Back in early June, I realized I’d made a rookie travel-planning error: I’d taken someone’s word for something and didn’t check it out myself. So I very nearly missed out on Skellig Michael by waiting too long to book a trip. Just in time I found a guy with three available seats, but we had to rearrange our plans a tiny bit to make it work. Which was fine.
Until it almost wasn’t.
Because these trips are highly weather-dependent, boat operators sometimes don’t know until the last minute whether they can actually take a scheduled trip. So I was told to call Saturday evening. Which I did. At the end of the conversation about what time and what to bring, he told me, oh and it’s €75 each, cash only. He’d mentioned the cost a couple of times during the email exchanges I’d had to set it up, but he’d never mentioned cash only. Until Saturday night, when we’re staying in a small coastal town whose currency exchange happens in a post office, and nothing is open on Sundays. We’d been converting dollars to euros every couple of days so we had some euros, but not €225. In the end, after a panicked search through every pocket, we cobbled together enough cash, mostly euros but supplemented with American dollars. Thank goodness he accepted this mishmash of funds.
So that’s how we found ourselves on a boat with nine other intrepid travelers, motoring our way out to this giant rock seven miles from the Kerry coast. One guy was more intrepid than the rest–he was horribly seasick. The rest of us mostly just huddled under our jackets for the 50-minute trip.
And then we began the ascent.
Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhichil) was first settled by Gaelic Christian monks somewhere between the sixth and eight centuries, although some say it was as early as the fifth century. It was abandoned sometime in the 12th century; the island changed hands a few times, then became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. And it is the location–with no CGI needed, except the Millennium Falcon parked on the edge–of the final scene in The Force Awakens. A handful of licenses are granted every year for boat operators to land 12 passengers per day between May and October, but the weather in that part of the Atlantic can be so rough that it’s fairly common for tours to get canceled at the last minute. Thus my phone call the night before.
The monastery itself is 600 steps from sea level, accessed mostly by a series of stone steps. The island is also home to protected populations of puffins and several other types of nesting seabirds. After we’d climbed a short distance, we met a guide whose job it was to tell us to be careful, stay on the path, and don’t step on the birds’ nesting areas.
That was the sum total of our direction. No waivers, no restrooms, no gift shop or cheesy Luke Skywalker toys, and virtually no fences or hand rails. Just steps. Lots and lots of steps.
I think I’m in decent shape–I just ran my 15th half marathon a week ago–until I try to climb stairs. It was … challenging. As we were beginning the last set of steps, a guy coming down said, “You’re almost there!” I asked if that was anything like telling someone at mile ten of a half a marathon that you’re almost done, and he laughed. His friend retorted, “So you’ve hiked with him before, then?” But we indeed made it to the monastery at the top. Added bonus: our boat was one of the last to arrive, so almost everyone was either leaving or on their way down as we arrived. It was quite peaceful.
Words can’t adequately describe the scene more than 600 feet above sea level, alongside beehive-shaped huts built 1500 years ago. As I stood there, I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth they got the materials to the top? Assuming they built the stairs first, where did they live while they were building everything else? There’s austerity, and then there’s living on Skellig Michael.
The way back down was easier physically, but since few of the 600 steps have any kind of hand rail or barricade, I found myself looking only at the few steps in front of my feet. I’m not really afraid of heights, but I think this place could make anyone a little fearful in that regard.
Star Wars aside, the history of this place–enduring construction from the sixth century? Viking attack in 823? Continuously occupied for 600 years?–is fascinating. Even the “new” construction–two lighthouses and living quarters were added in 1826–are nearly 200 years old. We walked the same stairs and paths the monks walked 1500 years ago. And only a few people get to visit annually, and just for 2.5 hours.
George Bernard Shaw visited Skellig Michael (by rowboat, no less) in 1910, and described it to a friend:
An incredible, impossible, mad place … I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world …
I didn’t run the morning. But I climbed the equivalent of a 60-story building, so I acquired most of the day’s 12,500 steps vertically. And I could not be happier about it.