Stairway to Heaven–Skellig Michael

Over 600 stone steps shimmer silver under a full moon. Any less light, a night pilgrimage would be suicide ascending this steep splinter of rock rising from the sea.  My breath races as my boots seek safe purchase.

High above, torches cast golden globes of illumination from the medieval church where twelve shaved and hooded monks are dressed in rough homespun. They sing the Gregorian chant; their voices weaving an invisible Celtic design through the air, forming a veil of peace. Upwards I climb towards Christ’s Saddle, a strip of land between two 714’ peaks. With God’s grace, I’ll arrive safe.

I imagine this is what it was like long ago on the holy island of Skellig Michael. Coptic monks from Egypt built the six dry stone beehive cells and two oratories as early as the 6th century. Details are murky, but St. Fionan might have had a hand in the establishment of this and eight other monastic islands nearby. One thing is certain, in a written report, the abbot was taken by Vikings in 823 and he died of starvation in captivity. It’s interesting to me that the sweep of Orthodox Christianity sprang from Egypt, not the Roman Catholic Church. How did this odd connection happen? Most likely through trade of Irish tin into Egypt, but early pilgrimages to the Holy land were already established.

Men have wandered in and out of Great Skellig since 1,400 B.C. when mythology mentions a shipwreck and drowning of a Celtic King. Look around. He’s supposed to be buried on the island. Long ago armies regrouped here before invading the mainland. But settlement didn’t occur until the self-sufficient monk’s arrival. Why did they choose to live on a harsh, towering rock? They sought isolation for meditation, prayer, and learning but there’s ancient mysticism in the shape of Egypt’s pyramids as well as this island’s form.

Skellig Michael happens to be rich in stone for building materials and food (fish in the sea, seals, nesting birds or their eggs) but very poor in fresh water which led to an ingenious cistern and filtration system.

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The rectangular opening by the man’s feet is an opening to a cistern.

There’s a hidden 9th century hermitage on the north peak that I’d love to see some day. Access isn’t allowed, although I did read that “arrangements” can be made to visit it. Today, we visit the south-facing peak. The monks discovered a microclimate here for growing crops and they kept goats for meat and milk. IMG_0827

Behind the medieval church, there’s a cemetery with ancient burials and an eroded high cross. Inside the chapel there are two heartbreaking graves from 1871. The lighthouse keeper lost his two-year-old and four-year-old boys. He asked for removal from his post after his third child became sick. Through the eastern window, you can see the uninhabited bird sanctuary of Little Skellig. It is the largest protected breeding area of the northern gannet with over 30,000 pairs.

Why was the monastery abandoned? There are many answers, such as Viking raids and increased storms from climate change which also brought colder weather and less rain. Without fresh water, the island failed to support life. The entire monastic order moved to Ballinskelligs hermitage in the 13th century.

Great Skellig is 7.2 miles west of Portmagee in County Kerry on the Iveragh Peninsula.

Only a handful of captains have permits for once a day landings to the UNESCO heritage site. Go to for a list of excursions from May-October. You must arrange your dates well in advance as seats sell out fast. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to meet Des Lavelle, our charming expert on all things Skellig and the author of The Skellig Story. Ask him to tell you the interesting story about how he discovered the island’s past and have him autograph his book which is sold in town gift shops.


Des giving me a hug…because I’m from Montana and he has family connections in the US.

The Star Wars movies filmed here have made the island a place of pilgrimage and wonder once again. Before you disembark your boat, remember there are no facilities or services on the island. Bring hiking poles for more secure footing on the descent.

Blind Man’s Cove is where a modern dock accommodates tourists if the sea cooperates, which isn’t a sure thing. The other two sites are considered dangerous and date back to early settlement.

Puffins, razorbills, petrels and gannets breed here so your journey up and down the stones will mean stopping to take dozens of photos. One can never have enough puffin pictures.

Circling the island, grey seals rest on rocks or stick their heads out of the water to observe crazy humans in boats. IMG_0889The lighthouse seems to be perched too low and I wonder if waves pound the roof in winter. Dolphins race alongside the boat, cresting and diving in the wake and whales have been spotted.

On the way back to Portmagee, our spiritual journey took another leap. A corona formed an irridescent circle around the sun. Closing my eyes, I sang my own psalm of praise and blessing. IMG_0907After a full day of exploration, we returned to beautiful Portmagee for a fine seafood meal and live music.

Trekking In Ireland–Part 1

Take the high road or the low, you won’t be disappointed exploring Ireland’s trekking paradise. Crest green hills for amazing vistas, be enchanted in fairyland bogs, and invigorate your soul along wild Atlantic cliff trails. Join me for a walk in the Aran Isle of Inis Mor. Next, take the ferry from Aran to Doolin to walk the cliffs of Moher. From Tralee, we’ll trek part of Saint Brendon’s (512-530A.D.) pilgrim route called the Kerry Camino on the Dingle Peninsula. In the next post–part 2–we’ll explore Ballinskellig for beautiful beach trails and high vistas before exploring Valencia Island.

Island Wanderings


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This Aran island looks small, but it’s packed with ancient remains from the Iron age and early Christianity. We wanted time to experience everything in one day and still have time to hike. So we booked a local tour to see the seven churches, the location of an ancient university where Roman boys died at school and were buried in these flat tombs. The 11th century high cross marks the grave of Abbott Thomas 8th/9th century.

From there we explored impressive Dun Aonghasa, an immense stone fort built-in 1100 B.C., on a cliff  300’ above the sea. The small museum is very informative.

Later, the driver dropped us off at the trailhead for the Black Fort on the SW side of the island. The trek:  from above Cockle Strand, walk west along a cobbled path lined with beautiful dry stacked stone walls, all the way to the far edge of the island.

At the bench marking the trail, you’ll turn left and start crossing the fields, trying to stay close to the cliff edge and the sea. It takes time, because the fields are rocky. There are stone walls all over and you have to search for an opening between the walls or a place where it’s easy to step across.

To be honest, we weren’t sure we were headed in the right direction, because there aren’t any trail markers. But the views were incredible and the weather grande. Finally, the black fort wall appeared ahead. Perseverance paid off, because we had the Iron-age ruin to ourselves while waves thundered against the cliff wall below.

Expect to walk about 2 hours roundtrip back to the town of Kilronan. A three-day visit would have been better to explore this interesting island as we missed a lot. Who wouldn’t want to return to see a wormhole?

Getting here: Aran Island Ferries from Galway. Going away: Garrihy’s Doolin Aran Ferries. Both leave from Kilronan Village. Two great restaurants: Joe Watty’s Bar and Bayview Restaurant. Reservations recommended. Great pub with the best Guinness pour in all of Ireland across from the Aran Island Knit place.

Cliffs of Moher

 The entire walk is 14 km, starting from Doolin and ending at Hags Head in the south.

There’s a visitor center with an entry fee in the middle. Some people walk from Doolin to the visitor center and take a shuttle back or walk from Hags Head and do the same thing in reverse. Next time, I’d stay in Doolin for the music festival and then arrange for Sean (info below) to pick me up at the end and transfer to lands beyond. It’s important to note that the trail is narrow in spots and dangerous on a windy or rainy day. Nearby the cliffs is an odd place called Saint Bridget’s well.

It used to be a pagan spot before Christianity when St Bridget took over as the patron saint of women. *If you are following my route and arriving from the Aran Islands by ferry, contact Sean at for a shuttle ride down to Tralee to begin the Kerry Camino.

 Kerry Camino aka: The Dingle Way

This camino begins and ends at St. Johns church in Tralee. We spent the first night at the Grand Hotel on Denny Street  I highly recommend the central location, nice restaurant, and fun pub with live music. Instead of walking like a pilgrim, we booked a one week vacation rental at beautiful Inch beach as a central spot to access trailheads. This required a rental car,  but there are some public transport and semi-private shuttle options. Check with delightful Eighlts at She dragged (rescued?) us out of a pub in Ballyferriter after we got stranded.

Living at beautiful Inch beach was worth every second of that week and I wouldn’t change a thing, even though we created a hybrid  pilg-acation, rather than a traditional camino. The light, colors, and clouds are mesmerizing and delightful. After trekking, none of us could resist putting our shoes back on and wandering up and down the beach.

Several of our team members looked carefully at the camino route, adjusting for a minimum of road walking. The asphalt is very narrow as large tour buses whip past. Tall hedges lining the roadways prevent a safe place to step away. At times it was dangerous. You’ll also notice that we did a few legs in reverse. Assessing the views while walking, I think this was the best way to photograph these segments.

* Day 1, 8.11 miles—Biennerville, from the 1800’s windmill to Camp (avoid 3 miles walking from busy Tralee). The journey starts along an undulating and more rural road. Follow the pilgrim signs uphill to a pathway. Encounter stepping-stones crossing over a wet area, but soon you’ll hop-scotch over boggy ground. Waterproof boots, pants, or gaitors are a must. Thankfully, there are several narrow bridges over rushing streams. Be sure to close gates behind you as you meander past sheep. Once you’re in the middle of the trail, signposts are difficult to see, which is irritating. I felt psychologically tired and not too keen about this segment. Like childbirth–time eases all hardship.

  • Day two -Dunquin to Ventry is about 9 km. Up and down, over and around past beautiful stone walls and ancient round forts. There’s a short stretch on a very narrow road, so hold your breath and walk fast. Turn right at the pilgrim sign onto a dirt path. This section of trail is well-marked, and will take you to the long half-moon shaped beach in Ventry. Pick up shell treasures on your way to town.
  • Day 3— Feohanagh to Mt. Brendon’s summit, ending at Brandon at a fun pub and restorative Guinness. Moderate to difficult, but one of the very best hikes. Poles are a must for the boggy (not as wet as the first leg to Camp) and somewhat steep descent from the summit. Not a place to go in bad weather. Near the bottom, a man showed us how to cut and stack peat. Allow 7 hours. and be flexible for the unexpected.
  • Day 4–Feohanagh to Smerwick and backtrack to star wars town, Ballyferriter: This is another aberration of the pilgrim route, hiking in the opposite direction of Dunquin to Feohanagh (22km). Fantastic beach walks (see pano picture below!) and Ballyferriter is a great place to be lost. There are pilgrim signs indicating the path at the back of the beach.

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More places to visit on Dingle:

Fitzgerald’s Minard Castle, circa 16th century, is on the Kerry Camino route but we ran short of time and drove there instead. It was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell after first blowing Walter Huseey and his men into smithereens.

Oratory of Gallarus, circa 700-800 A.D. This is off the camino route but you can hike or drive there. The word “Gallarus” in Gaelic is thought to mean “house of foreigners”, linking it to a pilgrimage but it could also be an aberattion of “rocky headlands” which describes the topography. Either way, it is a very early Christian church, probably run by monks. The shape is of an upside down boat and the interior has a corabelled roof with a single window where the altar would have been and a door in the back. There is an entry fee, but well worth the docents explanation of the history and unique construction.

Tom Crean’s South Pole Inn–is located in Annscaul and is on the pilgrimage route. Tom (1877-1938) first explored Antarctica with Scott in 1901-1904 on the Discovery expedition where he also met Shackleton, who was a team member. Later, he joined Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition (1911-1913) and this is when Scott lost his life. Tom walked 35 freezing miles alone across the Ross Ice Shelf to save a man and later received a heroic medal for that endevor. His third and final expedition was with Shackleton’s Endurance expedition (1914-1917), which became trapped in ice and sank. Again, an amazing hero, he joined Shackleton to travel 800 nautical miles in a rowboat to get help from a distant whaling station. The inn is still owned by family, and they make a latte with a cute penguin in the foam.  The inside of the pub is filled with memorabillia and newspaper articles. Tom is buried nearby in a deserted cemetary nearby–ask the barkeep how to get there.