Experiencing the Crown Jewel of Irish Heritage Sites

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Set seven miles off the Ring of Kerry, the Skellig islands, or “Skelligs”, are two rocky islands that have long captured travelers imagination for its wealth of archeological treasures and monastic traditions.

On a fine sunny day during the summer of 2008 I had the great fortune to finally experience the Skelligs, having twice been thwarted on previous occasions. It remains one of my favorite adventures over my many years exploring the West of Ireland.

Daily tours set sail from Portmagee, a quaint seaside village set along Ireland’s famed Iveragh Peninsula, commonly known as the “Ring of Kerry.”  Coveted spots on the dozen or so tourist boats are doled out on a first-come basis. The journey is highly dependent on fickle weather and changing tides.  Skippers stand around like bookies at a race meeting, talking among themselves while observing ever-changing conditions of the sea, while eager tourists congregate and huddle in confusion, unaware of the who, when and where of the adventure on which they will soon embark.

When the time has come to set sail, there’s a last minute horse-trading of  tourists to balance out the human cargo. “You’re over here with Michael John.” and with that I’m allocated to another boat. None of the dozen or so vessels are by any stretch luxurious. They’re open aired fishing trawlers turned pleasure boats, with some wooden benches to sit on.  These vessels must be highly maneuverable, as the landing on Skellig Michael is treacherous during the best of times.

Somewhere near the hour of ten, as an offshore wind built, we set sail. Like incisor teeth of a Great White Shark, these two desolate rock formations jut improbably from the turbulent open sea. For quite obvious reasons, The Skellig Island’s were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Skellig Islands are among the crown jewels of Irish heritage.

As our boat approached the small Skellig, I rather felt like Sir David Attenborough, the great British wildlife documentarian. For I was witnessing one of the planet’s great wildlife spectacles. The island provides vital habitat for a sensational wealth of sea birds, including gannets, guillemots, puffins, and razorbills.  Every square foot of its precipitous face teems with life.

Birds jostled and tussled, and waged a million tiny battles for precious space, food and mates. The cacophony of their cawing was matched by the shear spectacle of the site. The entire cliffside was stained white by their collective droppings: unfathomable layers guano, accumulated across the millennia. The pungent odor was indelible. Access onto the island is forbidden, as its a dedicated wildlife sanctuary.  We were close enough to be duly impressed. Our time was precious. After lingering in awe at the inspired spectacle, the captain throttles the engine toward the main attraction.

For decades Skellig Michael has captured the imagination of modern travelers, who wish to stand in the shoes of the stoical monks of Skellig Michael. Its astounding to imagine the island has for centuries supported a thriving communities of aesthetic monks. The archeological history of the island is quite extensive, with recorded history dating to at least AD 490. For it is here where 6th century monks carved out an impressive village of beehive huts some 600 feet above the Atlantic and created in this harsh environment a great centre for learning and meditation. For some six centuries monks thrived here, before moving their operation to the mainland.

As is often the case with Ireland’s early Christian sites, Great Skellig is thought to have been a place of great Druidic importance previous to its monastic heritage, though far less is known of this period of the island’s history.

Their remains an insatiable demand for visiting the islands, demand that must be carefully managed to protect this fragile built heritage. Managing the Skelligs has been a tricky and controversial operation. The number of visitors is highly restricted, with an estimated 14,000 people allowed onto the island each year. The season is curtailed to just a few months, during 2007 running from 15 May – 24 Sep. Only 15 boats are officially licensed to bring people to the Skelligs. Each may land only once a day during a very short season, During each day of operation there’s an Office of Public Works guide on site to oversee the visitation.

During peak summer months of July and August demand far exceeds supply. Numbers are further curtailed by the shear fact that its damn hard to impossible to land on the island during turbulent seas. Boats depart daily at 10:00 a.m. from the Port Magee pier and return for 14:30 – 15:00. While some boats are faster than others, most generally provide the same basic level of service. Visitors are allowed 2.5 hours on the rock, to climb the 580 stairs and explore the beehive oratories and walk in the footsteps of monks who occupied this craggy monastery some 1,400 years ago.

Less intrepid tourists can still gain a closeup waterside perspective of the Skelligs by joining one of the sea-based tours that sets sail daily  from the Skelligs Experience,  a cultural interpretive centre based in the nearby  Portmagee. Sailing times 15:00 hrs during summer.

County Kerry suffers from an embarrassment of natural attractions, and time constrained tourists are invariably stretched. You’d be well served to steer your way toward the Skellig Islands.   And if the weather cooperates and luck falls in your favor, you just might find yourself experiencing firsthand the crown jewel of Irish Heritage.

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