Skellig Michael

If you go as far west as you can in the British Isles, Kerry in Southern Ireland, and then get in a small boat and head out into the Atlantic for fifteen miles, you will come across Skellig Michael. It is a rock that rears out of the sea with no harbour or beach, circled by seabirds.

On it is a precipitous path that traces a route to the top of the island where there is a flatish area, exposed to the full force of Atlantic gales. On this spot are a collection of stone beehives - the only protection from the weather. It was here between roughly the 6th and the 11th century that hermit monks lived a life of almost unimaginable hardship and prayer, living entirely off what the rock could offer in terms of food: seabird eggs and chicks and seaweed. There may have been some fish as well. There was no question of such an isolated place being supplied from the mainland in winter, though they must have had some contact in order to receive enough unleavened bread to say Mass. 

I visited it on calm spring day. It had been an ambition for many years after being told about it by the Benedictine monks who taught me at school - themselves in wonder at the holiness and hardiness of these anchorites. It was with the same wonder that I approached this lonely place in a small fishing boat with a handful of American tourists who I imagined had drunk from the same historical well as me. Not so. The last version of Star Wars had been filmed there and the pilgrimage they were on was to see where Harrison Ford had walked and Luke Skywalker had swing his sword. They had no interest in the extraordinary history of this place.

Skellig Michael was abandoned after the first millennium, it is thought because of the cooling of the climate then that made an inhospitable place at the best of times uninhabitable. I have one further ambition there: to visit in a small boat of my own when all tourists have gone and commune with the ghosts of those monks with only the seabirds’ cries for company.
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