Twelve kilometers off the coast of County Kerry and part of the Ring of Kerry, Skellig Michael is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and rises dramatically to an altitude of 700 feet above the sea. It is an impressive site that features beehive monastic cells, also called dochans (pronounced "duckawns"), perched above nearly vertical cliffs. The beehive huts were home to the Augustinian Order of monks lived between to the 6th to 13th centuries. Skellig comes from the Irish word Sceilg, which means "rock in the ocean". Skellig Michael, or Greater Skellig, is the larger of two Skellig islands.
St. Michael and the Banishing of the Snakes
The island's name, Scelig Michil in Irish, is derived from an old tale about St. Michael and his army of angels, who appeared on the island to help St. Patrick cast all of Ireland's snakes into the sea. In fact, Ireland has not had any native snakes since it re-emerged from the last ice age, when a 12km strip of water cut it off from mainland Britain, which no snakes could cross. However, the snakes symbolised paganism in the early Christian era, so the popular story of Partick banishing the snakes into the sea was possibly a metaphor for the spread of Christianity throughout Ireland.
Early Christian Site
Skellig Michael features
- Six beehive huts
- Two oratories
- St. Michael's church
- A hermitage
- A graveyard, where the monks are buried
It is the best preserved early Christian site in Ireland and was a popular pilgrimage destination until the 20th century. The beehive huts are remarkably intact, considering their exposure to the harsh conditions of the Atlantic coast. The huts were built by a technique called "drystone architecture", which uses no cement, yet creates a watertight structure.
The Monks of Skellig Michael
In 588, Skellig Michael was founded by Fionan, an original member of the St. Brendan the Navigator community. The beehive living areas reveal the monks' ascetic lifestyle. Early 1200 AD, the monks moved to the mainland at Ballinskelligs, presumably to escape Viking raids.
Climbing Skellig Michael's Mountain
Famous for its abundance of puffins, Skellig Michael has 600 stone steps that make for a precarious climb up the mountain to the cells, made enjoyable by the company of the birds along the way. The island can be reached between May and September by a 50- minute boat ride, usually planned around weather conditions because of the dangers of docking at the island. The journey up the mountain is not a casual stroll -- there are no guardrails. The monastery is situated on a sloping rock plateau at the northeastern summit. This location was chosen for adequate shelter, water collection, and plant cultivation. The retaining walls provided shelter from the winds and also created a microclimate which helped the monks grow basic foods. Their diet consisted of fish, seabirds and their eggs, and vegetables.