Posted on

Master Class: Britain and Ireland’s Walling Treasures Sceilig Mhichíl – Skellig Michael

Written by Sean Adcock

Sketch © S.Adcock

12km off the coast of Kerry, Southern Ireland, lie 2 natural old red devonian sandstone pyramids, the Skellig islands, effectively the westernmost point of the Kerry Mountains. Small Skellig is the home of over 25000 pairs of gannets, the larger island, Skellig Michael, also an important site for breeding sea-birds is a world heritage site, home to a 7th Century monastic complex, inscribed (designated) as such by UNESCO in 1996 who consider the site

“of outstanding universal value being an exceptional, and in many respects unique example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe.”(1). What’s more it’s dry stone.

The monastic settlement is perched 600 feet up the 714 foot rock, built essentially on man made terraces, it is a collection of small beehive huts (clochan), 2 upturned boat oratories, a souterrain, graveyards and medieval church
(mortared), all reached via several flights of dry stone and rock cut steps (especially from the landings becoming dry stone once out of reach of storm waves) , originally forming 3 alternative routes from landings to the north, south and east. These paths, plus others one source suggests contain over 2300 steps(2).

Only accessible during calm weather the alternatives would have increased the chances of landing although for much of the year the island would have remained inaccessible, as it was when I tried to visit in the Autumn of 2004, in fact they were not even visible from the Kerry Coast, mind you very little was. The early history of the islands has become shrouded in myth. Its earliest reference (in legend) is as the burial place of Ir, who drowned

Monastic Beehive huts, with Little Skerrig and the Kerry Coast beyond. © Des Lavelle

during the landing of the Milesians, the first Gaelic conquerors of Ireland. About 200AD Daire Domhain, King of the World is said to have caught breath here whilst gathering his forces before the great battle with the Fianna (Fionn MacCool) at Ventry on the nearby Dingle Peninsula. It is also said to be where Archangel Michael and others arrived to help St Patrick rid Ireland of snakes.

In the Irish Annals (ancient histories), Skellig is referred to as a place of retreat and refuge from around the fifth century. The predominant modern view is that the monastic settlement was founded by St Finan (although evidence is inconclusive and some 8th Century annals seem to suggest it might have been St.Suibhne(3)), with the architecture suggesting 6th century onwards. Several of the annals record the sacking of the monastery by Vikings on several occasions around the turn of the 8th and 9th century. Generally the experts seem to settle on an origin in the 7th Century.

Around the13th century monks left for the Monastery of Ballinskellig on mainland possibly due to climatic change or possibly just the result of general changes in monastic practice. The island passed through various private hands around 1820 purchased by the forerunner of the now Commissioners of Irish Lights, for lighthouse construction. The Island is now owned by the Irish State and, except the lighthouse area, now falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government , with the Irish ‘Office for Public Works’ responsible for its management. In fact the “OPW” have actually been responsible for the monastic site since 1880.

Final flight of steps below monastery. © Des Lavelle

The clochans have a beehive domed roof, generally built on a square/rectangular base. One of the ix original cells (D below) has collapsed, and is thought to have been a ruin when cell C was constructed.

Plan of monastic complex

Aerial view of monasitic complex. © Des Lavelle

The largest is cell A, its floor being 4.5 x 3.8m with 1.8m thick walls, rising internally to 5m, the first 1.5m of which is vertical before forming a dome, it is generally thought that it served some form of communal purpose. Cell E has a slightly smaller internal footprint but is over a metre lower with much thinner walls. The remaining cells are similarly sized at around 2.5- 2.7m square, with walls around 1m thick, and 3m+ high – although the roof to cell F collapsed in the late 19th century and was probably rebuilt around 0.9m lower than originally.(4)

Cells AE & F have internal protruding stone pegs part way up the internal walls, suggesting the possibility of an upper floor, cell A even has windows which would have lit this level. Cells B&F contain a number of niches or cupboards whilst Cells A & E’s roofs have a large number of protruding stones (see picture right) which might have once served to hold a turf roof. Edwards suggests that these two larger cells are from a second period of building.(5) Although the Island’s Management Plan seems to disagree as it suggests Cell C was probably the last to have been constructed(6).

Detail of roof of cell A. © Des Lavelle

Cell F The paved floors of cells A & C are thought to be original, whilst those in cells B & E date from the nineteenth century. Cell F is “irregularly paved and includes some upright slabs that define a raised section on three sides, where the monks would have slept.” (7)

The large oratory measures 3.6 x 2.4 x 3m, the smaller oratory is 2.4 x 1.8 x 2.4m. (with 1m. thick walls)(8).

There is also mention of miraculous practices associated with the island. Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis was in Ireland c. 1183-1185 and wrote: “In the south of Munster near Cork there is a certain island which has within it a church of St. Michael, revered for its true holiness from ancient times. There is a certain stone there outside of, but almost touching the door of the church on the right hand side. In a hollow of the upper part of this stone there is found every morning through the merits of the saints of the place as much wine as is necessary for the celebration of as many masses as there are priests to say mass on that day”. (9)

This church is about the most ruinous of the buildings on the site as part of the retaining wall on its southern edge collapsed- sadly there is no longer a stone dispensing wine. Interestingly the stone used in its construction (unlike all the other structures) was imported from the mainland. Beyond the buildings the site has numerous walls, tunnels, pillars, shelters, the remains of a beehive toilet, stone crosses and cross slabs and much more. For example describes “the meticulous work that went into the construction” citing a series of the interconnecting basins or cisterns, where “when the water reached a certain height in the first basin it then flowed into the second basin. This process allowed for the cleaning of one basin while water was retained in the other basin – a process of filtration. A depression in the first basin also assisted this process, its function was to gather silt.” (10)

At least one of the terraced areas was probably a garden used to supplement the fish, seabird and egg diet of the monks, estimated at a maximum of 12 plus abbot (11). Experiments have shown that they achieved a micro-climate in this sheltered and carefully cultivated place which allowed vegetables to grow at twice the speed of mainland sites(12). The terraced monastic complex is not the only ancient building on the island on the southern peak of the island at around 700 feet on steeply shelving ledges is a hermitage which appears to cling to the rock. Described by the Management Plan as “a series of platforms, traverses, enclosures and terraces daringly constructed on quarried ledges just below the peak”(13). There are three terraces and the remains of a building originally thought to be another oratory (2 walls almost intact) and a leacht “a rectangular stone structure typical of early Irish monastic sites, which probably served as a deposit for relics or an altar”(14) . So remote and inaccessible is this site that it is not recorded until the mid 19th century and remained more or less un-investigated until the mid 1980s when the “OPW” carried out a detailed study.

The hermitage oratory site it is now thought to be “one of the most daring architectural expressions of early Irish monasticism : a hermitage built virtually in the air on the treacherous ledges of an Atlantic rock rising straight up from the ocean to an altitude of 218 metres…these walls could have been built only by men who believed that every stone they laid brought them one step closer to God. By building a hermitage at the top of the island, they reached the ultimate goal of eremetic seclusion – a place as near to God as the physical environment would permit”(15) . From what I’ve seen in photos and heard from others, this could be equally applied to the monastic site.

Skellig Michael has been a site of penitential pilgrimage probably from 16th century. In 1756 Charles Smith in the History of Kerry described the pilgrimage, part of which traditionally involved a climb beyond the monastic site itself right up to the upper terrace of the hermitage. Ascending beyond the monastery pilgrims would at one point squeeze through a shaft known as the “Needles Eye”; later over 12 feet of sloping smooth rock aka the “Stone of Pain” – due to the difficulty of crossing eased by a few scant cut hand and foot holds. Beyond this there are 2 stations (that is ‘holy places visited in fixed sequence by pilgrims’- Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) to visit with stone crosses. The first is the “Eagles Nest” the second more inaccessible is the “Spindle” or “Spit” “a long narrow fragment of rock projecting from the summit of this frightful place over a raging sea: and this is walked to by a narrow path of only two feet in breadth and several steps in length. Here the devotees… sit astride this rock and so edge forward until they arrive at a stone cross which some bold adventurer cut formerly on its extreme end…” (16) Originally pilgrims would have kissed the slab cross, but this disappeared without a trace in the late 1970s, probably though natural causes falling and being smashed beyond trace.

Estyn Evans suggests that the essentially frost free environment of the island is responsible for “remarkable state of preservation” of the site. (17) That was 1966, nowadays they are even more remarkably preserved! It should also be noted that the “OPW” have carried out ad hoc works since it took over responsibility in 1880.

There are records of concerns over restoration work or modern interpretations from the early 19th century onwards, when the lighthouse-builders’ made alterations to the site. More modern renovations from the late 80s to the present day have caused much concern, and the Irish Government have undergone some criticism from UNESCO.

Never having been to Skellig I’m not in much of a position to comment authoritatively however there are photos…

Detail of roof of cell A. © Des Lavelle

Small Oratory & Retaining Wall © Des Lavelle

The small oratory retaining wall was underpinned by concrete and steel in 1986. The management plan is unclear as to how much work was actually carried out on the wall itself . Without much evidence I’m guessing the retaining wall is virtually in it’s original state, the same certainty cannot be applied to the oratory itself. Current photos show a very angular upturned boat structure much like the Gallarus Oratory (“Stonechat 15”), prior to the
restorations it was a much more rough and ready squared off dome, but then who’s to say that version wasn’t a poor restoration. In fact the Annals record rebuilding work being carried out on the island in AD860 (18). As with everything dry stone we should assume at least some restoration over six or seven hundred years…

The management plan suggests that there is good evidence that the retaining walls have undergone works over the ages, with several collapses and rebuilds. For example referring to the Lower Monks Garden: “Again, there had
been a history of collapse dating from the monks’ occupation and a series of retaining walls had been built through the nineteenth century in an attempt to stem further loss.”(19) It is also worth considering how much of a site there would be now (or in the future) without there having been (and continuing to be) maintenance of the walls .

One problem with such continuing maintenance is that stone size inevitably decreases plus there has also been stone loss from collapses (i.e. into the sea). This brings perhaps another controversial approach, or a pragmatic one, depending on your point of view. Taller walls have been repaired as stone facing of reinforced concrete backing, facilitating the use of smaller stone and also releasing stone for the repair of lower walls.

Another argument is that the site has never been static, given repairs, new structures, disused structures and more modern additions, (for example it is thought that the current entrance from the Lower to Upper monks gardens probably dates from the 19th century) and so continuing to work on the site is hardly criminal.

The Irish Government’s tone in the management plan often comes across as defensive, for example it argues “Even though not mentioned at the time of inscription, integrity is an important issue to be taken into account. Integrity is a measure of the wholeness and intactness of the natural and/or cultural heritage and its attributes. In the case of Skellig Michael, there are two types of integrity: structural-historical integrity, in that the structures have evolved over time; and visual-aesthetic integrity, in other words, the iconic image that has been retained.” (20)

Similarly in some ways UNESCO are perhaps copping out in it’s criticism of the works, its report stating “The new work is in its own way almost as remarkable as the original work. The monument as now reconstructed will become the popular vision of Skellig. For this reason it is essential that detail of the works should always be made explicit and the new work should be distinguishable from the old in all future publications-”(21)

Controversy or otherwise, I suppose from the perspective of identifying ‘Britain & Ireland’s Walling Treasures’ it does not really matter, Ancient or Modern its right up there.

Sean Adcock

I’m indebted to Des Lavelle for his permission to use photos from his book “The Skellig Story” (OBrien Press) which is available from Des’s website as well as the usual sources, Des’s site also includes information about the boat trips he runs to Skellig. Thanks too to Mick Sharp for advice and books.


3. D.Lavelle, “The Skellig Story”. OBrien, Dublin. updated edition 1993. p.13
4. All figures after Lavelle pp46-48
5. N.Edwards “The Archeology of Early Medieval Ireland”. Batsford, London. 1990
6. Skellig Michael World Heritage Site Management Plan 2008-2018:Appendix 4. p82.,17794,en.pdf
7. Management Plan: Appendix 4. p83
8. Lavelle p.48
9. from
13 managementplan p8
15 W.Horn, J. White Marshall, G.D. Rourke, The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael ,
Berkeley, 1990, 23). Cited by
16 From P.Logan , “The Holy wells of Ireland”. Colin Smythe Ltd 1980
17 E.Evans ,“Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland : A Guide”. Batsford, London. 1966.
18 Lavelle p15.
19 Management Plan: Appendix 5 p.100
20 Management Plan p.22

The content below was copied with the generous permission of the author Sean Adcock.  This Master Class article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 in ISSUE No. 17 of STONECHAT, produced by the North Wales Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Brittan.  

This entire issue of Stonechat, and many more, are available at  Thank you to Sean for allowing us to provide this content, and please donate to The North Wales Branch.

Current Stone Chat issues–published on a very occasional and irregular basis–are sent to all Stone Trust members as a member benefit.  Click here to become a member.