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Stranded on the rock of St. Michael: The pilgrim adventures of John Conlee

After 14 years, John Conlee, professor of English at the College, resumed his pilgrimage to Skellig Michael, a rocky outcropping off the coast of Ireland. Following is an excerpt of his first-person account scheduled to be published in the Spring 2006 issue of "American Pilgrim."  —Ed.

An unexcavated burial ground overlooks Little Skellig. By John Conlee.
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Eight miles off the southwest coast of Ireland’s County Kerry, two rocky islands known as The Skelligs rise dramatically above the Atlantic swell. The lesser of these spectacular crags, Little Skellig, is a jagged ridge that soars above the sea like a landscape from a fantasy novel —“pinnacled, crocketed, spired, arched, minaretted,” in the words of George Bernard Shaw, who visited the Skelligs in 1910.  Humans rarely set foot on Little Skellig due to its steep, rugged terrain and lack of safe landings, but the islet is a sea bird’s paradise and hosts one of the world’s largest gannet colonies. Larger and even more imposing is the Great Skellig or Skellig Michael, a massive, double-peaked triangle that pushes up from the ocean like two hands in prayer. The higher peak rises 715 feet above the sea, the lower 660, and between them lies a small track of earth known as Christ’s Saddle. In contrast to Little Skellig, on Skellig Michael soil and vegetation cling precariously to the windswept cliffs.  Also clinging to those cliffs, more than 500 feet above the sea, is one of the most remarkable medieval monasteries in the Western World.

I began my pilgrimage to Skellig Michael in 1991. After crossing the Irish Sea from Wales, my companions and I drove toward the Ring of Kerry and Ireland’s scenic southwest coast. The weather was cool, the skies clear as often as not, and we drove over the bridge to Valentia Island on a perfect afternoon in late May in anticipation of an a boat trip to the Skelligs we had arranged for the following morning. What dawn brought was disappointment. The winds had risen overnight to near gale force and the Atlantic was surging. No boat left the harbor for two days. When conditions deteriorated even more, we knew we had to move on. I left Ireland’s Ring of Kerry reluctantly, knowing that something important remained unfinished. I told myself I hadn’t abandoned my pilgrimage to Skellig Michael, that it was only on hold. As it turned out, it was on hold for14 years.

But Skellig Michael remained very much on my mind. I read all that I could about the craggy Skelligs, including Geoffrey Moorhouse’s unsatisfying novel Sun Dancing. And while I did some summer teaching in the United Kingdom during those intervening years, it never quite worked out that I could return to the Ring of Kerry.

The stimulus I needed came last winter when Bob Harris visited Williamsburg. Bob studied at the College of William and Mary in the 1970s, did he further course work at Edinburgh, then came ashore in Ireland. He’s lived there ever since, and for 18 summers he’s worked on Skellig Michael as a guide for Ireland’s Heritage Association. Bob Harris knows more about Skellig Michael than any other living soul. When we met for lunch in Virginia, I recalled my earlier attempt to reach Skellig Michael, and Bob wondered if I might like to try again. When he told me I might be able to spend a night on the island, I knew I had to go. Visitors are lucky to get two hours on Skellig Michael; the chance to spend 24 hours there was something a pilgrim couldn’t pass up.

The pilgrim lands
No one knows who first came to Skellig Michael, when they came, or why. It may have been a pagan site before becoming a Christian foothold, though there’s no evidence of that on the island. As are most things about rock-turreted Skellig Michael, its earliest years of habitation are shrouded in mystery. Was it first populated by a small group of monks? Or was it a solitary hermit seeking a place where he could be nearer to God amid the starkest isolation? Many Irish Christian ascetics emulated the Desert Fathers of earlier centuries who’d sought the untouched wilderness for prayer and contemplation. The stone huts and chapels on Skellig Michael suggest that a small community of maybe a dozen monks once lived here in curious stone buildings erected as early as the 7th or 8th centuries. It isn’t until the coming of the Vikings that references to Skellig Michael appear in the earliest Irish annals.

“We’re going,” Bob tells me, when I phone him on a Friday morning in June, 2005. “Eoin wants us there by eleven.” Eoin (pronounced “Owen”) is the boatman who handles transportation to and from Skellig Michael for Ireland’s Office of Public Works. He’s a life-long Kerry waterman, like his father and grandfather before him.

The steps to the summit are intimidating. By John Conlee.
We’re 15 minutes late and Eoin is vexed. “Don’t worry,” Bob says. “He’s always like that.” The harbor is choppy and no other boats are leaving. Within minutes the boat is tossing and heaving from side to side, and Atlantic salt sea spray drips down my face. I’d be soaked if Eoin hadn’t an extra set of oilskins. More than anything, I hope my dose of Dramamine won’t let me down.

“The landing’ll be iffy,” Bob says, “but Eoin’s willing to try it.” I tell myself that Eoin’s boat is his livelihood, that he won’t be taking unnecessary risks. I hope I’m right.

We’re 30 minutes out before the jagged outline of Little Skellig hoves into view, followed in the gray mist by the dark, looming shape of Skellig Michael. Even on those stomach-churning seas, the sight of the Skelligs is exhilarating. Landing in Dead Man’s Cove is indeed iffy. Taking careful aim, we toss our bags onto the small concrete jetty; and as the swell reaches its peak, we hurled ourselves to the safety of the platform.

At last I’m there, a pilgrim standing, shakily, on the Steep Rock of St. Michael. … A narrow road winds along the island’s rocky base toward the Skellig Michael lighthouse. After maybe 200 yards, Bob and I reach the modern cabins used to house the island’s summer staff with one spare shelter intended for me. I soon discover there’s no electricity, no running water, and no public facilities of any kind on Skellig Michael. Each cabin has a gas stove, lantern, bed, chair, and small work table. Staffers provide their own food and Bob prudently bundled up enough for two weeks. I’ve brought two backpacks, one with cameras, another with apples, granola bars and books. When Bob goes off to attend to his duties, I grab a camera and head for the steps.

It is said that on Skellig Michael there are 2,300 stone steps on the three different stairways ascending to the monastery. Two of them—the north steps climbing up from Blue Cove and the east rise from Dead Man’s Cove—are no longer used. The southern approach, the one for modern visitors, boasts 500 steps zigzagging upward toward Christ’s Saddle, the clutch of soil between the island’s two main peaks, and then another 100 steps up to the monastery itself. Before I reach Christ’s Saddle, I stop twice to catch my breath. As I stand there panting, many small puffins eye me curiously, nervously. My eyes, though, are drawn across the water toward Little Skellig, its jagged peaks white with bird lime. Even from this distance, I can see that the island is a swirl of tiny dark forms of thousands of seabirds. Reaching Christ’s Saddle, I stare up at the taller peak. I know from my reading that it has the remains of some ancient lodging. A solitary hermit once lived there. Was he the first to come to Skellig Michael?  Or did he break off from the other monks to seek even purer solitude on the more isolated peak?

The stone steps leading up from Christ’s Saddle are one of the most impressive sights on the island, soaring upward to the highest edges of earth and then on to heaven. Four rock pillars tower on either side, one looking distinctly like the great shaggy head of an Irish wolfhound. Beyond this final flight of risers the pathway traverses the edge of the cliff for another 200 feet before reaching the monastery ruins. Ruins, however, is not the right word. The medieval chapel, one of the first buildings one encounters, is certainly ruinous, but the rest of the complex is virtually intact, clean stone snug on clean stone. One of the beehive dwellings has collapsed, but the others stand just as they did when they were built. These dry-stone structures are a marvel of architectural design. Round and domed, they’re fashioned by corbeling, a technique by which large flat stones are laid down in gradually narrowing circles. Five of the huts and both of the oratories or prayer chapels are perfectly preserved. Around the largest hut a laid pathway winds about the structure, leading to a set of protruding stones that function as permanent scaffolding, which perhaps also served some religious function we can only guess at.

That evening I join Bob for a glass of wine. “John,” he says, “how would you feel about staying a few more days? I’ve just heard the weather report and it’s going to be awhile before boats can land.” I greet this news with mixed emotions. Staying even longer on the island is a wondrous opportunity. But what about my itinerary? And what about my flight from Shannon airport? “It’ll be a day-to-day thing,” Bob says, “but I can tell you, you won’t be leaving tomorrow.”

Days on Skellig Michael
When I awaken next morning, Skellig Michael is bathed in sunshine. I quickly climb the timeless steps, shooting lots of photos. The puffins are sunning themselves today, and I greet them cheerily. They’re odd little creatures with colorful bills, squat bodies, and stubby wings. Like me, they’re seasonal guests. They’ve come here to raise their pilgrim young; when that’s done, they’ll return to the chilly waters of the north Atlantic where they’ll live until next March, hundreds of miles from land.

Beehive dwellings are mostly intact. By John Conlee.
I climb to Christ’s Saddle where I photograph a small cross-shaped stone nestled beside the path in a clump of campion. It’s one of the simplest crosses on the island and one of my favorites. The crosses, I’ve realized, are everywhere: in the form of flat, shaped slabs; inscribed on the faces of stones; free-standing crosses besides the entrances to the ancient shelters; crosses formed by rows of white quartz above the lintels of buildings. The most impressive cross stands to the left of the main oratory. Rising higher than even a tall man, it probably marks the grave of the most important person in Skellig Michael’s history, whoever that person may have been. Behind the oratory is a rectangular plot bordered by crosses. Surely it’s the monks’ graveyard, though it’s never been excavated.

I sit alone on the hillside above the monastery and contemplate this magical place, trying to imagine how this community of hermits would have lived here centuries ago. From what I’ve read, there’s no evidence they ever had fires here for warmth or for cooking. Did they choose to deny themselves those comforts? Or because there is virtually no fuel on the island? Biting an apple, I wonder about their food, which came largely from one small vegetable garden and the sea. They’d have needed bread and wine for the sacraments and perhaps lay folk brought those sacred supplies to the island by boat. There’s no fresh water on the island, so the monks constructed cisterns. Rain water, at least, was not in short supply. As if to confirm that hunch, on my way down the laid stone path a sudden squall drenches the island. I dash to a small cave I’d noticed earlier and wait out the storm.  Twenty minutes later I’m on my way again.

On my third day, I explore the island’s nooks and crannies. I descend part way down the abandoned north steps for a better look at Blue Cove. I manage only part of the difficult ascent of the island’s taller peak, but not high enough to see the remains of the hermitage. Bob has made that ascent many times, but I’m mindful of the German tourist who fell to his death on Skellig Michael in 1999. His fate has become the standard cautionary tale for all modern pilgrims.

I look for places to view the island from new perspectives. There’s no end of them and no end of striking and dramatic views. I find myself pondering the island’s association with Saint Michael, the warrior archangel. I know he’s associated with high places throughout Europe … , but the association of this Irish island with Michael seems curious since most of Ireland’s ancient sites bear the names of island saints. Perhaps this rock bound monastery did too at first, with the local human eventually bowing out in favor of the more famous angel.

The Vikings, I know, made the vulnerable community a recurring target on their circuit of plunder. According to the “Annals of Innisfallen,” they first raided in 812; then in 824 they returned and carried off a monk named Eitgall. It’s hard to imagine what attracted the Vikings; surely the monks here possessed few items of value. But the annals say they returned often, once even murdering an abbot. Perhaps the hermitage on the higher peak could have served as a place of final refuge for a few of the more agile monks.

Paying the fare
“John, how’d you like to get off the rock?” Bob says on my fourth day on Skellig Michael. “Today you’re in luck.” Again I have conflicting emotions. I am eager to be on my way, and yet. ...

Knowing the boats will arrive about noon, I make a final climb up the steep steps to the austere monastery, a place that now feels very familiar and oddly comforting. As I look out toward Little Skellig, I can see the boats. The tourists are coming, and Eoin will soon come to fetch me. Reluctantly, I scramble back down and collect my things.

Bob goes down with me to the concrete wharf, and on our way we pass the first visitors straggling up the narrow road. Some are plainly in shock from the rigors of the boat trip, others at the prospect of having to climb a still incalculable number of steps to reach the monastery.  Some simply plop down on the ledge overlooking the sea, content to watch the puffins and listen to the waves.

On the boat ride back to Valentia Island it’s just Eoin and me. He watches me as I perch at the back of the boat, my eyes unable to leave Skellig Michael as it recedes behind us. “Had a good trip, John?” he says. I’m surprised the taciturn Eoin is initiating a conversation. We chat for a good two minutes—out of the 80 minutes or so that remain of the trip back to the mainland.

“What do I owe you, Eoin?” I ask as we near the harbor.

“Oh no, John, there’ll be no charge. This is an official trip, you know.”

When I politely insist, Eoin smiles and says,“It’s 35 euros we’re normally askin’ for a trip to the Skelligs.” I’m pleased that he takes the money. It’s been a priceless journey for me and it wouldn’t feel right to have it for free. For every pilgrim, modern or medieval, the journey has to have a cost. And in my case the cost was slight compared to the rewards of the steep Rock of St. Michael.