Journey to a Power Place: The Skellig Islands
by Brenda E. Novack
I learned of the Skellig Islands one auspicious day while listening to Canadian singer-songwriter, Loreena McKennitt. Captivated by the hauntingly beautifully “Skellig” track, I was compelled to investigate this unfamiliar word and discovered stunning photos of two magnificent, roughly pyramid-shaped rocky islands protruding from the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Ireland. I felt the impact of their magnetism from first glance and wondered how I could have been oblivious to this UNESCO World Heritage Site. George Bernard Shaw described the Skelligs as "an incredible, impossible, mad place . . . the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world." Wild seduction emanated from the monolithic peaks and I knew instantly that I had to visit them.
The larger of the two Skelligs, Skellig Michael, is named after the archangel and towers majestically 714 feet above sea level while Little Skellig rises an elegant 445 feet above the Atlantic. These imposing islands sustain a rich variety of vegetation and seabirds with Little Skellig serving as home to some 54,000 gannets. Notoriously rugged Skellig Michael supported human life for approximately 600 years as Christian monks dared to construct a sixth-century dry-stone monastery on one of its cliff-edges nearly 600 feet above sea level. It is accessed by over 600 steps courageously hewn of stone by the monks along the treacherous slopes between rumbling sea below and open sky above.
The Skelligs called to me for a decade before I finally accepted their enticing invitation. A temporary relocation had taken me from Canada to Dublin on Ireland’s east coast and a nine-hour bus ride from there delivered me to County Kerry. One can never be certain of making it to the Skellig Islands as it is always dependent upon sea conditions on the day of departure. Inhospitable waters frequently render the islands inaccessible—increasing their mystique and allure—but, thankfully, the Fates were generous on my scheduled day of departure from the charming fishing village of Portmagee.
The previous day’s sun had yielded to an otherworldly fog, creating a liminal atmosphere, and the relaxing forty-five-minute boat ride passed quickly as we traversed thirteen kilometers to the islands. Moored at the base of a towering Skellig Michael, the faithful boat was helplessly dwarfed as we eagerly disembarked and began our upward journey on foot.
There is an energy about Skellig Michael that is vibrant and unpredictable but also delicate and soothing, and it became instantly apparent to me that this is no ordinary place. Skellig Michael is dangerous and, after a few precarious glances at the water below while climbing the first sections of stone staircase in complete awareness of the potentially fatal nature of a stumble or fall—which could send one tumbling onto rock or into the sea—I had to stand still and collect my wits, resolving not to look down as I climbed but, rather, to focus attentively on the steps and take in only the scenery above and at eye level; I refused to permit anxiety to hamper this rare opportunity, and I knew that to think of falling would increase the probability of it happening. Making a brief, silent petition to Saint Michael for protection, I continued upward unhindered, recognizing that, as a noble place of untamable, natural beauty, death is an integral part of Skellig Michael's life and nature. The fog thickened as I ventured to higher altitudes and the sea became an elusive, invisible entity, apparent only through the audible surf, lost in pervasive blankness that was both eerie and comforting. Stunning rock formations, sculpted by wind and water and rich in variation of size, shape, and colour, defied obliteration while others appeared as tantalizingly vague shadows behind a translucent veil. Small, graceful flowers adorned masses of 350 million-year-old Devonian sandstone and slate while vibrant mosses and grasses softly shrouded others; many simply laid bare their stark beauty. Naturally chiselled rock faces were painted by nature with flowing, vertical streaks of orange, green, and yellow, and everywhere were sea birds, swooping, shrieking and, I dare say, laughing. Nearing the top of the ascent, two young women approached from below and continued past me as I stopped to take photographs. “There must be an easier way to God,” one of them lamented as she climbed the ancient stairs laboriously. “Actually, there isn’t. There is no easy way,” I said. Shortly thereafter, I met a joyous young woman who had hitchhiked more than two hundred kilometers from Dublin to climb the sacred rock in utter gratitude, her weak legs supported by crutches. The contrast was remarkable.
Finally crossing the threshold beneath an ancient stone arch and stepping into the medieval monastery, there opened to me a labyrinthine world of tightly spaced stone walls, beehive huts, and a small cemetery bordered by weathered stone crosses standing as testimony to a small community of individuals who had lived at one with nature and divinity in a faith that surpassed impossibility. Transporting soil from the mainland, they created small gardens, constructed wells, and built their dome-shaped stone shelters without any type of binding agent. So skillful was their craft that many of the structures remain intact against fourteen centuries of ravaging winds and pounding rains.
I spent a few minutes strolling around the monastery grounds taking photos from nearly every possible angle, attempting to capture all for the sake of memory that inevitably erodes against the steady passage of time. Standing on a narrow strip of flat ground with feet firmly planted and camera poised, a fraction of a second later I was down like a stone, my elbow crashing onto rock as it took a major portion of my weight. Stunned by this sudden occurrence and aware of the gaze of fellow tourists, one of whom stood staring at me with gaping mouth, I wasted no time in picking myself up, brushing myself off, and resuming my photographic endeavours as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, but I was unable to overlook the bizarre nature of the fall. I assumed that my foot had slipped from beneath me on mud, wet grass, or rock, yet I could not help but wonder if the event contained an element of the supernaturala sign of disapproval. Had I stood on an unmarked grave? Was the incident intended to convey that there is more to visiting Skellig Michael than photography? Perhaps my surmising was merely the product of an active imagination, but it was sobering to realize that, if one could fall on level ground without obvious cause while standing stationary, there would be no way of preventing a fall over the rocky slope if it were somehow ordained to happen. I sensed that this island can do as it likes with a person.
Peering into one of the beehive huts, I noticed that tourists were permitted to enter. Since there were no windows in this particular dome and the small doorway afforded only minimal light, the interior was quite dark and, stepping into it, I anticipated that it would feel unpleasant and claustrophobic; however, I found myself enveloped in a powerfully soothing, palpable sense of peace which was so calming that I had to resist the urge to remain there and reluctantly forced myself to vacate after a couple of minutes so that others could enter, but I left with the certainty that a living benevolence dwelt inside the hut. I continued on to the cemetery, entered another beehive structure with a window opening onto crosses marking the ancient graves, took more photographs, and then, conscious of time, began making my way down the rocky slope.
Permeated by a sublime bliss and the sense that this is a truly unique and magical place, I once again delighted in luscious views transformed by the angle of descent. Having left my fear at a lower elevation on the upward climb, I was aware that the confidence I felt was false, but it allowed me to enjoy my Skellig experience in a carefree manner while remaining practical enough not to be foolhardy. Nonetheless, the absolute wildness of the place is never lacking in surprises. Focused on the steps before me, a startling cacophony three feet above my head suddenly commanded my attention as two seagulls in near collision engaged in a squawking mid-air exchange over who had invaded whose airspace before continuing on their separate ways. “Wow!”, I uttered, acutely aware of how easily one might lose one’s footing on the occasion of such a distraction. I felt as though the island was playing with me, not in an unkind manner, but in the sense that it was engaging me and speaking to me. A refreshing and purifying salt wind washed over me as I completed my descent.
Our kind and capable captain, Ken, and his little dog, Nini (who had selected my lap for the voyage), greeted me as I climbed aboard. “How was it?”, Ken queried casually in veiled anticipation, wanting his passengers to enjoy and appreciate his beloved Skelligs. “It was amazing,” I responded, fully aware of the inadequacy of the words but having no other resource to draw on. As they boarded, several others described the island as “atmospheric.” How interesting, I thought, that they should choose the same word to describe Skellig Michael on that foggy day. “Atmospheric,” I pondered, “of the atmosphere, of ether, ethereal." That was it—ethereal. There is a mysterious quality to Skellig Michael, an ineffable aliveness and intoxicating essence that one cannot name.
As a finishing touch, our boat circumnavigated Little Skellig, which welcomed us with a veritable symphony of birdsong as thousands of gannets swooped overhead or sat perched on ledges while a pod of grey seals basked at the base of the rock, inquiring gazes fixed upon us as we snapped photos.
Back at the bed and breakfast, a blanket of fatigue quickly settled over me, much like the fog that had engulfed the Skelligs on that day. It was the type of exhaustion born of complete contentment in having realized a dream, a peaceful, happy sleepiness of body, mind, and spirit accompanied by a surrealistic sense of disconnection at having experienced something beyond all imagining and then being plunged back into “the ordinary.” Sleep is a most appropriate state at such times, for it allows one to take refuge in the fulfillment of the day and to bridge the gap between ordinary and extraordinary, to absorb and savour an experience too rich and multifaceted to become fully integrated immediately. Sleep summoned me to close my eyes and return to the Skelligs, to let the day seep gently into the core of my being and take root there. All experience forms a part of who we are, and even fleeting encounters can be transformative. The enchanting, enigmatic Skelligs are a living part of me now, no less than my Irish ancestors and, in finding these remarkable islands, I discovered a long lost part of myself.