In what was one of the most anticipated shoots of the year, ECCG members headed to Portmagee, near Valentia Island, Co. Kerry on Sunday 27/7/14 to catch a boat to Skellig Michael, a rocky island with a long and interesting history located approx. 12 Km offshore in the North Atlantic. Coincidentally, this was a special time in the history of the island as shooting of scenes for the latest Star Wars movie was due to begin there on the following day, Monday 28/7 which was causing much talk and debate locally and nationally.
The 50 minute journey to the island, while choppy, quickly allayed the apprehension of some of the land lubbers in the Group and all landed safely at Blind Man's Cove following some deft maneuvering by the skipper. A 300 meter walk along the lighthouse road, that skirts the south side of the island, gradually rises towards the helicopter pad and about 50 meters further on, is located the beginning of the climb to the top.
At this point we were taken in charge by one of the resident guides, Cathy (yes they actually reside on the island for 14 days at a time!), who gave us some safety guidelines for our visit. Her advice was perfect as the climb to the top is not for the faint-hearted. There are no two ways about it, it is a dangerous place even on the calm, dry summers day that we experienced. The climb, on dry stone paving, is long and steep and there are very few handrails to grasp. That said, by following the advice of the guides to keep to the paths, go at your own speed, rest when necessary and stop if you feel it's not for you, the island can be a safe and enjoyable place to be and is really worth a visit. Cathy also explained that the island is a World Heritage Site and underlined the need for visitors to protect and preserve its integrity by taking nothing from or leaving anything on the island.
The presence of thousands of puffins, seagulls and other birds who call the island home, for a time at least, is a photo fest indeed and only for the thought that there's a return boat to be caught a few hours later, a photographer could easily spend the whole day just shooting them as they are really up close and in no way shy.
Over half way to the top is an area known as Christ's Saddle, an area of flat ground between the island's two peaks. Whatever about its former religious purposes, for today and the next few days at least, it is base-camp for the Star Wars film crew. With all items such as tents, gear, water and provisions having to be manually hauled up the steps to this point, this has to be the least glamorous side of the movie industry.
From Christ's Saddle another steep flight of steps brings you to the monastic site located on a terraced shelf 600 feet above sea-level, and developed between the sixth and eighth centuries. It contains six beehive cells, two oratories as well as a number of stone crosses and slabs. It also contains a later medieval church. The cells and oratories are all of dry-stone wall construction and a carefully designed system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns was developed. It has been estimated that 12-24 monks and an abbot lived here at any one time. A hermitage is located on the south peak. Two lighthouses and living accommodation were built on the island during the 19th century and, as lighthouse keepers were posted to the island for as long as four years at a time, their wives and families moved here also which must have been some experience for them. A second guide, Bob Harris, gave a comprehensive account of the history of the island from the earliest known reference in ancient books right up to the present day.
After an hour or so at the summit taking in the breathtaking views and marveling at the incredible engineering abilities and resilience of the monks and the lighthouse keepers that followed them many centuries later, we headed back down the steps to our boat which was waiting at Blind Man's Cove. On the return trip we paid a close visit to the nearyby 'little Skellig' island which is home to over 23,000 pairs of Gannets, one of the largest colonies in the world. Some seals were also found taking it easy around the island and barely raised their heads as we passed by. The return journey to Portmagee was a bumpy ride to say the least. With a stiff wind and large swell combining, our boat was buffeted quite a bit but we arrived back in port all in one piece and definitely glad we made the trip. What an experience! There was even talk of a return trip....
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