The days leading up to the fifth of August had been characteristically Irish, complete with clouds in Connemara, a daylong drizzle in Dingle, and forty-mile-per-hour winds at the Cliffs of Moher (which, under said conditions, were more deserving of their Princess Bride alias, the Cliffs of Insanity). But now, for eight hours, my family needed the Wild Atlantic Way to tame itself—perhaps, for just one day, the Mild Atlantic Way could suffice?
We had made our reservations to land on Skellig Michael five months in advance. Now, midway through our road trip down the western coast of Ireland, we’d repeatedly heard the same enthusiastic-yet-ominous reaction to our upcoming voyage. “Skellig Michael?” locals would always start. “How lovely! My friend (Connor/Aislinn/Finbar/Sinéad, take your pick) tried getting out there on holiday, but their boatman cancelled because of the seas. Hope ye have better weather.” A pause would then ensue before, without fail, Ireland’s trademark catchphrase was offered up as reassurance: “Sure, you’ll be grand!”
Though we hated to admit it, skepticism was not unwarranted among visitors to Skellig Michael. Each year, throngs of tourists leave the region disappointed; almost fifty percent of boat trips to Skellig Michael are cancelled last-minute at the whim of the Irish Sea. And the excursions are extremely limited, to begin with. Boats only travel to Skellig Michael during the months of April through October—in the winter, when winds whip the Wild Atlantic Way, sending hundred-foot swells crashing up and down the western seaboard, even veteran captains don’t chance a sea crossing. Only a few boatmen, in fact, are licensed to land on Skellig Michael. My family had made reservations with Captain Seanie Murphy back in early March. Now, by the first week of August, all of the boats were booked through early fall. We only had today.
Arriving in Portmagee by rental car, I cast the sky a suspecting glance. The daily forecast was promising—but then again, Irish forecasts aren’t exactly the picture of truth. In fact, they’re just about as trustworthy as my magenta raincoat, which—I’d learned the hard way—had lies stitched into its cheap, “Guaranteed Waterproof” fabric. For now, however, the sun was shining. Tying my jacket around my waist, I tilted my head back and reveled in the warmth before heading toward the village’s colorful main street.
During its off-season, Portmagee is a sleepy, 300-person fishing village. Between the months of April and October, however, the village receives visitors by the millions. While local traffic is usually limited to the occasional bovine escapee from a local farm, throngs of light-sabered tourists crowd Portmagee’s promenade during the summer season. Local officials, however, have found a way to curb the Skellig Michael-induced chaos—permitting only 152 visitors to land on the island each day.
Today, we would figure into that number. With an hour and a half to kill before our 10 AM departure, my family headed into the only restaurant open at 8:30 in the morning (which also—perhaps not so coincidentally—happened to be located directly across the street from the pier). When we were halfway through our Irish breakfasts—fried eggs, rashers, sausages, white and black pudding, grilled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, brown bread made with local Valentia Island buttermilk, and, of course, a classic cuppa—a fellow tourist walked through the restaurant doors. One of Portmagee’s many fly-in Star Wars fans, the man sported a black t-shirt featuring a puffin in a Darth Vader mask and the slogan “May the Craic Be With You” (craic being the Irish word for “a good time,” and making for many greatly amused American tourists). For a family in whom “the Force” had yet to awaken an interest in Star Wars, this punny t-shirt served as a reminder of Skellig Michael’s recent history. In 2014, North America’s all-time highest grossing movie, Star Wars: the Force Awakens, had filmed on the famous UNESCO World Heritage site. For the remainder of our meal, we were reminded of history’s brush with Hollywood each time we glanced up from our breakfast plates.
At a quarter to ten, we made our way to the pier, where Captain Seanie Murphy waited for us beside his forty-foot fishing boat, Sea Quest. With a shock of white hair and surprisingly tanned skin, Seanie Murphy was a far cry from your stereotypical Irishman. His accent, however, was Kerryman through and through. “Ye’re in luck,” he told us, flashing a signature gap-toothed grin. “Sea conditions are lookin’ good this morning.” The trip was on.
Twenty minutes later, after a rocky seven-mile journey accompanied by breaching Risso’s dolphins, stray puffins, an impossibly blue sky, and rapidly mounting anticipation, we spotted land in the distance. An awed silence overtook the stern of the boat as the looming island grew larger and larger upon approach. Beside me, my mom widened her eyes. The captain didn’t need to turn around to know what was happening. From the wheelhouse, he simply laughed. “That’s Little Skellig over there. We’ve still got a ways to go.”
From a distance, Little Skellig could almost be mistaken for a snow-capped mountain. Up close, however, the source of the island’s feathery white dusting grows obvious. One of the largest bird colonies in the world, Little Skellig is an annual breeding ground for more than 20,000 northern gannets. By no means, however, should you allow the island’s name to trick you. Towering over our boat at a height of 440 feet, Little Skellig was far from “little.” In Gaelic, the word “Sceillic” means a particularly steep rock. Head craned back as we cruised past the first Skellig, etymology didn’t elude me for a moment.
Two minutes later, Sea Quest slowed to a stop. Dwarfed beneath primordial, jagged green cliffs, I immediately retracted my words—Little Skellig was little, after all. Jutting out of the Atlantic and rising from frothy Irish depths to a precipitous 715 feet above sea level, it is Skellig Michael that puts the “wild” in Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way.
Sea Quest was abuzz with nervous chatter as the captain steered toward the dock of Blind Man’s Cove. Landing on Skellig Michael, Seanie Murphy had explained to us on the ride over, is impossible—lethal—in windy weather. Luckily for us, however, the wild forty-mile-per-hour winds of days past had been left behind at the Cliffs of Insanity. Within minutes, we had disembarked the fishing boat and were winding our way towards the island’s ancient stairs.
Standing guard on the first step, a staff member greeted us with a mandatory safety speech. “We have had fatalities here on Skellig Michael,” she said. “Please use the handrails.” (By “handrails,” we’d soon learn, she was referring to the flimsy safety additions that marked the two spots where, in recent years, tourists had fallen to their deaths.) The sky could be clear on ascent, the guide reminded us, but “lashing rain” upon descent—and once you’ve reached the top of Skellig Michael, the only way to get down is by retreating down the same path you climbed up. “If it rains,” she warned, “The steps will get extremely slippy.” (“Slippy” meaning slippery, and being another one of my family’s favorite Irish linguistic oddities.) “Don’t be ashamed to go down step by step on your bottom.”
Heeding the guide’s cautions, we slowly ascended the 618 limestone steps that led to the island’s sixth-century monastery. The climb itself was an act of time travel, each step transporting me further back into the annals of wild Ireland. At the peak of Skellig Michael, a seabird sat perched on a ledge, as if guarding the history of the island. Gazing out from atop the monastic settlement, I watched the world unfurl around me. Down below, miniature red fishing boats bobbed up and down in the Atlantic’s endless expanse of blue; up above, seagulls spiraled madly, squawking secrets of years gone by. And there I stood, the midpoint of the two: on top of a verdant green landmass that defied logic. On top of the world.
With documented historical references dating back to 600 AD, Skellig Michael is one of Ireland’s oldest monastic settlements. During Europe’s Dark Ages, Christian monks believed that the best way to achieve a perfect union with God was to retreat from society and seek isolation in the Earth’s harshest regions. Operating under this religious belief, a group of seventh-century monks set sail from mainland Ireland on boats made from tar and animal skins. After a treacherous, wind-swept journey on the Irish Sea, the monks found themselves at the base of Skellig Michael. Scaling the island’s near-vertical cliffs, the men hoisted themselves up as high—and as close to God—as humanly possible. There, some 700 feet above sea level, they proceeded to construct a monastery composed of six stone beehive huts, two oratories, several small terraces, and a garden. Soon after, the island was named Skellig Michael after Saint Michael the Archangel—the biblical figure acclaimed for his tendency to appear to people on mountaintops and other high places.
For nearly two centuries, monks lived in peace on Skellig Michael, surviving off of rainwater, fish, seabirds, and what little oats and vegetables they could grow under the finicky Irish sun. Then, in the ninth century, all hell broke loose as Vikings discovered the Irish’s holy isle. Though Skellig Michael was remarkably steep, its handcrafted stairway made it easy for intruders to access the monastery. And the uninterrupted, 360-degree view from the island’s peak only meant that victims could see death coming. As a defense mechanism, the monks of Skellig Michael would launch stones at Viking invaders in hopes of sending the marauders crashing down into the Atlantic. In stormy weather, when sea crossings were suicide missions, the monks could breathe a collective sigh of relief. One Irish poet expressed this sentiment in a ninth-century poem, writing, “The wind is rough tonight/tossing the white combed ocean/I need not dread fierce Vikings/crossing the Irish Sea.”
And yet, as I stood there under a cloudless sky, the sun was shining and the sea was—at least, by Irish standards—serene. The monks would have dreaded a day like this.
Shakespeare once wrote, “The Earth has music for those who listen.” From the top of Skellig Michael on that bright August day, every seagull’s squawk, whistle of the wind, and crashing wave filled my ears. Beneath my feet, the ground hummed with mysteries unspoken. Listening closely, I could hear the Earth’s music louder than I ever had before: something that men had sailed through treacherous seas and scaled jagged cliffs to find; something worth going to the ends of the Earth to listen to.
In a 1918 letter to a friend, Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “They landed me on the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world: Skellig Michael, or the Great Skellig, where in southwest gales the spray knocks stones out of the lighthouse keeper’s house, 160 feet above calm sea level.” After our morning on Skellig Michael, it was finally time to head back to the mainland. As the boat encircled the island one last time, my eye caught sight of the ancient lighthouse from the poem, and I couldn’t help but agree with Shaw’s words. Tomorrow, I was sure, the Irish fog would roll in and Skellig Michael would don nature’s cloak once more, disappearing into the horizon. But that is exactly what makes the island so enchanting. There is incalculable wonder in something so beautiful, yet so impossibly—so relentlessly—wild.