The Skellig Rocks, Skellig Michael (also known as Great Skellig) and Little Skellig, are towering sea crags rising from the Atlantic Ocean almost 12 kilometres west of the Ivereagh Peninsula in County Kerry. Located at the western edge of the European landmass, Skellig Michael was the chosen destination for a small group of ascetic monks who, in their pursuit of greater union with God, withdrew from civilisation to this remote and inaccessible place. Some time between the sixth and eight centuries, a monastery was founded on this precipitous rock giving rise to one of the most dramatic examples of the extremes of Christian monasticism.
The monastic community appears to have moved to the mainland by the thirteenth century but the island continued to be venerated as a place of pilgrimage in the following centuries. In the nineteenth century, two lighthouses were built on Skellig Michael, establishing its importance in Ireland’s maritime history.
Skellig Michael is also one of Ireland’s most important sites for breeding seabirds both in terms of size of colonies and diversity of species.
The well-preserved monastic remains have retained a strong spiritual after-life which appeals strongly to the human psyche. Visitors cannot but be awestruck by the physical achievements of these early monks which, when combined with the sense of solitude, ocean and bird sounds evokes a quiet sense of magic. This is beautifully expressed by George Bernard Shaw who, following a visit in 1910, described this ‘incredible, impossible, mad place’ as ‘part of our dream world’.
In 1996 UNESCO inscribed the island of Skellig Michael onto the World Heritage List in recognition of its outstanding universal value.