Skellig Michael is a splintery little shard of an island 9 miles from the coast of Kerry. This wild and remote place was inhabited continuously by monks from the 7th to 12th century. Now it's a World Heritage Site, and it's been high on our list of places to go while we're living in Ireland.
The island is a 45 minute trip by boat from the end of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. You can only provisionally reserve your place on the boat - the voyage is weather dependent and the boats don't go if it's windy or foggy. When we arrived the captain said we were very lucky - no-one had been out to the island for two weeks.
Last view of the mainland.
We took the boat with the cute little mascot dog, Nini. She spent the entire trip on passengers' laps.
Even on a calm day it was still pretty wavy - note the angle of the water in the photo below! It didn't look possible to land on the island, but if you look closely you can see a small cove at the bottom left of the photo with a stone staircase built into the side.
Before we started walking up to monk's huts at the top, we were greeted by a guide who actually lives on the island from April to October. The first thing he said was 'Boy, am I glad to see you people! There haven't been any boats for two weeks!' (Maybe it was just the sun in his eyes, but I swear I saw his face twitch when he said this.)
He then went on to warn us of the dangers of the exposed walk to the top of the island - there have been fatalities, most recently an American woman who left the stone path to get a better photo. He warned that as long as we stayed on the steps and paid attention we'd be safe, and off we went, up 600 stone steps.
The island is carpeted almost exclusively by this ground hugging plant, which not only survives but thrives on steep rock and salt water spray.
It looks like a species of Campion.
Up, up and up one of three stone staircases that the monks constructed. The other two sets of stairs are mostly intact but closed to the public.
You can just see some tiny people starting their climb far below.
Little Skellig in the distance
The monks built up these stone walls near the top of the island to enclose the plateau where they settled. These outer areas were used to grow food. Note the stairs down to an opening in the wall - these lead to one of the other staircases that goes to the shore, hundreds of feet down.
The monks lived in round 'beehive' huts at the top of the island, clustered around the ruins of a rectangular chapel. These amazing structures are built using a technique called corbelling. The stones are laid in a circular shape, gradually sloping inward until they meet at the top. It's an incredibly simple yet durable way to build - there are hundreds of these stone beehive huts all over the west of Ireland that have been standing for over 1,000 years.
There's a raised-bed cemetery in the middle of the enclosure.
The earliest monks in Ireland believed that God was found in the most remote and wild places, and that he dwelt where the sun set in the west. There are many early monastic sites in the west of Ireland, but no doubt this one is the most remote. The monks lived on fish, eggs from their hens, and vegetables from the small garden. They traded with passing ships for candles, fishing line, cloth, and other things they couldn't produce. They must have spent a lot of time working with stone in addition to meditation, prayer and singing.
After 5 centuries of continuous habitation on the island, the monks finally moved to the mainland after they were raided by Vikings three times in 10 years.
The island sat empty for hundreds of years, then in the 1860's two lighthouses were constructed on the island. The builders lived in the beehive huts for six years during construction of the lighthouses. Housing was built for the lighthouse keepers and they lived there until the 1980's, when the lighthouses became computer controlled. Now the island is very empty with just two guides in residence for 6 months of the year.
This is inside one of the huts looking out. It felt very sturdy and cozy inside.
Looking down to the little boats that brought us, far below. Access to the island is limited to just a few small boats daily from April through October. There's another one of the stone staircases wiggling down the hill.
Going back to the outside world through the opening of the enclosure wall. It really felt like a world apart.
Yaaaaaah! This was the scary bit!
There is another tiny little hermitage-for-one near the top of this peak. I think this is where the monks got sent when they had to do 'time-out'.
We were the last ones to the boat, as usual, but at least it didn't leave without us and have to come back (see Aran Islands blog, June 2010).
As a special bonus, this boat goes over to Little Skellig island, which has the largest population of gannets (a sea bird) in the world. By this time of year 2/3 of them had already migrated to Africa.
We also saw some seals lolling around in the surf.
There is this cool little cut-out at the end of the island that seems to mirror the shape of Skellig Michael in the distance.
Benbulben, County Sligo
We went back up to Sligo town for a really good arts festival, and decided to have another go at climbing Ben Bulben, the flat-top mountain nearby. This is the hill that we had a white-knuckle climb up last spring, when I had an interview at the Organic Centre. We were hoping to find a less hair-raising way to the top.
Last time we went up the sunny south face of the hill, this time we drove around the nose of the hill and went up the north side. We had to watch out for a local character nicknamed 'Bull', who hates hikers and according to hill-walking websites has chased people in the past. Beware Ben Bulben Bull!
It looks hairy, but we just kept angling left......
below those escarpments.....
until we came to a climbable grassy slope. Easy peasy!
Views from the top.
The top is boggy peat with occasional pools of water.
We saw these people heading for an easier way down, so we followed them. Now we know the truly easy way to get up Ben Bulben.
On our way home from Sligo, we took a detour into Connemara to climb Croagh Patrick. This is considered a very holy mountain from pagan times and now associated with St. Patrick. Every year on Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July, between 20,000 and 30,000 'pilgrims' climb to the top (reek means 'mountain' in Irish). Hundreds climb barefoot as penance. They must have been very naughty.
We decided not to go up the usual 'pilgrim's route' but instead to go the back way, up the small peak in the foreground first then up Croagh Patrick.
Croagh Patrick is near the sea, and in the distance we could see the steep profile of Clare Island, which we visited with the crew from Seed Savers last April.
The top of the mountain is covered with scree. I did say barefoot.....
It was seriously freakin' windy - I thought maybe St. Patrick himself was trying to blow off the two pagans who were trying to sneak up the back way! In this photo I am wearing a total of 4 layers of head covering (three hoods plus a hat).
At the top - a dumpy little church that in no way matched the grandeur of the setting. And it was locked to boot. However, it made a good windbreak to huddle by and snarf down our PB&J sandwiches and say 'Howdy, Pilgrim' to anyone who walked by.
Views from the top.
Out of the Old Place
Yes, it's true, we are actually moving away from the dear little cottage that has been our home in Ireland for almost 3 years. I have been driving almost an hour each way to work on bad roads and in the dark for the winter months, and we were offered a place that was hard to pass up - within walking/cycling distance of my job. Here are some of the last photos of the cottage garden in October.
We grew the South American grain quinoa for the first time - it's native to mountainous regions and thrives in Ireland's cool summers.
Unfortunately, we should have harvested it right after I took these pictures. The next weekend we went to Sligo and it was very wet in Clare, and when we came back the grains were sprouting right on the plants. Bad farmers!
The gardens in autumn. Lots of food still there, so we are still going back to the cottage to harvest.
And Into the New
Our new house is another old house (built in the 1800's), but more modern than the old cottage. Now we have central heat, an electric shower, and two spare bedrooms for guests or wwoofers! Hello 20th century!
The sitting room
Stone sheds in the back with workshop space, wood/turf storage, and storage for bicycles and gardening equipment.
The vegetable garden space - Bill started digging it up and it has beautiful soil (said as a true tree-hugging dirt worshipper!). We're going to have wwoofers stay with us this winter and spring to help us dig up the garden in exchange for room and board. We don't want to have to spend another 3 years developing a garden from scratch!