Sceilg Mhichíl

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Skellig Michael (Don Richards/Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

 Ireland
County Kerry
N51 46 18.984 W10 32 18.996
Date of Inscription: 1996
Criteria: (iii)(iv)
Property : 21.9 ha
Ref: 757
News/Travelogues: IRELAND; 

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The Skellig Michael (Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Sceilg Mhichíl is an outstanding, and in many respects unique, example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other property can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East, and Europe.

Brief synthesis

Sceilg Mhichíl, also known as Skellig Michael, was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1996. The island of Sceilg Mhichíl lies at the extreme north-western edge of Europe, rising from the Atlantic Ocean almost 12 km west of the lveragh Peninsula in County Kerry. It is the most spectacularly situated of all Early Medieval island monastic sites, particularly the isolated hermitage perched on narrow, human-made terraces just below the South Peak.

Faulting of Devonian sandstone has created a U-shaped depression known today as “Christ’s Valley” or “Christ’s Saddle” 130 m above sea level in the centre of the island, and this is flanked by two peaks, that to the north-east rising to 185 m and that to the west-south-west, 218 m. The rock is deeply eroded and weathered, owing to its exposed position, but it is almost frost-free.

The three island landing points communicate by flights of steps with the principal monastic remains, which are situated on a sloping shelf on the ridge running north-south on the north-eastern side of the island; the hermitage is on the steeper South Peak.

The monastery, its cells and oratories and the even more precipitous structures of the South Peak Hermitage symbolise both the arrival and spread of Christianity and emerging literacy of lands so remote that they were beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire and the ultimate reach of organised monasticism which spread from Egypt by land and sea through Italy and Gaul to Britain and Ireland in a mere two centuries (the 5th and 6th). The date of the foundation of the monastery on this island is not known. It was dedicated to St Michael somewhere between 950 and 1050.

All the physical components of the ideal small monastery exist on Skellig: isolation, difficulty in accessing the site, living spaces, buildings for worship and plots for food production. Here, amongst dramatic and unique settings, the indigenous stone architecture of a past millennium is intact and in a relatively stable condition. A clear evolution of dry stone masonry techniques is evident so this site offers a unique documentation of the development of this type of architecture and construction.

Sceilg Mhichíl is also one of Ireland’s most important sites for breeding seabirds, both for the diversity of the species and the size of the colonies it supports.

Criterion (iii): Sceilg Mhichíl illustrates, as no other property can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe.

Criterion (iv): Sceilg Mhichíl is an outstanding and in many respects a unique example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment.

Suggested Base:

Dingle (Irish: An Daingean or Daingean Uí Chúis) is a town on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Southwest Ireland. Dingle has a harbour and many colourful buildings within its picturesque town centre. [read more]

Tralee is a beautiful town in County Kerry with one of the best climates in Ireland. The witty and honest population is about 25,000. [read more]

Cork (Irish: Corcaigh) is situated on the banks of the River Lee in the south of Ireland. With a city population of 119,230 in 2011 it is the second largest city in the Republic, and the third largest in all of Ireland. Cork is the anglicised version of the Irish word Corcaigh, which means marsh. The city centre was originally built on marshland and boats were able to navigate into the channels which separated the many islands. Many of the wider streets, such as St Patrick’s Street, the South Mall and the Grand Parade, are actually built on former river channels. St Patrick’s Street is Cork’s commercial hub, and is known colloquially as either “Patrick Street” or “Pana”. The centre of the city forms an arrow-shaped island between the North and South channels of the River Lee. There are upwards of thirty bridges over the two channels. [read more]

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7 Replies to “Sceilg Mhichíl”

  1. I’ve not been to Skelling Michael but I have seen some photos and it looks like a really interesting and picturesque place to visit. The rounded domes of those dry wall-style buildings are fascinating!

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  2. The Bass Rock [in Scotland’s Firth of Forth] is a mere lump in comparison: both the Skelligs are pinnacled, crocketed, spired, arched, caverned, minaretted; and these gothic extravagances are not curiosities of the islands: they are the islands: there is nothing else. I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in. It is part of our dream world.

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  3. This was my favorite adventure in Ireland. You take a small boat out and the ride is intense, definitely not for those who get seasick easily. When you get to the island you walk up steep stairs filled with puffins to the top where a monastery awaits. I feel so lucky that I got to experience this.

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  4. At first, Skellig Michael appeared as a minuscule bump on the horizon. It gradually grew and by the time we were alongside the quay it loomed above us, a jagged, sheer-walled monolith of black-gray rock, crusty orange lichen and bright green grasses exploding upward out of the sea. I craned my neck but could not see the summit.

    Once you hop onto land, there is a path to the stairs. My fellow passengers and I navigated them at our own pace, and eventually our clutch of wanderers thinned, allowing for solitary exploration. I took my time, focusing on the steps rather than the view to reduce vertigo. I wasn’t the only sufferer. On one particularly exposed run of stairs, I come upon a strapping man in his 20s descending in a seated position one step at a time. I feared that I would have to borrow his technique on the way back down.

    As I stood amid the monastic ruins, I realized that for all the isolation and deprivation endured by Skellig Michael’s monks, they must also have felt the seductive power of the island’s raw, elemental beauty: a vermilion sunset; the delicate, perfectly ovoid shell of a seabird egg; a diaphanous curtain of approaching rain. For these men whose lives were stripped of all nonessentials, distilled to a purity I cannot imagine, everything on this crag must have sung of their god’s magnificent creation.

    After an hour, I picked my way back down the stairs and to the quay with far less terror than expected. We were a quieter group on the return trip, until we encountered dolphins, an entire pod that cruised alongside us and leapt out of the water in high arcs.

    After disembarking at Derrynane Harbour, during the hourlong drive back to the house where I was staying, I couldn’t shake the sense that I’d just awakened from a dream. One populated with ancient monks and dolphins and a swirling ocean mist that lingered long after my trip across the turbulent sea.

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