Skellig Michael ferry season unlawfully shortened, court hears

Operator given leave to challenge licence rules that exclude April and October landings

The Skelligs, Co Kerry: Department of Transport wants to shorten ferry season.  Photograph: David Sleator

The Skelligs, Co Kerry: Department of Transport wants to shorten ferry season. Photograph: David Sleator


Boats ferrying visitors to the famed Skellig Michael pilgrimage island off the Co Kerry coast are having their season unlawfully shortened, it has been claimed at the High Court.

An operator has brought judicial review proceedings claiming the Department of Transport, in imposing a marine licence condition that visitors may be landed on the island between May 15th and September 30th only, has unlawfully shortened their season.

Skellig Michael, designated a Unesco World Heritage site, is a site of 6th century monastic settlement of the Early Christian period and attracts large numbers of pilgrims and sightseers annually.

Seanir Murphy claims the Department should not have placed a condition on his marine licence stating he cannot land on the island outside the period May 15th to September 30th when boat operators they have been landing at the island in April and October for decades.

The Department has claimed there are safety issues, relating to algae growth and rockfalls, and the Office of Public Works (OPW), which looks after the island, does not have any personnel there before May 15th and after September 30th.

Mr Murphy, of Valentia Island, one of 14 boat operators serving Skellig Michael, was granted permission by the High Court to bring a challenge to the Minister for Transport’s decision to impose the time restriction on his licence.

He claims the Minister has no power to do so because the Merchant Shipping Act 1992, under which passenger boat permits are granted, only deals with the seaworthiness of a vessel and not landing rights.

It is also claimed the Minister failed to give any or adequate reasons for the decision.

John O’Donnell SC, for Mr Murphy, said his client had worked with and skippered boats since he was 17 and provided a Skellig service with his own boat since 1990.

He estimated he has carried around 15,000 passengers and landed them, when it was safe to do so, on the island.

In an affidavit, Mr Murphy said the traditional landing season has, “since time immemorial”, been from the beginning of April to the end of October. 

Since 2007, the OPW has sought to shorten the landing season by imposing the May 15th-September 30th period.

This had never been accepted by the boatmen and landings continued outside the period and were tolerated by the OPW, he said.

There was “what might be described as an ‘uneasy peace’ between the boatmen and the OPW”.

He brought legal proceedings after he received a letter last March from the Department of Transport with a “varied” permit imposing the restricted landing times.

This was being done for “health and safety reasons” after the Department had been “instructed” by the OPW, the letter said.

While there were two fatal incidents on the island in 1996 and 2009, neither were related to landings and occurred some distance up the island, he said.

One was a heart attack and the other was a slip and fall.

Mr Justice Seamus Noonan gave counsel for Mr Murphy leave to challenge the decision. The judge also put a stay on the imposition of the new condition on the permit pending determination of the proceedings.

He gave liberty to the Department to apply to discharge his order with 48 hours notice to Mr Murphy who made the application on an ex-parte (one side only represented) basis.