As I sat watching the Millennium Falcon skim over the surface of the immense body of water and approach the tall craggy island jutting powerfully out of the water in Star Wars – the Force Awakens, I couldn’t help thinking, “I know that place!”
Now, I have travelled a lot, but unfortunately not on an intergalactic basis, so it had to be somewhere more local. As Rey ascended the ancient steps and passed the stone beehive huts, I was sure that it was Skellig Michael, one of two huge sea crags located about 12 kms west of the Ivereagh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.
A quick check with Uncle Google after the movie had finished confirmed this to be true.
The name Skellig derives from Sceillic which means a steep rock. The Skellig Rocks, comprising Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, are one of ancient Ireland’s most mysterious and amazing places. Their lonely and isolated location out in the Atlantic Ocean with nothing surrounding them but rough seas, have exposed them to the ferocity of the Atlantic Ocean for millions of years. Access has always been difficult, as the islands are being pounded on all sides by huge waves and great swells. Even with modern boats, visitors are only allowed during the summer months.
Naturally, being so remote and inaccessible, it’s not only Luke Skywalker who has used the islands as a spiritual hideaway. The ancient steps and stone beehive huts that Rey walks past are part of the monastic site originally built by ascetic monks sometime between the 6th and 8th century.Across Ireland many monks fled to remote places such as this to escape from society and pursue a closer union with God. The first monastery on Skellig Michael is believed to have been founded by Saint Fionán, but the first confirmed reference to the monks on Skellig occurs from around the 8th century.
Around the 11th century the island was dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, and celebrated with the building of Saint Michael’s church inside the monastery.
In the 13th century the monastery was abandoned and the monks moved to Ballinskelligs, on the mainland. However, the island continued to be revered as a holy place and used as a pilgrimage for centuries after.The monastery, which sits amazingly at the top of this precipitous rock, is a true testament to the dedication and hard work of the ancient Irish monks. Enclosed within an inner and outer wall, it was built right on the sloping rock plateau at the north-eastern summit. Probably due to the ferocity and changeability of the Atlantic storms, access was created via three sets of steps on the east, south and north side of the island to be used in different weather. Today, only the southern steps are open to the public, which no doubt were the ones used by Rey.
The structures on the island are all drystone buildings, constructed using corbelling, a technique commonly used across Ireland by the early Christian monks and saints. Another great example of this lies just nearby on the Dingle Peninsula: The Gallarus Oratory. This construction method was so strong and watertight that they have managed to survive for well over a thousand years, despite being battered by Atlantic storms.
It’s not only the monks who came to these islands though. In ancient Irish folklore, legend says that Skellig Michael is the burial place of Ir, son of Milesius, who was drowned during the landing of the Milesians (Celts). Ancient Ireland was ruled by kings, and legend also says that Duagh, King of Munster, took refuge on Skellig after an fight with the kings of Cashel.
Legend also says that the Viking King Olaf was converted to Christianity here on the island.
In 1996 the island of Skellig Michael was added to the UNESCO World Site list in recognition of its outstanding value to nature and history.
Naturally, due to the highly fragile nature of the island’s, the ancient structures and also because the island is home to many nesting and breeding seabirds (the island supports some of the biggest breeding populations of manx shearwater and storm petrel in the world.) tourism to the island is restricted. Currently is a limit of 180 visitors per day, and the island is closed during the winter months. Anyone wanting to visit the island can do so via guided boat trips that leave from the village of Ballinskelligs, on the Ring of Kerry.
Be aware that boat crossings can be cancelled at short notice, due to bad weather. But even if you don’t manage to get out, there is so much else to visit on the mainland that your trip will not be in vain.