Time for the second part of this story dealing with the voyage and a bit of history. We sailed from Knightstown, Valentia to Derrynane Harbour on my cousins yacht Janus. It is thus named due to having two heads (toilets in maritime speak) and Janus was a Roman god of two heads. Quite a clever name I thought.
As mentioned in the last post we left Knightsown at 0900 and sailed out past Valentia Lighthouse and on to Bray Head.
This lighthouse was established in 1841 and automated in 1947. It was built as a fortified lighthouse and you can still see the revetments for the cannon used to protect it and some of the old cannon on top of the wall facing across the inlet.
Heading out past the island and around Bray Head en-route to Derrynane Harbour. It was a beautiful day, albeit with little wind to keep the sails full. On seeing the Skelligs 12km offshore we decided that a trip around them would be worthwhile. For stories of the birdlife and wildlife see the previous entry. During the summers of 1991 and 1992 I had the enormous privilege of living on the Skelligs, 3 weeks on and 1 week off, working for the OPW as a tour guide. My father was the first person to run scheduled passenger boat trips to the Skelligs in the 1960s. I felt it was a natural follow on from his bringing people there to me, the next generation of Grimes, helping protect the site and educate people about it.
As we approached the larger of the two rocks, Skellig Michael, the modern landing, and the old East steps up to the monastery came into view. The monastery can just be seen on the left slope of the peak to the left in the following photo.
The East Steps
The monastery was built sometime between the 5th and 7th Century and is mentioned in annals written by monks of the time which also mentions that it was sacked on numerous occasions by the vikings on their marauding cruises around Ireland looking for church gold and plunder. The idea behind setting up monasteries in such places as isolated as the Skelligs was borne of an ascetic lifestyle which was deemed to bring the monks closer to God the harder their lifestyle was. The Skelligs was probably occupied by 12 monks and an abbot following from Christ and his apostles.
The situation of the monastery is ideally protected from the elements and has its own micro-climate which can catch people unawares on windy and cold days, where they find they need to take off jackets and jumpers even though the crossing might have been wet and wild.
There are three sets of steps leading to the monastery. The east steps, as you can see above, lead from the modern landing. The bottom part of these steps was blasted away when the road to the lighthouses was built. Acces to these steps from the bottom is now extremely difficult. Back in the day there was a ladder. The steps themselves are quite treacherous in places, however I did climb them once myself when I had no fear, even though I was afraid at times.
Moving around the back of the island, a place not normally seen by those who go out on passenger boats, you can see the North Steps leading up to Christs Saddle where they meet the South Steps that people use nowadays to access the monastery.
The North Steps
The reason for the different steps is that it allowed access to the island in different weather and wind directions. I never went down the North Steps as they looked way too dodgy back then.
Moving around the island, the south peak and upper lighthouse below it come in to view.
The South Peak
The South Peak was a place of pilgrimage up one of the most dangerous climbs on the rock. You follow a path up to a narrow walkway. You then pass through a cleft in the rock known as The Eye of the Needle. From here on it gets even more perilous where you have to climb up steps cut into the side of the rock to the terraces of the oratory. It is not for the faint hearted. The oratory just below the peak is about what there has been a lot of debate. The OPW decided to do some restoration which resulted in reconstruction of the terrace and structure according to how it was thought it orignally was. You can see some of the restored terraces. Personally I don´t agree with this form of so-called archaeology. You can see a video about this here. I don´t know who made it but photos of the South Peak are very hard to come by. My own are all prints which I don´t have here to scan.
The first time I went up to the very top, my legs turned to jelly and I had to talk myself down out loud. I was a babbling mess. Afterwards however, on subsequent visits, I found it easier and had no problems. It is frightening up there, as if you fall, you will die. There is no question about that. Nothing will catch you.
Below the South Peak is the Upper Lighthouse which is now abandoned since 1870. One of the reasons was it was too high at 121m and obscured during bad weather, but the main reason was because a new lighthouse was built on one of the Blaskets, Inistearaght.
The Upper Lighthouse
At one stage there were three families living on the rock to tend the lighthouses. In those days the men were not rotated on a monthly basis but lived there for 9 months or more. Children were born and died out here. The names of many of the keepers are carved beautifully into the rocks as you walk along the road and also onto the slabs on top of the walls in front of the lighthouse. These carvings, some of them very artistic, are a wonderful reminder of the lighthouses past history. Another reminder is the sad grave of two lighthouse children in the monastery who died out here, of the same family, one shortly after the other.
A bit further around the Lower Lighthouse comes into view as you pass the Washerwoman Rocks. This stands at 53m.
The Lower Lighthouse
This light was established at the same time as the Upper one but modernised in 1907 and rebuilt in 1966. I have had the pleasure of visiting the light and seeing its workings when the keeper came out to do maintenance from Valentia. It may have been automated in 1987, but it still needs a keeper to come out for a few weeks to keep it running smoothly, clean the lens and touch up the paint.
Little and Great
We then sailed on past the second largest colony of gannets in the world on the Little Skellig and said goodbye to the rocks.
After a most leisurely lunch we continued our cruise past Bolus Head at the entrance to Ballinskelligs and into Derrynane Harbour, our destination.
We took a mooring and after a brief sundowner drink were picked up for the short drive back to Valentia where I got the ferry back to the mainland and headed home. It´s always a delight, a thrill, a pleasure, and for me a very special experience visiting the Skelligs. It´s a place with so much history, so much wildlife and for my family, so many ties. Already I´m looking forward to the next trip.
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