Luck had everything to do with our travels to the Skellig Islands. Luck that I Googled, “off the beaten path Ireland” about a week before we left; luck that we managed to find two spots on one of the dozen or so tiny boats that is allowed to visit each day; luck that the seas were just calm enough to allow us to be the first people to visit the islands this year; luck that the puffins were feeling friendly that day; and a great deal of luck that the islands were shrouded with a lovely mist instead of a beating rain. So very very lucky.
A visit to the Skellig Islands is not for the faint of heart. Though the seas were deemed calm enough for our small fleet of boats to visit, the eight mile voyage from Portmagee was anything but. We sat in the back of a tiny, open boat with no railings or ropes to hang on to as the churning grey sea tossed our little boat about on eight-foot waves, spraying us with salt water while a biting cold wind whipped across our faces. Altogether it was an exhilarating ride for those of us not prone to seasickness, but it was a harrowing journey for a few others who seemed green and wobbly-legged by the time we came in sight of the island.
I wouldn’t want to approach Skellig Michael, the larger of the two islands, on a sunny day. It was far more dramatic to see it emerge suddenly out of the mist, stark and craggy, a giant rock in the sea that loomed over our tiny boat. Our captain pulled us up close to the concrete pier and we leapt from the boat on to the island, then followed a twisting stone walkway around to find our way up to the monastery. The way up consists of several hundred jagged steps, hand-carved out of the rock by monks over a thousand years ago. The steps are steep, unguarded by any railing, and sometimes crumbling or slick from rain and mist. We’d been warned that the climb and sheer drops could be terrifying for anyone afraid of heights, and we saw at least one lady who was nearly carried down by a guide, weeping and trembling with fear the whole way. Heights and I have never been great friends, but as we zigzagged up the stone steps for nearly 600-feet, I was far too distracted by the beauty of the island to feel any fear at all. Sharp towers of rock rose out of the fog, cut here and there by patches of green and the nests of sea birds, a strange misty landscape so unlike any place I had ever been.
Eventually we reached the ruins of the Christian monastery near the top of the island. Built sometime between the 6th and 8th centuries, and occupied by monks until around the 12th century, the ruins are perched on something of a shelf in the rock, high above the sea. We walked amongst the stone walls, exploring all the nooks and crannies, the cisterns, and stairwells, the worn cemetery, and the strange and striking stone beehive cells where the monks once lived. Leaning against those ancient stone walls, with puffins circling in the air around us and the cold grey sea crashing far far below, it was easy to see this place as the monks once had, a sanctuary at the edge of the world.