The Hardcore Monks of Skellig Michael

Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders
March 25 2014 10:19 AM

Skellig Michael: Treacherous Rocks, Hardcore Monks, and Adorable Puffins

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Little Skellig viewed from the beehive huts of Skellig Michael.

Photo: Arian Zwegers/Creative Commons

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The dozen monks who sequestered themselves on this rocky island in the seventh century were a hardy lot. Skellig Michael — "skellig," derived from the Irish word sceillic, means "steep rock" — lies eight miles from the coast of County Kerry. It is beset by wind and rain, which make the ascent to its 714-foot-high peak extra treacherous.

Despite these conditions, a group of determined Irish Christians established a monastic outpost on the island that remains largely intact 1,400 years later. Using stones, the monks built hundreds of stairs leading up to Skellig Michael's summit, where they erected six beehive-shaped stone huts and a small chapel.

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Surviving on a diet of fish, seabirds, and vegetables grown in the monastery garden, monks occupied Skellig Michael continuously until the late 12th century, when a worsening climate and more frequent storms sent them back to the mainland. The settlement survived multiple Viking raids during the ninth century.

Climbing the 670 steep, uneven steps to the top presents both a physical and mental challenge, but crowds of puffins and other seabirds are there to cheer you on. At the summit you can enter the monastic huts and imagine the grueling life of a seventh-century ascetic.

Rocky island highs:


View Great Skellig in a larger map