Skellig Michael is a small island, often referred to as a sea crag, off the coast of the Iveragh peninsula in southwestern Ireland. You reach it by boat – usually from Portmagee – at the tip of the Ring of Kerry. It is famous for its remoteness, its scenery, and its abandoned ruins at the top of the crag built by monks many centuries ago. Assuming you can reach it, it will be a highlight of your trip to Ireland.
What Is Skellig Michael?
Sometime in the 700’s AD, a small group of monks retreated from civilization to this island in order to pursue a greater union with God. They were specifically looking for an extremely remote an inaccessible place, and they found it here. They built a small oratory and several dwellings at the very top of the island, about 700 feet up.
The idea of monks retreating to a remote place was not unheard of in Ireland. The church in Ireland operated mostly through monasteries, abbeys, and the like, as opposed to churches. This was due largely to the fact that there were no towns in Ireland at the time. So whereas in other countries a church might be set up in a town to service the people there, that was simply not possible in Ireland. There were no large groups of people to convert. Therefore, the church operated by setting up these monasteries as places of prayer and learning. They were all remote, because all of Ireland was remote, but sometimes they took it to extremes.
Viking raids didn’t help matters. The first Viking raids in Ireland occurred in 795 and continued for the next century or so. In fact, there is a record of a raid on Skellig Michael in 823. The remoteness served as protection, as did the fact that the monks had built their church and dwellings at the very top of the island. To reach it, you had to climb steep stairs several hundred feet high.
In addition to the oratory, the monks built several bee-hive huts at the top of the island. There are several crosses and there is even a graveyard there. It was continuously occupied for several hundred years, although it is estimated that there were usually no more than 12 monks at a time. Finally, the island was abandoned in the 1200’s. At that time, the monks moved to the mainland (it should be noted that by this time Viking raids were a thing of the past). After that, the island served as a pilgrimage site.
Visiting Skellig Michael
The ruins on Skellig Michael are remarkably well preserved, especially considering that they were abandoned a few hundred years before Columbus set sail. Since 1996, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site, so the UN is now involved in the care and upkeep of the ruins. They were well worth the visit.
To get there, you have to take a boat. The boats are not large, and they usually only hold about 12 people. They will not sail in rough weather because the exposed landing site on Skellig Michael is too precarious in rough seas. They only run in the summer months as well. Most of them set off from the harbor of Portmagee or just across the bridge on Valencia Island.
You will need to be on top of things to schedule your visit to Skellig Michael. Visitation is greatly limited. Further, there are various UN hoops for the boat operators to jump through, so they don’t start scheduling until around March of each year. Once that starts, you will need to make your reservations rather quickly. It isn’t cheap, and the cost is usually about 100 Euro per person.
In recent years, this situation has been taken to extremes. Skellig Michael was featured in some of the latest Star Wars films. Specifically, it was the home of Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens (just a small teaser at the end) and in The Last Jedi (where Luke trains Rey). Immediately, boat tickets to the Skelligs became a hot ticket. To give you an example of the change, my first visit to the Skelligs was in 2012 and I made my reservation the night before. In 2016, I made reservations four months in advance and we were on the very last boat with any seats left! The situation was no better in 2018, the next time I made reservations. You need to watch when tickets go on sale and get them early, particularly in the early part of the summer.
On the Island
You will get dropped off at a concrete pier that is nestled into the rock. You will immediately climb a set of 10-12 concrete steps and then you are on the island. After that, there are a few more steps up to the path. The landing site looks like this:
From there, there is a nice, paved, flat trail that walks you around the island. Those that don’t want to climb the stairs to the top can amuse themselves at the bottom along this trail. During the months of May, June, and July there will be a lot of puffins along the cliff walls and in little holes in the ground.
Climbing to the top appears more treacherous than it really is. You will climb stone steps largely built by the monks. They can be steep and there is no hand rail. Still, remember that people do this all day, everyday. I’ve seen many people in their 70’s and 80’s at the top, so this is doable. Still, the better shape you are in, the easier time you will have with this.
There are about 600 steps to the top. About halfway, you will reach something called the Saddle. Here, there is a relatively flat area, and it makes for a good place to take a break. After the Saddle, you will climb one set of stairs straight to the top.
At the top is where you will find the oratory and the bee-hive huts. Usually, there is a guy at the top that gives periodic talks about the history and the site. I’ve enjoyed his talk both times I visited, so be sure to be on the lookout for that. Other than that, you will just walk around the structures and enjoy the views. You will also probably want to have lunch at the top.
Once you have seen everything, make your way down the same steps you came up. Be careful coming down.
The Best Way to See Skellig Michael
Because of its remoteness and because the boats all tend to leave the mainland for Skellig Michael in the morning, you will need to give some thought as to how you want to get there. I have two ways I think are best, depending on how you are approaching your tour of Ireland. Here is what I suggest:
Option One: The Ring of Kerry and Skellig Michael in a Day
Portmagee, which is the gateway to Skellig Michael, lies at the very tip of the Iveragh peninsula. That is also the home of the famous Ring of Kerry.
The Ring of Kerry is a famous circuit of scenic overlooks and quaint towns. It is nice, but probably overrated. Further, because it is so highly rated, it can be overrun with tourists and tour buses during the day. At the same time, you sort of have to go to the Ring of Kerry if you are on the west coast of Ireland. It is sort of like going to San Francisco and not seeing the Golden Gate Bridge. Or going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower.
I have come up with what I think is the perfect way to include Skellig Michael in your tour and see the Ring of Kerry. Even better, this way moves you along on your tour of different parts of Ireland. Start from wherever you are staying in southwest Ireland. For most people this will be either Kenmare or Killarney. Load everything up and check out early (around 6:30 am). From there, take the southern part of the Ring of Kerry. You’ll be on the road from about 7:00 am through 9:00 am, which is well before you will see any tour buses (or any traffic of any kind, really). You’ll get to Portmagee around 9:00, which gives you an hour to pick up your lunch and check out Portmagee or the Skellig Experience Center, depending on where your boat sets off from. Most of the Skellig Michael boats leave around 9:30 – 10:00 am.
From there, you will visit the Skelligs and tour Skellig Michael. Have lunch at the top. Your boat will depart around 1:00 pm and have you back in Portmagee by 2:00 pm. From there, simply head back to the Ring of Kerry again, continuing north. You can knock out the northern part of the Ring of Kerry on your way to Dingle. At this point in the day, there is usually not too much bus traffic, so you should be able to enjoy it. Consider stops at Ballycarbery Castle, Cahergall Stone Fort, and/or Rossbeigh Strand along your way. Head up to Dingle and spend a day or two there. You will love it.
Option 2 – Stay in Portmagee
Another option is to stay in Portmagee the night before your Skelligs visit. That way you won’t have to get up early and drive. This way is particularly nice if your boat leaves early (some leave as early as 8:30 am, although most leave at 9:30 or 10:00 am). If you choose that option, your best bet is to stay at the Moorings Guest House. It is just a three-star hotel, but it is right on the water, literally across the street from the pier where your boat will pick you up. In addition, they have a nice restaurant and bar, and they are happy to make a lunch for you.
Lunch on Skellig Michael
Most visits to Skellig Michael take place from 10:00 am through 2:00 pm. That takes you through lunch time, but there is no place to get anything to eat on the island. You’ll have to plan ahead. Fortunately, there are a few options.
This situation is well-known to most B&B’s and hotels in the area. If you tell them you are visiting the Skelligs the following day, most are happy to make you a sack lunch. You can grab it the next morning and take it with you to the island.
Another option is to pick up lunch at the Skellig Experience Center. They have a small counter-service restaurant that opens at 9:00 am. This is across the bay from Portmagee (only a few minutes car ride) and some tour boats head out from here. If that is the case, this is your best bet. Just show up at 9:00 am, have a cup of coffee and a muffin at the restaurant, and they will make a lunch for you to take with you.
If you are departing from Portmagee, there are a few different cafes as well as a small grocery. The whole waterfront is only a block or two long, so you can just walk around to see them. If you are staying at the Moorings Guest House, they will make lunches for you and have them ready in the morning when you leave.
Skellig Michael By the Numbers
- Number of Visitors Allowed Per Day: 180
- Number of Licensed Boat Operators: 13
- Time to Visit the Island: 2.5 hours
- Population of the Island: 0
- Number of Bathrooms on Island: 0
- Average Number of Days Per Week Weather Conditions Allow Landing on Skellig Michael: 5
- Distance of Skellig Michael from Mainland Ireland: 12 km
- Number of Steps to the Top: 618