Skellig History - Irish Pictures (1888)

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil (1888) by Richard Lovett

Chapter V: Glengariff, Killarney, and Valentia … concluded

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Our knowledge of the history of the Great Skellig is neither full nor consecutive, but there are very interesting references to it in the chief Irish writers. Keating [5] tells the story of how in ancient days the Milesians were wrecked off the south-west coast of Ireland by the powerful enchantments of the Tuatha de Danaans, and goes on to relate that 'the valiant Ir, the son of Milesius, with his ship, met the same fate; for he was divided from the fleet, and was driven upon the western coast of Desmond, in the kingdom of Ireland, where he split upon the rocks, and every man perished. The body of this unfortunate prince was cast upon the shore, and was buried in a small island called Sceilig Mhichil. This place, by reason of its peculiar qualities, deserves a particular description. It is a kind of rock, situated a few leagues in the sea, and since St. Patrick's time much frequented by way of piety and devotion; the top of it is flat and plain, and though the depth of earth be but shallow, it is observed to be of a very fattening nature, and feeds abundance of wild fowl that are forced to be confined upon it; I say they are forced, because the surface of the ground, it is supposed, has that attractive virtue as to draw down all the birds that attempt to fly over it, and oblige them to alight upon the rock. The people who live nigh resort hither in small boats, when the sea is calm, to catch these birds, whose flesh being very sweet they use for provision, and their feathers for other occasions; and it is to be observed that these fowl, though almost innumerable, are exceeding fat, notwithstanding the top of the rock is but small, and does not exceed three acres of land. The isle is surrounded by high and almost inaccessible precipices that hang dreadfully over the sea, which is generally rough, and roars hideously beneath. There is but one track, and that very narrow, that leads up to the top, and the ascent is so difficult and frightful that few are so hardy as to attempt it.'

Although Keating states that since St. Patrick's day the rock has been a place of pilgrimage, there is no historical evidence of this fact. The Annals record several plunderings of the islet by the Danes about 823 A.D. For example, under that date the Annals of Ulster state, 'Eitgau of Scelig was carried away by the strangers, and soon died of hunger and thirst.'

Giraldus Cambrensis, in his Topographia Hiberniae, a work dating from A.D. 1187, thus refers to the Skelligs: 'In the southern part of Munster, in the neighbourhood of Cork, there is an island with a church dedicated to St. Michael, famed for its orthodox sanctity from very ancient times;' and Lord Dunraven [6] gives a passage from an ancient MS., extracted by Mr. W. M. Hennesy, to the following effect: 'This Rocke stands three leagues from the earth in the main ocean. Itt is all at lest 700 perches long or heigh, and with much adoe one man can climb up the stayres to it at a tyme, if he looks of any side he will be afrayd of falling into sea. Att the top of this rock is a church built, and a churchyeard about it, people coming too for to perform a pilgrimage on that Rocke. There is a fount or well springing out of the Rocke in the top, and which is very admirable. There is no bird that threds in the said churchyeard above, but must go to the very brinke or bancke thereof afore they can fly; they can fly over it, but if they light in that place they can never fly until they run to the brink as afforesaide. It is named from the Archangell St. Michaell, in Irish Sceilig Mhichil.'

We are not bound in this later age to accept as undoubted all the marvels attributed to the Rock in ancient times, but these references show that in remote days, no less than now, it was difficult of approach, and that its religious associations stirred some of the deepest emotions of the heart.

But the afternoon is wearing on, the wind is freshening a little, and though we would gladly linger for hours, prudence warns us that it is time to depart. A large proportion of the population of the island accompanies us to the cove, where our boat is tossing somewhat restlessly upon waters that are in much more lively motion than when we landed. The tide is high, and the boatmen's care and skill are enlisted in the task of getting us safely embarked. Any nervous hesitation, or a foot slipping at the critical moment, might now be serious, for the boat is rising from four to six feet as each surge of the tide rolls into the cove. But in a few moments we are all safely on board, and the bow pointing towards Port Magee. We are not one hundred yards from the island before we have clear evidence that the sea is higher and the breeze stronger than it was two hours before. The white caps of the breaking waves are here and there to be seen, and though the four rowers put their strength into each pull, we seem to leave the Great Skellig only very slowly behind us. And again and again does the eye delight in its almost savage and yet fascinating outlines. For a time the weather seems inclined to give us a touch of one of its rougher moods. As it is, we have to shape our course so as to run to the south of Puffin Island, so called because frequented by puffins. And after a really hard pull of an hour and a half's duration, we get under its lee, and the work gets easier. The row northwards, almost immediately under the frowning cliffs of the mainland, enables us to study closely the splendid peculiarities of this coast; and the nearer inspection only deepens the first impression, viz., that it is a cruel coast for any boat or ship in distress, but that it is a superb coast for the magnificent way in which it seems to assert its permanent supremacy to the restless, passionate, and eagerly on-rushing ocean.

As we enter the harbour, and glide into the still water, the surf in the outer ledges and reefs thundering more loudly and heavily than in the morning, the sun again shines forth. We take a long, lingering farewell of the sapphire islets, and enjoy a lovely evening walk home through the heart of Valentia from Port Magee to the hotel at Knights Town, having added another to the too short list of our notable days of travel and adventure.

Stone Oratory at Sallerus, County Kerry

Stone Oratory at Sallerus, County Kerry


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[5] General History of Ireland (1854 edition, crown 8vo.), p. 136.

[6] Notes on Irish Architecture, vol. i., p. 36.