Welcome to the Unesco World Heritage Site once described by the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw as “part of our dream world”.
The Skellig Islands sit approximately 12km (8 miles) from the village of Portmagee in County Kerry. Accessed via boat trips from Valentia, Portmagee or Ballinskelligs, these islands are instantly representative of Kerry’s elemental west coast.
Of the two islands, the jagged, pointed Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichíl) is of particular significant religious and historical relevance. The island is referenced in history as early as 1400BC, and also appears in Irish legend. A story originating in approximately 200AD tells of Daire Domhain ("King of the World") preparing here before an epic battle with the warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (Finn McCool) and the Fianna army. But what really sets Skellig Michael apart is the keyhole view it offers into the lives of an isolated and storm-lashed community of monks.
A monastic marvel
Monastic settlements, evidenced by the stone beehive huts (clochain in Irish) at the island’s summit, are believed to date as far back as the 6th century. Historians tell of the monks who built the monastic site, walking the 600 plus steps daily to the water’s edge where they would fish for their breakfast. It must have been an extreme and ascetic existence, and yet the monks lived here right through to the 13th century when it is thought that the worsening weather drove them to move to Ballinskelligs on the mainland.
Today, the huts are still lashed by the weather, and visitors must climb the 600 steps to reach them today, meaning that it’s is not recommended for those with reduced mobility. Anyone with a fear of heights may also find the summit’s location – some 218 metres (714 feet) over the Atlantic Ocean – a step too far. But if you can manage it, getting this close to a unique slice of history is an unparalleled experience.
A Viking visit
Considering its isolated location, it was no great surprise that the Skelligs, particularly Skellig Michael, became prey to Viking invaders. But it wasn’t all bad; one legend tells of a hermit from the island baptising one Olav Trygvasson in 993. The Norseman would later become king of Norway.
The Skelligs’ charms are not only confined to past glories. Along with their sister group, the Blaskets, to the north, the Skelligs supports some of the largest collections of manx sheerwater and puffins in the world. Such is the nature of this unique assembly that an Irish radio documentary spent an overnight on Skellig Michael just to record the sound affect created by the storm petrels and manx sheerwaters who call the islands home.
Boat tours, too, departing from Portmagee, Ballinskelligs and Valentia, skirt alongside Little Skellig to offer a waterside view of up to 27,000 thousands of gannets that nest there.
Back on dry land, yet still within view of the islands, it’s time to taste the Skelligs. Skelligs Chocolate boasts the kind of treats that couldn’t be more different from the Spartan diet of the early monastic residents. Sea Salt Dark Chocolate, Rose & Pistachio Milk Chocolate, Chocolate Honeycomb Clusters and more are on the menu. For the culinary curious, Colm Healy and family are happy for guests to take a peek on the factory floor to see the whole process in action (“There is no tour,” the owners advise, “and therefore there is no entrance charge”). Keep your eyes peeled, too, for the new Willy Wonka mural.