Several kilometres off Ireland’s south western coast are two islands crammed with history, nature, and rugged cliffs. These are the Skellig Islands, with the larger of the two (though it’s still quite small) being recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Located off the County Kerry coast and visible from the famous Ring of Kerry driving route, the isolation and the sometimes dreadful Atlantic storms didn’t deter the monks who ventured out here to live for some four hundred years.
More recently, the islands grabbed international attention for a few days in 2014 when they were used as a filming location for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which resulted in the area becoming a hive of activity as the crew and stars of the movie descended on the region.
The Skellig Islands are closest to the towns of Portmagee and Waterville, and you’ll pass both locations during a circuit of the Iveragh Peninsula (Ring of Kerry). The Skelling Ring Road adds a slightly longer loop to the journey, with the distance coming in at 35 kilometres extra. It’s well worth it though, as this route takes you from Portmagee village along the craggy coastline to the Coomanaspig Pass, and then to the scenic village of Ballinskellig. At the water’s edge you’ll spot the Skilligs located some 12 kilometres from the mainland.
No matter where you catch a boat to the Skelligs (details on that later in the post), you’ll enjoy fantastic views of both the islands and the mainland of Ireland. Be forewarned however, the Skelligs are located in the North Atlantic Ocean, and there can be strong winds and waves during the journey, which is understandable given that there’s 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles) of open sea between Ireland and North America. As such, passage to the islands can be a little choppy.
The first island you’ll come across will be Little Skellig, while only a small outcrop, this island is home to the world’s largest Northern Gannet colony, and you may also spot other species of seabirds such as puffins, kittiwakes, shearwaters, fulmars, and many more. While the birds have certainly left their make on Little Skellig, it’s also a popular resting place for seals and you may occasionally spot dolphins and whales in the nearby waters.
The larger island, Skellig Michael or Great Skellig, is located further from the mainland and soars much higher than its neighbour, the island’s peak stands at 218 metres (714 feet) above the encircling ocean. Those who make the ascent discover the island’s true attraction, the UNESCO World Heritage site monastery of wonderful beehive huts built by Christian monks as living spaces over a millennium ago. Once you arrive at the island’s small pier and disembark from your boat, you’ll find a contemporary path leading to the steps up to the monastery itself (which is a challenging climb even in the best weather).
Thankfully, the monk’s village isn’t located at the very top of the island, but rather sits 160 metres (525 feet) above sea level and can only be reached via the hand-carved steps cut out of the rocks by the monks many centuries ago. Their efforts are a testament to their dedication to get away from the world and follow their faith in isolation. As you climb the steep stairs, try to take a moment to admire the stunning scenery in every direction, and marvel at the bustling puffin population which colonises the island between April and the early weeks of August each year.
When you finally arrive at the site and see the graveyards and ancient beehive huts with your own eyes, you’ll realise just how impressive the monastery’s construction was given that it was built in the 8th century, with some evidence to suggest it may have be even older (possibly as early as the 6th century), and was occupied right up to the 12th century. This settlement endured up to six centuries of wild weather from the Atlantic and remains standing today after being abandoned for almost 800 years.
The monastery features a small church, some burial sites, and tiny vegetable gardens where the monks just about had enough soil to grow the food they needed. What they couldn’t produce themselves needed to be acquired on the mainland, which meant rowing through the choppy sea. A simple thing like turf for the fire would take over 12 hours to acquire, with a six hour journey in each direction.
Those who spent time here lived simple lives, praying, studying religious manuscripts, fishing, and growing vegetables as a sign of their devotion to God.
If you find yourself in the southwest of Ireland and want to enjoy stunning views of the mainland and the ocean, a wide variety of wildlife and seafowl, and a dose of ancient history, there are few places better than the Skellig Islands.
Boats to Skellig Michael depart from Portmagee, Ballinskelligs, Caherdaniel, and Valentia Island, dependent on weather conditions. Typically boats leave at about 10:00 and return to the mainland around 15:30. You’ll have roughly two-and-a-half hours on the island and you cannot stay there overnight. You can expect to pay around €50 per person during the summer and each leg of the journey lasts 40 minutes or so.
It’s easiest to rent a car if you plan to visit the Skelligs, as the nearest town with public transportation links is Caherciveen. For more information of the Skellig Islands, visit the Skellig Experience Centre on Valentia Island (which can be reached via bridge from the mainland or a short car ferry (five minutes).