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Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichíl)

I've been lucky enough to visit Saint Fionan's Monastery on Skellig Michael twice. Back in 1973 it took some effort to tracked down the one boat that went out to the island if the weather was good enough and the skipper didn't have anything better to do.

A dozen or so of us arrived at the island, and climbed the 600 plus stairs to some moss and lichen covered piles of stone that, on closer examination, turned out to be beehive huts.

Cloud was blowing off the back of the Needle's Eye, the high peak across Christ's Saddle, making the island seem like an ocean liner steaming out into the Atlantic.

It was all unbearably romantic, and the only thing that spoilt it was the fact that we had only brought a couple of chocolate bars with us to eat.

On our second visit on 1998 we had the choice of a whole flotilla of boats which had to queue at the tiny landing stage to drop off their charges.

On reaching the top of the stairs (and discovering that my vertigo had got a lot worse in the intervening years) we had to join a queue, as they tried not to let too many people on to the monastery site at once.

As we queued we could hear the commentary from the Skellig Experience plastic and glass tripper launch as it made its way round the island, and watch yet more small boats arriving from the mainland. It was quite a shock to see the amount of restoration work that had taken place in the intervening 25 years.

Gone was the romantic ruin of a monastery that had survived from some far off age, this was the monastery as the monks had left it when they moved to the mainland in the twelfth century. Tidier, if anything.

Still, at least we'd remembered the sandwiches.

The foundation of the monastery is shrouded in mystery but it appears to date from the late 6th century CE.

The early Irish manuscripts, the Annals of lnnisfallen, Annals of Ulster and Annals of the Four Masters, contain brief details of Viking raids on the monastery from 812 onwards.

Finally in 993 Viking Olav Trygvasson, who was later to become King of Norway, was baptised by a Skellig hermit.

We now realise that the Vikings were great empire builders who brought peace and stability to Western Europe after the fall of Rome.

There is no doubt that, like all empire builders, their armed force committed some terrible atrocities, like starving to death Etgal, the Abbot of Skellig, in 825. But, on the whole, they have had a very bad press, largely because the written records all come from the peoples the Vikings invaded.

It was only once they had moved their headquarters to Northern France, re-branded themselves the Normans and learnt to write that they finally got the recognition they deserved.

Thus it was that sometime in the 12th century the monks finally felt it safe enough to abandon their island outpost, and join the Augustinian Monastery at Balinskelligs on the mainland.

Small Skellig (Sceilg Bheag)

On their way to and from Skellig Michael the boats pause by the smaller of the two islands, Small Skellig. Landing here is not permitted (and is well-nigh impossible anyway), as it is home to the second largest gannetry in the world.

Some 20 to 30,000 gannets nest here along with fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, common guillemots, some Atlantic puffins, storm petrels and Manx shearwaters.

With luck you may also see some seals hauled up on the rocky ledges at the foot of the island.