Controversy on Skellig Michael

Tuesday, August 10, 2010 8:36 AM

Skellig Michael has been in the news recently, and the news is not good. I've never been to Machu Picchu or Easter Island or even to the pyramids on the Giza Plateau, but I have made it to Skellig Michael, off the southwest coast of  Ireland. The island is a sacred place. Its geography and history are perplexing, out of this world. Here's what George Bernard Shaw had to say in a letter written from the storied Parknasilla Hotel, Sneem, County Kerry, in September 1910:

Yesterday I left the Kerry coast in an open boat, 33 feet long, propelled by ten men on five oars. These men started on 49 strokes a minute, a rate which I did not believe they could keep up for five minutes. They kept it without slackening half a second for two hours, at the end of which they landed me on the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world: Skellig Michael, or the Great Skellig, where in south west gales the spray knocks stones out of the lighthouse keeper's house, 160 feet above calm sea level....

....the Great Skellig rushes up 700 feet so suddenly that you have to go straight up stairs to the top — over 600 steps. And at the top amazing beehives of flat rubble stones, each overlapping the one below until the circle meets in a dome — cells, oratories, churches, and outside them cemeteries, wells, crosses, all clustering like shells on a prodigious rock pinnacle, with precipices sheer down on every hand, and lodged on the projecting stones overhanging the deep huge stone coffins made apparently by giants, and dropped there God knows how. An incredible, impossible, mad place....

In the summer of 2009, in separate incidents two American tourists fell to their deaths on the island, and their families are now suing the Republic of Ireland. A German tourist died in a like manner in 1995. Honestly, I'm surprised there have not been more deaths and injuries. Perhaps there have been, but it has been kept quiet. I made two visits to Skellig Michael in the 1990s. These were in conjunction with explorations of the nearby Dingle peninsula and the Blasket Islands. A third visit was my last, in September 2001, a few days prior to the 9/11 attacks.

Visitors are dropped off by motor boat at a little cove, and proceed with the climb to the North Peak, where the monastic ruins are. There were no railings on Skellig Michael when I was last there, except for those along the coastal footpath which leads to the lighthouse. Beyond that point, there are hundreds of stone steps put in place by monks eons ago, and nothing else. If you do not look down, it is not so bad. But on the return trip, you must look down and make way for those going up. Along the way, especially at the top, it is often very windy.

A few months ago came a report that no safety railing will be erected in response to the fatalities. One can understand why. It would be an intrusion upon the natural surroundings, a scar on the landscape. Instead, warnings will be issued as to the risks involved, including danger of death. That makes sense. These will be posted at tourist offices and on the boats going to the island. There have been no warnings heretofore. This climb is not a walk in the park. One can only wonder what will happen when modern American justice attempts to apply its ideas and strictures to the old country, which is now a member of the EU.

There is another controversy, less lugubrious. It involves the steeper South Peak of the island, which I estimate to be fifty times more dangerous than the North Peak. Yet, the South Peak has been open and unrestricted for anyone adventurous enough to try the climb. I know about the South Peak not from climbing it, but from the pages of a book in the Irish section of my library. The name of the book is The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael, published by the University of California Press in 1990. This oversized book by the late Professor Walter Horn and his associates goes unreviewed on Amazon, which provides no cover image. The item is out of print. It can be purchased second-hand for a mere $499.99! It contains outstanding color photographs and diagrams as well as wonderful writing.

The book is a sort of a detective and adventure story. Professor Horn was no stranger to adventure, having served as an officer in General Patton's Third Army. At the behest of Patton in 1946, Captain Horn recovered the Imperial Regalia of Charlemagne, which the Germans had hidden in hopes of using it when making a comeback. The treasure included the Spear of Destiny, which purportedly pierced the side of Jesus at the crucifixion. Horn was a medievalist Professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley. His most important scholarly work is a three-volume examination of a five-page medieval manuscript known as the Plan of Saint Gall, which document is reposed in the Abbey library at St. Gallen, Switzerland. It is noted in Horn's 1995 NY Times obituary; alas, there is no mention of his fascinating book about Skellig Michael.

Horn and his expert associates were studying the ruins on the North Peak during the summers early in the 1980s, when they noticed something strange, which looked to be man-made on the adjacent South Peak. This was astonishing because of the precarious location and general inaccessibility of the construction.

Here's how Horn describes it: "In the course of our fieldwork on Skellig Michael, we noticed architectural remains on various ledges high up on the South Peak of the island.... This study describes some findings of the last few summers on the peak across the valley from the monastery.... We discovered that a hermitage had been constructed on this peak during the known full-time occupancy of the island, that is, between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. One monk left the motherhouse to live as a hermit on the heights of the island's other peak.... What we found--as puzzlement gave way to conjecture--appears to be the remains of one of the most daring architectural expressions of early Irish monasticism: a hermitage built virtually in the air on the treacherous ledges of an Atlantic rock rising straight up from the ocean to an altitude of 218 meters...."

Once getting up to the various ledges--no mean feat in itself--the task facing Professor Horn (then in his mid-70s) and his associates--including members of the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team--was to understand what they were looking at. These were unmortared stones carefully fitted into place well over a thousand years ago. For what purpose? In some cases, it was not even evident that what they were seeing was man-made. For example, the so-called Garden Terrace. Horn states that in his first two visits to the Garden Terrace, he was unaware he was standing on an artificial outcropping.

Here's his explanation: "...the climber stepping onto this terrace with surprise and relief cannot see that it has been constructed. The walls holding the terrace in place, invisible to anyone...standing on it, can be seen only if one leans far over the edge, something few visitors would think of doing." It was at this location, in a kidney-shaped platform, buttressed by dry-stone masonry, thirteen meters long and variously two to four meters wide, that Horn speculates a solitary monk maintained a garden to sustain himself. It is possible. Horn's explanation makes sense.

Indeed, Professor Horn does a lot of speculating. He had to. But it was informed speculation, which he backed up with scholarly arguments, pro and con. He chief collaborators were Jenny White Marshall, a research associate in the art history department at Berkley, and Grellan Rourke, an architect connected with the National Monuments Service of Ireland. They concluded that a hermitage complex was constructed on the South Peak, consisting of three separate terraces, linked by precarious passages, for the purpose of providing isolation for a lone anchorite, to wit, a monk who practiced severe asceticism, in the manner of the desert monks of Egypt like Saint Anthony. Again, it is possible.

Professor Horn labels the other two eremitic stations as the Oratory Terrace and the Outer Terrace. Of all three, the Oratory Terrace is the most important, because traces exist which make it certain that a small oratory was built there, a miniature version of that in the monastery complex on the North Peak, similar to the famous Gallarus Oratory west of Dingle, overlooking the Blaskets. In addition, there are two water-collecting basins, proof-positive to Horn that someone was in residence. There is no water, food or trees on Skellig Michael. Hence, the need for the Garden Terrace and the water basins. Further along, the Outer Terrace is the most secluded, the highest, the most enigmatic and bizarre of the three locations. It is very close to the summit. Here, even Horn was stumped.

His description highlights the problem: "The terrain is irregular and steep, containing only a few square meters of level ground.... The constant powerful winds blowing across...the area below the summit make access to the outer terrace treacherous. No path exists, so one must climb gingerly down rough, sharp-edged ridges to reach the point where the masonry wall begins.... The footholds lead to level ground just where the wall turns a corner, where originally we believed a dry-stone beehive cell was located.... the first reaction is to gasp at the daring construction, to marvel at the stunning Atlantic beauty of the site, and to wonder, Why? Why was this ever built, this wall hanging on the edge of space?"

To get all the answers, you will need to shell out $499.00 and change for the book. In the meantime, here's the crux of the controversy mentioned above pertaining to the South Peak. The Irish conservation architect, Grellan Rourke, who collaborated with Professor Horn and Jenny Marshall, made a "conjectural reconstruction" of the Oratory Terrace as an illustration for The Forgotten Hermitage. This reconstruction looks great and is factually based. And now, Ireland is restoring the Oratory Terrace as it looked a thousand years ago, in accordance with Rourke's expert conjectures. Some pesky Irish conservationists, however, think this is not a good idea, and that the result will be inauthentic. This U-tube video explains why. I tend to favor Rourke. But here's the practical problem. How will anybody, aside from a handful of rock climbers and daredevils, be able to view this reconstruction? That will be impossible, except by helicopter. The flight would be well worth it, to be sure. Still, one will be tempted to make the climb to see the site close up. Certainly then, railings will be a necessity to protect all concerned. 

--Copyright Patrick Foy 2010--