DUBLIN, Ireland — When 6th century monks braved lashing Atlantic waves and scaled the threatening spikes of Skellig island, their mission was to feel the power of God.
Now the rocky outcrop off the southwestern coast of Ireland is hoping to benefit from another force. Home to one of oldest lighthouses in Ireland, Skellig is set to blaze a trail to the future by harnessing solar power to fuel its ancient beam.
The southwest of Ireland, as the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the peninsula via the 110-mile Ring of Kerry well know, is not exactly famous for baking hot sun. But the Commissioners for Irish Lights, the body in charge of Ireland's 80 or so sea lanterns, said this is no problem.
"There is enough sun anywhere in the world for solar panels; it doesn't matter about the rain," commissioner Rory McGee said. "You could put solar panels on the North Pole if you wanted to and they would still work--if there were enough of them."
The keeper of its lighthouse, Richard Foran, 52, is charmed by the idea that this site, already steeped in a great history of innovation, is to be home to yet another inspired engineering feat.
"It is one of the most remarkable places," he said in an interview. "People have done remarkable things there."
First settled in the 6th century, Skellig is one of the most remote monastic sites in Christendom. Visitors can still see the beehive-shaped stone huts built there by monks who lived on the island for 600 years before the unforgiving gales and bitter cold drove them back to the mainland.
"The monks' achievement was incredible," Foran said. They had no fresh water so they carved channels into the rock so the rain water would flow into wells that they had dug themselves."
The most awe-inspiring of the monks' constructions were the three vast flights of stone steps up to the monastery, perched on the lower of Skellig's two rocky peaks, 600 feet up.
The monks hauled vast slabs of stone up almost vertical slopes and carved and chipped and chiseled into the rock to build a route to their sanctuary of devotion.
Some 1,300 years after the monks landed on Skellig and seven centuries after its unforgiving weather drove them away, man again chose the island as the site of an engineering miracle.
"In 1800, the Knight of Kerry wrote to the county sheriff requesting that a lighthouse be built on Skellig because there had been several wrecks and disasters at sea," Foran said.
Twenty years later, fires were again blazing in the monks' huts as workers and their families moved to the island to begin the six-year job of building the lighthouse. Since 1826 it has been a vital warning to ships and planes to steer clear of the rocks of Skellig.