Skellig Michael's first sea steps found

 

A NEWLY discovered set of steps, carved out of stone on the north-east monastery area of the island, is likely to be the earliest sea entrance to the sixth-century monastic island of Skellig Michael, a Unesco world heritage site, the Office of Public Work has said.

The new sea access steps on the northeastern edge of the island were stumbled upon by the Skellig’s resident rope man and safety expert, New Zealander Colin McGorlick just weeks ago, as a team of architects, archaeologists and masons was completing the restoration and excavation of the hermitage on the steep southern peak on the opposite side of the island.

Senior OPW architect Grellan O’Rourke, who has overseen work on the Skellig for over 30 years, said: “This is really exciting because I think they are of great antiquity. They have been abandoned a very long time.”

Other new finds include a hitherto unknown route involving a challenging 40m climb up an almost vertical gully on the South Peak in which there are a series of rock-cut steps and hand holds.

“This route clearly predates the previously published one and indicates the initial focus of the monks was on the ascent of the summit itself,” archaeologist Alan Hayden said.

There will be limited access, but details have yet to be finalised.

The specialist study had revealed the remarkable degree by which the monks altered the physical landscape of the South Peak and how they used geology to their advantage, Mr Hayden said.

It has also provided a detailed insight into how the monks quarried, gathered and transported stone up the peak for the building of the terraces and other structures.

A series of shallow rock-cut depressions, which would have held the base of a large tripod used by the monks to lift the stones, was “an exciting and new discovery”, Mr Hayden said.

Dry stone mason Patrick O’Shea, the OPW charge-hand for two decades on the restoration work, rejects criticisms of over-restoration, saying the materials used are found alongside the traditional methods. All the stone had to be pulled up by hand or with a pulley wheel where the oratory had slipped.

Mr O’Shea said no money would pay a person for this kind of work. “You have to have a good head for heights, a liking for the place and a love of the island,” he said.