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 Ireland–Part 2

Let’s head southwest to the Kerry Peninsula where our first stop is in Killarney to check out 15th century Ross castle. If you like, pay the entrance fee and tour inside.

Notice the steps down to the lake where a short boat trip takes us to the holy island of Innisfallen. The monastery, built in the 7th century by St. Finian the Leper, was sacked many times by the Vikings, rising each time from destruction. Most of the ruins seen today are from the 12th century.

Afterwards, drive towards Cahirsiveeen with beautiful Dingle bay on the right hand side. If you pre-plan, you’ve packed a picnic lunch to enjoy at one of the scenic overlooks. Our final destination will be Ballinskelligs–with cinema worthy beaches, amazing restaurants close by and live music in many o’pub. Stay with perfect hosts, Dom and Lillian at the old school house for great digs and the best breakfast in Ireland.  The feature sunset photo was taken in their backyard.


Bolus Loop Walk –Ballinskelligs

7.5 km and allow 2.5 hours. This fantastic trail starts at the car park where there’s a monument to Americans who crashed an airplane into the ocean during WWII.

Walk along the country road, arriving at a short ladder into the field and keep following the purple sign markers. Slowly climb the ridge, with views across the Atlantic ocean to Skelling Michael. IMG_2004Moderate trek, steady uphill with beautiful views.  Oh—and don’t miss the Skellig chocolate factory after you’re done hiking. Definelty worth a stop!

Bentee Loop


This 9 mile, moderate trail is worth every drop of sweat up “the mountain of the cross”. We started behind the gas station in Cahirsiveen, following the purple signposts to an overlook of the city for fantastic views east as well as back toward town. IMG_0927Continuing on the loop, there’s some shade while walking south until the track switches uphill and heads west.

The view at the summit is breathtaking, looking down upon Cahirsiveen, over to Portmagee,Valencia Island and to lands beyond. On a clear day, you really can see forever.

One note on the descent: about a third of the way down the hill, you’ll come to TWO purple sign markers. One heads straight downhill; the other cuts diagonally left toward the west. We couldn’t see any landmarks to help make an educated guess on which path to take and there wasn’t a trail map at that juncture. Suffice it to say that we think we took the wrong route since it took us so long to get back to town. Taking all in stride, we still found ways to entertain ourselves. The reward on a hot day was ice cream back at our starting point.—Beentee-Loop/

 Gorgeous Ladies Beach, AKA: Ballinskelligs Beach


Fabulous beaches are a well-kept secret in Ireland and Ballinskelligs has more than its share of powdery sand leading to turquoise seas. This one is special, because it comes with its own tower castle, McCarthy Mor, dating to the 15th or 16th century.

Wait! It gets better. Farther down the beach there are more ruins of a monastery, church, and graveyard. Monks abandoned Skellig Michael in the 12th century (more on the reason in the next post) and settled in this location.

The half-moon shaped beach is gorgeous with these landmarks beckoning exploration.

Yes, it was a hot day and no, we weren’t concentrating on walking. But I put in a few miles with  my camera while searching for treasures: shells, old bits of pottery, and sea glass too.IMG_1025 Behind the car park there’s a grassy area where events are held, such as the farmers or antique flea market. Performers play Celtic and folk tunes. There’s also a tourist info spot inside a café and restrooms.

Reenroe Beach


            Start at  Reenroe Beach and continue walking another 1km down the sand, heading towards Waterville. Stop for a snack in Charlie Chaplin’s town at


Derrymore Mass Path


          Driving from Ballingskellig, stop at this high pass with an amazing overlook.

Derrymore Mass Path is a 6.3 km loop trail dedicated to the Liberator, Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847) at a time when being Catholic meant a person could not marry, vote, or own land. Daniel became a crusader to fight for religious and personal rights. We started at his home in Catherdaniel. IMG_1017There is an entry free for the main manse, but the gardens, chapel, and some of the outbuildings are free. Start by walking the enchanting fairy trail in the garden. It is a delight for people of all ages and the most likely place for a leprechan or fairy to live.

When you’re done exploring, take the three-minute walk across the dunes to see an unbelievable turquoise sea and beaches that rival any Caribbean location. Blue skies and warm temperatures will mean a swim and nap are in order. Temptation will temporarily win the day.

After a little rest, head to the back of the beach and notice the yellow man walking posts for the Mass Path. Follow them around Derrymore bay, enjoying four beaches connected like perfect pearls between the green landscape.

In time, reach (Ahamore) Abbey Island. If the tide is out, you can walk in without getting wet. These ruins and the church yard are from the days of Saint Fionan in the 6th century. Much of the old site has been reclaimed by the sea. What exits are remains of a church with arched windows and old graves mixed with current era all around the site. The most notable person buried here is Mary O’Connell—Daniel the Liberator’s wife.

Valentia Island

Valentia is a beautiful place with plenty to explore. The lighthouse and museum at Cromwell Point is well done, explaining what life was like to live in a dangerous spot during bad storms. Follow remains of a 16th century fort while walking around the site. The Glanleam standing stone from the bronze age is located right inside of Cromwell’s star-shaped fort. I wonder what those medieval men destroyed in the process of building the military stronghold…

Geokaun Mountain and the Fogher Cliffs are the highest point of the island and there’s nice, easy walks around the hills with spectacular 360 degree views. Expect a vehicle entry fee to drive up.

Driving to the west end of the island, we tried finding St. Brendan’s Well (circa 486) where he baptized pagans, but it proved impossible. I believe there was a sign on the main road, but once we headed down, a chain stretched across the path. It looked as if we might be tresspassing on a farmer’s land, so we turned around. Maybe you’ll have better luck.

Keep tuned in! Next post the force will be with you at the holy island of Skellig Michael.