Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Ireland: Puffins and piety

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Three of the monks' distinctive cells on the island of Great Skellig. Photo / Jill Worrall
Three of the monks' distinctive cells on the island of Great Skellig. Photo / Jill Worrall

We're all at sea. And what a sea it is - a swell that I reckon is above five metres is throwing our small vessel around the Atlantic like a sock in a washing machine.

The Sea Quest belongs to Seanie O'Murphy. He's standing beside David, today's skipper, peering through the rain and spray-lashed window at the swells. I watch his body language more than I watch the sea. He looks alert, even a little tense but not panic-stricken.

This is the 11km crossing between Portmagee on Ireland's southwestern coast and the Skellig Islands. Seanie says if the seas were any worse he'd have been staying in port. "T'is a bit lumpy," he remarks.

Seanie is a Kerryman as is my guide Frank, who is standing beside me, apparently oblivious to the driving rain and the mountainous steely blue waves that are rolling towards us.

"I went to school with Seanie," says Frank, which apparently is all the reassurance I should need.

Kerrymen bear an uncanny resemblance to that endangered species, the Kiwi bloke. Here, where the Atlantic first collides with this isolated, often soggy outpost of Europe, they breed them tough, taciturn at times; emotions are kept in check until at least a couple of Guinness.

And while the rest of the world takes delight in Irish jokes, the Irish in turn target the Kerryman: "How do you get 12 Kerrymen into a Mini? Tell them it's going to Dublin."

Ahead of us, somewhere, are the Skellig Islands, two craggy pinnacles of rock that rise up from the Atlantic like mountain peaks thrusting through a blanket of cloud.

The first sign that we have not been swept out towards Newfoundland is in the form of seabirds skimming over the now abating waves. Some I recognise, like the gannets with their sleek, elegant profiles, others I don't.

"Guillemots and kittiwakes," says Frank.

A shaft of sunlight strikes the water and through the murk ahead the outlines of Great Skellig and Little Skellig finally take shape.

Little Skellig is closest and appears to be dusted with snow. As we approach the leeside of the island and encounter slightly more gentle seas, the true origins of the white-capped rocks become eye-wateringly obvious.

Little Skellig is home to tens of thousands of seabirds, including one of the world's largest breeding populations of northern gannets. We're several hundred metres away from the cliffs but the stench of guano is almost overpowering.

Nesting along with the gannets on the cliffs that rear up 134 metres from the sea are Manx shearwater and storm petrels. The sky above us is perilously full of wheeling, screeching seabirds.

One kilometre away is Great Skellig, also known as Skellig Michael. Unlike its neighbour's, the precipitous flanks of Great Skellig are partly clothed in swathes of green among the ridges of sandstone.

David brings the Sea Quest into the stone quay at Blind Man's Cove, where people have been making landfall for at least 1200 years.

While Little Skellig is a haven for birds, it's the humans who once inhabited Great Skellig who have made that island famous - well that and the several thousand puffins who nest here every summer.

Puffins are irresistible little scene-stealers with their black and white plumage and scarlet and gold beaks. Those on Great Skellig are also extremely tame and can be admired at close quarters. In fact I'm convinced the puffins, knowing they are irresistibly cute, were deliberately posing in fetching positions among clumps of pink sea thrift and rocky outcrops.

Climbing up the side of the island on more than 600 steps of uneven surface and unequal depth is demanding and is not made any easier by puffins scurrying across almost under one's feet. The latter are not particularly light-footed on land but don't compensate for this by being graceful in the sky either. Puffins fly with a rapid wing-beat giving the impression that engine failure or at least a crash landing is always imminent.

They are a welcome distraction on the cliff climb as there are no railings on the steps, just the occasion length of chain. An almost sheer drop of about 200 metres below the posing puffins, the Atlantic foams among the rocks. Random gusts of wind and the old loose stone make the ascent even less enticing to anyone inclined to vertigo.

The dizzying climb ends at one of the most perfectly preserved medieval Christian monastic sites in the world. No one knows exactly when monks from the mainland first began building their beehive cells and oratories (chapels) on this inhospitable rock in the Atlantic but it's believed to have been somewhere between the 6th and 8th centuries.

How many monks lived on the island is also unclear, but the six beehive-shaped cells, the two oratories and the Church of St Michael are testament to their unbending sense of purpose and dedication to their faith.

The monks built steps up from three original landing places around the island (the public access way today still uses one of these) then built massive retaining walls from the local stone to create small terraces.

On these level areas they constructed their buildings, built cisterns to store rainwater and even established gardens within the sheltering walls.

From here they survived isolation, storms and even Viking raids through until the 13th century, when they moved back to the mainland to an Augustinian priory.

Few artefacts have been found during archaeological excavations of the site, which means much of the monks' daily lives remains shrouded in mystery.

Some of the more poignant reminders of life on the island come in the form of a cluster of crosses in a tiny graveyard and even a monks' latrine perched over a bowel-loosening drop to the sea.

Most of the buildings are constructed using drystone techniques; there was no mortar used. Each layer of stone was positioned on the next to overhang slightly, a method known as corbelling. This creates the distinctive dome or beehive-shaped roofs.

As most of the boats bringing the strict daily limit of visitors tend to arrive on the island at the same time, the small site can briefly be full of people. But there seems to be a high proportion of visitors who are content to take just a few photographs and then leave after only a brief stay at the top.

Thus, the site grows quickly silent again and it is easier to connect with the past - to imagine monks toiling up the steps from the sea, tending their plants or worshipping in their chapels.

The doorways into the cells are low and tunnel-like. I need to bend almost double to get inside one of the cells now empty of other visitors.

Although the cells appear almost circular from the outside, they have clearly defined sides in the interior. A low ledge runs around three sides, providing what archeologists believe were sleeping spaces for three monks in each cell.

Protruding stones in the walls could have been used as hangers and a recessed space would have served as a cupboard.

I stand in the centre, all external noise smothered by the stones but do not feel totally alone. Time, memories, seem somehow to be seeping from the walls. It is unexpected, unnerving.

The descent is more terrifying than the climb, if less demanding on the lungs. It also provides the perfect vantage point to view the Hermitage, a tiny cluster of monastic buildings that clings to the South Peak, the highest point on the island.

The effort, skill and sheer bravery of the monks who constructed this, after apparently deciding that the main site was not spartan and isolated enough, almost defies understanding.

The Sea Quest is waiting for us, its decks rising and falling with the heavy swell in the tiny cove. Once we've cleared the cliffs Seanie beckons me into the wheelhouse where I'm surprised to see not just him but David the skipper sitting on the squabs. Frank is at the wheel.

Somehow David manages to pour me a cup of tea despite the Sea Quest's pitching, or is it, I suggest due to Frank's steering?

"No, t'is ok," said Seanie "I've pointed him in the right direction and if he misses that rock (which was actually the not inconsiderable peninsula at Bray Head beside the entrance to Portmagee harbour) we can have a look at the Blaskets instead."

The Blasket Islands are 40km to our north and not exactly on the usual route.

"I bet they didn't tell you out there about the Skellig Lists," says Seanie, "t'ere's nothing monastic about the Skellig Lists is there Frank?"

Frank grins, eyes staying firmly fixed on 'the rock'.

The story goes that Irish weddings were traditionally held immediately before Lent (the 40 days prior to Easter). However, due to a rather typically Irish anomaly in the church calendar, Lent was always celebrated several weeks later on the Skelligs.

This meant that for many decades spinsters and bachelors keen not to delay the delights of married life would make the journey to Great Skellig, reputedly on a pilgrimage before marriage; the women to pray for good husbands, the bachelors to repent of their sins.

However, the Irish love of a good party often overcame such noble intentions and the pilgrimages became the local equivalent of a full-on beach rave.

The "lists" were the often bawdy poems that named those individuals who were on the verge of literally missing the boat until the following year.

There is apparently a strong suggestion that this was more myth than reality but the three Irishmen in the wheelhouse are sticking to their story, looking at me earnestly.

"I'm not sure she believes me," says Seanie.

"Ah, she's been here a week, it's been long enough to cast some doubt on our veracity," Frank replies.

"Veracity. You see that's why Frank's a school teacher and I'm just out here at sea," says Seanie. "Now you're a well-travelled woman. How many days would you recommend I spend in Petra?"

While I sip tea, trying not to chip a tooth on the mug as the Sea Quest pitches and rolls, Seanie quizzes me about my favourite destinations. I tell him the Skelligs have made my top five.

"That's grand," says Frank "but we'd be happier if it was top of the five, not one of the five."

It's hard to impress a Kerryman.

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