Where monks' memories linger

00:19, Aug 06 2012
ireland
SEABIRDS' PATCH: Little Skellig is home to tens of thousands of seabirds and a very substantial whiff of guano.
ireland
REMOTE ISLES: Little Skellig in the middle distance viewed from a monastery terrace. The stone structures in the foreground are part of an entry gate.
ireland
MONKS' QUARTERS: Three of the monks' cells on Great Skellig - all constructed using drystone technique, and each thought to have housed three monks.
ireland
GREAT HEIGHTS: The final flight of more than 600 steps leads up to the monastic ruins on Great Skellig.
ireland
PHOTOGENIC: The Skellig puffins seem unafraid of humans and were almost always ready to pose for photos.

The door into the wheelhouse of the Sea Quest, has, rather like the road in the Irish blessing, risen up to greet me with a thwack on the cheek bone.

The vessel is being tossed from Atlantic wave to wave, cork-screwing from trough to trough like a sock in a washing machine. One second's loosening of my grip on the rail was all it needed.

The Sea Quest belongs to Seanie O'Murphy. He is standing beside today's skipper, peering through the rain and spray-lashed window at the swells, which I reckon at times top the six-metre mark. I watch his body language more than I watch the sea. He looks alert, even a little tense, but not panic-stricken.

He can't remember how many times he has made the 11-kilometre crossing between Portmagee, on Ireland's southern coast, and the Skellig Islands.

Seanie says today is just about on the cusp of being too rough. Beside him, David the skipper, legs braced against the motion of the heaving seas, grapples with the wheel. "T'is a bit lumpy," Seanie remarks.

Seanie is a Kerryman, as is my guide, Frank, who is standing beside me.

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"I went to school with Seanie," says Frank, which apparently is all the reassurance I should need.

Here, where the Atlantic collides with this isolated, often soggy outpost of Europe, they breed them tough, taciturn at times. Emotions are kept in check, until at least a couple of Guinness. While the rest of the world takes delight in Irish jokes, the Irish in turn target the Kerryman: "How do you get 12 Kerryman into a Mini? Tell them it's going to Dublin." I attempt to wipe my glasses free of salt spray and rain.

"Can't imagine why I forgot my sun cream today, After all, it is summer," I remark to Frank.

"Don't worry. In Kerry, we don't tan, we rust," he replies.

Meanwhile, Seanie has sat down and is somehow managing to pour himself a cup of tea from a flask.

Ahead of us, somewhere, are the Skellig Islands, two craggy pinnacles of rock that rise up from the Atlantic like mountain peaks thrusting through a blanket of cloud.

The first sign that we have not been swept out towards Newfoundland is in the form of seabirds skimming over the now abating waves. Some I recognise, like the gannets with their sleek, elegant profiles, but others I can't. "Guillemots and kittiwakes," says Frank.

A shaft of sunlight strikes the water and through the murk ahead the outlines of Great Skellig and Little Skellig take shape. Little Skellig is closest, and appears to be dusted with snow. As we approach the leeside of the island and encounter slightly more gentle seas, the true origins of the white-capped rocks become obvious.

Little Skellig is home to tens of thousands of seabirds, including one of the world's largest breeding populations of northern gannets. We are several hundred metres from the cliffs, but the stench of guano is almost overpowering. Nesting along with the gannets on the cliffs that rear up 134 metres from the sea are Manx shearwater and storm petrels. The sky above us is full of wheeling, screeching seabirds.

One kilometre away is Great Skellig, also known as Skellig Michael. The precipitous flanks of Great Skellig are partly clothed in swaths of green among the ridges of sandstone. David brings the Sea Quest into the stone quay at Blind Man's Cove, where people have been making landfall for at least 1200 years. While Little Skellig is a haven for birds, it's the humans who once inhabited Great Skellig who have made that island famous. Well, that and the several thousand puffins which nest there every summer.

Puffins are irresistible little scene-stealers, with their black and white plumage and scarlet and gold beaks. Those on Great Skellig are also extremely tame and can be admired at close quarters. In fact, I'm convinced the puffins were deliberately posing in fetching positions among clumps of pink sea thrift and rocky outcrops.

Climbing up the side of the island on more than 600 steps of uneven surface and unequal depth is demanding, and not made any easier by puffins scurrying across almost under one's feet. They are not particularly light-footed on land, but don't compensate for this by being graceful in the sky either.

Puffins fly with a rapid wing-beat, giving the impression that engine failure is always imminent.

They are a welcome distraction on the cliff climb, for there are no railings on the steps, just the occasional length of chain. An almost sheer drop of about 200 metres below the posing puffins, the Atlantic foams among the rocks. Random gusts of wind and the old loose stone make the ascent even less enticing to anyone inclined to vertigo.

The dizzying climb ends at one of the most perfectly preserved medieval Christian monastic sites in the world. No-one knows exactly when monks from the mainland first began to build their beehive cells and oratories (chapels) on this inhospitable rock in the Atlantic, but it's believed to have been some time between the 6th and 8th centuries.

How many monks lived on the island is also unclear, but the six beehive-shaped cells, the two oratories and the Church of St Michael are testament to their unbending sense of purpose and dedication to their faith.

The monks built steps up from three original landing places around the island, then built massive retaining walls to create small terraces. On these level areas they constructed their buildings, built cisterns to store rainwater and even established gardens within the sheltering walls.

From here they survived isolation, storms and Viking raids until the 13th century, when they moved back to the mainland to an Augustinian priory.

Few artifacts have been found during archaeological excavations of the site, which means much of the monks' daily lives remains shrouded in mystery. Some of the more poignant reminders of life on the island come in the form of a cluster of crosses in a tiny graveyard and even a monks' latrine perched over a bowel-loosening drop to the sea.

Most of the buildings were constructed using drystone techniques. No mortar was used. Each layer of stone was positioned on the next to overhang slightly, a method known as corbelling. This creates the distinctive dome-shaped roofs.

Because most of the boats bringing the strict daily limit of visitors tend to arrive on the island at the same time, the small site can briefly be full of people. But even though the boat trip and climb keep the Skelligs free of mass tourism, there still seems to be a high proportion of visitors who are content to take a few photographs then leave after only a brief stay at the top.

Thus, the site grows quickly silent and it is easier to connect with the past. The doorways into the cells are low and tunnel-like. I need to bend almost double to get inside one of the cells, now empty of other visitors.

Although the cells appear almost circular form outside, they have clearly defined sides in the interior.

A low ledge runs around three sides, providing what archaeologists believe were sleeping spaces for three monks in each cell. Protruding stones in the walls could have been used as hangers and a recessed space would have served as a cupboard.

I stand in the centre, all external noise smothered by the stones, but do not feel totally alone. Time and memories seem to be seeping from the walls. It is unexpected, unnerving.

Outside, a rising wind has parted the clouds and Great Skellig is briefly bathed in sunlight. Kittiwakes, so named because of their rather ghostly cry, are calling as they wheel above their nests and the puffins, wings beating frantically, are making uncertain landings in the low-growing plants that cling to the cliff faces.

The descent is more terrifying than the climb, if less demanding on the lungs. It also provides the perfect vantage point to view the Hermitage, a tiny cluster of monastic buildings that clings to the South Peak, the highest point on the island. The effort, skill and bravery of the monks who constructed this, after apparently deciding that the main site was not Spartan and isolated enough, almost defy understanding.

The Sea Quest is waiting for us, its decks rising and falling with the heavy swell in the tiny cove. Once we have cleared the cliffs, Seanie beckons me into the wheelhouse where I am surprised to see not only him, but David the skipper sitting on the squabs. Frank is at the wheel.

Somehow, David manages to pour me a cup of tea, despite the Sea Quest's pitching, or is it, I suggest because of Frank's steering?

"No, 'tis OK," said Seanie. "I've pointed him in the right direction and if he misses that rock [actually the not inconsiderable peninsula at Bray Head beside the entrance to Portmagee harbour], we can have a look at the Blaskets instead." The Blasket Islands are 40km to our north.

David is a Dubliner with a half-completed Maori tattoo on his upper arm. "I wondered if you'd pick it," he says. "I'm having it done in Dublin."

"I bet they didn't tell you out there about the Skellig Lists," says Seanie. "T'ere's nothing monastic about the Skellig Lists is there, Frank?"

Frank grins, eyes staying firmly fixed on "the rock".

The story goes that Irish weddings were traditionally held immediately before Lent (a month before Easter). However, because of a typically Irish anomaly in the church calendar, Lent was always celebrated several weeks later on the Skelligs. This meant that for many decades, spinsters and bachelors keen not to delay the delights of married life would make the journey to Great Skellig, reputedly on a pilgrimage before marriage - the women to pray for good husbands, and the bachelors to repent of their sins. However, the Irish love of a good party often overcame such noble intentions and the pilgrimages became the local equivalent of a full-on beach rave.

The “lists” were the often bawdy poems that named those individuals who were on the verge of literally missing the boat until the next year.

There is apparently a strong suggestion that this was more myth than reality, but the three Irishmen in the wheelhouse are sticking to their story.

"I'm not sure she believes me," says Seanie.

"Ah, she's been here a week. It's been long enough to cast some doubt on our veracity," Frank replies.

"Veracity. You see that's why Frank's a school teacher and I'm just out here at sea," says Seanie. "Now you're a well-travelled woman. How many days would you recommend I spend in Petra?"

While I sip tea, trying not to chip a tooth on the mug, Seanie quizzes me about my favourite destinations. I tell him the Skelligs are in my top five.

"That's grand," says Frank, "but we'd be happier if it was top of the five, not one of the five."

It's hard to impress a Kerryman.

The Timaru Herald