and down on the ocean swells. Only two of our group got sick, which wasn’t bad for the conditions.
The disembarkation at the rock was not easy either, but now we were there and looking up at the steps leading all the way to the top where the monk’s cells were built. It was a sheer climb, some couple of hundred steps cut into the rock. There was no handrail for most of the way, so we were gazing down several hundred feet to the rocks and the Atlantic, neither welcoming.
It really is a magical place. The little cluster of beehive cells, so basic, so primitive, were homes to a colony of monks between 600 and 1200 AD. How they existed, living on eggs from the birds nests and fish plucked from the teeth of Atlantic storms, is hard to imagine. They were the subject of several Viking raids – the Vikings must have been hard up if they thought there was anything of value to be had on this rock. Apparently several monks were taken away as slave booty.
In later years, long after the monks had left, the British set up two lighthouses here, which served for many years. In fact, the only headstone in the little graveyard at the summit is for two little boys, sons of the lighthouse keeper, who died here in the 1830s.
So now we had to get back down, something to which I was not looking forward. Anyone familiar with rock or mountain climbing will tell you that the descent is the most hazardous part of such activity. I do not have a good head for heights, so all the way down I tried to keep my focus on the next step, ignoring the panoramic views out across the sea and trying to forget about the long drop from the unprotected pathway. It was perilous and daunting and we were glad to be able to reboard our boat for the return journey.
Pulling away from the rock, we were presented with the magnificent sight of that side of the rock, covered entirely by countless numbers of gannets, resting or jostling, flying or landing. Apparently gannets are spoken of in pairs and the statistic is that there are some 79 000 pairs on the Skellig.
Oh, I forgot to mention the puffins whose company we shared on the rock. They are small seabirds with the most exquisite colouring and they are quite unfazed by human company. In fact, I am quite certain that several of them put on a little show for us when we first landed, flapping the little wings, flittering the tail feathers and giving sideways head movements and winks – yes, winks – for our entertainment. They nest on the rock, untold thousands of them, for the season. According to the resident guide, a young American lady (how far do you have to go to get away from Trump?), on 6 August each year, some signal goes up and the entire colony disappears. They head for the seas off North Africa and live at sea there. Skellig is where they live on land and nest
The experts tell us that Skellig is the counterpart of the Galapagos islands as birdlife sanctuaries.
A unique spot, a memorable experience, a day to remember. Obviously the shooting of the Star Wars movie on the rock has drawn huge attention to the place, and Mark Hamill, the star of the film, made a great many friends in Portmagee. It really is unique.
My enduring memories, apart from the buffeting by the Atlantic, are of the puffins, the kind of wildlife you fall helplessly in love with. And the people too: a 90-something year old man from Seattle who made it all the way to the top accompanied by his son, positively bubbling with enthusiasm. I recall too a young man in his twenties, standing beside one of the little cells on top, looking out to sea, and mouthing his own prayers or meditations in silence.
And for the record, I was completely wrecked the following day. That climb up the top and the scary descent were way outside what my aging legs are accustomed to. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Mike O’Shea is franchisee of Easons bookshop, Killarney Co Kerry.
Photographs by Janet Newenham from her blog Journalistontherun.com, with permission.