On May 24th 2022 a small group of pilgrims, led by Frs Abbet and Kimball, had the honour of visiting Skellig Michael and walking in the footsteps of Irish saints of times past.
Blessed with wonderful weather, the pilgrimage began with a frantic twisty drive to catch the boat on time at Port Magee. Having boarded the Ursula Mary they trusted themselves to God and the boat that they would cross the wild Atlantic and arrive safely at their destination.
Having set off very pleasantly from the harbour over a flat calm sea, it soon changed into what seemed like a mad roller coaster of a ride out of the mouth of the harbour it was like. It was both scary and exhilarating at the same time.
Dolphins playfully leapt alongside the boat – a sight which brought a smile to the faces of the hardy seafarers; but to those suffering sea sickness it did nothing to mitigate their misery.
Skellig Michael, from the Irish ‘sceillic’ meaning steep rock is situated 8miles/12km off the south west coast of Ireland and is the site of a monastic settlement dating back to the 6th Century. It is the most westerly sacred site in Europe and now has UNESCO world heritage status.
Interestingly, it is also in the line of ancient pilgrimage places known as the St Michael ‘s Sword, running from Palestine, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, France, England to Ireland. An interesting fact is that this sacred line of monasteries are perfectly aligned with the sunset on the day of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.
It is thought that the original settlement was founded by St.Fionan and that the monks lived very simple lives: fishing, growing vegetables, praying and saying mass in the oratory. Some of the incredible bee hive huts which were once their humble domiciles are still fully intact on the rock. These huts were designed to be round on the outside and rectangular in the inside thus ensuring that not a single drop of water would get through.
As the boat came closer to the island it became more and more magnificent; like a giant cathedral perched on top of the sea. Truly a spectacular sight.
Having landed, the pilgrims started up the steps each at their own pace. As they placed their feet on each of the 670 steps they were acutely aware of the monks who, over 1000 years ago, carved them out of the rock and daily trod on them going about their daily lives. It was amazing and humbling to feel this connection to these holy men of Irelands ancient past; a truly spiritual experience.
Pausing to rest at Christ’s saddle (the area between the two peaks) they took in the spectacular views and the wildlife: terns and gannets swirled above, and below the ground was full of burrows of breeding Puffins who had made a long distance trip From Canada. They were blessed to see these amazing birds outside of their burrows resting in the warm summer sunshine.
On arrival at the top 230 metres above sea level one could only hold stop and stare – the old vegetable patch, the entrance to the monastery, the ancient cemetery and of course the bee hive huts.
After a short look around, the highlight of the trip came when Frs Abbet and Kimball set up the altar for Mass. People from other groups looked on curiously as Fr Abbet vested and were delighted when they heard that Mass was to be offered; some even received the grace to stay.
As Fr Abbet offered Mass in that sacred place and elevated the host eastwards, the pilgrims thought again of the monks who lived here in this most isolated of places, preferring the worship of God over the comfort of their own homes. They too celebrated and attended the Mass of all ages, and by their sacrifices and prayers helped pass the faith down through the generations, including to those of us present. The pilgrims also thought of those Irish Catholics who fled to the sanctuary of the island during the penal times when the Mass was banned and priests were outlaws. What an honour and blessing to have been there to be part of this connection from the past to the present.
On a tight schedule to get back to the ‘Ursula Mary’ for the return journey, step by careful step the pilgrims made their way back down to head for the harbour.
The journey back was once again a roller coaster ride with the wild Atlantic waves crashing against the side of the ship; the ship disappeared and reappeared as the giant waves came in.
Bidding farewell to Skellig Michael a short pause was made at the Little Skellig which is home to over 50,000 breeding gannets. The gannet hierarchy was such that the older and wiser gannets are perched on the top of the peak and the juniors are kept on the bottom ledges. The order of nature tells us so much about its Creator. As the group disembarked, they were loath to disperse; so over a leisurely lunch they chatted about the pilgrimage to this sacred site and all agreed that was truly was a day to remember.
May the holy monks of Skellig Michael come to the aid of our dear country and may it once again become the Land of Saints and Scholars.