Sceilg Mhichíl, Ireland

Remote monasticism

UNESCO World Heritage site (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1996, Sceilg Mhichíl is the most spectacularly situated of all the early medieval island monastic sites in Ireland. The island lies at the extreme north-western edge of Europe, rising from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Co. Kerry.

A short visit to the majestic UNESCO World Heritage site, Sceilg Mhichíl (Skellig Michael), where conservation and maintenance work, including the refurbishment of the lower lighthouse by OPW colleagues, is ongoing.

The first detailed plan of the monastery on Sceilg Mhichíl (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

A monastery may have been founded here as early as the sixth century, though precise dating is problematic. Charles Smith, writing in 1756, referred to it as being founded by St Fionán, however it was dedicated to St Michael, possibly sometime in the eleventh century.

A nineteenth-century view of the Inner Enclosure (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

In 1880, the Office of Public Works (OPW) took the monastic remains into guardianship and commenced a project to repair the collapsed structures. The monitoring, conservation and maintenance work on the island continues to this day.

View of the East steps (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

The three landing points on the island communicate by flights of steps with the principal monastic remains, which are situated on a sloping shelf on the ridge running north-south on the north-eastern side of the island; the hermitage is on the steeper South Peak.

View of the monastic enclosure from the East (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

The isolated monastic complex is located just below the North Peak, perched on narrow, man-made terraces. Here, in dramatic and unique settings, the indigenous stone architecture of a past millennium is intact and in a relatively stable condition.

View of the small oratory terrace from the north (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Due to their presence on the island for such a long period of time, the monks left more than just physical remains. They imbued the place with a strong sense of spirituality, which can be felt by anyone who has had the unique opportunity to spend time there.

Beehive cells in the monastic Inner Enclosure and Sceilg Bheag (Small Rock) in the background (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

A clear evolution of dry stone masonry techniques is evident throughout the different structures on the island, offering a unique record of the development of this type of architecture and construction.

The Monks’ Graveyard inside the Inner Enclosure (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

The Monks’ Graveyard is defined by large, long orthostats along its base, and a row of crosses and cross-slabs which are placed vertically against it on the west side. The graveyard was bigger originally, but the east side fell away when part of the retaining wall collapsed.

A nineteenth-century view of St Michael’s Church, showing the collapsed retaining wall (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Sceilg Mhichíl continued to play an important role in the monks’ lives, even after their departure from the island. Veneration of the site continued and developed throughout the medieval period. In time, it became known throughout Europe as a place of special pilgrimage.

The Small Oratory prior to excavation and conservation works. Sceilg Bheag in the background (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Of the original terrace walls, the one supporting the Small Oratory Terrace was in a particularly dangerous state. The work to preserve this supporting wall was the first major structural intervention to be undertaken, and was followed by the full excavation of the terrace.

The Upper and Lower Lighthouses from the north-east (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

In the early 1820s, the island was acquired for the purpose of erecting two lighthouses on the Atlantic side. Designed by Inspector George Halpin, they were made accessible with an improved landing on the east side and a road running along the south and west of the island.

Lighthouse road (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Since its construction, the Lighthouse Road has suffered continual damage to its capstones from landslides and rock falls. However, excavations carried out in preparation for the OPW conservation work revealed that much of the original surface of the road had survived intact.

Derelict Lower Lighthouse (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

In the 1980s, the original light was decommissioned and replaced with an automated one. Refurbishment works are ongoing to make the Lower Lighthouse available for use as accommodation for conservation staff, guides and researchers.

The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Known collectively as Na Scealga, both Sceilg Mhichíl and the smaller adjacent island of Sceilg Bheag are important breeding sites for seabirds, and are internationally significant for both the size of their colonies and the diversity of the species. 

The Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Owing to its ornithological importance, Sceilg Mhichíl is designated as a Statutory Nature Reserve and a Special Protection Area (SPA).

English stonecrop (Sedum anglicum) in full bloom (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Much of Sceilg Mhichíl is composed of poorly vegetated habitats, such as sea cliffs and exposed rock. The vegetation that does occur is typical of highly exposed maritime conditions, limited by thin soil, steep ground, salt spray and high winds.

A stretcher being carried down the lower East Steps (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Considering the remoteness and complexities of the site, a detailed rescue plan is in place for Sceilg Mhichíl. This plan is regularly reviewed and, at the beginning of each season, a training exercise involving all staff is carried out.

Boats landing visitors at the pier on Sceilg Mhichíl (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Currently, a weather-dependent boat service provides the only means of access for visitors to the island. This is a particularly vulnerable site and visitors are asked to co-operate with the efforts to protect it and to adhere to the instructions of OPW Guide Staff at all times. 

Sceilg Bheag (Skellig Rock Small) at sunrise (1996) by Sceilg MhichílUNESCO World Heritage

Protecting and managing the islands is a truly challenging task. Climate change and extreme weather exacerbate the complexities of the conservation and stabilisation work. In the coming years, the efforts to monitor and conserve both the built and natural heritage will continue.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Office of Public Works : https://heritageireland.ie/

More on Sceilg Mhichíl and World Heritage: whc.unesco.org/en/list/757/

Photos: Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland; Office of Public Works, Government of Ireland

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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