Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located about 12 kilometres off the coast of County Kerry. I have been going there once a year for several years now and the trip never fails to lift the spirit. It is Ireland’s Machu Picchu.

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Boats leave for the island from the village of Portmagee between April and September, weather permitting. It is necessary to book at least a day beforehand as demand for places can be quite brisk. The following are some contact numbers:

  • Pat Joe Murphy  – 087 2342168
  • Joe Roddy – 087 1209924
  • Casey’s  – 066 2371017

Others may be found by doing a Google search. In all, about 10 boats with a capacity for 12 persons each make the trip. They leave at 10am and the journey takes about 50 minutes each way. You are given a maximum of 2½ hours on the island. Expect to pay upwards of €50 a head. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Be aware that the crossing can be very rough. My single most scary boat-trip ever was to Skellig Michael a few years ago. The sea was flat calm in the inner harbour at Portmagee but once we hit the open sea it became a white-knuckle ride. It was like being on a roller coaster with someone throwing a bucket of water at you every 30 seconds or so. Amazingly, none of the 12 passengers, all clinging on for dear life on the open deck, got sea-sick. We should have expected the worst, I suppose, when the skipper insisted on us all donning yellow oilskin jackets and trousers before we embarked.

Be aware also that there are no facilities on the island – not even a rock you can go behind – so be sure to visit the public toilet at the entrance to Portmagee before you set out.

Neither is it a place to visit if you don’t like heights and/or are prone to vertigo. There have been fatalities among visitors, most recently in 2009 when 2 American tourists died – on separate occasions – from falling from a ledge near the beginning of the stone stairway. There are 700 steps up to the remains of the monastic settlement on the top of the island and it can be very challenging for anyone who is unfit.

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The route that visitors are confined to is outlined in red. After disembarking from the boat, the route follows a gentle incline along the Lighthouse Road.

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Blind Man’s Cove – where the boats drop off and collect visitors. Getting on and off the boats can be tricky when the water is choppy – you have to carefully time your jump from the boat to the pier and vice versa.      

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The Lighthouse Road

It is only when one comes to the South Steps that the challenging part begins – the steep climb to the top. Some people, realising that it is beyond their capabilities, are content not to wander beyond this point and are happy to relax in the sunshine and watch the birds instead.  On my last visit (5th June 2014) there was a guide at the bottom of the steps who gave a safety lecture to everyone before allowing them to go further.

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The start of the South Steps. The most dangerous part is where the lady on the right is walking. To her left is the 20 foot drop where the recent fatalities occurred. A chain has since been inserted in the rock as a safety measure.  

       

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The dangerous ledge with safety chain.

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Notice the absence of handrails. There had been demands for them in the aftermath of the recent deaths but, wisely, the Office of Public Works (which looks after the island) refused to countenance them as they would detract from the character of the place.  It is a wilderness area and it is important that it remains so. 

Excavation and restoration work has been ongoing every summer since 1978 in order to learn more about the monastic settlement and to preserve it for future generations. It is not known exactly when the first monks came here but it is probable that it was in the 6th Century. The earliest written record of a monastery was in 824 AD when there was a Norse raid on the island. By the 11th Century the island had been dedicated to St Michael and probably became a place of pilgrimage around this time too. Monks continued to live here until the late 13th Century when, due to climate change resulting in colder winters and stormier seas, and changes in Irish ecclesiastical structures, they left for the mainland and settled in Ballinskelligs.  It is likely though that some monks returned for the summer months for a long time after that.

The island continued to be owned by the Augustinians until 1578 when, in the aftermath of the Desmond Rebellion, Queen Elizabeth 1 dissolved certain monasteries that had been under the Earl of Desmond’s protection. Skellig Michael was given to the (secular) Butler family and it remained with the family until 1820 when it was purchased by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin – the predecessor of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – which wanted to build 2 lighthouses on it.

The building of the lighthouses was completed in 1826. During the construction period the workers occupied the ancient beehive cells in the old monastery.

In 1880 the Office of Public Works took over responsibility for the monastery and this has continued to the present day.  Apart from the heliport and the lighthouses (only one of which is still operational) –  the property of the Commissioners of Irish Lights – the island is owned by the Government of Ireland. It is a National Monument by reason of its historical, architectural and archaeological importance.

It 1996 it attained UNESCO World Heritage status due to its “outstanding universal significance”.

 

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The beehive huts, so-called because of their resemblance to beehives, which housed the monks.

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The monks graveyard. 

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Looking across to Little Skellig and the Kerry Coast from the monastery. 

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The Romanesque window in St Michael’s Chapel before the restoration work of the last two years. 

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The window as it is now. 

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A wider view of the newly restored chapel. 

I have to say I got an unpleasant shock when I saw the newly restored chapel. I appreciate that the Office of Public Works’ archaeologists and architects must know best as far as restoration work is concerned but I think they have gone overboard in their use of cement mortar. It looks ugly and out of character with the rest of the settlement.  Perhaps the light grey look will darken with weathering over time.

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The South Peak from the high ground above the monastery.   

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The South Peak from the top of the steps.   

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Christ’s Saddle from the base of the South Peak.  Note the final section of steps leading up to the monastery (not in the picture).

For a few weeks in late May and early June each year Skellig Michael is home to hundreds (if not thousands) of Atlantic Puffins. They nest in burrows many of which are alongside the steps so the birds are often literally within arms length of visitors. I doubt if there is anywhere else in Britain or Ireland where it is possible to be in such close proximity to them. I have photographed Puffins on the Great Saltee Island off County Wexford but it is an achievement in itself some years to see any there, let alone photograph them. It is an extraordinary sensation, by contrast, to see them so plentiful on the Skellig.

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All these were photographed with a Canon 400mm lens with an extension tube attached so as to facilitate a closer focusing distance than the 3.5 metres allowed by the lens such was the nearness of the birds to the camera.

The 2½ hours on the island is just enough to visit the monastery and spend some time admiring the spectacular scenery and perhaps photographing the birds.  Most of the island is out of bounds to visitors primarily because of the danger from the precipitous peaks and cliffs. Visitor numbers also need to be managed because of the possible deleterious impact of too much footfall on the ancient remains. The weather helps in this regard as there are often days during the summer when it is not possible for the boats to set out because of heavy seas or driving rain (visitors are not allowed if it’s raining as the wet steps would be too dangerous).

I would strongly recommend more Irish people to visit this national treasure. I’m always struck by how few Irish there are on the boats. Many people tell me that, yes, it’s on their bucket list and they’ll get around to it someday.

Forget “someday”.

Do it now.

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 Heading home from Skellig Michael.  

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The boats usually sail by Little Skellig – home to 20,000 Gannets – on the way back.

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Looking back at Little Skellig (left) and Skellig Michael (right). 

 

 

 

Croagh Patrick

Another box in my “to do” list was ticked on Thursday – I climbed Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s sacred mountain.

I had intended doing it when I was up in Mayo last year but weather conditions were poor on the day and I didn’t attempt it. I took advantage of the exceptionally good weather this week and, on a whim, I set off for Murrisk – the village at the foot of the mountain – for a three and a half hour drive from East Cork  on Thursday morning.

I arrived at the car park at the base of the mountain around 2pm. I was going to wait until after 6pm before heading up. The average time for the 7km round trip is between 3 and 4 hours and with sunset not due until 10:05pm I had plenty of time before darkness fell. In any case I had my head-torch so the prospect of walking in darkness didn’t worry me. However, after checking into the B&B across the road and after a cool drink in The Tavern I figured I might as well start the climb. I would take it easy as I wanted to be on the summit near sunset. It was now 4pm.

Croagh Patrick is 2,507 feet (762 metres) high – 100 feet lower than Knockmealdown which I climbed a few weeks back. However, it is a much tougher prospect as one has to climb every one of those feet as it starts at sea level.

The Reek as it is known is of course the most climbed mountain in Ireland as it has been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years. St. Patrick is supposed to have spent 40 days fasting on the summit after which he banished snakes from Ireland! There is evidence that it was also a place of significance in the pre-Christian era and may have been used for Summer Solstice ceremonies.

The highlight of the modern pilgrimage is Reek Sunday, the last Sunday in July when in excess of 15,000 people make their way to the chapel on the summit. It is particularly popular among members of the Travelling Community many of whom do some sections of the walk barefoot. There is a significant macho-man element in the latter, I am told, but whether that is the case or if it is purely penitential I do not know. Regardless of the reason it is astonishing that it is done at all – the ground underfoot is rocky and sharp; it is difficult enough with good footwear – it must be horrendously painful in one’s bare feet.

There is a stall selling walking sticks as you exit the car park towards the start of the walk and it is highly recommended that you purchase one as the upper reaches of the climb are over loose scree and you need all the support you can get. I had my Manfrotto monopod and I used that instead.

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The start of the well-worn track  (left click on photos for larger size)

The path up is, as to be expected, well defined and there is a constant trickle of people negotiating it. It is a straightforward trek up to the saddle with only a few loose rock stretches. As you ascend, the beautiful vista of Clew Bay and its islands open out below you. One of those islands is Dorinish which was once owned by John Lennon but was sold by Yoko Ono after his death.

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Looking back towards Clew Bay

The saddle affords fine views to the south and the path takes an easy level course until the base of the upper cone. The path now veers steeply upwards across loose scree and it is difficult going. The best bet is to keep to the right of the path where there are more firm footholds. This was easy enough to do on the day with few people about; how it must be on Reek Sunday I can only imagine.

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Looking south from the saddle to a well-cultivated peat bog  

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Names and phrases spelled with stones including “Aideen I’m Sorry” – I hope she forgave him

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The upper cone – the path wends its way through loose scree 

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Looking back from half way up the upper cone  

I was relieved to reach the top. It was calm and very hot. The views across all the compass points were magnificent. The chapel itself was closed but a small window showed the basic interior with the centrepiece being a large statue of St Patrick. The gleaming white of the exterior leant the scene a Santorini-like effect especially given the blue sky and the dead heat of the day.

The chapel was built in 1905. Builders lived in huts on the summit for the six-month period of construction. Excavations had uncovered a dry stone oratory – similar to the one at Gallarus in Kerry  and it dated from the period 430AD to 890AD.

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There were a few hours to go until sunset so I relaxed in the shade of the church. Walkers came and went. Some had no more reached the summit when  they turned on their heels and headed back down again, a behaviour that puzzled me – why come all this way and not soak in the scenery for a half hour or so at least?

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One of the three “stations” – I didn’t see anyone doing them

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St Patrick’s Bed

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Looking north across Clew Bay to the Nephin range of North Mayo

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The highest toilet in Ireland –  and in good condition too

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The sun sets towards the Atlantic with Clare Island in the middle distance

The sun began to dim appreciably around 9pm and I took a few photographs as it began to sink towards the Atlantic. A thick blanket of haze soon obscured it well before the actual sunset time of 10:05pm. I headed back down the mountain in the fading light around 9:30pm but I did not need the torch to light the way and I reached the car park at 11pm exactly.

Croagh Patrick is a magnificent mountain and it was a wonderful experience to climb it. That said, I found it very tough going in the 29 degrees heat and in the absence of any wind. I was exhausted at the end of it. My admiration for the people who climb it on Reek Sunday – often in wet and windy conditions – has been considerably increased as a result.

The Aer Lingus 20% Sale That Would Have Saved Me 1.56% … And It’s All Above Board.

I got an email from Aer Lingus on 24 June offering “20% off all Cork flights – 20% off every seat, every flight, every day”.

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Sounds good, I thought. I did a quick mental calculation for a flight that would normally cost €130 – about average for Cork/Heathrow return when booked a month or so in advance. I would save €26. Not bad. A day trip to London would be nice. I picked a random date – 22 October – and clicked the “Book Now” button.

Oh dear.

The actual sale discount amounted to €2 on a total cost of €127.98 – a percentage saving of 1.56%, a far cry from the 20% I was expecting.

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I felt peeved at being suckered by Aer Lingus into clicking on their site with an offer that proved illusory. Surely this was dishonest advertising? I emailed a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland.

I received their reply yesterday and it said: “while we appreciate your concerns, we do not feel that the advertisement is likely to mislead consumers. The Code requires that an advertisement be assessed in the light of its probable effect and when taken as a whole. We note that the advertisers make it clear from their terms and conditions that the “discount applies to fare before taxes, charges and admin fee.” As all the information is contained within the advertisement to allow consumers to make an informed choice, prior to booking flights, we do not consider that there is a case for investigation under the Code.”

Ah, the Terms & Conditions. Silly me for not noticing those. And yes, when I checked them they did indeed specify that the discount applied to the fare only. The fare in this instance amounted to €4.99 each way.

And silly me for assuming that “20% off every seat” applied to the total cost and not just a constituent part of it. It’s as if a shop advertised a 20% sale on men’s suits only for the small print to specify that it applied to the left sleeve only.

I didn’t book the flight as I wasn’t that bothered about going to London in October. But presumably Aer Lingus’ strategy with these “sales” is to increase the hit rate on their site in the expectation that a significant number of people will book anyhow. Obviously it works as they have such sales every year.

Aer Lingus: I like you a lot, you are my first choice for UK and European travel, but the next time you send me an email about a “sale” it will go straight in the bin.