Skelligs occurs in legend when it is given as the burial place of Ir, son of Milesius, who was drowned during the landing of the Milesians. Skellig is referred to in the annals of the ninth and tenth centuries and its dedication to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044 when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded.
It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery. The earliest reference in history to the Skellig Islands dates back to 1400BC. During the time of the Penal Laws, Skellig Michael and Little Skellig became a haven for many Catholics whose beliefs and rights were being suppressed.
The largest of the Skelligs is Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichil) and was home to one of the earliest monastic settlements in Ireland. These monks of St. Fionan’s monastery led simple lives and lived in stone, beehive shaped huts.
The church of Saint Michael was mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in the late twelfth century. In the early nineteenth century the island was purchased by the predecessors of the Commissioners of Irish Lights in order to erect two lighthouses.
They built the present east landing and built a road along the south and west side of the island to facilitate the construction of the two lighthouses situated on the west side of the island.
The monastic site on the island is located on a terraced shelf 600 feet above sea-level, and developed between the sixth and eighth century. It contains six beehive cells, two oratories as well as a number of stone crosses and slabs.
It also contains a later medieval church. The cells and oratories are all of dry-built corbel construction. A carefully designed system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns was developed. It has been estimated that no more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time.
Skellig Michael was made a World Heritage Site in 1996, at the 20th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Mérida, Mexico. The date of the foundation of the monastery on this island is not known.
There is a tradition that it was founded by St Fionan in the 6th century; however, the earliest written records come from the end of the 8th century. It was dedicated to St Michael somewhere between 950 and 1050.
It was customary to build a new church to celebrate a dedication, and this date fits in well with the architectural style of the oldest part of the existing church, known as St Michael’s Church.
It was occupied continuously until the late 12th century, when a general climatic deterioration led to increased storms in the seas around the island and forced the community to move to the mainland. The Large Oratory has the usual inverted boat-shaped form, with a door in the west wall.
It is built from coursed stone, rectangular at the base and becoming oval as it rises in height; the elongated dome terminates inside in a row of large slabs. The Small Oratory is more carefully constructed, and is considered to be later in date. Nearby are the unique remains of a beehive-shaped toilet cell.
A trip to the island’s monastic site is an experience which, in Peter Harbison’s words, “the expectation aroused by photographs and oral accounts is only not disappointing but is actually far surpassed.”
Today only the 618 steps of the southern stairway, ascending more than 180 m (600 ft), are maintained and accessible to visitors. These steps however are “maintained” only in the sense that stones are put back in place as required. Individual steps, made of irregular and roughly hewn stones, have no standard measurement for their risers or treads.