The Skelligs - Irish Pictures (1888)

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

Chapter V: Glengariff, Killarney, and Valentia … continued

« Previous Page | Start of Chapter | Book Contents | Next Page »

The Skelligs are three rocky islets forming the most south-westerly extensions of the kingdom of Ireland. The strong light perched on a ledge of the Great Skellig, shining out clear and powerful over sixteen or twenty miles of the heaving Atlantic, is the first sign of land that the traveller from the west sees. Though inhabited now only by the light-keepers and their families, centuries ago a monastery flourished there, and no extant remains in Ireland enable us to picture the old monastic life of the early Irish Church better than those which still crown the lofty top of the Great Skellig.

Map of Skellig Islands

Map of Skelligs

It was long the writer's desire to visit this famous spot, and this desire was not lessened by the discovery that the trip was not easy to accomplish, and that the intending visitor was here, more than in most spots along this coast, at the mercy of wind and weather. Unless these were very propitious, the attempt to land was certain to result in failure. But wind and weather were in a kindly mood towards him on the one occasion when he found himself at Valentia with a day to spare; and no single day's excursion has ever afforded him fuller gratification.

The nearest village to the Skelligs on the mainland is Port Magee, a little fishing station on the strait separating the southern coast of Valentia Island from the mainland. It is from this place that, at the time of writing (1888), the boat carrying supplies and letters to the lighthouse on the rock sails at irregular intervals. It is possible to arrange for a visit in this boat, but it is more satisfactory in most cases to hire one specially for the excursion. The Great Skellig is a sharp-pointed mass of rock, rising straight up from the bosom of the Atlantic, and situated about 9 miles to the south-west of Port Magee. It is a most enjoyable expedition for those who are not afflicted with nervousness, and who can sit for hours in a small boat as she rides upon the mighty Atlantic swell, and receive therefrom nothing but benefit and enjoyment. It is emphatically a trip to be avoided by the timid, by those subject to sea-sickness, and, unless under very exceptional circumstances, by ladies.

Perhaps some adequate impression of the interest of such a trip, and of the Skelligs themselves, can best be conveyed to the reader by describing the author's excursion thither. It fell upon an April day, the only one that could be spared for the adventure. On awaking at 6.30 A.M.—-and he who would see the Skelligs should be early on the road—the eye was gladdened by the sight of brilliant sunshine. A jaunting car soon traversed the seven miles that intervene between Knights Town and the ferry over against Port Magee. A very ancient mariner conveys passengers across, and then a certain amount of bargaining secured a boat and a crew of four fine muscular young fishermen for the trip out and back to the Skelligs. The scale of payment was determined to some extent by their assurance that it would be necessary in the state of the wind and weather on that particular day to row probably the whole way there, and certainly the whole way back. And their forecast proved true.

And here it may be remarked that no one, from economical or other reasons, should attempt this trip without at least four men. Even in the best weather the landing upon the rock is a somewhat delicate operation, and no boat should ever start which is not in itself capable of standing very rough weather, and so manned that if caught in a breeze there should be ample strength to do all that is needful. Whether I paid more or less than usual I am unable to say. I hired the boat and the four men for the day at a charge of twenty-five shillings, and when they landed me safe and sound in the evening, I felt they had well earned their money.

We rowed away from the tiny pier at Port Magee about 10 A.M., and were soon at the mouth of the inlet upon which Port Magee is situated. There was a slight breeze from the north-east, the sun was shining, the sea had a steel-blue tint, the sky was clear, and as we drew near the mouth of the inlet the first taste of what was before us came. A broken ledge of rocks protects the mouth of the harbour. Within the sea was almost calm, but upon the ledge the Atlantic was breaking with a low, thunderous roar, which would not have been pleasing had not the wild foam looked so dazzlingly white in the sunshine, and so fascinated the eye with its ever-varying forms of beauty, that delight in the scene quite overpowered the nervous imagination of what might happen should one of those great rollers send our light boat against any of the thousand ugly pointed rocks so uncannily close to our side. A few minutes' hard rowing, and we were out upon the main. Turning a bold headland, we got our first view of the islets for which we were making. Away out on the ocean, sharply defined against the horizon, were two huge masses of rock, and most beautiful did they appear. Too far away to exhibit any of their inequalities of outline, they rose up from the sea like pyramids, and, enshrouded in an exquisite blue haze, they appeared like twin sapphires. Seen from the low elevation of the boat, lying peacefully on the far horizon, shining forth in their sapphire beauty, one could easily feel and appreciate how the Irish along this coast have acquired and cling to the belief that westwards are the Islands of the Blest, the land of plenty and of peace.

As the land receded we began to get a superb view of the coast, and a cruel coast it is. Successively Bray Head, Puffin Island, Bolus Head, the Great Blasquets, and many another headland and islet, came into view. The cliffs in many parts rise from three to six hundred feet, in some cases sheer from the water. But weird and fantastic in form as they often are, wherever the eye lights one impression is received, that of eternal strength. There is nothing of the curious frayed appearance presented by the horizontal strata of the cliffs further north. These rise up boldly, uncompromisingly, and you feel as you look upon them that here is a solidity and a strength upon which even the Atlantic in its seasons of wildest fury can make no impression. It is in vain that his hugest billows dash against these tremendous barriers. In the conflict, ceaseless, yet fruitless, all softness has disappeared. They present a stern grey front, and in their quiet yet awe-inspiring fixity they seem to say, 'Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further, and here shall thy proud waves be stayed.'

We row on, and for two or three miles seem to be making little or no headway. But gradually the cliffs of the mainland recede, and we draw near to the first of the group, that known as the Lemon Rock. This is a mass of rock rising only a few feet above high water mark. It has been worn into a ragged outline by the ceaseless action of the water, and as we pass it so far away that the roar of the surge is softened by the distance, we can see the spray shooting up in columns of the purest white. It seems to take a long while, our crew rowing hard all the time, to get beyond the Lemon Rock. But at last it is left upon our port quarter, and we have now done the larger half of our outward journey. We slowly cross the stretch of two or three miles which separate the Lemon Rock from the Little Skellig. One feels afresh the insignificance of man in the presence of the great forces of nature. The sun has now gone behind the clouds, the sea has changed to a cold grey, the waves have risen a little, the boat seems small and frail, the ocean seems wide and mighty. There is no vessel within two or three miles of us, and only five or six visible in the whole circuit of our horizon. The strongest swimmer, in case of need, could hardly hope to reach either the Skelligs or the shore. But a glance at the trim craft as she steadily surmounts wave after wave, a look at the intelligent faces and sturdy arms of the rowers as they cheerily urge on the boat, reassures us, and we banish all nervous thoughts and give ourselves up to thorough enjoyment of an hour not likely to recur in a lifetime.

« Previous Page | Start of Chapter | Book Contents | Next Page »