Like the vast majority of America, I went out and saw the new Stars Wars movie recently. My favorite part of the movie had nothing to do with the fighting or the actors or the special effects. It had to do with the final, and arguably most spectacular, filming location, the one used at the very end of the movie. Anyone who has seen the movie knows what I’m talking about.
Other than the flying vehicle and the landing area, none of that scenery was CGI. How do I know? Because I’ve been there, and it is just as spectacular as it looks. The scene was filmed on a little island in the story North Atlantic, 9 miles from the west coast of Ireland, a place called Skellig Michael (or Sceilig Mhichíl in the Irish). It’s one of the most spectacular, breath taking, jaw dropping locations I’ve ever had the pleasure of setting eyes upon.
Now just getting to Skellig Michael is a chore in itself. First, you have to get to Ireland.
In Ireland now? Good. It’s easier to do this from Shannon Airport, but Dublin can work too. Get in the car, and drive to County Kerry. Then drive to the tip of the Ring of Kerry to a little town called Portmagee. I’ll wait. There now? Good.
Now go back to before you left for your trip and make sure to make reservations, because while this might be the most spectacular place in Ireland, it’s also one of the least visited. Why? There are only about ten boats that make this trip each day, each one holding only about fifteen people. That means 150 visitors maximum each day for the island, which means not many (if any) walk on spots. Actually, many days, the number of visitors is zero due to weather issues. Try to have a flexible schedule, and realize that the price for the trip is expensive (I think we paid over 50 euro per person for tickets… although the 3 month old baby was free).
(Yes, we were crazy enough to bring our three month old. Who else was going to carry our stuff for us?) You won’t regret one penny of the expense.
Now go back to arriving at Portmagee. You’ll head down to the dock, find your man at the pier, and get on board ship.
You’ll get a bit of a talk about the island and the rules and a warning that this will be a grueling experience, so don’t do it if you aren’t in good shape or willing to huff and puff and put up with some pain. Don’t take this lightly, people have died on the rock.
The fishing-type vessel will cast off and carry you out to Skellig Michael, or Great Skellig, which will take over an hour. If you tend to get seasick or carsick, bring drugs to help, because you’ll need them. We went on a calm day, and the boat was still climbing waves as tall as itself. I thought it was good fun, but other passengers got real familiar with barf bags (Note: BYOBarfBags). You have been warned.
Anyway, you get out to the island, the boat inches into a tiny harbor, and you leap (use the rails!) onto the pier, hopefully not killing yourself or breaking anything in the process.
You’ll then walk along a road built to haul supplies to a now automated lighthouse on the island.
You’ll likely take little notice of this road, because instead, you’ll notice that you are surrounded by adorable little puffins. Sure, there are other sea birds too (like gannets), but the puffins will get all the glory.
You’ll wind your away about a quarter mile (or some odd amount of kilometers, I still don’t really understand kilometers) around on this road before you get to the serious bit – the steps.
These steps, dating back nearly 1,500 years and hand carved by monks who were not using modern day measuring tools or levels, will carry you into the upper reaches of this 715 foot tall spire of rock. How? Via 618 steps, rising over 600 feet up the mountainside. Why in the world would the monks make these steps? Because their settlement lies at the top of them, protection needed in the 6th to 8th century (the range of time that historians believe this island was first settled) from the raids of the Vikings. These steps are DANGEROUS, and tourists have died on them, so be CAREFUL! At this point, you will likely not be looking down at where you are walking, but instead looking up in awe at where you have ended up. Try to resist and look up only when stopped. If you’re like us (out of shape low-landers), you’ll have plenty of time to look while trying to catch your breath from going up all those steps!
But enough with the hard part, what surrounds you is chock full of AMAZING. Plus more puffins!
After about 400 steps or so, you’ll reach a good size landing called Christ’s Saddle. This is where we stopped for a break and to eat our lunch. My amazing wife had also had enough of babywearing our 3 1/2 month old (wait, he was supposed to be carrying our stuff!), so we switched here for the final climb. The view here is also amazing. Actually, the view from everywhere is amazing, so I should probably stop using that particular adjective (also: the word puffin).
After lunch, it was about 200 more stone steps up, up, up.
You’ll come to the walled in area that once housed the monk’s gardens. Go through a gate, up a few more stairs…
… and you’ll reach the apex of your Skelling Michael experience – the monk’s settlement. Here, you’ll find behive huts, a small chapel, and even a graveyard for the monks. This spot (especially if you bust your butt to get up here before the rest of the tourists) is one of the grandest places you’ll ever hope to be, so take it all in while you can.
When you’ve had your fill, it’s time for the real danger – back DOWN the steps. Take your time, admire the puffins only when stopped, and you’ll be alright. You’ll also admire the profile of Little Skellig off in the distance.
Eventually, you’ll reach the bottom of the steps, follow the road back around to the landing area, and get back on your boat.
Our tour then took us in for a closer look at Little Skellig. No one is allowed on this island though, not that there is anything there other than tens of thousands of birds.
Finally, we headed for Portmagee.
According to one of the island tour websites, when poet George Bernard Shaw visited these islands, he called them an ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’ and ‘part of our dream world’. I’m not one to argue with so great a man.
Further reading – The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael (1990) by Walter Horn, Jenny White Marshall, and Grellan D. Rourke.