“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.” – George Bernard Shaw
Skellig Michael is a remote, precipitous, rocky island situated eight miles from the coast of County Kerry, Ireland. It is the larger of two jagged islands that jut out from the swell of the Atlantic Ocean and thrust 230 meters straight up.
Legends tell of the importance of the islands in prehistoric, pagan times, but the known history of Skellig Michael begins when a monastery was founded near the summit in the middle of the 7th century. Consisting of distinctive ‘beehive’ stone huts clustered around an oratory and a tiny vegetable garden, this was truly a place of solitude for the few monks who lived here, only accessible by climbing 600 stone steps up the cliff. Perched on the higher, southern peak of the island is another oratory, intended for a single monk seeking true isolation amongst the cathedral-like rocky spires.
The monastic peace was shattered in the 9th century when a number of Viking raids threatened the very existence of this tiny community. But despite this, the monastery survived up until the 12th century when the monks abandoned the island and moved to the mainland.
The monastery itself is remarkably well preserved, with daily boatloads of visitors from the mainland making the precarious leap to the small harbor at the bottom of the cliff. The extreme inaccessibility and remote location of these buildings have meant that just a trickle of tourists have visited the site, thus minimizing the erosion of the paved steps and terraces.
The smaller of the two islands, Little Skellig, is no less dramatic. Situated a little closer to the shore, the island is Ireland’s largest Gannet colony, with over 20,000 breeding pairs. Skellig Michael is also home to a variety of species such as puffins, gannets, razorbills, and grey seals.
The island, once relatively little known, was thrust into fame when the precarious steps, cliffs and beehive houses at the top were used as the setting for Luke Skywalker’s isolated hideaway at the end of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and, again in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The island can expect a steady stream of Jedi carrying lightsabers up the winding path.
Know Before You Go
Landing trips to the island operate between mid-May and early October, weather permitting. Fifteen boats are licensed to carry 12 passengers each so numbers are extremely limited. Contact details are published by the Office of Public Works. It's a mildly challenging walk up the 618 steps to the monastery at the top of the island so be prepared with grippy shoes, layered clothing, waterproofs for the boat, water, and food. Also, there are no toilets on the island.
There are also eco-tours that take visitors on a water-based adventure without leaving the boat, getting up close to Skellig Michael to observe local wildlife.
Star Wars has now massively increased interest in the island so it's advised to book months in advance. Or, failing that, make contact with a local accommodation provider who may have connections with one of the boatmen.