Birding Cairns

Birding Cairns is a local bird-watching club based in Cairns, N.E.Queensland, Australia. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Also hosting the Cairns Birding Forum and Michaelmas Cay Report

Thursday, January 20, 2005




Travel Update - The Skellig Islands

© to Rebecca & Dov.

Hello Everyone,

Some months ago, in a previous e-mail, I mentioned the Skellig Islands. We decided to visit these islands based on a recommendation from a Scottish woman we met while on a hike in County Kerry. What a fantastic recommendation!

These remote and desolate islands are located almost 8 miles off the west coast of Ireland and are only accessible by boat as a day trip. Most people depart from the town of Portmagee, but we chose to depart from the tiny hamlet of Cahirdaniel, on the recommendation of our Scottish friend. We stopped in at the town pub to inquire about the boat trip to the Skellig Islands, and on the wall above the payphone was a small piece of paper with a name, phone number and ‘visit the Skelligs’ on it. We called the number and sure enough someone picked up. “I can’t hear you too well”, the voice said, “I’m on the boat right now, just coming into mobile range. Call me back in 1/2 an hour. I should be in port by then”. So we did, and booked ourselves on the trip for the next day.

The approach to the town of Cahirdaniel is reminiscent of the Amalfi coast, for those of you who have been to Italy. Driving west along the famous Ring of Kerry, the land starts to drop steeply away on your left hand side until you reach the one and only hotel that marks the town. From the parking lot of this hotel you can see the impossibly steep road which winds back and forth down the green slope to the ocean below. At the bottom is a perfect horseshoe shaped white sand beach and a small dock. The day we arrived the air was clear (most unusual) and we had the most magnificent view down to the ocean. The view truly takes your breath away. Unfortunately, our point-and-shoot digital camera couldn’t even come close to capturing the view, so you’ll have to imagine it for yourself.

After taking in the breathtaking view we started our descent passing farmhouses and sheep along the way. Amongst the few homes scattered down the hillside were a few bed and breakfasts. We took a room with a large picture window so that we could take in the view while drinking our afternoon tea. For dinner we had to drive back up the same very windy road to the hotel. The next morning at 9:00 a.m. We descended to the small dock and waited for the boat. The boat turned out to be a small fishing boat, painted bright blue, with a small cabin for the captain and bench seats along each side. We were joined by another couple from Dublin, and a family with two children. Fortunately we had unusually beautiful weather, with mostly clear blue skies and calm seas. The journey was loud and took about two hours. There was little protection from the wind and the sea spray, but everyone was in good spirits and we talked with the couple from Dublin for most of the trip. As we approached the islands, gannets and shearwaters glided across the tops of the waves just meters from our boat.

The Skellig islands jut out of the ocean with impossibly steep sides. It’s hard to believe that the larger of the two islands, Skellig Michael, was home to one of the earliest monastic settlements in Ireland. We waited our turn to pull up to the small dock and craned our necks to get our first close up glimpse of the sheer grey rock. By the time we arrived, the other boats from Portmagee had already offloaded their passengers. Our captain told us that since we were the last to arrive, we would be able to enjoy some solitude after all the others had departed at the end of the day.

There is a lighthouse located on the west side of the island which used to be inhabited and as a result there is basic infrastructure including the dock and a narrow road leading up to a small storage building. Once we walked past this building the path became a narrow paved trail. As we ascended we followed the contours’ of the island and passed some cliffs with nesting seabirds, including shearwaters, kittiwakes, and fulmars. The puffins were so close to the path that we could almost touch them. About halfway up, the paved trail changed to a gravel path and we reached a green grassy bowl in the middle of the island. This area is where it is thought that the monks grew some vegetables to help sustain them. With constant exposure to Atlantic weather, its hard to believe that they succeeded in growing anything. We paused here briefly to eat our lunch of sandwiches and fruit before making our ascent to see the monastery.

From the bowl, there is a steep hand built stone staircase which climbs up to the monastery. The ascent up this staircase is not for the faint of heart. There are no protective railings, and some of the stairs are uneven from 600 years of use. The monks lived in beehive stone structures. Even after all these centuries, the ground inside these structures was completely dry. The corbelled stone buildings were designed to shed the rain and appear to have been very effective. Amongst the remaining stone walls were graves and an ancient stone cross. The site is manned by staff from the Parks Service who live on the islands during the summer months. In addition to answering our questions they also conduct studies on the bird populations that live on the islands. They told us that the monks lived on these islands for about 600 years, from 700-1380 AD, and would move to the mainland during the winter months.

Travelling between these islands and the mainland must have been very treacherous, as their only transport were small hide-covered row boats (coracles) and they would have been constantly battling the weather. Their diet consisted mostly of bird eggs, vegetables that they grew themselves, goats and fish. They also traded bird eggs for other foodstuffs with passing ships. The islands were raided by Vikings in 823 AD and many of the monks died. Eventually the Pope exerted his influence over the Catholics of Ireland and this monastery, being outside the mainstream, was eventually abandoned. The monks moved to their winter home of Ballinaskellig, located on one of the many coastal inlets of the west coast, permanently. Although it’s not clear how many monks lived on the island at one time, their persistence and dedication is clearly evident. All the stone structures, the fortified walls, the beehive domes, the small chapel, and the stone stairs were built by hand. As approaching the islands was weather dependent, the monks also built three staircases down to the ocean, each one a monumental effort. Some of the stones were even brought over by boat from the mainland.

Eventually it was time for us to return to our boat. As promised, we were the last group on the island and were able to savour a few moments of the complete solitude, just as the monks did many centuries ago. They must have been truly inspired to live on such an inhospitable rock surrounded by the cold Atlantic ocean.

On the return trip, we spent a few minutes off shore of the other island, Little Skellig, to take in a view of one of Europe’s largest gannet colonies (about 46,000 pair). The island is off limits to everyone except a few scientists that study the colony. The weather had started to change, the sky became grey and the water was a bit choppy. We all huddled against the back of the captain’s cabin to get out of the wind. We were all glad to step back onto the dock and jump into our heated cars.

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Happy New Year Everyone!
Rebecca & Dov


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