Skellig Michael Monastery  cover

Skellig Michael Monastery

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The monastery on Skellig Michael is a true gem of medieval Ireland.
Early Christian monasteries seem to be built in weird and almost inaccessible places but this one is very special. Built on a steep rock rising from a stormy sea at the far western borders of the medieval Christian world, it seems improbable that monks managed to live here between the 7th and 13th century!


Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars on 2 reviews

"I was on a tour in 2010 and saw from afar. I was mesmerized i would love to go back and actually take the boat to the monastery. Hopefully in 2016. What a monumental task to build. Awesome." 5 stars by




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Skellig Michael Monastery

Skellig Michael Monastery

Skellig Michael Monastery With Little Skellig in The Background

Arian Zwegers

(CC BY 2.0)

Gem of Ireland

The monastery on Skellig Michael is a true gem of medieval Ireland.

Early Christian monasteries seem to be built in weird and almost inaccessible places but this one is very special. Built on a steep rock rising from a stormy sea at the far western borders of the medieval Christian world, it seems improbable that monks managed to live here between the 7th and 13th century!

History

History

There is surprisingly little known about the history of this amazing monastery.

Skellig Michael Island

Sean Macentee / (CC BY 2.0)

Early Middle Ages

Historians are unsure about the founding date of the monastery.

It could have happened in the time period between the 6th and 8th century but there are several interesting legends about the island and its importance to Christianity. According to a written text from the middle of the 13th century, a rock near the coast of Ireland was where Saint Michael intervened in the expulsion of dragons from the Ireland by Saint Patrick.

Well, the place looks as if it’s from fairy tales, so why not?

Early Middle Ages (cont.)

In the first centuries monks lived an austere life secluded from the small joys and worries of the mainland.

This early medieval tradition of hermits was also popular elsewhere when people deliberately withdrew from civilization in order to find union with God.

But the monastery was not isolated. It is known that the Norse attacked the monastery in 823. They pillaged the site, it is known that the possible abbot of the monastery, Etgal was captured and died soon after. The monastery was attacked at least one more time.

Saint Michael's Church was built from stone at this location around 950 AD.

Window

Window

View on the Ocean From the Window of Monastery Building

DonRichards / (CC BY 2.0)

Abandonment

Around the 12th century the times changed.

Austere hermits were no longer in fashion and the church was turning to everyday people instead. Also the climate changed, the seas became stormier and the weather turned colder.

In the late 13th through early 14th century monks moved over to the nearby Ballinskelligs monastery, at first only in winter but then altogether. Nevertheless Skellig Michael was seen as an important and sacred place. Pilgrims came often and monks from Ballinskelligs continued to maintain the buildings on the island.

Abandonment (cont.)

In 1579 the island became a private property but pilgrimage continued.

Then in the 1820’s the island was purchased by the state and two lighthouses were built. Construction workers lived in the old monastic cells and often transformed them. The lighthouses were completed by 1826.

The historical value of the monastic complex was recognized in the 1880’s, when the Irish Office of Public Works took them over and started to repair and maintain the buildings. Major conservation works took place in 1970’s – 1980’s, preventing the collapse of terraces and the buildings on them.

Stone Ladders

Stone Ladders

Technohippybiker / (CC BY 2.0)

Description

The monastery of Skellig Michael has one of the most extreme locations for a medieval Christian monastery.

It is perched on the high cliffs of the enormous rock, Skellig Michael island. This 21.9 ha large island is a steep pyramid that towers above the ocean some 12 km from the coast of Ireland. This isolation has also helped to preserve the unique heritage of this site.

Main monastery

Buildings of the monastery are located on narrow, artificially built terraces approximately 180 m above sea level.

Description (cont.)

Three long stone ladders that ascend from three different landing places around the island in order to allow entrance in different weather conditions, can access the structures.

These steps are recently re-built but in some places there is evidence of the older steps.

The buildings were constructed using a dry stone technique. Irish people were very skilled at making structures that could withstand the elements for centuries.

The site contains St. Michael's church, six beehive huts, cells and two oratories, along with numerous stone crosses.

Oratory Building

Oratory Building

One of Oratory Buildings

DonRichards / (CC BY 2.0)

Description (cont.)

The oratory is the largest medieval building and has a shape of an inverted boat, typical for the early medieval Irish monasteries.

Inside is a 3.45 by 2.35 m large room with an entrance door and one small window. The white quartz cross on the wall of this structure was a later addition.

The smaller oratory is comprised of a 2.4 by 1.8 m large room. It was built later than the larger one.

Nearby is a beehive cell, a possible latrine of the monks.

The site contains six cells or "houses" of monks. Twelve monks and an abbot could live here at one time.

Description (cont.)

One of cells is larger than others and may have served as a place of gatherings.

Its walls are 1.8 m thick and the inside is a 4.6 by 3.8 m large room which is 5 m high. This building has two windows.

To the west from the large oratory are ruins of St. Michael's Church. This mortared structure partly collapsed in the late 19th century. This rectangular building most likely had a wooden roof. Also, stone details of this church were transported from elsewhere.

Graveyard With Stone Crosses

Graveyard With Stone Crosses

Florian Christoph / (CC BY 2.0)

Description (cont.)

One noticeable feature is the monk's graveyard. It is a raised 7.3 by 3.2 m platform, part of which has collapsed.

Located here are numerous stone crosses and cross-slabs. More than 90 stone crosses and cross-slabs in total have been found on the island.

Outside the monastery is a smaller structure, a purported guesthouse for the visitors.

Another interesting feature is the sophisticated rainwater collection and purifying system. Rainwater collection cisterns are partly under the cells and can hold up to 450 litres of water. There are two more cisterns.

Buildings are on one terrace but two more terraces were built for gardens, upper and lower monks' gardens and all were enclosed with retaining walls.

In medieval times monks had to repair the walls which are now partially collapsed.

Sunset Over Skellig Michael

Sunset Over Skellig Michael

Sunset Over The Legendary Skellig Michael

Denis Moynihan /

(CC BY 2.0)

South Peak

An oratory with three terraces is found at the South Peak some distance from the main monastery (now only fundament remains).

This location can be accessed by steep, and in some cases, vertical rock-cut steps. If the main monastery is beyond impressive, this inaccessible site is an even more breathtaking, fairy-tale place.

Visitors report that this site leaves a powerful impression. Of course the location of the monastery is unusual and impressive but there is something more than this, a special spirituality, a quiet, mighty magical feeling.

Main Characteristics

Coordinates: 51.7721 N 10.5388 W

No: 498 (list of all attractions)

Categories: Christian monasteries

Values: Architecture, History

Rank: 2

Address: Europe, Ireland, Kerry, Skellig Michael Island near Iveragh Peninsula

Name in Irish: Sceilig Mhichíl mainistir

UNESCO World Heritage status: "Sceilg Mhichíl", 1996, No.757

Founded: sometimes between the 6th and 8th century

Year of construction (church): 950

Order: since the 13th century - Augustinians

Branch of Christianity: Catholics