You know, I’m drawn to things that “can’t easily be done.” Unless the hard thing is avoiding pasta. I’m not drawn to that at all. When I was reading through Rick Steves Ireland for the first time, I stumbled upon the section about Skellig Michael, and the idea of taking Mark and the kids on this impossible adventure took root.
Skellig Michael is a world heritage site, about 7 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland. There are two Skellig rocks; Little Skellig and Skellig Michael and both islands are primitive, rugged and inhospitable. At around 800 A.D. a group of monks came to live on Skellig Michael, and their dwellings (as well as the 600 steps to reach them) are still there at the top of the rock. These days, a group of somewhat salty men dedicated to preserving the island live on Skellig Michael on a rotating basis. Bless them, because there is no running water, fresh water, electricity or flushing toilet to be found out there.
During our first visit to Ireland, I scheduled a tour to Skellig Michael the day before we were to depart for the States. Somehow, when reserving our trip, the issue of a departure time was never discussed and we literally missed the boat.
Skellig Michael tip #1: confirm departure time and location several times before the day of your trip.
I’m not going to sugar coat the retelling of how I handled this monumental mess-up. I was beside myself. The thing is, my son was looking forward to our Skellig Michael excursion more than any other activity we had planned in Ireland, so I deeply felt the guilt of letting him down.
When we decided to return to Ireland, booking a Skellig Michael tour was the first thing I did. We ended up booking with Skellig Tours with captain John O Shea. Most of the charters to Skellig Michael depart from Portmagee, but John sails out of Derrynane Harbour, which worked well for us because we were staying in Kenmare.
Skellig Michael tip #2: Book as early as possible. Star Wars has made this site wildly popular, and reservations go quickly. I booked months in advance.
Let me be very clear about something: the boats that take you out to Skellig Michael are smaller than you’d think. And you’ll be crossing open ocean. This excursion is only possible during the summer months (May to August) and even then, many trips are cancelled due to rough seas. If you are prone to seasickness, buckle up. This is no quick jaunt across a placid lake.
Skellig Michael tip #3: laying down on the boat will help with seasickness.
Disembarking onto Skellig Michael is described as “jumping off a trampoline onto an ice rink.” (Rick Steves, Ireland) I found that to be an accurate description, and although I was happy to be off the boat, I was immediately taken aback by how stark and uninviting the island actually is. Yes, I watched the videos and read the brochures, but the ruggedness is somewhat shocking.
As I said before, there are 600 steps to the top of Skellig Michael. They are uneven and cracked, and there are no hand rails. Vertigo is an issue as well because the steps are so steep.
The real prize is reaching the top where you can explore the ancient beehive dwellings of the monks who lived there over 1200 years ago.
And of course the view is spectacular!
Skellig Michael is literally crawling with sea birds. Their loud squawking will almost drive you mad, and the gulls especially, will dive bomb you for your sandwich. However, it’s the adorable puffins that really make a lasting impression. They are not afraid of humans, and will resolutely growl if you get too close to their nests. Puffins are not aerodynamic birds, and watching them fly is a hilarious sight.
The length of time on the actual island is short; about an hour and a half. It’s such a remarkable experience, though, that I highly recommend making the effort to go if you have the chance. The fact that humans existed on Skellig Michael is almost unbelievable given that the conditions are so harsh and inhospitable.
Skellig Michael tip #4: Pack food for a quick lunch, but keep in mind that you will have to eat furtively while hiding by a stone wall because the sea gulls are overly aggressive and will swoop down and steal that sandwich right out of your hand! I imagined a leisurely picnic at the top of the rock, but the reality was probably closer to a maximum security prison cafeteria…guarding our food and avoiding eye contact, while shoveling it all into our mouth as quickly as possible.
If you must know, I did not, in fact, make it to the top of Skellig Michael. There was a seasickness situation on the way over, and I think I almost died. By the time we actually set foot on the island, I was dizzy, weak and shaking like a leaf…not a great combination for climbing 600 steep, death-defying stairs. One of the salty preservation men bellowed, “Then why’d ya come at all, lassie?!?” How do you explain to a pirate-y man with a ruddy complexion and copious amounts of chest hair that nothing makes you happier in life than seeing your children’s eyes wide with wonder? What words really express the satisfaction a mother feels when she gives her son a rare and miraculous adventure that he will likely never have again?
Skellig Michael tip #5: When explainging mother-y feelings to a pirate-y preservationist, just liken your love to the love he has for the island. He will slowly nod and softly say, “I understand ye.”