“The Most Fantastic and Impossible Rock In The World”

George Bernard Shaw, famed Irish writer, screenwriter and Nobel Prize Winner, visited the Skelligs in 1910. What follows is the letter from his astonishing self to his friend describing the journey and his impressions in detail.

Parknasilla Hotel, Sneem, 18th September 1910.

My Dear Jackson,

We are both here — in the only place in the world that makes Tarn Moor a mere dust heap.

Yesterday I left the Kerry coast in an open boat, 33 feet long, propelled by ten men on five oars. These men started on 49 strokes a minute, a rate which I did not believe they could keep up for five minutes. They kept it without slackening half a second for two hours, at the end of which they landed me on the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world: Skellig Michael, or the Great Skellig, where in south west gales the spray knocks stones out of the lighthouse keeper’s house, 160 feet above calm sea level. There is a little Skellig covered with gannets — white with them (and their guano) — covered with screaming crowds of them. The Bass rock is a mere lump in comparison: both the Skelligs are pinnacled, crocketed, spired, arched, caverned, minaretted; and these gothic extravagances are not curiosities of the islands: they are the islands: there is nothing else.

The rest of the cathedral may be under the sea for all I know: there are 90 fathoms by the chart, out of which the Great Skellig rushes up 700 feet so suddenly that you have to go straight up stairs to the top — over 600 steps. And at the top amazing beehives of flat rubble stones, each overlapping the one below until the circle meets in a dome — cells, oratories, churches, and outside them cemeteries, wells, crosses, all clustering like shells on a prodigious rock pinnacle, with precipices sheer down on every hand, and lodged on the projecting stones overhanging the deep huge stone coffins made apparently by giants, and dropped there God knows how.

An incredible, impossible, mad place, which still tempts devotees to make “stations” of every stair landing, and to creep through “Needle’s eyes” at impossible altitudes, and kiss “stones of pain” jutting out 700 feet above the Atlantic.

Most incredible of all, the lighthouse keeper will not take a tip, but sits proud, melancholy and haunted in his kitchen after placing all his pantry at your disposal — will also accompany you down to the desperate little harbour to squeeze the last word out of you before you abandon him, and gives you letters to post like the Flying Dutchman — also his strange address to send newspapers and literature to; for these he will accept.

I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world. And you talk of your Hindhead! Skellig Michael, sir, is the Forehead.

Then back in the dark, without compass, and the moon invisible in the mist, 49 strokes to the minute striking patines of white fire from the Atlantic, spurting across threatening currents, and furious tideraces, pursued by terrors, ghosts from Michael, possibilities of the sea rising making every fresh breeze a fresh fright, impossibilities of being quite sure whither we were heading, two hours and a half before us at best, all the rowers wildly imaginative, superstitious, excitable, and apparently super-human in energy and endurance, two women sitting with the impenetrable dignity and quiet comeliness of Italian saints and Irish peasant women silent in their shawls with their hands on the quietest part of the oars (next to the gunwale) like spirit rappers, keeping the pride of the men at the utmost tension, so that every interval of dogged exhaustion and drooping into sleep (the stroke never slackening, though) would be broken by an explosion of “up-up-upkeep her up!” “Up Kerry!”; and the captain of the stroke oar — a stranger imported by ourselves, and possessed by ten devils each with a formidable second wind, would respond with a spurt in which he would, with short yelps of “Double it — double it — double it” almost succeed in doubling it, and send the boat charging through the swell.

Three pound ten, my dear Jacksonsix shillings a man — including interest on the price of the boat and wear and tear of ten oars, was what they demanded. They had thrown down their farming implements (they don’t fish on Saturdays) to take to the sea for us at that figure.

I hardly feel real again yet.

Hindhead! Pooh! I repeat it in your teeth. POOH!

Celt and Saxon — you and me — I mean me and you — or it is you and I? Meredith and Anatole France! Is Box Hill a beehive cell 700 feet up?

What does any Parisian know of Skellig Michael? Get out!

Maith an fear, Mr. Shaw! As the world discovers just how special this incredibly beautiful island is, maybe it’s time you started to plan your trip to Skellig yourself. Start with booking a Skellig landing tour.

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