The name Skellig derives from Sceillic which means a steep rock.
Early references to the Skelligs
The first reference to the Skelligs occurs in legend when it is given as the burial place of Ir, son of Milesius, who was drowned during the landing of the Milesians. A text from the eighth or ninth century refers to an episode of strife between the Kings of West Munster and the Kings of Cashel. Duagh, King of West Munster is said to have ‘fled to Scellecc’. This event is attributed to the fifth century but we have no means of knowing if a settlement existed on the island at that time.
Monks on Skellig Michael
A monastery may have been founded as early as the sixth century, reputedly by Saint Fionán, but the first definite reference to monks on the Skelligs dates to the eighth century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded. Skellig is referred to in the annals of the ninth and tenth centuries and its dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044 when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded. It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery. The church of Saint Michael was mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in the late twelfth century. His account of the miraculous supply of communal wine for daily Mass in St. Michael’s Church implies that the monastery was in constant occupation at that time.
In the thirteenth century a general climatic deterioration resulted in colder weather and increased storms. This, together with changes in the structure of the Irish Church, signalled the end of the eremitical community on Skellig Michael. The monks appear to have moved to Ballinskelligs on the mainland at about this time. The Prior of the Augustinian Abbey at Ballinskelligs was referred to as the Prior de Rupe Michaelis in the early fourteenth century, implying that the island still formed an important part of their monastery at that time.
Skellig Michael since the departure of the monks
Skellig Michael appears on a number of Italian and Iberian portolan charts of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries and the accounts of the Spanish Armada show that the island was known to them in 1588.
In 1578 the island passed to the Butler family following the dissolution of the monasteries although the site continued to be a place of pilgrimage into the eighteenth century.
In the early nineteenth century the island was purchased by the predecessors of the Commissioners of Irish Lights in order to erect two lighthouses. They built the present east landing and built a road along the south and west side of the island to facilitate the construction of the two lighthouses situated on the west side of the island.
Skellig Michael in state care
In 1880 the Office of Public Works took the monastic remains into State guardianship and commenced a project for the repair of collapsed structures. Since that time the OPW has continued to repair and conserve the monastic remains. In 1989 the State purchased the island from the Commissioners of Irish Lights, with the exception of the working lighthouse and ancillary areas. In 1996 Skellig Michael was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.