The warden of Skellig Michael: ‘I have seen people just start bawling crying’

Robert L Harris on spending 34 years as warden of the remote, monastic island

Robert L Harris, the warden of Skellig Michael, is an American who has lived on the largest of the Skellig islands every summer for 34 years. He has just published a memoir, Returning Light, about life on that wild and remote island. Skellig Michael is famous for an ancient monastic settlement of stone beehive huts, iconic jagged peaks, colonies of sea birds and, most recently, being a location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If the sea is rough, and I know that no boats are going to land that day, that can be liberating, because then I know I've got time to myself

Harris had lived all over the world before coming to Ireland. He was born in Peru and lived as a child in Bermuda. He was living in Leitrim 34 years ago with his Kerry-born wife, Maigread, an artist he met while studying in Edinburgh. When visiting his mother-in-law in Killarney he saw a job ad in the Kerryman newspaper for a "guide and information officer". He had once been to Skellig Michael with his wife and loved it. So he decided to apply.

“Like a lot of young people, I possibly was going to go to New York and write novels,” he says. “But it was a vague idea. And so I kind of fell into doing a postgraduate degree in Edinburgh and by default I ended up in Ireland . . . Next thing I knew, I was on the island. I had no idea that I would be working there for 34 years.”

Dangerous parts

What did the job involve then? “There had been resident archaeologists there for a few previous years, but they weren’t going to be there in a permanent fashion anymore. And the island had been closed the previous year because there were dangerous parts of the walls that had to be repaired. So all of a sudden it was going to be open to the public again and I suppose the government decided that it needed to have a permanent presence there.”

Three people were hired, working from May to October each year. Currently there are five in the role, each staying for three weeks at a time before going ashore for a week.

“It was so different then. We had no mobile phones. Now we have a big master VHF set that we can talk to ships with. Back then there was one little handset and I didn’t know where it was a lot at the time.”

Harris lives, when on the island, in a sort of prefab hut. “[The first] was all blown away the next winter so they had to rebuild it. . . There was a fire on the island in 1995 and a lot of the accommodation burned. We have solar panels on the top of our huts now, which run our fridges, but in bad weather they can go sort of awry. So it’s not all that different.”

Is there ever a worry about running out of supplies? “You’d be perfectly fine for a month or so.”

What's it like to be there? "You get to experience the natural exuberance all around you in a completely different way. It's overwhelming. The birds are everywhere. The sea is changing all the time. For some people, it would be utterly boring. One thing that comes to mind is Samuel Johnson going to the Highlands of Scotland and saying, 'God, please take me'. Many people react that way to the wilderness. I love cities. I have another side to myself. But I must say that I've never been bored."

‘Things from the past’

It can be psychologically interesting, he says. “Sometimes, when you’re on your own, you can get a little bit heavy with yourself. Things you’ve forgotten about, things from the past, all of a sudden flash right in front of your mind . . . [you] would remember things and somehow or another work it into a world view not to absolve yourself of things that you might have done that were wrong, but to try to work something through and move on. That’s something that I’ve done on several occasions on the Skelligs.”

He and his colleagues get on well but they all enjoy solitude. “I’ve seen people out there for a short period of time [who] were not suitable at all,” he says. “The landing can sometimes blow up and get rough [so boats can’t land] and it might happen for a few days. There might be a Communion or a birthday [back home] or more to the point someone might not be feeling 100 per cent or there might be someone at home who’s ill . . . Obviously if it’s an emergency, then we can call on help from helicopters and things like that, but generally it’s not anything as drastic as that.”

Does the uncertainty about leaving bother him? “I have found myself very worried,” he says. “I had friends and family that travelled all the way over from America to visit me and never got to see me because I was stuck on the island. I’ve also felt unwell on the island, knowing that I probably needed to get ashore . . . I’ve seen everyone get very, very worried and apprehensive at different times.

“But you do get philosophical about it. It was much more difficult when my children were younger. . . [Now] if the sea is rough, and I know that no boats are going to land on a certain day, that can be liberating, because then I know I’ve got my time to myself.”

Kinship with the monks

Does he feel any kinship with the monks who once lived there? “The [settlement] was created 1,300 years ago on top of this mountain, and it’s still relatively intact, and you can go there, and experience. . . a different view of the world,” he says.

“You can look into a cell door, and you can say, ‘Someone for whatever reason found themselves out here 1,300 years ago, living in that dark door, and he had a whole different world view than I do, but I do share some things with him . . . because what I see can’t be all that different to what he saw’.”

I'm fascinated by the attempt by people to somehow connect with something spiritual in themselves by going into isolation

Harris writes beautifully about how light shifts and changes on the island. The monks took advantage of this, he says. “There’s a window in the particularly large cell where the light strikes through in late September, just about the time of the equinox. And over the course of an hour or two it goes right into this little recess between two lintels above the door, just like you might think happens in Newgrange . . . There must have been a thousand other ways that the place was organised that I have no idea of and neither does anyone else, because we don’t have that knowledge any more.”

What’s his life like when he’s at home in north Leitrim? “I do some writing. Years ago, I worked in theatre a little bit, mostly amateur theatre . . .We have a house that we’ve been slowly renovating for years.”

His wife, a visual artist and art teacher, likes her solitude too. “There are ground rules when I come home,” he says and laughs.

What’s the biggest contrast between his life on the island and his life off it? He tells me about sitting at city cafes watching masses of people, amazed that they don’t know him and that he has no responsibility for them. “All of a sudden all of humanity is there and you’re on a different footing with them.”

There are many times in the book where Harris seems to approach something like spiritual transcendence. He laughs. He resists those words “because, boy, they’re loaded . . . I know that I don’t look at the world the same way the monks did, but they came out there for a reason. . . I’m fascinated by the attempt by people to somehow connect with something spiritual in themselves by going into isolation.”

Due to Covid he spent much of the last year away from the island watching terrifying news reports about the world. “When you’re [back] sitting on an island, looking back at the mainland you think, Gosh, all that’s going on over there,” he says.

Up until the 18th century Skellig Michael was still a place of pilgrimage. People climbed the most precipitous peak (a hermit is once believed to have lived there) to kiss a treacherously placed cross. Nowadays, he says, visiting the island is often a pilgrimage people don’t realise they were on. “I have certainly seen people walk into the monastery and just start bawling crying, and grab me and say, ‘I don’t want to go home. I’m tired of life. This is fine. I’m done.’”

Some who visit have serious illnesses, are unable to climb the steps and stay below talking to him. “I’ve had a lot of those chats over the years.”

Why does it affect people much? “Everything is so homogenised now, so those who stumble upon the place see the impact of it, the intact little world that it represents, the connection with the past and the similarity we have with those people with our desires and our fears.”

Nowadays, it’s possible to get a mobile phone signal on the island and that can change things. “The communication makes everything radically different,” Harris says. “I’m always flabbergasted. You have a boatload of visitors and they go up to the top of the island, this place they’re only going to be once in their life and the flipping smartphones are out all the time, and they’re looking at them while walking around the monastery.”

In 2014 he had to help host the cast and crew of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There were weeks of preparation. "There were three little encampments set up for Hollywood people to fly in and use for three days. And then they took it all down . . . It was bizarre."

Did he have to keep them in check? “That could be comical, putting your foot down with them. ‘You can’t go there!’ But I must say everyone was absolutely cooperative. They realised where they were.”

The possibility of making the place tamer is always there, which I would hope doesn't happen

What does he make of all that now? He laughs. “Well, it’s not my cup of tea,” he says. “I’ve got to leave it at that. Even though . . . I love the movies.” He pauses for a moment. “I’m not quite as hard-nosed about it as I might have been when the filming was going on.”

He tells me a story. “There was a little fella who was up in the monastery about three years ago. He may not be with us any more. He was sent out as part of one of these Make a Wish things and I was given a heads-up beforehand by one of the boatmen. And he came up to the monastery and the big reason he wanted to be there – he was 10 – was because of Star Wars. And he wanted to know all about where Luke was.

“Normally if someone’s asking me about that, I’m like, ‘We want to talk about something else’. But with this fellow there was absolutely no way but I would play his game. And he was just overjoyed. He had great spirit and we were talking about the force and things like that. And I was saying to myself, ‘You know what? This is alright’.”

More generally, he worries that the expectations of visitors are changing. “[The Star Wars fervour] may be waning,” he says. “But what isn’t waning is the expectation from everyone in the modern world with regard to tourists’ amenities . . . The possibility of making the place tamer is always there, which I would hope doesn’t happen.”

Harris is at retirement age now, but he doesn’t want to stop going out to Skellig Michael. I ask about his favourite place on the island. “There are three different sets of steps and the visitors use one of them and then there’s another one that goes down on the other side of the island and it’s a little bit of a wilder place in the sense that it’s not so frequently visited,” he says. “You look out towards the north there and you can see the Blaskets a little bit to the right, but mainly you’re looking at an unbroken horizon.”

He can’t restrict his choice to just one place. “Every morning I go down to the landing. That’s the place where the boats come in. I have to go and see what the conditions are like so that I can talk to the boatman and see whether it’s suitable to come out for the day. And in the early morning light down there in the summer the place is full of birds. There are seals down there. It’s an absolutely otherworldly way to start the day. It’s a place that I will never forget.”

Returning Light: 30 Years of Life on Skellig Michael by Robert L Harris is published by HarperCollins Ireland

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times