Fans of the iconic Star Wars films can combine a look behind the movie magic with a dose of history at one of Ireland’s most important early Christian sites, the idyllic and magical Skelligs Islands. Featured in the latest instalment of the franchise, The Force Awakens, it’s no surprise that filmmakers chose to set part of the film on this secluded UNESCO world heritage sites; as Irish poet GB Shaw noted in 1910, it’s an “incredible, impossible, mad place” that’s “part of our dream world.” But what makes this sacred site so special?
Views from the monastery
The Skelligs actually comprises two remote sea crags; Skellig Michael, known as the Great Skellig and its smaller neighbour, Little Skellig. Their rich history dates way back to the sixth century, when a group of early Christian monks settled on Skellig Michael, founding a monastery there. Amazingly, the well-preserved hermitage and monastic remains can still be found on the island, despite the monks leaving in the 13th century. “Circled by screaming gulls, it’s a true end-of-the-world location for those soul-searching settlers,” noted popular travel blog Lonely Planet during their visit to this remote and haunting region.
Climbing the stone steps to the island’s peak
This fascinating site, as well as the general wildness of the rugged island, offers an incredible glimpse into the lives of the monks, who lived in complete isolation from the mainland. The monastery – perched on a ledge an astonishing 160m above sea level – faces south, protecting those inside somewhat from the prevailing winds. As BBC Travel commented, “Its very existence on the twin peaked crag is awe-inspiring. Try not to look down at the crashing waves as you gingerly climb the vertiginous steps that cut into the face of Skellig Michael.”
And they’re right – access isn’t easy. Visitors must take care while following in the monks’ ancient footsteps. The 618 winding stone steps to the monastery are uneven and irregular, though this is to be expected considering they’re almost 1,500 years old! At the top, there are six beehive huts where the monks slept, a church dedicated to St. Michael, a walled garden and an early oratory. There’s also a cemetery with 22 grave slabs on the grounds. These impressive artefacts prompted the islands to be added to the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. It’s a spiritual place guaranteed to reinvigorate its visitors. As BBC remarked, “despite the wind and waves, an otherworldly calm pervades”. As such, the area should be treated with the utmost respect to ensure its precious links to the past are preserved and celebrated for years to come.
Puffins can be found on Little Skellig, as well as many other seabirds
The Skelligs is also one of the country’s most important sites for breeding seabirds, as its steep slopes and cliffs provide the perfect nesting places. On the smaller island you’ll find the second largest colony of gannets in the world. In fact it’s home to over 27,000 pairs, as well as puffins, Arctic terns, black guillemots, herring gulls and many more. The documentary, Skelligs Calling, is a beautiful sonic portrayal by Irish producer Luke Clancy and sound-recorder Chris Watson. The pair spent time on Skellig Michael, capturing the wild cries of the birds and the howling of the wind, while archaeologist Michael Gibbons offered a glimpse into the island’s rich history.
If you’ve seen Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and now know the story behind this amazing site, you’ll surely want to visit! Access to the Skelligs is by ferry from the town of Portmagee. A number of boat tours make the trip from May to September (weather permitting); see Skellig Michael Cruises, Skellig Boat Trips, Casey’s, Owen Walsh, Sea Quest, Skellig Trips and Skellig Tours (which departs from Derrynane Harbour). You’ll find contact details for many of the individual boatmen here. The trip takes approximately 45 minutes, but be sure to book well in advance. The surrounding area on the mainland is also well worth a visit – the Skellig Ring (part of the greater Ring of Kerry route) runs along the coast and offers fabulous views of the crashing Atlantic and the Skellig Islands, as does Bray Head, one of Wild Atlantic Way’s Signature Points.
There are plenty more islands dotted along the coast of the Wild Atlantic Way too, all waiting to be explored. From mythical Tory off the Donegal coast to the Aran Islands off Galway, and Valentia, Dursey and Cape Clear off Kerry and Cork, an island-hopping adventure awaits. See our trip planner for more info and to start putting together your own unique itinerary.
Header and teaser image via Raymond Fogarty