The rock (for it is more rock than island) stands about 11 km out to sea, rising out of the mist to tower over its little brother, whose gannet-lined cliffs sit 1.5 km away, only marginally closer to the County Kerry coast.
This rock is only 0.219 sq km large. That’s about 0.085 sq miles, or 54 acres, of jagged rock (and whatever mossy plants can manage to grow on it), ending in steep cliffs straight down into the Atlantic.
The seabirds don’t seem to mind the harsh conditions. Kittiwakes nest directly on tiny cliff ledges, and puffins flap their tiny wings to take off and land in defiance of the strong winds.
But what could posses a human being to come here? To make the rough journey over 11 km of open ocean, only to find no beach or dock, just inhospitable cliff walls?
Christian monks arrived from Ireland in the 8th century, or slightly before. They sought out the austerity of the rock, wanting to live and pray in isolation from the world. They stayed for several centuries, fending off Viking attacks and building domed structures that still cluster on the rocks like wasp nests long abandoned.
A long time ago…
Others came. Were they Jedi hermits? Rebels looking for a hideout even more remote than Hoth? An Irish navy ship monitored the rock during filming in the summer of 2014, maintaining the secrecy of the Episode VII scenes shot there.
I came to Skellig Michael on July 3, 2015. My journey was part ecotourism, part pop-culture pilgrimage, and part self-actualization. And in many ways, it was the most memorable part of my trip to Ireland.
The tour was 8 days long, starting in Dublin on Sunday and going counterclockwise (or “anti-clockwise” as they say) around Ireland. Skellig Michael was planned for Friday, assuming the weather was good. It always comes down to the weather: too much wind and waves means there’s no way to safely disembark on the island.
Through the whole week as we visited ruined castles and hiked up mountains, I could feel momentum building. I had chosen this tour partly because of the opportunity to visit this place where a Star Wars movie had been filmed. My nerves were building, too. We were warned that the boat ride out to Skellig Michael would be rough. And once on the island, there are over 600 steps to reach the monks’ settlement at the top. That’s 600+ winding, uneven steps that the monks hand-built centuries ago, with no hand rails, that get slippery as ice when it rains.
And there are no bathrooms. For like, 6 hours.
Thursday night I was so nervous I already felt sick to my stomach. Though I had spent about a week on a boat when I toured the Galápagos, that was 8 years ago and the most recent time I’d done something requiring warnings about motion sickness (the “Forbidden Journey” ride in Hogwarts at Harry Potter World), it made me quite sick. I brought Dramamine with me, but I’d never used it before and didn’t know how well it would work.
In the morning it looked very windy. We ate breakfast as our guide went to confirm that we were still on for the outing. I ate about 3 bites of toast and drank half a cup of tea. I didn’t talk much either. I prayed for cancellation, then scolded myself. I emailed my husband, though I knew with the time difference he would not be awake, let alone responding.
I admit: I nearly backed out. Pretty much the only thing that got me on the boat was the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I didn’t at least try. It was time to face my fears.
On board they gave us rain coats and pants to put on. They didn’t help. The boat pilot, who had done this journey hundreds if not thousands of times over several decades, warned us it would be “bumpy” on the way out. Bumpy. Ha. The sea spray splashing over the side got all of us wet. My trail pants were soaked through. My shoes were designed to be waterproof…from the outside. The sea water dripped down into my socks and insoles until my feet were in small puddles.
My body was pumping adrenaline now as I clutched my seat and braced for oncoming waves. I told myself I didn’t care if I arrived on Skellig Michael soaked or retching. The point was to be there.
Two people on board got sick on the way out. But I wasn’t one of them. The Dramamine worked well enough, and I distracted myself with first sightings of various sea birds. It was impossible to look for the Skelligs ahead of us without getting a face full of sea water.
The ride must have lasted at least an hour. We all felt the length. We passed Little Skellig with its rows of white gannets, and finally pulled up next to the concrete staircase that serves as a makeshift dock for the big island. My shoes squished as I took my first steps on Skellig Michael.
I was here. It was real. I dawdled as I walked the path to the monks’ stairs, watching the puffins fluttering. Someone pointed out kittwake nests with chicks in them, situated on cliff ledges with just barely enough room for parent and young. I took a selfie with the island’s rocks in the background as proof I’d been there. I took pictures of puffins about every 10 feet; I defy you to find a cuter seabird than a puffin.
Those of us who felt well enough to climb the stairs grouped at the bottom for a safety talk, which is no joke. Visitors have been injured and even died on Skellig Michael.
I started up the stairs slowly, and soon the rest of the group had left me behind. We had about 2 hours on the island, and my plan was to go up as high as I could in an hour, then start back down again. I would go up maybe a dozen or twenty steps at a time, then just sit on a step for awhile. The sun was shining gently and the wind was working to dry my pants. I sang some 2NE1 out loud to the puffins, speculating that it was the first time they’d ever heard K-pop.
There were very few other visitors that day; we learned later that only 2 of the other larger boats had gone out–the smaller boats remained at the dock in Portmagee. I was often the only person in sight. I took more pictures of the puffins, and it was at this point that my camera died because I am an incompetent traveler and hadn’t been able to find my battery charger before leaving the US.
It was nesting season for the seabirds. Puffins are small birds and they nest in burrows and crevices under rocks. Many of them were pulling up little bits of the sea campion growing near the steps to take back to their nests. You could see the females peeking out from their burrows. Every now and then I heard a sound like a lawnmower starting; it took a couple couple times before I realized it was the puffins (hear the sound here).
It was a bit like being in the Galápagos in that the birds were not afraid and mostly just ignored us. They would move from the steps when I passed but had no problems flying right around us. I watched a kittiwake make a slow, hovering landing near me in the face of a stiff breeze.
I didn’t make it to the top. I didn’t much mind. We had already seen several good examples of monks’ beehive huts elsewhere on the mainland. I made it up to the plateau called Christ’s Saddle between the island’s two peaks; the steps continue up the north-east peak to the monks’ cells and monastery, while the south-west peak is home to the Hermitage, which is even less accessible (you basically need climbing gear).
The wind got very, very strong as I entered the Saddle and I decided to head back down. I descended just as slowly as I came up, stopping to eat a few bites, drink some water, and pop another Dramamine for the trip back.
The return ride was not as rough. We paused at Little Skellig to see a dozen harbour seals on the rocks. Some of the braver members of the group whipped out their cameras. The gannets were beautiful; they are related to the boobies of the Galápagos, so I have now seen species from the family Sulidae on two continents.
I arrived back on the Irish mainland once again slightly wet, but exhilarated. I had followed in the monks’ footsteps, added several new bird species to my life list, and made a personal connection with Star Wars Episode VII by visiting one of the filming locations.
My mom went to the Skellig Visitors’ Center and bought me a “Skellig Wars” shirt. One of the employees there mentioned that crews would be back in fall to do more filming; he seemed to think it would be for Episode VIII this time.
We still don’t know exactly what was filmed on Skellig Michael. I will be watching intently for any familiar sights when I see the Ep VII premiere in December. I think it was likely the monastery area that was used as scenery, but we’ll see. (Frankly, I’m kind of amazed they got permission to film there at all. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I think some of the seabirds are protected, too.)
Skellig Michael’s appearance may amount to only a few seconds of screen time, but the fact that they are doing more filming there makes me think it is an important location. Anyone want to speculate on what it might be??
In short, visiting Skellig Michael was an unforgettable experience, and I’m sure I’ll be talking about it for a long, long time. If you want more info about the island, this government brochure is a great read.