Image credit: Nora Baker

Cultural divides split Ireland’s two most southerly counties; Cork is nicknamed the ‘People’s Republic’, Kerry is known as ‘the Kingdom’. Kerry is quite sparsely populated, while its urbanite neighbour boasts the Free State’s Second City. Sports-wise, Cork has been famed for its triumphs in hurling, while Kerry favours Gaelic football. Woe betide anyone who fails to detect the subtle differences in accent: A Corkman does not take kindly to being mistaken for a Kerryman, and vice versa.

As my father is from North Cork and I have several friends who went to college in the city, I am more familiar with the ‘rebel county’, as it is also known. The red-and-white jersey was a staple of my childhood wardrobe, and I would feel my loyalties being tested whenever Cork played against my native county of Galway in a match. I had visited Kerry a few times prior to my summer 2020 trip, but it wasn’t really on my radar in the same way as Cork was. The name of the county conjured up some vague mental images of Fungie the Dolphin and conservative political dynasties.

Obviously, I was aware that the Skelligs’ beehive huts existed. I was also aware that they had featured in recent Star Wars movies: the Irish national television station, RTÉ, had even shown clips of Chewbacca and co. visiting local schools on breaks from filming on its nightly news programme. But I hadn’t really registered the details or the history of the islands, or even fully appreciated the fact that they were in Kerry.

This ignorance came to an end when I caught my first sight of the Skelligs. The car rounded a corner and there they were, in the distance, rising majestically out of the sea. I was reminded of the first time I laid eyes on the Duomo in Milan: climbing up the steps from the metro station, it suddenly dramatically reveals itself in front of you. But the Skelligs have a quality the cathedral can’t match. There is a sort of ethereal magic about them, for they were crafted not by human hands, but formed by the forces of nature.

Of course I was driven to try to capture the view of these eerie islands through my phone camera lens, of course my photos couldn’t do them justice. Stopping for a spot of indulgence at the mainland’s Skelligs Chocolate Factory, we learnt that the island we had thought was the ‘Little Skellig’ was, in fact, not part of the duo at all; it was a smaller structure known as Lemon Rock. The actual Skelligs are both quite large, but from the mainland, from the angle we were at, they appeared to be fused together.

The staff at Skelligs Chocolate were happy to explain the islands’ arrangement to us as we waited for our free tastings. After sampling chocolates infused with champagne, honey, and lavender, visitors can further treat their palates by trying the goodies on sale at the site’s small café. There were a limited number of tables in use indoors due to the need to respect social distancing guidelines – something you have to expect in the time of Covid –  but we weren’t kept waiting long for our chance to sit down. The café’s windows were strategically placed to frame stunning views of the Skelligs and of the ruins of a nearby abbey, so even the act of queueing was enlivened with a little sightseeing.

Refreshed after our chocolate, we explored the beach in front of the factory. It was a little surreal to see surfers splashing about, with the Skelligs looming, slightly ominously, in the distance. Closer to us was another strange mass, known as ‘Puffin Island’. I assumed the name was due to its beak-like shape rather than its fauna.

A nearby school had a colourful mosaic of a puffin outside its walls, and I thought to myself that that would be the closest we would get to catching a glimpse of one of the birds. It hadn’t really occurred to me that puffins lived around Ireland; I’d always associated them with more far-off, exotic lands – maybe New England, Kamchatka or Canada. If you’d asked me to picture Irish animals, I would have imagined foxes, pine martens, and red squirrels, not brightly hued wildfowl.

The following day, when we set off on the boat from Valentia Island, my expectations were based more on what we would see of the landscapes than on their wildlife. We arrived at the Skelligs Experience Centre with a little bit of time to spare before our nautical departure, and spent that time admiring the views across to the colourful town of Portmagee, as well as learning more about the islands’ story. Historians believe that a monastic community was first established on Skellig Michael in the 6th century A.D., and the little beehive huts built there remained in use until around the 12th century, when Vikings attacked.

How scary it must have been to be perched up on top of the rock, watching the invaders approach from the mainland. I have an image in my head of monks praying and preparing to bury precious materials while the longships, with burning torches and Nordic shouting, got closer and closer. The monks knew the island best; perhaps they had created hiding spaces? But how could they be sure that the Vikings wouldn’t discover these? Would there have been any chance of escape on their own small vessels, any routes that might evade the attackers’ notice? I wonder if any of the island’s inhabitants secretly wished for the security of the round tower, or if they all calmly accepted that their fate was in God’s hands and unavoidable.

As there were concerns about the potential spreading of Covid-19 to animals that lived on the islands, landing had been provisionally cancelled until 2021, but our boat would bring us as near as possible to the islands’ coasts. It was not a smooth crossing, and the boat tipped to the side on a few occasions – I found myself clutching onto the handle at the back of my seat with one hand, and on to the face visor I had brought with the other, until it occurred to me to strap the visor between the buckles of my lifejacket. During one particularly violent lurch, I worried my phone would slide out and end up buried in the sea floor. Perhaps the salt would preserve it and in the year 3500 scientists would discover it and be able to access the photos I’d taken, hopefully making comments such as “Thanks to her extensive collection of dank memes, we can safely assume that this girl was a discerning intellectual.”

I was broken out of this futuristic daydream when we approached Sceilg Bhig, or Little Skellig. At first the white mass that caps its peaks appears to be snow. Then, you think ‘well, that could hardly be snow!’, and figure that it’s a bunch of lichen, or some effect of erosion. It’s only when you get nice and near that you can see that the white is actually alive; it’s moving. In fact, Sceilg Bhig is home to the second-largest gannet colony in the world and the largest in Europe.

There should be something a bit menacing about so many feathered friends circling in the sky above your boat – like a scene from a Hitchcockian thriller – but the gannets were largely oblivious to us bobbing along below them. Occasionally one would dive into the sea near us and we’d catch sight of his little yellow head, at odds with his snow-white body. The young man driving the boat gave us a highly entertaining and strongly accented account of the tough life these birds lead.

As we neared Skellig Michael, the bigger island, he stated that though there were twelve different types of birds on the island, most people were only interested in the puffins. And as he said this, a pair of puffins flew by, just close enough for us to make out the colourful flash of their beaks. They arrived as if on cue. I don’t know how he did it; perhaps he’d seen them coming in the distance as he’d started his sentence.

“And as he said this, a pair of puffins flew by, just close enough for us to make out the colourful flash of their beaks.”

As it happened, though I had not expected to see any puffins, quite a few of them turned out to see us. We also learnt that a monk had once brought over rabbits to the island, and that they had spread, as they are wont to do, though their isolation from the mainland had led to inbreeding. We couldn’t see the rabbits from the boat, but we could see the steps the monks had placed, snaking around the island’s steep inclines. It must have taken an intense effort, and impressive balancing ability, to put them there. Little did the monks know that the steps they’d made would one day be graced by the footfall of 21st-century tourists in Adidas.

Following our safe return to shore, we explored the offerings of the visitor centre we had set off from, learning more about the area’s history in its exhibits and purchasing discounted souvenirs in its ‘19% off Covid-19 sale.’ It seemed the shop owners were quite savvy when it came to blending the ancient and the modern. 

I rather appreciated this kind of light-hearted take on things following the lockdown. Travelling in the time of Covid felt a bit surreal, but it had certain unique charms, too.  Following the trip out to see the Skellig Islands, our next stop was to follow in the footsteps of the monks after they abandoned their beehive huts and set up on the mainland. More on this in part 2!