Celtic Spirituality Sceilig Michil

My Pilgrimage to Sceilig Mhichíl, or Skellig Rock, the 6th/7th century Monastic settlement in the wild Atlantic, off the coast of Co. Kerry, Ireland


Many and many is the time I longed and planned to make the pilgrimage to this sacred, rock island, monastic settlement, Sceilig Mhichíl. This monastery was founded on a steep, precipitous rock in the Atlantic about eight miles from the mainland. Even to the present day it challenges the would-be pilgrim and access to it largely depends on the weather conditions. I had read and studied so much about this place. And the more I read about it the more amazed I became and wondered what inspired those early monks to seek God in such a barren, desolate, isolated place. So, I made up my mind to go and see for myself. I resolved to make the pilgrimage and walk the walk in their footsteps on that sacred soil, or more accurately, on that ageless rock.

scellig_mhichil
From Hueston Station Dublin, I travelled to Killarney by train. At Killarney I got the Caherciveen bus for the hour and a half journey to Ballinskelligs which is the nearest town on the mainland. A Presentation Sister met me and brought me to the guest/retreat house in Ballinskelligs. Before tea at 6.30pm I walked for an hour or so along the beach and back. After a little chat etc. I retired early as I intended to be up early next morning for the pilgrimage. The Sisters had contacted Joe Scully, the local boatman and asked him to meet me and take me to Portmagee, the point of embarkation.

Next morning at 8a.m. Joe Scully, arrived and took me to the Pier and showed me where to get a cup of tea while waiting for him to get his boat ready. Joe took pride in the fact that his family had been seafaring folk for many generations and were also the lighthouse keepers for as long. With this to recommend him and his own personal experience I felt entirely safe in his boat - so small and vulnerable compared with the mighty waters. The sea was choppy that day and the boat tossed and dived, heaved and sighed. But Joe's little group of pilgrims held on - to the boat, and to one another, as we kept 'The Rock' in sight. Joe was quite unperturbed and simply handed each one of us the prescribed heavy waterproof suit to protect us a bit from the strong waves. But Joe was more than familiar with the sea in all its moods. After an hour of 'rockin' and rollin' we reached ' The Rock', ie. Sceillig Mhichíl - and what a sight it was. It rose stark, sharp and sheer straight up out of the roaring waters, as if defying its threatenings to move it one inch. There was no sun shining that day to make it appear in any way inviting. It was a place of prayer and penance. But these early Irish monks saw no contradiction between such austerity and the beauty of God's creation. We were helped to disembark by clambering over the side of the boat on to a small landing platform.

We were welcomed by thousands of tame and very friendly, docile puffins, sitting like little old men and women among the rock vegetation and just waiting to be photographed! The 620 stone steps, some of them hewn out of the rock, looked daunting as they wound around the rock to the plateau at the top! However, I started and set my mind to getting to the summit, helped no doubt by my little strategy of imagining that I had only about a dozen steps to negotiate, and after that another dozen! It worked and I reached the top with no great difficulty. And it was worth every one of the 620 steps - and more. Incidentally, there are two other sets of stone steps leading to the summit, but these are extremely dangerous and not in use by the general public. I could feel the sanctity in the very earth beneath my feet, and the sense of antiquity and the sacred was almost too tangible. The thought of the human endeavour in the service of Christ was inspiring. The beehive huts, the stones of which still speak and tell their story of dedicated service and the oneness of all God's creation. The motivation, which impelled humans to seek out such places, still has a powerful and very moving message even after so many long centuries later. The rugged beauty of the place and the sense of the sacred were truly awesome.

beehive_skellig

Six beehive stone huts remain and in excellent condition, one is considerably larger than the others and it is thought that it was possibly a double hut or perhaps the Abbot's hut. One rectangular building seems to have been the oratory, which was common enough on monastic settlements. I had occasion to meet with the chief engineer in charge of the works of repair and restoration being carried out there. I also attended a lecture, which he delivered in connection with this work. He said that he was amazed at the state of preservation and the relative good condition of these beehive huts after all those centuries. He has verified that the huts are today exactly as they were built by the monks-nothing has been done to them over the centuries. He believes that the stones for these had to be brought from the mainland and then conveyed to the top of the Rock-possibly by hand. He was in total admiration of the skill, feats of engineering and workmanship of the monks, also, their knowledge of climatic affects. The small graveyard may contain the remains of some of the monks. But other crosses were found in various places on the Island and were relocated in this place. It is possible that they marked the graves of pilgrims who died there.

In order to preserve the Island from wear and tear not more than one hundred people are allowed on to the Island on any one day. This work of preservation continues and the workmen generally remain there for the week because of the unpredictable weather conditions.
This is Sceillig Mhichíl.

Tobar Mhichíl, or, St.Michael's Holy Well

No doubt there is more than one well dedicated to St.Michael, especially in the environs of Ballinskelligs. It is believed that sometime in the 9th or 10th centuries the monks left Sceillig Mhichíl and set up their monastery on the mainland in Ballinskelligs. The holy well, which I discovered, is located in the Dún Géagán area, and not easy to find. However, I was fortunate in my search the day I set out. I had crossed the style into the field where I thought the well was. I did not find it in the rough wet grass and reluctantly turned back. But God was with me-and perhaps Michael also, because I met a woman out walking her dog and enquired of her where the well was. She began to explain, 'It is in the second field and difficult to get to find'. I thanked her and turned back to renew my search. Then the woman called after me saying, 'Sure, I'll come with you, and I'll get the blessing too.' We started back, crossed a few styles and low stone walls and carefully picked our steps through the ruts and mud, the clumps and clods until we reached the third field. What first caught my eye was a small stone beehive hut, a replica of the ones on Sceilig Mhichíl. This gave us a clue, which we followed and yes, close by was the holy well, dedicated to St.Michael - admittedly looking rather neglected and overgrown. But we managed to get down the steps and had to cup the water in our hands to drink it. Also, close by was a mass rock at which the annual mass in honour of Saint Michael is celebrated on September 29th. This annual event attracts large crowds from far and near. A local man recounted for us a number of miracles attributed to Saint Michael. After praying there and taking some photographs my companion and I followed the tradition and walked 'deiseal' i.e. clockwise, or in the course of the sun, around the well for three times.

st_michaelswell

I was so happy to have found this well, but I know there are other undiscovered wells waiting to be found. And this reminds me of some ancient and wise advice, which is worth pondering and with which I would like to conclude this remembering:

The Undiscovered Well
“Look! I beg you, don't ever stop looking,
because what makes the world so lovely
is that somewhere, it hides a Well,
A Well that hasn't been found yet -
and if you don't find it, maybe nobody will.”

Rita Kinch rscj
Province of Ireland-Scotland