As if County Kerry wasn’t spectacular enough with hotspots like Killarney and Kenmare, the Skellig Islands come along with their own ‘wow’ factor
It’s said from any point on the Ring of Kerry, these pinnacles can be seen standing stoically against the ravages of the Atlantic Ocean. From very far away, they look like oversized jagged rocks but up close – they are full of surprises.
Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichil in Irish), the largest island of the two, was home to one of the earliest monastic settlements in Ireland.
The earliest reference to the Skelligs dates back to 600AD when it was known as St Fionan’s monastery. The monks remained until the 13th century before evacuating the island, leaving behind their huts. The corbelled roofs in the beehive-shaped huts are so well-built that no drop of rain ever entered between the stones.
Skellig Michael became a place of pilgrimage and today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Wear your walking shoes
To reach the monastery, you must climb 500 steps on a 1,000 year old stairway. The archaeological remains show how this early Christian community lived in extremely basic conditions. Their huts hovered precariously near the cliff edge, alongside oratories, a cemetery, stone crosses, holy wells and the Church of St Michael. These monks were tough cookies – they survived several Viking raids over the centuries – not to mention living in the Atlantic Ocean.
Small Skellig has its own famous residents, who remain to this day. There are over 54,000 gannets, the second largest colony of such sea birds in the world. Puffins, arctic terns, black guillemots, herring gulls, razorbills, fulmars, manx shearwaters, cormorants, guillemots, and petrels also call the Skelligs home.
“Stormy”, one Skellig storm petrel, even earned her inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records. She undertook her annual migration journey – 10,000km each way – for 26 years. Her ring, which tracked her travels, can be seen at the Skellig Experience today.
Get the boat
You can see these otherworldly islands from the shore but if you want to set foot on such an unusual site then a guided boat tour is your best bet. A few companies charter boats to Skellig Michael and their guides will fill you in on all you need to know.
The tours can be weather dependent because rough seas will prevent boats docking as this New York Times journalist found out: “It’s one of those riddles of human ambition – how, and why, did people build in such a forbidding place?”. But once you get there, it’ll all have been worth it.
Travelling to the island isn’t recommended for visitors with reduced mobililty. Instead you can enjoy the Skellig Experience, which is a visitor centre on the mainland with exhibitions on the history of the island, the former Christian community and the resident birds. They are not open all year round so make sure to check in advance.