In Ireland, a Getaway Far, Far Away

Skellig Michael off the coast of County Kerry.
Skellig Michael off the coast of County Kerry. Photo: Alamy

IN THE 6TH CENTURY, Irish monks were determined to get away from it all. The more distant from civilization’s myriad distractions, they reasoned, the better one’s chances of a prolonged one-on-one with God. And so, it’s believed, in the early 500s an Irish ascetic named Fionán (later known as St. Finnian of Clonard) and a handful of like-minded brethren headed for a life of devotion, struggle and solitude on Skellig Michael, a precipitous hunk of rock rising from the Atlantic off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland.

Millennia later, Luke Skywalker, who had the entire solar system to choose from, also selected Skellig, known in cinematic terms as Ahch-To, as his refuge in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” calling it “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” and giving moviegoers a glimpse of its wild terrain. For those craving isolated me-time, Skellig Michael has a long history of obliging.

Skellig Michael has made cameos in Star Wars movies.
Skellig Michael has made cameos in Star Wars movies. Photo: WALT DISNEY PICTURES/LUCASFILM/ALAMY

Mr. Skywalker, arriving by spacecraft, had an easier time of it than Fionán’s brethren and the groups of a dozen or so other monks thought to have lived on the Skellig (from scaelig, Irish for “rock”) at any one time up to the 12th century. They made the trip to what George Bernard Shaw called “this impossible rock” in currachs, wooden row boats lined in hides. Considering the aggressive seas and turbulent weather in those parts, simply arriving intact would have been miraculous. But what these men accomplished during their stay is mind-boggling. The beehive-shape stone housing and oratories (small chapels) that remain, despite Viking invasions and centuries of wind and storms, are remarkable feats of design and durability.

The views on the climb to a monastic site are gobsmacking: ocean crashing, crags piercing an illuminated sky.

Despite my undeniable Irish composition (red hair, freckles, affinity for leprechauns) I’d never set foot on the Emerald Isle. The remoteness of Skellig Michael and its testament to the extremes humankind will go to appeal to a higher power prompted me to finally make the trip. With the help of Naomi Sheehy of Ireland Luxury Travel, I booked a seat on the Skellig Walker, a recently built 38-foot boat built to ferry tourists between Portmagee, a cheery tourist-dependent town on the Wild Atlantic Way, and the island.

The September morning of our departure was sunny and clear, but large swells at Skellig Michael’s landing point were prohibitive and the trip was canceled. This isn’t uncommon, so it’s advisable to plan on spending a few days in the neighborhood. The following day, the sea had settled and I joined other ancient-monastic-site enthusiasts, including a couple who’d come in Star Wars regalia. Fifteen boat operators are granted licenses to ply the roughly hourlong route to the Skellig between May and October, with a maximum of 12 passengers each. The rock’s 2015 Star Wars cameo ratcheted up interest—17,000 visited the Unesco World Heritage site last year, an increase of about 5,000 from 2015. In response to concerns that Skellig Michael may be over-trampled, when it came time to film “The Last Jedi,” a replica of the monastery’s ruins was recreated further north.

As we motored out past Bolus Head, the westernmost tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, the water was choppy and the winds full. After about an hour we came to the Little Skellig, a companion rock (larger than Michael despite the name) covered in some 39,000 cacophonous pairs of northern gannets who live beak-by-jowl on a rock-face shimmering with their guano. As their swoops and calls faded behind us, the twin pinnacles of Skellig Michael loomed.

A colony of gannets on Little Skellig.
A colony of gannets on Little Skellig. Photo: Alamy

We disembarked (a little dance with the swells is required when stepping from boat to dock) and listened to a guide give a brief talk about the island’s history. Then we set off to climb at our own pace.

Six hundred rough-edged stone stairs, placed centuries ago, ascend at a steep incline to the remains of the Skellig’s original monastic site. (A later hermitage, accessed by a death-defying path, is closed to the public.) The climb isn’t particularly strenuous, but it’s daunting. There are no railings to offer a handhold once you’re past a short stretch at the base. One step at a time is a good mantra until you acclimate. After that you’ll be able to lift your gaze enough to notice the grass stretched over the rocklike layers of pool-table felt, the pock marks signaling rabbit warrens and puffin burrows, and the gobsmacking views—ocean crashing, crags piercing an illuminated sky, the wind a whooshing soundtrack. Assuming heaven is up, one can imagine the monks felt a lot closer from here.

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The 20-minute climb is nearly forgotten once you step through a stone portal into the monastery’s terraced grounds. A cluster of six beehive-shaped stone cells and an oratory comprise the main grouping, along with the ruins of a medieval church constructed later. On a further terrace sits another oratory. The buildings, aside from the church, were made from stones quarried from the top of the skellig and laid without mortar—arduous and exacting work.

The church, whose building materials were likely brought by boat from Valentia Island (a mind-boggling chore) is flanked by burial sites. One is filled with weatherworn stone crosses whose rounded forms suggest creatures from another world raising their arms in witness and protection. Even before the Vikings posed a threat—they kidnapped and killed the Skellig’s abbot in 824 A.D.—this area was considered the edge of the western world, the frontier before the dark side. Whatever spirit was imbued in those cemetery crosses had to be ever vigilant.

After a talk from another resident guide, we were left to wander for an hour or so, imagining what it would be like to call this tip of sandstone home. The Star Wars duo posed for photos, looking every bit as intergalactic against this otherworldly backdrop as they could hope.

The Lowdown / Scaling Skellig Michael

Staying There: At the tip of Valentia Island, about a 10-minute drive from Portmagee’s dock, the gracious Royal Valentia Hotel has spacious rooms overlooking the ocean and a friendly pub and restaurant. From about $90 a night, royalvalentia.ie. [https://royalvalentia.ie]. Alternatively, the Moorings in Portmagee, a brightly appointed 16-room hotel and restaurant that housed some Star Wars folks during filming, is 30 seconds from the dock. From about $85 a night, moorings.ie.

Eating There: Take the short ferry from Valentia to Cahersiveen and walk a few steps to O’Neill’s The Point, family-owned since the 1800s, for just-caught fish and a convivial crowd. In Portmagee, join locals at The Fisherman’s Bar for fresh seafood and a few judicious pints. fishermansbarportmagee.com

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