UNESCO World Heritage Site #257: Sceilg Mhichíl

UNESCO World Heritage Site #257: Sceilg Mhichíl
UNESCO World Heritage Site #257: Sceilg Mhichíl

From the World Heritage inscription:

Skellig Michael is an outstanding, and in many respects unique, example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe.

The island of Skellig Michael lies 11.6 km off Bolus Head, the westernmost tip of the lveragh Peninsula of County Kerry. Faulting of Devonian sandstone and gravels has created a U-shaped depression, known today as ‘Christ’s Valley’ or ‘Christ’s Saddle’, 130 m above sea level in the centre of the island, and this is flanked by two peaks, that to the north-east rising to 185 m and that to the west-south-west 218 m. The rock is deeply eroded and weathered, owing to its exposed position, but is almost frost-free. Landing is possible at three points, depending on the state of the sea. These communicate by flights of steps with the principal monastic remains, which are situated on a sloping shelf on the ridge running north-south on the north-eastern side of the island; the hermitage is on the steeper South Peak.

The approach to the monastery from Christ’s Saddle leads to a long narrow terrace. A doorway in the rear wall gives access via a flight of Steps to a larger enclosure, which is in its turn terraced and subdivided; the lowest level contains the main monastic enclosure, comprised of a church, oratories, cells, a souterrain, and many crosses and cross-slabs. The white quartz paving between the buildings gives the ensemble an urban quality.

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. Cell A is the largest of the six cells and must have had a communal function. Several have cupboards and projecting stones for hanging purposes. They vary in plan – square, rectangular, and D-shaped; several retain their original flagged floors.

St Michael’s Church is rectangular in form, unlike the oratories, and would originally have had a timber roof. Two stages of construction can be identified: a small church in mortared stone was later expanded, using much larger sandstone blocks.

Simply put, Skellig Michael (aka Sceilg Mhichíl) is fantastic.

It is by far that most amazing thing I’ve seen in Ireland and in my book it is one of the top world heritage sites in all of Europe. It is also one of the more difficult to visit world heritage sites in Europe.

To get to Skellig Michael, you first have to get to the village of Portmargee in county Kerry in the extreme southwestern part of Ireland. Then you need to book passage on one of the boats which go to Skellig Michael. They don’t go every day due to weather and they are limited in the number of passengers they can take. Only about 50 people were on the island the day I visited. I don’t think the island can accommodate many more.

The difficulty of visiting is more a statement about how easy most European sites are to visit than how hard it is to get to Skellig Michael.

Upon visiting, I was astonished that people ever managed to land on the island, let alone live on it. The rocks on the island are almost all vertical. If there wasn’t a modern platform for the ships to dock at, I don’t know how it would be possible to get on the island. That monks once lived here and created a small community is simply amazing.

There is another small island near Skellig Michael called Small Skellig which can be seen in the above photo. It has no human presence and is covered with seabirds.

If you are in Ireland, I highly recommend putting Skellig Michael near the top of your list of things to see.