Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichíl) is an island 8 nautical miles off the South West Coast of Ireland and forms part of the Skellig Islands along with Small Skellig (Sceilig Bheag). It is home to one of the world’s best-preserved examples of the early Christian monastic tradition. The island and monastery are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Boat tours to the island are possible during the Summer landing tour season. The island is an important wildlife sanctuary for species such as the Manx Shearwater, fulmars and its famous colony of puffins. The island was used as a filming location for the planet Ahch-To in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
- Skellig Michael Tours
- Skellig Michael Location
- Where Does The Name Skellig Michael Come From?
- Skellig Islands
- Skellig Michael Island Geography
- Skellig Michael History
- History of Lighthouses on Skellig Michael
- Conservation and Archaeological Works
- UNESCO World Heritage Status
- Skellig Wildlife
- Star Wars
Skellig Michael Tours
Tours to the island are generally of two types:
Skellig Michael Landing Tours – where visitors land on the island and spend up to 2 hours exploring the island and ancient monastery. These tours have become extremely popular in recent years.
Skellig Michael Viewing Tours – where boats circumnavigate Skellig Michael and Small Skellig (Sceilig Bheag) and give a commentary on the island but passengers remain on the boat.
Skellig Michael Landing Tours
Visitor Number Limits
Access to the island is only via one of the 15 licensed Skellig Michael Landing Tour boats that are granted a landing tour license by the OPW. These boats carry 12 passengers each, meaning only 180 people are allowed to land on the island daily.
Landing Tour Season
The 2019 Skellig Michael Landing Tour season is from May 24th – September 30th 2019 as defined by the Office of Public Works, who are in charge of the island.
The season start date can change from year to year but generally begins in mid-May and ends at the end of September.
Landing Tours to the island only occur in the Summer months when sea conditions are favourable to safe landing.
If conditions are not favourable, all landings will be cancelled for the day.
In a standard 130 day landing season, landings will occur between 65% – 75% of the time so, for visitors, it is important to have a backup plan in the event that their landing tour is cancelled.
Landing Tour Booking
Booking a landing tour is not an entirely straightforward process as the boats all accept bookings independently of one another. We strongly recommend reading Booking a Skellig Michael Landing Tours in 2019: The Definitive Guide.
Skellig Michael Viewing Tours / Eco Tours
The other option for visitors is to take a tour around both Skellig Islands. These tours do not allow you to land on the island but you do go right up close to the island and can see a lot of the features of Skellig Michael including the steps, the lighthouses and, on a good day, the beehive huts at the top of the island. These tours are particularly suited to families or visitors with children, as many operators are no longer willing to take children under 12 years of age on the landing tour.
Skellig Michael Location
Skellig Michael is located 8 nautical miles off the South West Coast of County Kerry in Ireland. The traditional departure point for boat tours to Skellig Michael is the nearby fishing village of Portmagee.
GPS Coordinates: 51°46′16″N 10°32′26″W
Where Does The Name Skellig Michael Come From?
The word Skellig comes from the old Irish word “sceillec “, which means sharp, steep or jagged rock.
The island was originally known as Glascarraig, which means “Green Rock”. Some time after the establishment of the monastery, Skellig was dedicated to Saint Michael. Thus, the island came to be known as “Skellig Michael” or “Sceilig Mhichíl” in Gaelic.
Skellig Michael is the larger of the two Skellig Islands. The other being Small Skellig or Little Skellig or Sceilig Bheag, in Gaelic.
Small Skellig (Sceilig Bheag)
Small Skellig or Little Skellig, is a smaller, uninhabited rock that supports the second-largest gannet colony in Europe, after The Hebrides with up to 20,000 breeding pairs during the summer months, giving the island its characteristic white-topped look and, indeed, smell. The island is inaccessible to the public and only accessible via special permission and climbing equipment.
Skellig Michael Island Geography
The surface area of Skellig Michael is approximately 3.8 hectares.
The majority of the surface area is on the island’s steep slopes which are inaccessible to the public.
Length and Height
Skellig Michael is approximately half a mile (0.8km) long. At its highest point, the South-Western Peak, the island rises to a height of 218 metres (715 feet).
Skellig Michael is composed of red sandstone, formed in the Devonian period approximately 350 million years ago and would have originally been part of the same mountain chain as the Mcgillicuddy Reeks, overlooking Killarney, which are home to Ireland’s highest peak, Carrauntouhill.
Two peaks, one on the north-eastern side of the island, where the monastery was founded, and another on the south-western, where the smaller hermitage is located. These are linked by a curved central valley called Christ’s Saddle.
Interestingly, from the perspective of the coastline of Ballinskelligs, Portmagee and Valentia Island, these peaks line up so that the island looks like a large floating pyramid on the horizon.
Skellig Michael History
6th Century – 8th Century – Foundation of the monastery on the island. For contextual purposes, this would have been around the same time as the birth of the Islamic religion and considered to be the beginnings of the Middle Ages.
823 – First extant recorded mention of the monastery in the Annals of Tallaght. Also, a Viking attack took place that year in which the abbot of the island was kidnapped and eventually starved to death by his captors.
12th Century – Abandonment of the monastery due, it’s believed, to changes in prevailing weather conditions making life on the monastery even more difficult.
12th Century onwards – Establishment of Skellig Michael as a noted place of pilgrimage.
1578 – The powerful Butler Family assumes ownership of the island as part of the dissolution of monasteries under English rule.
Early 1800s – Ownership transferred to the predecessors of the Commission for Irish Lights, for the purposes of building two lighthouses on the island. The price paid to the Butler family was in the region of 350 pounds, at the time.
1880 – The Office of Public Works assumes guardianship of the monastic ruins.
1826 – Construction of upper and lower lighthouses begins along with jetty and pathway circling the southern part of the island. South-eastern part of the island is dynamited and southern approach steps are lost forever, in the process.
1978 – Beginning of current phase of archaeological survey and conservation works
1989 – The island passes into State ownership.
1996 – Awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status
2014 – 2015 – Filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi
One of the first mention of “Skellic” was in legend as the burial place of one of the sons of Milesius, or Míl Espáine, a purported Iberian invader whose army defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, a race of otherworldly gods who ruled Ireland. There are also earlier stories of the island being the dwelling place of Daire Domhaine, the King of the World.
Though we tend to think of the island’s history as beginning with the monks establishing the monastery, a recent discovery that suggests that the island may have already been inhabited before then, as a place of refuge or self-imposed exile.
Monastic History (6th – 12th Century)
The monastic settlement on Skellig actually took place relatively soon after the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. St. Patrick’s missionary work was primarily carried out in the 5th century. The establishment of the monastery is attributed to Saint Fionán. And our current best estimate as to the beginnings of a Christian settlement on the island date back to between the 6th and 8th Century.
At that time in Europe, the monastic tradition would have been heavily influenced by the ascetic tradition that sprung from the seat of Christianity in Judea with many monks and mystics taking to the desert to sequester themselves away from the world to better contemplate the mystery of God. In the absence of a suitable desert, the forbidding isolation of Skellig, at the edge of the known world, fulfilled many of the same functions.
The monastery on Skellig Michael would have been one of a number of monasteries dotted along the Irish coastline, with a significant cluster on the South West coast, encompassing the Iveragh and Dingle peninsulas.
The Monastery and Hermitage
The monks chose to establish the monastery about 167m (550 feet) above sea level on the slopes of the north-eastern peak of the island as it was sheltered from the fiercest of the prevailing winds and, in some senses, has its own micro-climate distinct from the rest of the island.
The population on the island would haven no more than a dozen monks at any one time.
Monastery Buildings and Grounds
The monastery is comprised of a number of structures, including:
- A large and small oratory built in the shape of an upturned boats.
- A number of beehive huts which served as the monks’ dwellings.
- An altar – for the celebration of mass and other religious ceremonies
- St Michael’s Church – a small church that was built early on in the monastery’s existence that was expanded and rebuilt around the middle of the 11th century, when the island was dedicated to St. Michael.
- A cemetery where a number of monks are buried.
The location of the monastery, allowed the establishment a terraced garden area for the purposes of growing vegetables with both an upper and lower Monks’ Garden.
The monastery overlooks a terraced garden built to allow for the growing of crops, which was easy given the nutrient-rich soil which was largely composed of bird guano.
Beehive Hut Construction
The Beehive huts or clocháns, to give them their Gaelic name, are constructed using flat stones, without the use of mortar. The huts are curved on the outside and square on the inside. The fact that the majority of the structures survived nearly 1400 years of Atlantic storms is a testament to the spectacular robustness of their construction method.
The Hermitage on the South Peak
In addition to the monastery on the Eastern side of the island, a smaller, more isolated hermitage site was created on the higher second peak that would serve as a place of isolation and contemplation for a single monk who would spend weeks at a time there. In later years, when pilgrimages to the island became popular, tradition demanded that pilgrims climb to this location, risking death to kiss a cross at the end of a rock ledge. The rock ledge was lost in the last century.
While the island is famous for its 618 steps up to the monastery, these are only one set of stairs – and possibly the most modern – that allowed the monks to climb the island’s steep slopes in relative safety. There are actually up to 4 different routes.
The most famous section of the steps is the steep staircase to the monastery, as seen at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
Life in The Monastery
Life would have been difficult, obviously, given the challenging environment, the constant need to source food and supplies, and the unforgiving weather.
Days would have been spent observing the traditional rhythms of monastic life: dawn prayers, mass, vespers etc. Monks would break for prayers up to 7 times a day, as per the traditional monastic horarium. Fasting would also have been intrinsic to their ascetic existence.
How Did The Monks Survive?
The first problem to solve in a location like Skelligs is securing a water source. The monks were resourceful and created a system that channeled rainwater into two large cisterns holding up to a hundred gallons. No doubt the plentiful Irish rain would have kept it replenished.
While there’s a certain romance to the idea of the monks solely on diet of fish and bird life, they also had access to vegetables from their garden, would have also raised domestic animals such as goats on the island and would have been regularly receiving supplies from the mainland. But this supply chain would have been subject to the vagaries of the weather, as it still is today.
The monastery was abandoned sometime around the 12th Century due, in part, to changing weather conditions which made living on the island even more challenging than it had been and also due to changes in the formal religious structures in effect in the monks’ religious orders. By this time, the monastery had fallen under the charge of the Augustinian order who were responsible for building St. Michael’s Church on the island and who also had an Abbey on the mainland in Ballinskelligs.
Following the abandonment of the monastery, the island became a relatively famous place of pilgrimage.
History of Lighthouses on Skellig Michael
The story of Skellig’s lighthouses is relatively short but no less fascinating as a result. Due to the increase in maritime traffic during the early 1800s and the consequent increase in ship wrecks along the west coast, the predecessor to the Irish Lights, who were responsible for the building of lighthouses on the mainland, decided to build two lighthouses on the island in 1821.
Construction took approximately 5 years and incorporated two lighthouses, one on the South-Western end and one on the North-Western as well as dwellings for the light house keepers and an approach road from a jetty in Blind Man’s Cove. The lighthouses commenced operation on the 4th of December 1826.
Lighthouse keepers and their families would live on the island for weeks at a time and would use semaphores to signal to Dursey lighthouse in Cork who would then communicate with the mainland.
Tragically, a number of lighthouse keepers died while on the island and one lighthouse keeper, W. Callaghan, lost two sons to illness in 1868 and 1869, who are buried in the island the grounds of the monastery beside the bodies of the monks from centuries previously. Horrifically, his request to be transferred from the island on compassionate grounds was denied.
The upper lighthouse remained in operation until 1870 when a new lighthouse was built on Inis Tearaght near Dingle. There is an apocryphal story that it was washed out by a wave during a particularly bad storm.
The lower lighthouse remained in operation with various upgrades to its illumination and buildings with lighthouse keepers serving more humane stints on the island and having their families located on purpose-built homes in Knightstown on Valentia Island. The building of a helicopter pad on the island in 1969 eventually allowed for the keepers to be transported to and from the island by helicopter.
Eventually, the decision was made to automate the lighthouse and this came on line on the 22nd April 1987, leaving no reason for the lighthouse keepers to remain stationed on the island. Their stories, however, have been captured in the spectacular RTE series, Great Irish Lighthouses, which interviews a number of Skellig lightkeepers.
Conservation and Archaeological Works
Apart from the obvious alterations made to the island during period of the construction of the lighthouses, the main structures on the island remained untouched until 1978 when repairs needed to be made to one of the main walls in the monastery. This kicked off an intense period of conservation and restoration, beginning in the main monastery and graduating to the hermitage on the South Peak, which had been more exposed to the elements and, therefore, significantly more compromised over the centuries.
The current restoration work is focused on the path constructed between the two lighthouses on the island, which may lead to these being opened to public viewing in future years.
UNESCO World Heritage Status
Skellig Michael was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 for its “exceptional universal value” in demonstrating, “as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterising much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe.”
As well as being a historically significant island, Skellig has Special Protected Status for a number of species of birdlife who nest on the island. In particular, the Manx Shearwater and the Storm Petrel who have some of the world’s largest breeding populations on the island.
Skellig’s most famous inhabitants are its most photogenic: Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica). These surprisingly small birds, with their colourful beaks and comic waddle are resident on the island from April until late July / early August. Their characteristic stomach-groan croaking pulsates from every green corner of the island or from underneath the ledges and steps.
There are approximately 4,000 breeding pairs each year who raise one chick – a puffling – in a deep burrow about a metre from the surface.
Puffins leave the island after raising their offspring and fly westward to the Labrador Coast and, after that, spend many months in the middle of the Atlantic.
Skellig Michael is the most important habitat in the world for the European Storm Petrel. Storm Petrels are tiny birds of the [family] which nest primarily in the stone walls and beehive cells of the island. They are nocturnal birds and so are not generally visible during normal visiting hours on the island.
Fulmars are a member of the longnose family. They’re very similar to gulls, with white under-plumage and grey upper feathers. The easiest way to identify them is by their distinctive bill, which is hooked and has nostrils for excreting salt. Their most impressive characteristic is their use of projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism.
Dolphins, Seals and Whales
Pods of Common Dolphins regularly accompany the boats out to Skellig. Minke Whales also appear frequently during the Summer months. In recent years, the islands have seen the presence of magnificent humpback whales, which are a truly awe-inspiring sight when seen up-close. The island is also host to a colony of Grey Seals who are often found lounging around on the rocks of Seal Cove on the Western end of the island as well as on the shoreline of Small Skellig.
Skellig Michael was chosen as the location of the planet Ahch-To in both Star Wars: The Force Awakens, co-written and directed by JJ Abrams and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson.
The island was chosen by Rick Carter, the production designer, who immediately saw its otherworldly beauty as a possible home for the island retreat of Luke Skywalker, 30 years after the end of Return of the Jedi. He sent the details to JJ Abrams who is reported to have said, “Oh my God. I love it.” In a video on-set he described the island as a “kind of a miracle”.
The Force Awakens
Pre-production started in early 2014, with a location scouting visit in February. The crew then set up their production office in the lounge room of the Moorings Guesthouse and set about sorting out the huge logistical challenges associated with filming on an island almost 10 miles out in the Atlantic.
Full cast and crew arrived over August Bank Holiday 2014 an spent three days filming on the island. Transport to the island was primarily via the local Skellig Michael landing tour boat fleet, as helicopter flights were restricted.
The Last Jedi
The Star Wars team returned in September 2015 to shoot the opening scenes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi led, this time, by writer-director Rian Johnson. Although delayed on their first day by weather, shooting again went off relatively painlessly which was slightly miraculous given that, even during the Summer Landing Tour season, boats only land on the island about 65% – 70% of the season.
Ahch-to featured extensively in The Last Jedi, as the island home of Luke Skywalker and home to an indigenous population of fish-like nuns, the Caretakers, and the now-famous Porgs, a type of cross between a seal and a penguin that Johnson said was inspired by the puffins on Skellig Michael. Though there is a story that the Porgs were designed to account for the presence of puffins in frame during shooting, the puffins had actually left the island by the time the crew arrived on the island in September.
Due to the difficulties of shooting on the island, a number of backup locations around Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way were used as backup locations, including: Ceann Sibeal in Dingle (The beehive hut village), Malin Head in Donegal (The landing Point of the Millennium Falcon), Brow Head in Cork (The Dark Hole)
Impact on Tourism
The net effect of Skellig’s presence in the movies was to massively elevate Skellig Michael’s worldwide fame and popularity. In the weeks following the movie’s release, interest in Skellig Michael rose to 10,000 searches per week. Skellig Michael is now firmly on the world tourist map and is one of the world’s great movie set-jetting locations with thousands of Star Wars fans arriving at the island each year, many in costume to recreate some of the movies’ iconic scenes.