Hidden staircase discovered on Skellig


A PREVIOUSLY hidden staircase has been discovered on Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, along with an unidentified cross hewn from rock.

The discoveries were made by archaeologist Michael Gibbons during recent field research as part of a project on pilgrimage mountains and islands.

The staircase is part of an uncharted route above the lighthouse road on an isolated part of the rock’s precipitous flanks.

Mr Gibbons believes that it may have linked up to two of the three known routes up to the sixth century monastery.

The location of the route and stairway “suggests that they may have formed part of a larger, incredibly daring, pilgrimage circuit etched into the topography of the island”, he said.

“These new discoveries add a whole new dimension to the island’s archaeology and may have implications for our future understanding of how the monastery was laid out and how it developed over time.”

The rock-hewn cross which he also discovered was “very significant”, he said. While more than 60 crosses of various sizes have been found on Skellig Michael, which is a Unesco world heritage site, this is one of only a handful identified on the entire island of Ireland which has been carved from bedrock.

“One is reminded of the biblical scene in which Christ names St Peter the rock and states that he is the rock upon which the church is built,” Mr Gibbons said. “In this case the cross on Skellig becomes the literal rock of the island, and the rock from which the church [as in the monastic community] has been hewn.”

The discoveries are expected to renew interest in the island at a time of continuing debate over safety of visitors, following the recent death of an American woman. Earlier this month, Christine Spooner (57), a mother of two from Rochester New York, fell close to the spot where Joseph Gaughan (77) from Pennsylvania died in early May. A German tourist lost his life over a decade ago on the rock.

Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works (OPW) Dr Martin Mansergh has promised a “very fundamental review” of safety, while warning against a “knee-jerk” reaction. The OPW had ruled out provision of safety ropes or rails due to their impact on the integrity of the site.

However, Mr Gibbons, who has been a critic of the OPW conservation approach to Skellig Michael, has challenged this view. The monument was no longer “an integrity”, he said, due to the substantial amount of new walling built on the South Peak during conservation work and extensive fencing at an area known as Christ’s Saddle.

The location of the recent accidents is one of the areas where fencing could be introduced with a minimal impact on aesthetics, Mr Gibbons said. He added that safety could be improved during the visitor season by posting a guide at the relevant corner of the steps.

After the arrival of the last visitor boat, a guide could also walk up the steps with the last visitors, he has proposed.

Dr Mansergh has said that boats should only ferry passengers to the island when guides are in situ.

Earlier this year, Minister for the Environment John Gormley accepted a key Unesco recommendation to establish an expert advisory committee for the Skellig Michael world heritage site.

A Unesco report, carried out as a result of issues raised by Mr Gibbons, had found that conservation works had “dramatically altered” the appearance of surviving remains on its South Peak.

However, the archaeological site would still retain its “outstanding universal values” intact if the conservation work was documented, Unesco said.

It also recommended that a site manager be appointed and said that a “durable agreement” should be negotiated with ferry operators.