Skellig Michael and the Ring of Kerry

You know that rocky island with the beehive huts where Luke Skywalker goes to grow a beard and become mystical in the most recent Star Wars movie? Well, it turns out that’s a real place. Off the western coast of Ireland two tiny spikes of rock (“skelligs”) jut out from the sea. On the larger, a community of Christian monks dwelt in grim remoteness from the 5th Century to the 12th. On the smaller, a colony of 50,000 gannets that continues strong to this day.

The little skellig is inaccessible to humans, and only 150 people per day are allowed on the big one–and by the time I booked the tickets were long gone. So I booked a little boat that promised to take me out to have an up-close look from the water.

We left from the tiny village of Portmagee a little after 9am.

The morning sun was just peeking out of the clouds and all was still. Which was a good thing — not only did it make for a pretty vista, it also meant the 8-mile crossing to the skelligs would be smooth.

A little more than an hour later we found ourselves approaching the jagged little skellig.

It looked like something that would hide a pirates lair. And it was completely covered in giant white birds. The gannets have wingspans up to 6 feet and stop here to raise their young during the summer before migrating to Africa for the winter.

We circled the craggy rock, miraculously escaping falling poo from the birds wheeling above, and moved toward the comparatively hospitable great skellig.

Known as Skellig Michael, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its significance as one of the earliest and best-preserved examples of Christian monasticism dedicated to St Michael upon pyramidal islands (the Mont Saint Michel is another, more famous example). You could see the ancient pathway leading nearly straight up the vertical face.

And at the top, the rounded beehive huts just barely peeped out above a retaining wall.

I wished I could have climbed up there!!

But alas.

We kept circling and found the little white 19th Century lighthouse that is still in use.

And that was about it. We headed back to the mainland and the skelligs dwindled into the distance looking mysterious beneath the dark clouds that had blown in. Life as a monk, or later lighthouse keeper, must have been bleak.

Back on shore, I stopped for a refreshment of fish and chips…

…before starting out to finish the Ring of Kerry, as the famously scenic highway that hugs the coast of this peninsula is called. The views ranged from soft green pastures to wild valleys and peaceful coves with picturesque villages. But the prize for breathtaking drama went to the cliffs of Kerry which, towering nearly 1,000 feet above the water and sloping down to the sheltered interior, seemed to combine all of it into one sweeping vista.

It took me the rest of the day to get back to Killarney. The roads were tiny and slow, and the natural beauty discouraged rushing. I stopped a couple of times but mostly just drove and soaked it up. It felt quiet and remote, and a bit more wild and overgrown than the English countryside.

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