SKELLIG MICHAEL, Ireland — The Skellig Islands, when you first see them from the end of the Kerry Peninsula, look like an apparition. Isolated 8 1/2 miles off the coast, their craggy peaks angling precipitously out of the sea, they might be the background of a movie set or a bit of scenery from an escapist film.
But Skellig Michael and its sister island, Little Skellig, are real enough. And authentically Irish.
Not far from the top of Skellig Michael's 700-foot summit, monks of the 6th Century fashioned a settlement of crude stone dwellings.
The settlement represented an outpost of Christianity, not unusual during the early Middle Ages when Islam posed a threat from the south and the Vikings were skirmishing from the north.
But the monastery, if secure in its isolation, was minuscule in area and extremely hazardous.
A maiming fall, perhaps death, was only a misplaced step away. Amazingly, it endured for six centuries, until the monks finally gave up their solitary life and went to the mainland. Just as amazingly, the bare dwellings--huts, nothing more--are still here.
Withstanding the cruel winters and time itself, they remain a mute testament to the craftsmanship of the monks, and perhaps to their faith as well.
Cahirciveen, Valentia Island, Portmagee--all serve as ports for the boats that make daily crossings from Kerry.
But fog, wind and rain often intervene, and even during clear weather the captains may elect to stay home, knowing that sea conditions will prevent their craft from coming close to Blind Man's Cove, the main landing on Skellig Michael.
Little Skellig, privately owned and now a bird refuge, is off-limits; it's almost impossible to land there anyway.
But if conditions are right, one can land on Skellig Michael and spend the day on the island.
A narrow road, built in the early 19th Century, takes visitors to the southern side and to the main access path leading to the monastery. It lies 600 steps up.
Before starting, one catches sight of the first of Skellig's many mysteries: 14 steps carved out of rock, leading nowhere. They do not extend up to the road, nor do they reach down as far as the sea. They are simply there.
Along the path the large, flat stones put down by the monks are safe enough, except that they seem to have no end.
One can rest at Christ's Saddle, a grassy plateau that spreads itself between Skellig's two main peaks: 714-foot Needle's Eye to the west and, slightly lower, Easter Peak, which contains the monastic site.
Huts Well Preserved
That site is shockingly small. Along terraced ground, it's perhaps 330 feet long, 150 feet wide. Six beehive-shaped huts, remarkably well-preserved, take up much of the area.
Using only small, flat stone and no mortar, the monks constructed these rectangular enclosures, roughly 10 feet by 10 feet in floor space and about 10 feet high. They corbeled the stones so that they met at the top to form a small dome.
Some of the "cells," as they are called, have windows; some do not.
The monks also built two boat-shaped oratories and, much later in the Middle Ages, a church that has fallen into ruin. There are also stone crosses (some of them resting elsewhere on the island), two wells and the more modern graves of two lighthouse children who died on Skellig Michael in 1868 and 1869.
What is left of the monastery tells us very little about these monks--who they were, how they lived and why their community was able to survive for six centuries.
Their lives were unremittingly harsh, that is certain. They occupied cramped shelters and subsisted on a diet of sea birds, eggs and fish--arable soil was precious and scarce.
The balm of a sunny summer day would have come as a rare blessing to these monks, who were accustomed to heavy black skies, cold winds and rain. Winters brought a ferocity all their own: Enormous sea swells batter the island, isolating it even more.
Penance for Pilgrims
Histories of Ireland do not shed much light on Skellig. We know that the monastery was attacked by Vikings in 812 and on several other occasions in that 9th Century.
Early in the 16th Century, long after the monks were gone, Skellig began to figure as a place where pilgrims could perform public penance.
They followed Stations of the Cross marked on the island, and if we can believe reports, climbed to the top of Needle's Eye, inched out onto a narrow, overhanging rock and kissed a stone carving at its tip.
In time the pilgrimages took on colors much less somber. Many of the pilgrims were young men and women who, in preparing for marriage, went there ostensibly to fast and pray.
But once freed of mainland supervision, they turned to other amusements. The tradition grew, and soon Irish wits began to record the naughtiness--and the names of the naughty--in poems, humorous, highly defamatory and not always truthful.
"Skellig Lists" they were called--a nice opportunity to slander one's neighbor. For more than 100 years they circulated throughout western Ireland.