Now, our main reason for spending two nights in Waterville was my desire to make the pilgrimage to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Skellig Michael. Off the coast of Ballinskellig, just across the lough from Waterville are two rocky islands, the larger of which is Skellig Michael, or Great Skellig. There are a couple of options for seeing the Skelligs, one of which departs from “The Skellig Experience” a two room museum and a gift shop that offers boat rides around the islands. I had my heart set on actually getting onto Skellig Michael.
A communication mix-up meant that we didn’t have a firm booking, but our host’s connections got us wait-listed with one of the local operators, Paul Devane http://www.skelligmichaelcruises.com/. Heading for the dock in Portmagee, we made a wrong turn, so retraced our steps and arrived in the nick of time. This meant we might not get on one of the dozen or so boats that carry tourists out to the island. (Access is restricted for good reason, both cultural heritage and wildlife habitat are fragile.) The weather had been wet and rough up until the morning of our planned outing, a Sunday. For us, the weather had cleared for “the best day of the year” so far. The earlier stormy weather meant there was a backlog of people who had been booked but not accommoodated on previous days, and the boat operators worked feverishly to ensure as many as possible got on the trip or were booked for the next day. This was our one available day, so we worried we might not get on.
Signs posted at the departure point warned us to bring food and water for the voyage. We were unprepared with only a banana to sustain us on the 3-4 hour outing, but we’d been fortified with a full, included, breakfast at our guesthouse, and I quickly filled our water bottle as we waited to see if we would be lucky to get our one chance to set foot on Skellig Michael. Our patient anxiety was rewarded as the blue-shirted Devane borthers negotiated with other boat operator for spots for us, at one point asking us if we would be willing to split up and go on different boats. That turned out unnecessary and wish granted, we got on the boat.
Hurray! And why hurray? Two main reasons
Seabirds: Gannets, Guillemots and Puffins! (Reason number one)
Approaching Skellig Michael, we motored past the smaller Skellig island. I was enchanted by the sight of thousands of gannets, sun glinting off their white wings as they flew like a school of air-borne tuna, in a circular pattern off the cliffs of Little Skellig. Shearwaters skimmed the surface of the blue Atlantic sea, calm on the day. We looked forward to seeing the dear Puffins on Skellig Michael, but who could tell if we would?
A Seventh Century Monastery (Reason number two)
On my personal bucket list are any and all island spiritual sites called Michael. I am a good, if rebellious Catholic, and, since my middle name is Michele, St. Michael, that prince of the archangels is my patron saint. I don’t say a lot about this, especially among apostates, but I feel it in my heart. For me, this outing is more than a day trip, it is a pilgrimage.
Early Christianity in Ireland was characterized by spiritual seekers, monks who would gather in remote spots, often barren, windswept islands, where they would establish monasteries. On Skellig Michael is one of the best preserved of these, dating from the 7th Century.
Stairway to Heaven
The trek to the monastery from where we were helped from our boat to shore is not for the faint-hearted. A quick orientation given by a Donegal banjo player working his day job emphasized the dangers. People have been lost, permanently off the rock. 19th century lighthouse keepers lost two sons that way and latter day visitors have met the same fate. Visitors get injured. Stay on the path. Eat lunch only in the area below the monastery. Should we get tired, we should sit. Should we get too scared, we should come down the stairs on our bottoms. Should we panic, send someone down to the bottom and the guide will come and help us down. Not to worry, they do it all the time.
I have a bit of agoraphobia myself, but only now did I learn the extent of daughter Autumn’s fear of heights. The stairs, fairly even, wide steps, led up the mountain. However, there was no guard rail between the edge of the steps and the steep cliff, or a handrail attached to the cliff face running alongside the path. Autumn started having trouble almost right away, imagining being pitched off the rock, or down the steep cliffs. Even looking only toward the rock and up, her nerve failed her at the first landing. Young heart longing to see the puffins of pilgrimage, my young sweet one’s tears flowed as her climbing courage drained away. She managed to calm herself, but decided not to proceed the rest of the way. My heart went out to her, stuck on her own, as climbers passed her on their way to the top. We agreed I should keep going, and I did. 600 steps, remember?
What a glorious climb! I took it one step at a time, Hail-Marying my way up the mountain with a special intention that somehow, puffins would find their way to my daughter, stranded below. Before long, puffin nests, little caves burrowed into the little bit of greenery-covered soft ground started to appear right next to the trail. The darling little birds flew in from off the rock, webbed feet splayed outward before landing on their private front porches. They would dash pretty quickly into their dens, coming out to survey things from time to time. About 100 stairs below the monastery site, an overlook gave a good view of the Cliffside nesting sites where puffins by the hundreds arrived, small fish hanging from their parrot-like bills. Yay! Puffins I saw, but I felt sad that my daughter was missing the show. It was tough to get a good picture, but you can see some good ones here: www.skelligsrock.com
At the Top
Continuing to the top, an excellent guide awaited and spoke about the early monks and how their focus on isolation and privation was their way to get in touch with God.
We owe the survival of early Christian texts to the many Irish monks who painstakingly copied them onto vellum for posterity, allowing them to escape the ravages of Roman invasion and the Dark Ages that took over Europe during those centuries. Think Book of Kells. The stalwart souls of Skellig Michael, probably about 12 men, built the 600 step stone staircase leading from the precarious landing spot to nearly the top of this triangular rocky outcrop. On a small bit of flattish ground they built upturned-boat shaped “oratories” (prayer chapels) and beehive shaped cells for sleeping. The “drystone” technique involves stacking flat rocks, using no mortar. All through Ireland you see this technique for walls, but here the shapes are amazing. Along with tourists from the several boats, I poked into and out of cells, common building where the monks cooked and gathered for meals, the still-standing oratory (there are two, but only one is accessilble). This level of isolation was not quite enough for some of the solitary souls, so eventually the stalwart inhabitants built a smaller set of cells on an even higher peak for hermits. I did not try to climb there.
The brothers of Skellig Michael had it pretty good, food-wise. Apparently, puffins make pretty good eatin’, and the monks may have had goats, as well as a vegetable garden. They would have also raided birds’ nests for eggs during laying season. Nowadays, some birds nest in the walls of the cells and I even saw a nest inside one with quite a large bluish egg within easy reach. They would not have brewed beer or ale on the remote island, but traded feathers and other items for vellum and other necessities.
On the way back down, and ready for a snack, I ate my banana at the overlook and communed with the puffin colony before heading back down to awaiting Autumn. From above, I spotted her and waved, just as one of the couples from our boat pointed out another mother-child pair. Hugging the rocky shore and breaching the water, sleek dolphins cavorted in the water within easy sight of Autumn’s perch. I started to feel a bit better about her not having been able to make the climb. Losing sight of her from the winding path, I was eager to reconnect, and wondering how she had fared while I had ventured on my own. As if my prayers were answered, her seat turned out to be right in the midst of a puffin suburb, and sitting alone there, she had been visited by the colorful seabirds and had an enviable mermaid’s view of the frolicking dolphins. By then, she was ready for the descent to the boat.
Safe and Sound
Back on shore, we lunched at the excellent pub “The Moorings” where we shared a seafood sampler and a serving of hake, splitting a nice Irish porter, and reveling in the beauty of the day.