I’ve been to the Skelligs three times now. The first time was on a beautiful summers day. I discovered on arrival that my camera was broken. I almost cried. The second time, I landed a week after the puffins had left. Again I almost cried. And this third time, I turned up the day before filming began for Star Wars. There was no hint of tears on hearing this news though. My timing could not have been more perfect as the island was to be closed to the public for the next week and the puffins were due to leave any minute. With the island a hive of activity in preparation for the big blockbuster, it was not the right time to photograph the monastic ruins anyway. It was however, the ideal time to concentrate on the puffins before they migrated.
I hadn’t planned on visiting the Skelligs. I had stayed overnight in Portmagee village and was standing on the marina the next morning, watching tourists and crew filing onto boats heading out to the islands. The sun was beating down. Only 13 boats are licensed to visit the Skelligs each day. I decided to chance my arm and and asked if there was a spot free on any of the boats. The boat men huddled together in discussion while at the same time answering phone calls like busy receptionists on a switchboard. I was about to lose all hope when suddenly the group dispersed and one man opened the gate and asked me to follow him. Thanks to a last minute cancellation, I was on my way to the Skelligs. I was feeling quite smug with myself which quickly came back to bite me. As we exited the bay for the open sea, the engine started spluttering. Within minutes, we were making our way back to Portmagee. Just when I thought it wasn’t meant to be, we were quickly transferred to another boat before setting off again. Luck was on my side. Finally out at sea and bobbing on the swell, I asked the skipper if the puffins were still there and he laughed as he told me that they were sitting on the cliffs with their coats on, ready to leave.
After 50 minutes, the boat glided towards the pier where the majestic Skellig Michael towered over 220 metres above us. The sea conditions were so different from my last visit a few years previous, when the waves were washing over the boat and the swell almost prevented us from docking. This time, the sun was splitting and thousands of birds were putting on an acrobatic air show. And there in the middle of it all, I spotted one puffin furiously flapping its wings as it came in to land on the cliffs above us. They were still there. Like anyone who visits, it seemed they were finding it difficult to leave.
The Skelligs refers to two neighbouring islands 7 miles off the Kerry coastline. Skellig Michael, also known as Great Skellig, is the larger of the two islands. It gained UNESCO world heritage status in 1996 due to the remains of one of the oldest monastic settlements in the world. Thought to be built sometime between the 6th and 8th century, a group of monks somehow found their way out to this remote towering rock 7 miles off the Kerry coast, where they lived for the next few hundred years in small beehive huts on the island summit. The island was abandoned sometime in the 12th century when the monks appear to have moved to the mainland, yet it remained a place of pilgrim right up to the 18th century. Today it is home to thousands of seabirds. The gannet, storm petrel, Manx shearwater, fulmar, puffin, razorbill, guillemot and kittiwake are just some of the species that nest here.
Little Skellig, although a smaller version of Skellig Michael, is an impressive island in its own right. This island has always been uninhabited, however it is an extremely important global nature reserve. Birdwatch Ireland has a long lease on Little Skellig which is the second largest gannet colony in the world with over 30,000 nesting pairs calling it home. Up close to the rock, the noise is deafening. The smell is equally strong as the rock is whitewashed in guano. When the gannets are not sitting on the rocky ledges, they are showing off high above with fantastic aerial displays and diving acrobatics.
A paved path winds up from the pier on Skellig Michael offering breathtaking views of the cliffs below. Eventually the path finishes and the the steps begin. Stone slabs, there since the time of the monks, lead up to a flat plateau on the Northeastern summit, where the monastic ruins sit shielded within a stone wall enclosure. There are also two other routes to reach the top from different landing points on the island, unused since the time of the monks. Tourists only have access to this one route which is less steep. The island itself is essentially a mountain at sea and there are no guard rails to aid the climb. And it’s better like that; it maintains the beauty of the island.
Small groups of puffins huddled everywhere along the clifftops as if attending important meetings. Operation Migration was in full flow. In the final days before they leave, they gather on land to reserve energy before their long flight north to colder climates. According to the National Parks and Wildlife Services website, there are over 4000 puffins on Skellig Michael. Thousands descend on the island around April to breed during the summer months. The earthy soil on the cliffs here is the ideal habitat for digging burrows where they rear their young. The steps led me through part of this nesting ground, offering me ample opportunity to see them up close. On either side, the ground was littered with burrows and busy puffins. All the young were now reared and ready to leave for their first long haul flight. Loud “errrr”sounds could be heard everywhere from inside the burrows. Little heads peeped out of the ground while others scampered about outside. Being allowed that close to their habitat was an absolute privilege and just another special moment on the island.
Higher up, I met an elderly couple called George and Moira from Boston, sitting on one of the steps. This was their first visit to Ireland and they were trying to trace their family roots in Kerry. They were taking a day off from family investigations and ticking an item off their bucket list, namely a visit to the Skelligs. The island had been on their travel wish list for years. Finally here, they were overwhelmed by the sights on offer. George had heard stories about the island from his parents and knew it was a special place but this had surpassed all expectations. After chatting for a while, I left them to it and ploughed on. Some time later, I looked back down and they were still sitting on their step, hypnotized by their surroundings.
Walking through the stone arch to the monastic enclosure on the summit is like entering a magic door into an ancient world. A series of stone beehive huts and a church ruin sit together around a small cemetery, facing east towards Little Skellig. The views are stunning. On a clear day, the coastline on the mainland is visible for miles. It was easy to see why this part of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way is a must see for visitors.The man made plateau is sloped slightly to aid water collection and plant cultivation. Protected from the harsh Atlantic winds, the monks lived there in these small enclosures, on a diet of fish, seabirds, eggs and vegetables. The dry stone architecture design of these stone shelters was ingenious; the stones were stacked in a circular fashion without any adhesive material, culminating in a dome rooftop, creating a watertight structure. It is impossible to imagine how a group of monks even traveled to this remote isle, let alone carve out a home here. The solitude enjoyed by the monks, was hard to envisage that day. The site was swarming with tourists and equipment for the upcoming filming of Starwars lay nearby. A helicopter flitted in and out from the landing pad below. I would return another day.
On the way back down I bumped into Richard Foran, the lighthouse keeper on the island. He is an encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to seabirds. We sat chatting about the puffins and after a few minutes he beckoned me to follow him. He opened the padlock on the gate to the helicopter pad and showed me inside. He told me that this was the best spot on the island to see the guillemots. Sure enough, the poker straight cliffs were covered with them. Centuries of eroded pathways, furrowed into the side of the rock, were lined with these beautiful birds.
Guillemots lay a single egg directly onto rock, which is shaped to sit on the ledge without rolling off. They share these vertical walls with kittiwakes and razorbills. For someone who sees these seabirds year in year out, Richard still watched them in awe. Fulmars hovered in front of us at eye level, to investigate who was peering down at them. Behind us, a puffin slid down a gap in the cliff edge while doing the splits. It was an ornithologist’s paradise. I didn’t want to leave but the boat was due to leave shortly. I thanked Richard profusely for showing me the nests before heading back down to the pier.
Every time I visit, I am knocked sideways by the beauty of this remote towering rock. Skellig Michael is unlike any other island along the Irish coast or anywhere in the world for that matter. Steeped in a mysterious history, this remote isle is like something from another world. It seems the location scouts for Star Wars were thinking the exact same thing.