An Irishman's Diary
Entering Portmagee, the weather forecast sounds ominous. “Deepening depression of 996 hpa 400 miles west of Valentia drifts eastwards. It will cross the southwest coast later today and tonight.” Wow – an incoming storm! Let’s hope we get back to the mainland before it breaks.
Twenty years ago I visited Skellig Michael just prior to the huge Tiger-driven surge in Irish tourism. Then, it was gloriously untamed and resolutely beyond the clutches of cotton wool society. Having hopped from an open boat after a spectacular wave-ravaged crossing, it was then possible to wander in the footsteps of saints as one fancied or dared. Foolishly, perhaps, I took full advantage by ascending the island’s South Peak to view the stunning hermitage – a startlingly inaccessible place of prayer clinging precariously to rocky ledges 200m above the ocean.
Now, inescapably drawn back to the island, I wonder has the advent of mass tourism to Ireland and reaction to the three subsequent deaths of Skellig Michael visitors, irreversibly altered this wonderfully unstructured experience?
Today our boat seems larger and sturdier, but the crossing remains gloriously unsanitised as we slice through a spiritedly non-cooperative ocean. When a big wave almost lifts us from the water, we gaze in apprehension towards our skipper and are reassured that he seems monumentally unconcerned and continues chatting languidly on his phone.
And then lo – rising above the ocean is our perfectly symmetrical shark tooth objective, at once both alluring and forbidding. Safely ashore, however, health and safety issues immediately intervene as we are ordered into a circle for a compulsory welfare lecture. This makes me wonder what the early, sandal-shod monks – who lived each day with just the most delicate grasp on life – would make of all this. Like children on a primary school outing, we are told not to rush, to watch where we are putting our feet, to keep to the inside of the path and to stop walking when taking photographs. And then looking pointedly at me, I thought, the safety officer instructs us to tie our shoelaces.
Now, it’s a question of testing the body but elevating the spirit on the 600 penitentially steep steps. Immediately obvious are the newly installed safety barriers and chains, but the most noticeable change from my previous visit is that most of the island is fenced off.
Halfway up, a guide is explaining that not only would the early monks have climbed the almost perpendicular South Peak, they also managed to build the Hermitage. Apparently, unaware of the irony, he explains that the area is too steep and dangerous for access and so has been closed off. Now, if the South Peak is fenced to preserve the delicate Hermitage – well and good, but I can’t help pondering that the “steep and dangerous argument” could be equally used to close Carrauntoohil.
Further up, more security chains have been installed in places but much of the climb remains thankfully unaltered. The path then levels as we approach the beautifully fragile monastic buildings that have been ingeniously shoehorned into a tiny eyrie.
Immediately, a Skellig guide is on hand to recreate vividly the unimaginably tough life chosen by the monks. So lucidly does she describe life on the island, or perhaps more accurately “the rock”, that we don’t need to stretch our imaginations far to understand the brutal work ethic required to survive on this storm-lashed pinnacle and to marvel at the simple faith that sustained these early Christian monks amid the wild Atlantic Ocean. Finally, she advises us to be careful on the way down and hopes we will get back safely before the weather deteriorates. This evokes much fretful examining of the sky and sends some visitors scurrying immediately for the boats.
I follow at a more sedate pace while reflecting that, despite some unwelcome but perhaps understandable safety interventions, Skellig Michael remains a joyfully remote and challenging visit. It is, of course, disappointing for exploration junkies like me that there is now access to only a relatively small part of the island. Nevertheless the majority of my fellow travellers seem hugely enriched by the visit, without apparently feeling a need to roam beyond the monastic site.
Later, with the sky darkening ominously to the west, we arrive safely into Portmagee. Here, I conclude that nowhere else in Ireland offers such a mystical and surreal feeling of walking hand-in hand with the ghosts of our distant past. For this reason the magic of Skellig Michael still endures for me.