Skellig Michael (Irish: Sceilig Mhichíl), also called Great Skellig (Irish: Sceilig Mhór), is the larger of the two Skellig Islands, 11.6 kilometres (7.2 mi) west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.[2] A Gaelic Christian monastery was founded on the island at some point between the 6th and 8th century and remained continuously occupied until it was abandoned in the late 12th century. The remains of the monastery, and most of the island, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.[2]


Skellig Michael has long been the home of important seabird populations. These are protected by the island's status as a nature reserve, owned by the state,[3] and its designation as an Important Bird Area and a Special Protection Area.

Special Protection Area

The Skelligs were classified as a Special Protection Area in 1986.[4] The relevant European Union legislation, the Birds Directive, was updated in 2009, and in 2010 Ireland's Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government issued a statutory instrument (the final step in the designation process) protecting the Skelligs.[5] The birds of interest are:



Except for nesting birds, Skellig Michael was uninhabited before its monastery was founded.[2] Folklore holds that Ir, son of Míl Espáine, was buried on the island, and a text from the 8th or 9th century states that Duagh, King of West Munster, fled to "Scellecc" after a feud with the Kings of Cashel, although it is not known whether these events actually took place.[6]


The monastery's exact date of foundation is not known.[6] The first definite reference to monastic activity on the island is a record of the death of "Suibhini of Skelig" dating from the 8th century; however, Saint Fionán is claimed to have founded the monastery in the 6th century.

The monastic site on the island is on a terraced shelf 600 feet (180 metres) above sea level, and developed between the sixth and eighth centuries. It contains six clochán-type 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 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.[7] A hermitage is on the south peak.

The diet of monks living on the North Atlantic islands was somewhat different from that of those who lived on the mainland. With less arable land available to grow grain, vegetable gardens were an important part of monastic life. Of necessity, fish and the meat and eggs of birds nesting on the islands were staples.[8]

The "Annals of Inisfallen" record a Viking attack in 823. The site had been dedicated to Saint Michael by at least 1044 (when the death of "Aedh of Scelic-Mhichí" is recorded).[1][6] However, this dedication may have occurred as early as 950, around which time a new church was added to the monastery (typically done to celebrate a consecration) and called Saint Michael's Church.[2]

The monastery remained continuously occupied until the 12th or 13th century.[2] During this time, the climate around Skellig Michael became colder and more prone to storms, and this, along with changes to the structure of the Irish Church, prompted the community to abandon the island and move to the abbey in Ballinskelligs.[6]


Skellig Michael remained in the possession of the Catholic Canons Regular until the dissolution of the Ballinskelligs abbey during the Protestant Reformation by Elizabeth I in 1578.[2][9] Ownership was then passed to the Butler family with whom it stayed until the early 1820s, when the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin (the predecessor to the Commissioners of Irish Lights) purchased the island from John Butler of Waterville in a compulsory purchase order.[6][9] The Corporation constructed two lighthouses on the Atlantic side of the island, and associated living quarters, all of which was completed by 1826.[1] The Office of Public Works took the remains of the monastery into guardianship in 1880, and repaired certain collapsed structures, before buying the island (with the exception of the lighthouses and associated structures) from the Commissioners of Irish Lights.[1][2][6]

World Heritage listing

Monastery graveyard

Skellig Michael was made a World Heritage Site in 1996, at the 20th Session of the World Heritage Committee in Mérida, Mexico.[10] After being nominated for inclusion on 28 October 1995, an evaluation of the site by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (an advisory body of the World Heritage Committee), recommended that the island be inscribed on the basis of criteria (iii) and (iv) of the World Heritage List's selection criteria, which relate the cultural significance of a site.[9] The Committee approved this recommendation, describing Skellig Michael as of "exceptional universal value", and a "unique example of an early religious settlement", while also noting the site's preservation as a result of its "remarkable environment", and its ability to illustrate "as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe".[10]


Historical population
Year Pop. ±%
1841 0 —    
1851 0 0.00%
1861 0 0.00%
1871 0 0.00%
1881 3 —    
1891 4 +33.3%
1901 6 +50.0%
1911 11 +83.3%
Year Pop. ±%
1926 3 −72.7%
1936 2 −33.3%
1946 3 +50.0%
1951 3 +0.0%
1956 3 +0.0%
1961 3 +0.0%
1966 7 +133.3%
1971 3 −57.1%
Year Pop. ±%
1979 3 +0.0%
1981 3 +0.0%
1986 5 +66.7%
1991 0 −100.0%
1996 4 —    
2002 0 −100.0%
2006 0 0.00%
Source: Central Statistics Office. "CNA17: Population by Off Shore Island, Sex and Year". CSO.ie. Retrieved October 12, 2016. 

Access and activities

Each year at least four boat licences are granted to tour operators[11] who run trips to Skellig Michael during the summer season (May to October, inclusive), weather permitting. For safety reasons, because the steps up to the monastery are rocky, steep, and old, climbs are not permitted during very wet or windy weather. There are dive sites immediately around the rock.[12]


See also


  1. ^ a b c d Edward Bourke; Alan R. Hayden; Ann Lynch. "Skellig Michael Co. Kerry: the monastery and South Peak" (PDF). Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Retrieved 28 Dec 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). "Skellig Michael". UNESCO. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  3. ^ "Skellig Michael". Retrieved 2018-01-28. 
  4. ^ "Skelligs SPA". National Parks & Wildlife Service. 
  5. ^ "European Communities (CONSERVATION OF WILD BIRDS (SKELLIGS SPECIAL PROTECTION AREA 004007)) Regulations 2010" (PDF). Irish Statute Book. Retrieved 8 Jul 2017. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. "Skellig Michael: Historical Background". Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  7. ^ "Holy Places - Skellig". Diocese of Kerry. 
  8. ^ Walter Horn, Jenny White Marshall, and Grellan D. Rourke (1990). "The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael". Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0520064102. 
  9. ^ a b c International Council on Monuments and Sites (October 1996). "World Heritage List: Skellig Michael" (PDF). International Council on Monuments and Sites. Retrieved 31 May 2012. 
  10. ^ a b World Heritage Committee (10 March 1997). "Convention Concerning the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" (PDF). United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. p. 68. Retrieved 31 May 2012. 
  11. ^ "Public Competition for a Permit to carry passengers to Skellig Michael" (PDF). HeritageIreland.ie. OPW. 
  12. ^ "Diving around Skellig Michael". Ballinskelligs Watersports. Retrieved 12 December 2017. 
  13. ^ O'Sullivan, Majella (29 July 2014). "And . . . action! New 'Star Wars' film shoot kicks off on Skellig Michael". Irish Independent. Independent News & Media. Retrieved 29 November 2014. 
  14. ^ Gettell, Oliver (4 January 2016). "JJ Abrams can't believe he got to shoot on Skellig Michael". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 6 January 2016. 
  15. ^ Breznican, Anthony (9 September 2015). "Updated: Star Wars: Episode VIII will shoot in Ireland this month". Entertainment Weekly. (Entertainment Weekly). Retrieved 9 September 2015. 
  16. ^ Siggins, Lorna (13 February 2016). "Concern over 'incidents' during 'Star Wars' filming on Skellig Michael". IrishTimes.com. Irish Times. Retrieved 15 February 2016. 
  17. ^ National Monuments: Dáil Éireann Debate

External links

Media related to Skellig Michael at Wikimedia Commons

Coordinates: 51°46′16″N 10°32′26″W / 51.77111°N 10.54056°W / 51.77111; -10.54056