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What is Skellig Michael?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 04 November 2016
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Skellig Michael is an island off the coast of Ireland. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1996. It is quite remote, and as such is a remarkably well-preserved set of ruins.

Skellig Michael, which is a transliteration of the Irish name, Sceilig Mhicil, means simply Michael’s Rock. It is some nine miles (15km) off the west coast of Ireland. It lies near Little Skellig, the smaller of the islands, most well-known for its gannet and puffin colonies.

Skellig Michael is known for the beautiful Christian monastery that was built on the island. It is one of the oldest monasteries in Ireland, dating from the late-6th century, and is built at the top of the island, nearly 1000 feet (300m) above the sea.

The monastery at Skellig Michael is quite remote, and very ascetic. The population of the monastery was likely never more than twelve to fifteen people, with an abbot presiding over them all. During the 9th century the monastery was raided a number of times by Vikings, but it managed to survive, and grew over the next two centuries.

By the end of the 12th century Skellig Michael had been abandoned by monks in favor of the Augustinian Monastery in Ballinskelligs. For the next few centuries it lay abandoned, until it began to attract pilgrims sometimes in the 16th century. Although these pilgrims did not stay for very long, it nonetheless breathed life back into the rock.

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During the 19th century, Skellig Michael again hosted a permanent population, this time in the form of lighthouse operators to look over the newly constructed lighthouses. One of these lighthouses continues to operate, although it no longer requires a keeper.

Skellig Michael, because of its remoteness and difficulty to reach, was not visited often after its abandonment by the monks until quite recently. As a result, it has survived amazingly well, and offers a fascinating insight into the life of an ascetic monk from the first millennium.

Since the 1960s a tourist board has operated the island, and made it more accessible for visitors. Along with this increased exposure has come some damage to the site, and the authorities try to limit the amount of tourists that visit to prevent the damage from becoming too severe.

The boat trip from the mainland takes just around an hour and a half, and can be a very wet trip, even on relatively calm days. The views are remarkable, with the boat going by Little Skellig, with its enormous resident bird populations.

A number of people offer guided tours of Skellig Michael, and will explain what specific architectural oddities were for. Back on the mainland, the Skellig Experience Museum shows pictures and gives stories and history on the island’s residents and place in Irish history. For any visitor to County Kerry, Skellig Michael is a site that shouldn’t be missed.

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