A Dublin cabbie once told me he’d climbed the island of Skellig Michael—a jagged tooth cutting the waters off of South West Ireland—and he’s glad he did it, but he’d never do it again. I knew what he meant; I flung myself out of a perfectly good airplane once and would never do that again. I somehow managed to survive a fire academy in my early 30’s and wouldn’t repeat that either. Skellig Michael was different for me, though, and I didn’t share the cabbie’s feelings. Climbing it was hard work, but I’d go back again.
My Skelligs experience started aboard the Skelluna on a misty, late-September morning. Skelluna was a small fishing boat, and it had two metal benches tied back to back on the main deck for passenger seating. Two couples from the Pacific Northwest, a couple from North Carolina, and another from Germany joined me. There was a solo female traveler who, unlike the other passengers, had no interest in hiking boots or Patagonia jackets. Black hair pulled back with feathered clips, she wore make-up and glided over the platform in high-heeled black boots with such grace and ease you’d swear she had been born in those things. We chatted for a few minutes while waiting for our Captain, Brendan Casey, and wondered aloud about the lack of life preservers.
Mr. Casey, who’d been making the trip to Skellig Michael for over three decades, boarded the vessel shortly after ten, providing a few instructions but most importantly, “Hold on. This boat is fast!”
Several other boats beat us out of Portmagee’s harbor, and we trailed Ursula Mary through the crests and troughs of the north Atlantic as though competing in a race. After getting sprayed with salt water for the third time, I decided to relocate into the drier Captain’s cabin. I stood up and was immediately knocked off balance, falling into the lap of North Carolina Husband. And every time I regained my balance, another dip into a trough would, to his wife’s horror, send me straight back into his lap.
Finally, I teetered into the Captain’s Cabin as we climbed waves that resembled mountains. Skelluna chugged over each one on this water highway, past the island of Little Skellig and its circling masses of white Gannett.
I asked Mr. Casey lots of questions about the boat (are you going too fast?), the ocean (are today’s waves bigger than normal?), and life in general (just how long have you been doing this?).
His accent was thick, and I couldn’t decipher most of his answers over the loud grinding of the engine. However, I gathered that the oceans weren’t any more choppy than usual, we would all live, and it was important for me to find true love back on dry land and have at least one child before I turned 40.
Ursula Mary won the 45 minute race and docked before us. Docking is the part of the trip that can really “feck up your day”. Mr. Casey tethered us to a slick platform when it was our turn, and the boat bobbed up and down in the water next to it. One by one, we grabbed the hand of a man already on shore and disembarked. The jump off had to be timed carefully, otherwise I could have fallen back into the boat or, worse yet, between the boat and rock wall of the platform.
I made it without incident and then had two and a half hours to climb, explore the huts, and get back down to the boat. Climbing was the hard part. There were nearly 700 rock-cut steps to the top, where the monk’s beehive huts are found. High Heal Girl strode ahead of me to Christ’s Saddle on the wings of an angel, resting only to snap a few pictures on the terrace before ascending the last set of steep steps.
With sweat rolling down my back, I huffed and puffed all the way to the top while cursing my lack of interest in daily exercise. How on earth did those monks ever find this island, 8 miles off the coast of Ireland anyway? And how did they manage to build all of those huts on the edge of its peak and then scale the mountain every day? I couldn’t fathom it. Every trip would have been a small pilgrimage.
I rested at each terrace, using my camera as an excuse to pause and catch my breath while people twice my age passed. Still, it was worth it. Reaching the summit is like winning a race with yourself, conquering the thing inside of you that begs to quit. I wrestle with that thing all the time in Ireland, because for some reason – as I’ve mentioned in other blog posts – anything worth seeing here usually requires a lot of climbing.
I stood on that incisor of land and peered straight down at the ocean. Deadly in its form, beautiful and mysterious to look upon, I could understand the draw. The stone huts behind me faced Ireland, and I could imagine waking up on sunny mornings to a view that no artist could ever hope to capture.
Wind-beaten and muscles aching, I walked through the ruins of the huts, church, and graveyard for the next hour. The clouds dissipated, and the sun burnt off the morning haze for my climb back down.
The tour boats swayed in the distance, waiting to collect their passengers before returning to Portmagee. The waters had grown somewhat more violent during the day, and Skelluna shot up and dove down in the waves, making boarding a challenge. With the support of the captain and fellow passengers, we all made it – except for the German couple who ran to the edge of the rock just as Mr. Casey was getting ready to untether us.
And then, the unthinkable happened. The rope snapped just as Mr. Casey was about to grab German Wife’s hand! Skelluna launched backward into the wave, and German Husband grabbed her, nearly falling back onto the rocky platform. Mr. Casey put the boat into reverse and then pulled up to the dock again, securing us with a new rope. It held, and the German couple safely boarded Skelluna.
Disaster thwarted, we pulled away to circle Little Skellig before heading back to shore. I wedged myself between a metal rail and the Captain’s Cabin on the way back, watching the teeming Gannet cover the smaller island in patches of white. It was smooth sailing from that point on.
My Skellig experience wasn’t just about the destination. It was, of course, (and forgive me for sounding cliche) about the journey. That’s the reason you should book a trip and go yourself and while I’ll likely return one day. You should get a little salt water in your face, meet people who share a common goal, and do something that makes your heart beat just a little faster.