We saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening weekend and I have mixed feelings about the repetition of the movie (mostly unoriginality, to be vented later), but besides seeing that Han Solo smile again, one of the favorite parts for us was the Skellig Islands at the end when … whoops, no spoilers here!
The Skelligs are isolated, majestic, magnificent – and we’ve been there!
On our first trip back to Ireland after living there for a few years, the Skelligs were the only place we wanted to see a second – or third – time around. They’re off the coast of County Kerry (the southwest corner of Ireland) and always a risky part of the itinerary.
The weather has to be just right. Rough-ish seas wouldn’t bother the ferry boats on open water, but the waves have to be pretty calm to land at the jetty. Don’t want to drop any tourists against the rocks!
Nearly a thousand years ago, Irish monks built a secluded monastery on the larger of the two islands, Skellig Michael. They lived there, subsisting on birds, fish and a bit of gardening, for six hundred years. Every six months or so, a boat would come from the mainland with bread and wine for Communion.
To reach the settlement, the monks laid 600 stone steps on the main pathway – the same ones we climb today.
And way up towards the needle of the south peak is a hermit’s cell. Not accessible to the public, but I remember eating lunch and staring at it, imagining trying to sleep on hard rock with the wind and rain pelting me. Shudder.
Climbing Skellig Michael is not for the faint of heart or weak in body. You’re not allowed to go if you have vertigo, and heart, knee, and back conditions are cautioned against. The steps are arduous, uneven, and can be slick, and the park staff have to rescue someone each week – even if you manage to climb up, you may not be able to get down. (They actually encourage you to scoot down one step at a time if you have problems!)
In the monastery, a park guide tells the story of the settlement. But when we visited this time, tourists were all agog about the filming of the new Star Wars. All the guide could tell us was that yes, they had been filming the week before (the islands were closed to the public for several days), the footage may or may not be in the final movie, and she wasn’t allowed to tell us more. Aarrgh!
Needless to say, when the opening scroll of text began in The Force Awakens, my eyes were peeled for the Skelligs. I imagined there might be an air battle overhead or something. I got caught up in the story and forgot to pay attention, and when I sensed that the movie was coming to a conclusion, I wondered if I had missed them.
And then there they were, Skellig Joseph and Skellig Michael in all their glory at the very end when … whoops, no spoilers, right? (You mean you haven’t still seen it yet??) It was what I had been waiting for, and I kept whispering to Blaik. See that? Remember that? That’s where we ate our picnic! We stood in that spot! I think I was quiet, but knowing me, I probably drove the people next to us crazy. Sorry, fellow movie goers!
If you’re intrigued and want a great book about the Skelligs, try Sun Dancing: a Medieval Vision. (At least, that’s the subtitle on my copy.) Half the book is fiction, an intriguing set of vignettes of monastic life, from gathering monks for an ascetic life to vision quests to a Viking raid. The other half is a very readable, topic-oriented history of Irish Catholicism through the dark and middle ages, until the Roman Church demanded conformity.
The Skelligs are a World Heritage Site, and there are a limited number of ferry boats allowed to go out each day. With the time it takes to climb, you only get about an hour at the monastery before you need to leave.
And if you’re lucky and you’ve got a willing captain, you get to swing through the smaller Skellig Joseph for a close-up view of the bird sanctuary.