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Great, Mysterious wonder: A Trip to the Skellig Islands

“Whoever has not stood in the graveyard on the summit of that cliff, among the beehive dwellings and beehive oratory, does not know Ireland through and through . . .”

–George Bernard Shaw

The craggy, inhospitable Skellig Islands rise precipitously from the sea. Here gray skies meet stormy horizons about 14km (8 miles) off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula. From the mainland, Skellig Michael and Little Skellig appear impossibly sharp-angled and daunting even today—just imagine how perilous the mere act of getting there would have been in the 6th and 7th centuries. Back then, a group of monks built a community on the steepest, most wind-battered peaks. Over time, they carved 600 steps into the cliffs and built monastic buildings hundreds of feet above the ocean. The complex is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There is something tragic and beautiful about the remains of the ancient oratories and beehive cells there. Historians know very little about these monks and how they lived, although they obviously sought intense isolation. Records relating to the Skelligs indicate that even here, all but completely hidden, the monastery was found by Vikings, who punished it as they did all the Irish monastic settlements. Monks were kidnapped and killed in attacks in the 8th century, but the settlement always recovered. To this day, nobody knows why the monks finally abandoned the rock in the 12th century.

Landing is only possible on Skellig Michael ★★★, the largest of the islands. Due to its protected status, there’s an annual quota for the number of visitors allowed. Although the island has always been a popular attraction, this was rarely a problem in the past—and then Star Wars came along. Filming in 2014 and 2016 caused understandable levels of excitement locally—and even the most tenuous connections to the production have led to ”Home of Star Wars!” signs cropping up in local villages. Demand to visit Skellig Michael has skyrocketed, quickly filling the quota.

So if you want to have the unique experience of making landfall on Skellig Michael, the golden rule is reserve tickets as far in advance as possible. Even in the recent past it was usually possible to buy tickets on the day, even in summer—nowadays, they sell out weeks beforehand. The following are the only boat operators currently authorized to land on Skellig Michael: Seanie Murphy (www.skelligsrock.com; 066/947-6214);  Eoin Walsh (www.skelligboattrips.ie; 066/947-6327); Timmy Casey (email skelligtrips@gmail.com; 087/464-6740); Michael O’Sullivan (www.butlerarms.com/skelligs.html; 066/947-4255); Patrick Murphy (email murphyseacruise@eircom.net; 066/947-7156); Brendan Casey (066/947-2437); Dan and Donal McCrohan (066/947-6142); Joe Roddy (087/284-4460); Kenneth Roddy (066/947-4268); Dermot Walsh (066/947-6120); and John O’Shea (email skelligtours@gmail.com; 087/689-8431). Most, though not all, tours leave from Portmagee harbor; be sure to check when you book.

Whether or not you’re making the trip out there, the Skellig Experience (www.skelligexperience.com; 066/947-6306) is an excellent visitor center devoted to the islands and their history. It tells you all about the extraordinary history of these ancient edifices and also offers boat trips out to see the islands. The center, which is on Valentia Island (reached via a road bridge from Portmagee) is open daily 10am to 6pm in May, June, and September; 10am to 7pm in July and August; in March, April, October, and November, it’s open weekdays only from 10am to 4:30pm. Last entry is 1 hour before closing. Admission costs €5 adults, €4 seniors and students, €3 children, and €14 families.

The visitor center also offers boat trips to the Skelligs; the cost of admission plus a cruise is €30 adults, €28 seniors and students, €18 children, and €85 families. However, note that these trips only cruise around the Skelligs, and do not make landfall. If you want to see the ruins on Skellig Michael up close, you have to go with one of the independent boat operators listed above.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.