by Pádraic Gilligan, Managing Partner, SoolNua
Sea Sick Legend
To compare my reluctance to undertake the 11km voyage to Skellig Michael to that of an 8th century monk, is, admittedly, far fetched and churlish. My apprehension, after all, was due to a simple physiological lacking on my part: I suffer acute motion sickness and the journey to Skellig Michael, an improbable rocky island outcrop surrounded by the moody swell of the Atlantic, is the stuff of sea-sick legend! But my journey there and back, however unpleasant it might be, was aboard a diesel powered, fully certified sea craft and mercifully over in a matter of hours. The departure of a young man 1500 years ago was an altogether different matter – his vessel a tiny wooden frame boat covered in calf skin, his commitment to stay there, total, permanent, lifelong.
High Danger and Extreme Isolation
The young Irish men who built the extraordinary monastic settlement high up on the side of Skellig Michael were drawn to this place of high danger and extreme isolation by an unshakeable belief that this was their calling. Their profound Christian faith drew them to this spiritual battleground, to wage war against the limitations of the flesh and forge a deeper union with their God. Our journey there was as modern tourists, contemporary voyeurs, crossing off another item from our bucket list, knotching up another “been there, done that” on our ever-growing trophy cabinet of bragging rights. If we could stomach the churning seas, we’d have another great story to tell at our next dinner party. I was uneasy but this unease was more than mere sea sickness.
Sanitised and Commodified
I thought a lot about how today’s “tourism products” sanitise and commodify heritage sites all over the world, often robbing them of their true significance and worth by not telling their stories accurately or well. We visit the Colosseum in the morning, the Vatican in the afternoon, cursorily read some of the display boards, take a few selfies and then eat pizza in Piazza Navona with little more than a superficial understanding of the extraordinary cultural importance of what we’ve seen. We’re mere surface skaters and, in our efforts to cross another item off our list, we lose out substantially on what the great Italian author Cesare Pavese calls the “brutality” of travel:
Travelling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.
The Skellig Experience
Archaeologists estimate that Skellig Michael hosted no more than 12 monks at a time, the same number, coincidentally, that travels in each of the 14 boats licensed to make a single landing each day during the short mid May to mid October season when the island is open for visitors. It’s an extremely rocky crossing even when the sun is shining, leaving plenty of reflection time as you list from side to side during the 90 minute crossing (though some of the boats, apparently, are faster than others and, if you’re lucky, the transfer time can be reduced by half). When you’re prone to sea sickness like me then Pavese’s words describe the journey perfectly – off-balance, out of your comfort zone and, on the tiny deck of an open boat, as close as ever to the “essential things”.
Landing at the quay on Skellig Michael is only the first part of the journey. You then have to make your way painstakingly up to the Top of the Rock to visit the remains of the monastic settlement which, they tell us, may have been inhabited from as early as the sixth century. From the sixth century until the early middle ages Skellig Michael was a beacon of the Christian faith, achieving fame across all of Europe as an inspiring example of extreme asceticism, of individuals making the radical choice to eschew physical comfort and earthy possessions and devote themselves to prayer and hard work.
These days three guides live permanently on the island during the short season, working in two weeks on | one week off shifts. In ways their experience of the island and its frequently shifting humours and moods is the closest we come today to what the early Christian communities experienced during the 600 years of the island’s halcyon days. Except, of course, that today’s semi-permanent residents have mobile phones and good transmission signals. However, they tell the island’s story extremely well and obviously appreciate the extra human activity that fills a few hours each day. When the weather is bad, however, they’re as cut off and isolated as the monks of the past, often unable to venture outside their quarters at all due to storm force winds and lashing rains.
To get to the tiny monastic settlement you have to climb over 600 ancient steps, most original and in place since the island’s origins. There are no bannisters or grab rails and the gradient is very steep. Often, for the return journey, visitors descend on their backsides such is the impact of the vertigo effect. The route to the top is paradise for nature or bird watchers as an immense colony of puffins builds nests under the soil, remaining on the island until mid August. The steps twist and turn offering incredible views of Little Skellig – home to the world’s second largest colony of Gannets (there are estimated to be 30,000 pairs there) – back towards the west coast of Kerry and onwards over the raging ocean.
The monastery features a tiny cluster of 6 dry stone, beehive shaped cells, two small oratories and some stone crosses and slabs. There are also the remains of a later Church dating, probably from the tenth century. You’re left in awesome wonder at the entire project trying to figure out how they shaped the stone to create the shelters, asking yourself whether they shipped it out from the mainland or re-sited it from other parts of the island.
Mostly, however, you’re left mesmerized by the faith that brought the monks here in the first place and you feel a small frisson of pride that you made the journey yourself, difficult as it might have been, and, in your very temporary physical discomfort lived a tiny bit of what Skellig Michael is all about – before it takes another another meaning entirely when the new Star Wars movie is released in December 2015 featuring precious footage of the island.
Pádraic Gilligan and Patrick Delaney are the owners and Managing Partners at SoolNua, a marketing consultancy advising destinations, venues and hotels on strategy, marketing and training for the MICE sector.