Visitors to get Skellig Michael danger warning

 

A SAFETY report has warned that visiting Skellig Michael, the ancient monastic site on a rock off the Co Kerry coast is akin to “a mountaineering activity”.

The independent safety review, carried out after two separate fatal accidents involving tourists, said lack of awareness among visitors of what was involved and lack of preparedness in visiting the site, “is itself another serious hazard”.

The world heritage site is perched on a rock some 218 metres (714ft) above sea level, and accessed along roughly laid steps and paths hewn from bedrock over 1,000 years,

One of the deaths last year occurred when there was no Office of Public Works presence on the island and the site had not yet officially opened, it noted.

The review made 31 recommendations.

It also found that the OPW management of the complex wilderness and monastic site was admirable.

Some of the recommendations have already been carried out. The OPW said its national monuments division had installed a steel chain on a fatal ledge at the site.

It had also reconfigured the steps alongside the ledge, replaced the pier handrail, cleared debris along the 600 steps and positioned a guide at the pier to warn of the risks in accordance with the review.

There were several locations along the climb to the monastery with a high risk of a fall, the review found.

There have been three deaths and five injuries so far and “the likelihood is that a person will be killed as a result of a fall on the Skellig Michael between once in five and once in 50 years,” the review found. However, it said no fencing should be erected along the route. This had been a contentious point among conservationists.

The review also made a recommendation on warning visitors. It said there should be a single departure point from the mainland for boats to Skellig Michael so there is a central point of departure to warn visitors before the journey, a measure likely to prove problematic.

The steep slope to the sixth century hermitage, which is partly lined with steps, is more acute than some much higher mountains, the review said.

The terrain is more rugged and the surface less forgiving than many slopes tackled by mountaineers.

A simple slip or stumble, which would lead to bruising or at worst a single fracture elsewhere, can have devastating consequences on Skellig Michael resulting in death or serious injury. The permit system with the boatmen which controlled visitor numbers was found not to be operating fully. It also said people who were unprepared for the voyage and the climb ran the risk of exacerbating any inherent weakness.

“This may trigger a more serious event involving serious injury or death,” the review stated.

A spokesman said the review by Byrne Ó Cléirigh Engineering Consultants had been accepted by Minister of State at the Office of Public Works Dr Martin Mansergh.

A statement yesterday said that while the report found the OPW’s management of the site was admirable and OPW personnel impressive, “the health and safety of all visitors remains an absolute priority for the OPW”.

Joseph Gaughan, (77) from Pennsylvania, died from serious head injuries after he fell while descending the lower reaches of the stone steps on May 3rd, 2009. At the same spot, Christine Spooner (57), a social worker from Rochester, New York, died in a fall while climbing the steps on September 20th last.

The review recommended acknowledging fatalities have occurred on the site as a caution “in all promotional literature”.

It also said notices should be placed in the press drawing attention to the official closing and opening dates of the site.