The Skelligs: the Islands of wonder, legend and lore – Irish Examiner

Posted: October 9, 2020 at 1:55 pm


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There is no better way to savour a beautifully imagined and executed photographic essay of the Skelligs than to do so while gazing at the real thing.

That is not too difficult in south-west Kerry.

These three rocky, craggy islands situated about 12 kilometres off the southwest coast, have been the stuff of wonder, legend and lore for thousands of years.

They consist of Skellig Michael (Sceilig Mhicil), Small Skellig (An Sceilig Bheag) and Lemon Rock, the latter described by photographer and Skellig enthusiast Peter Cox as the runt of the litter'.

Runt or not, Lemon Rock provides a dramatic counterpoint to Small Skellig which has its own unique natural wonder, home to almost 30,000 pairs of gannets, the second largest colony of such sea birds in the world.

The most majestic island of the three is undoubtedly the once inhabited Skellig Michael where, from the sixth to the 12th or 13th century, Christian monks lived lives of splendid isolation in honour of the third century St. Anthony of Egypt who spent his time in the arid deserts of his homeland.

Skellig Michael, is harsher, windier and wetter but no less a desert, the edge of the known world of Europe centuries ago.

The early monastery, which is perched on one of the islands two summits, has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site not only for its well-preserved structures but for its historical significance as a cauldron of Christianity amid a religious ice-age throughout much of Europe.

The monastic site on the island, reached by 500 steep steps not for the faint-hearted, includes stone beehive-shaped huts where the monks lived and prayed.

They cling precariously to cliff edges alongside oratories, a cemetery, stone crosses, holy wells and the Church of St Michael. Enduring several Viking raids, the monks eventually left the island and it became a place of pilgrimage for centuries afterwards.

In the 19th century, two lighthouses were built on Skellig Michael, establishing its importance in Ireland's maritime history.

Boat trips to the island also began as word spread of this unique and enchanting place. Following a visit in 1910, George Bernard Shaw described it as an incredible, impossible, mad place and part of our dream world.

It was that dream world that, in recent years, has attracted Hollywood, taking a starring role as Luke Skywalker's island sanctuary on the planet Ahch-To in both Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.

Director JJ Abrams was struck by the wonder of Skellig Michael, describing it, in quasi-religious terms, as a sort of miracle'.

That miracle can be captured from the air and also on land from the Dingle Peninsula, to Valentia Island, to Ballinskelligs at the edge of the Iveragh Peninsula. The best view, though, I believe, is from the Skellig Ring, overlooking St Finians Bay, locally known as The Glen.

Residents of Valentia, which affords a distant view of the islands, may beg to differ. They celebrate the remoteness of their home, also an island, telling visitors that, on a rare calm day, you can hear the traffic in New York. They are only half-joking.

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The Skelligs: the Islands of wonder, legend and lore - Irish Examiner

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October 9th, 2020 at 1:55 pm

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