Emerald Isle

Skellig Michael

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Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales and Legendary Places in Ireland

The ancient, famed and mysterious island of Skellig Michael

Rising from the ocean a short distance off the coast of county Kerry in southern Ireland, Skellig Michael and its smaller brother rear up out of the Atlantic ocean like jagged grey teeth. Famous poet George Bernard Shaw who visited the place in 1910, called it an "incredible, impossible, mad place" and "part of our dream world". Always harsh and windswept, one of the first times we hear of it in Irish history is when King Duagh of Munster escaped from the rival Kings of Cashel there.

Another Irish king styling himself Daire Domhain was said to have prepared himself for battle with Fionn man Cumhaill and his Fianna on Skellig Michael. Later on in the 6th century Irish monks set up a monastery there for prayer and contemplation under the instruction of St Fionan, building stone cells which still stand today. Although never more than a dozen monks and an abbot lived on the island, they subsisted on fish and bird eggs as well as vegetables which they grew and watered through a carefully constructed series of cisterns.

Vikings raided the place a few times, causing havoc as was their wont, despite which one legend tells of a hermit from the island baptising Olav Trygvasson the Viking in 993, he who later became king of Norway.

Abandoned due to worsening weather and changes in the Irish church, it remained a centre of pilgrimage for centuries to come, with pilgrims arriving at Easter to pray and kiss a stone carving overlooking the ocean at the "Needle's Eye".

As time went on the types of pilgrims that came to the island changed considerably. It was now girls and young men of marriagable age who showed up, and instead of fasting and praying they went there to court, dance and enjoy themselves! This led to the "Skelligs List" of poems both amusing and insulting throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, meant to shame local bachelors and spinsters into marriage.

As Oscar Widle's mother wrote: "It became a custom for the young people of both sexes to make a pilgrimage to the Sceilig Rock during the last Lenten week. A procession was formed of the young girls and bachelors and tar-barrels were lighted to guide them on the dangerous paths.

The idea was to spend the week in prayer, penance and lamentation; the girls praying for good husbands, the  bachelors repenting of their sins. But the proceedings gradually degenerated into such a mad carnival of dancing, drinking and fun, that priests denounced the pilgrimage and forbade it to bachelors."

Skellig Michael's location is shown on the map here.


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Legendary Places in Ireland

Irish fairy tales, Irish folklore