You don’t need to venture to a galaxy far, far way to experience the beautifully dramatic scenery featured in the closing scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens; but approaching the Skellig Islands you’ll feel like you’ve been whisked away to another world.
If you’re not a Star Wars fan, don’t go away – these islands are famous in their own right, and they have reams of history, wildlife, and awe-inspiring scenery to offer. If you’ve seen the box-office hit you should know which scene I’m referring to, or it will soon become evident. If you haven’t, well, without including any spoilers, I can say that the islands feature right at the end of the movie – you can’t miss them.
The wild out-crops rise out of the Atlantic Ocean like giant, ragged, stone pyramids, washed with greenery and reaching up to 230 metres above sea level. Uninhabited by humans, the islands have an air of peace and spiritual isolation.
The reclusive environment, secluded from civilisation and predators, provides a perfect habitat and breeding ground for sea birds. Between April and late August, thousands of Atlantic Puffins come to the islands to raise their chicks. Little Skellig, the smallest of the islands, also hosts around 30,000 pairs of northern gannets. However, although the birds lay claim to the islands and Skellig Michael has now been declared a Statutory Nature Reserve, they weren’t always the only residents.
Skellig Michael, once home to monks of the Irish Church has a rich, religious history. The monastery that still remains perched atop the lower peak dates the monks’ occupancy back to at least the sixth-century. The corbelled, drystone architecture boasts a monastic church and two oratories, as well as six historic beehive cells, which are among the oldest known structures in Ireland and Scotland. Rambling around Skellig Michael and taking on the steep, 650 step, stone staircase it’s still possible to imagine what life on the inhospitable island was like for the monks.
In the thirteenth century, climatic change, which brought frequent Atlantic storms and colder weather, coinciding with the reorganisation of the Irish Church, drove the monks to the mainland. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century, the Skellig Michael became a pilgrimage site. Since, the island has changed hands a number of times, still retaining its historic significance, to eventually become listed as a prestigious UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
While the islands are isolated, you needn’t live like the monks during your visit. Within a couple of miles of The Pier in Portmagee on the mainland – the dock from which the Skellig boat tours depart – there are plenty of holiday rentals offering escape of a different kind: comfort and luxury. One particularly unique holiday rental in the area is 159 Ballinskelligs a.k.a. Shamrock Cottage. The large seven-bed, detached house has a luxurious interior that retains the traditional, cosy feel of a small cottage. The location is quiet, secluded and scenic, allowing you to continue appreciating the beauty of the Irish coast while sheltered away after a day breathing the Atlantic winds.