"But for the magic that takes you out, far out of this time and this world, there is Skellig Michael ten miles off Kerry coast, shooting straight up seven hundred feet sheer out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the graveyard and their beehive oratory does not know Ireland through and through."
So said George Bernard Shaw after his visit to Skellig Michael in 1910 and I don't think I've ever been to a place that evoked both such a sense of history and a sense of the beauty of raw nature.
Skellig Michael is the larger of two uninhabited islands that lie eight miles off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsular in county Kerry. Both islands are bird sanctuaries but Skellig Michael is more noted for the 1500 year old beehive huts constructed by the monks and inhabited for well over 500 years.
During the summer season, boats visit the island. As a World Heritage Site, their numbers are limited, to limit the number of visitors every day. Whether the boats run or not is not determined by the roughness of the sea but the size of the swell at the small landing quay on the south side of the island. As a result of filming here of the new Star Wars movie, all boats are booked out until the end of the season, though we went down to Portmagee and got a cancellation very easily. Most of the boats go from Portmagee but a couple go from Ballinaskelligs. Be careful when booking, as there are other tours that circumnavigate the Skelligs but don't actually land.
When you arrive on the island, you follow a path around to the centre of the island where you begin your climb of the 700 steps to the top, among thousands of docile puffins (we went in June). In the old days, the path continued around to the two lighthouses on the western side of the island but this path is now closed. However, all is not lost. About two-thirds of the way up the climb, there is a little resting place called the Saddle. By veering up to the left, and keeping to the path, you are able to get a good overhead view of the Lower Light. The Upper Light unfortunately is located on the far side of a large rock blocking your view.
Early in 1818, a light was looked for on Bray Head on the westernmost tip of Valentia Island, as there was no light between Loop Head and Cape Clear Island. After much deliberation and procrastination, George Halpin, the Inspector of Works and Lighthouses, recommended that two lights should be built on Skellig Michael itself, a higher and a lower. These came into being in 1826, along with adjacent dwelling houses. The upper light was 372 feet (121.3m) above high water and could be seen at a distance of 25 miles (40.2km) in clear weather, the lower light was 175 feet (53.3m) above high water and could be seen for 18 miles (29km). Each tower was approximately 48 feet (14.6m) overall height and they were 745 feet (227m) apart. The tower and dwellings were painted white.
In 1869, Principal Keeper Callaghan requested a transfer off the rock, as he had buried two young children there. These two poor souls had spent their entire short lives on the island. Callaghan's request was acceded to, but not until several years later. The grave of the two small children can be found in the monastery section of the island among the beehive huts. At the turn of the century, shore dwellings were built for the families of the keepers here and on Inishtearaght on the Blasket Islands and the lights became relieving rather than residential.
The Upper Light, like many of the early Irish lights, was found to be too often shrouded in fog and was discontinued in 1870 when the light at Inishrearaght, the outermost Blasket Island, was established.
The photo above is of the Saddle, which you must climb to get a view of the lower lighthouse. The path goes up to the dip, then you have to climb the first ledge and continue on around. Not for the faint-hearted!
Above, the large cliff behind which the Upper Lighthouse sits. You can see some of the path in the photo. Apparently the trick to get a photo of the Upper Lighthouse is to ask the boat captain, when you are leaving, if you can go around the far side of the island and maybe offer him a tip. Sadly, conditions were very choppy on the day we travelled and I left a stream of puke between the mainland on the island on the way out, so, despite being so close, my stomach wouldn't allow me to ask the captain to prolong the journey home.
But for what its worth, this is a picture of the old upper light.