SYMHC Classics: Skellig MichaelStuff You Missed in History Class
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- 13 Mar 2021
Today, we revisit a December 2017 episode about Skellig Michael. This small island off the west coast of Ireland recently became a film star, but Skellig Michael has a rich history all its own.
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Happy Saturday, everybody. St. Patrick's Day is just around the corner. We always get requests for Irish history, so we've decided to pull a little bit out of the archive. This is our episode on Skellig Michael. And although we chose this episode because of Skellig Michael's use as a Star Wars filming location, it is also the site of one of Ireland's early Christian monastic sites. This episode originally came out December 6th, 2017. So enjoy.
Welcome to stuff you missed in History Class, A production of I Heart Radio. Hello and welcome to the podcast, I'm Holly Frid, and I'm sure ECV will say if you are a Star Wars fan and frankly, even if you're not, you have probably seen scenes of Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens and in promotional materials for The Last Jedi, where he and eventually Ray are standing on an island with ancient looking structures on it. That is a real island.
That's not a set. And those structures are also not sets that were built for the film. They are part of a real thing that is ancient Skellig Michael, the island where those scenes were shot is a historic site with a fascinating history all its own. It's also got kind of a nice juxtaposition because a big chunk of its history is is much older. And then there's a newer history of some of the more modern things that have been built on the island.
So since I have Star Wars rabies and I can barely managed to contain myself while I wait for the last Jedi to premiere, and because this really is a legitimately very, very interesting historical site, I thought it might be fun to delve into this location and its rich history for the podcast. Yeah, if you were concerned, based on the number of times that we said The Last Jedi, we're not going to be talking about anything in the movie at all on the island at all.
Pretty much all the Star Wars talk except a story about filming at the end. And even that has nothing to do. So we're not going to spoil anyone anything really, or no Star Wars. You would have had to have not had to see The Force Awakens yet for that to have been a spoiler.
Yes, I don't know, maybe, but at this point, if you haven't gone to see The Force Awakens, then I think you would have to have been a media blackout because it's appeared on so many like magazine covers, television promos. You know, interviews are often intercut if you see them on television shots of this island. So it's I don't think we're giving anything away. I feel confident that we have skirted any right territory. Well, I think if you have not yet seen Force Awakens, you probably don't care about Star Wars spoilers.
Right. None of which are in here anyway. We are literally just talking about the history of this island. I want to be very clear. OK, Skellig Michael is one of two islands that make up the Skellig Islands. The word Skellig derives from the Irish word for steep rock. And then the other island is the smaller one of the two. It's called Little Island and it's closed to visitors. Sometimes you'll also see Skellig Michael called the great Skellig.
Yepp. Also, you'll see it spelled in various different ways. We're going with kind of the most basic globally facing spelling that gets used a lot. It's probably the Americanise spelling. That's just the scoop on that. If you see it spelled a different way. That's why. And Skellig Michael is seven miles. That's eleven point six kilometers west of the edge of Ireland's ever a peninsula in County Kerry in the highest elevation of the island is seven hundred fifteen feet.
That's about two hundred and eighteen metres. And this island is tiny. It is less than a square mile an area. So if you do hectares, that's twenty nine twenty one point nine hectares. The Minister for Art Heritage and the Gaeltacht owns Skellig Michael on behalf of the Irish people. And there's also a lighthouse and support buildings for the lighthouse on the southern end of the island, as well as a helipad in this portion of the island falls outside of the ownership arrangement mentioned above.
We'll get a little bit more into that in a bit. The geological makeup of Skellig Michael is what's called old red sandstone, sedimentary layers of rock deposited somewhere between 360 and 374 million years ago during the Devonian period when Ireland was part of a much larger continent. It's the western most European instance of Devonian sandstone, which can be found throughout Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia and Greenland. It's also in portions of Canada. Skellig Michael also has two twin peaks with a valley in the middle, which has come to be known as Christ's saddle, and that helipad that we mentioned briefly is for emergencies only.
That's not a standard way to get on and off the island or special cases. So from the middle of May to September, visitors may travel to Skellig Michael, but only by boat. And it is four day visits exclusively. And I should also mention that sometimes if they have had damage in the winter, they will shorten that window. The visitors can come. Tourists also cannot stay overnight on the island and there are no amenities. Basically, you go for a little while and you get back on the boat and you leave.
The island is also designated a statutory nature reserve, so no animal visitors are allowed and no trash can be left behind.
The animals that most commonly benefit from the island's reserve status are birds. Seabirds often nest there during their respective breeding seasons. Skellig Michael is considered one of the most important breeding grounds for birds in Ireland. And for some species, it's one of the most important places in the world. The Storm Petrel and makes Shearwater have some of their largest breeding groups on the island, and it's also home to puffins, which I love and kittiwakes, among others. Peregrine Falcons also nest there, although not every year, and there are a few mammals on the island as well, including grey seals, house, mice and rabbits.
Also of interest in terms of its natural makeup is the like in that grows on Skellig Michael. There are actually one hundred and twenty eight different species of lichen found on this tiny rocky island. And to like Nikola's fungi, that's enough to classify it as a nationally important site for lichen growth based on a conservation study that was conducted in 2009 to get to more of the the human made structures.
Skellig Michael is also home to a monastery that was built hundreds of years ago. And we're going to get into the history of that in more detailed descriptions of the monastery in just a bit. But at first but first, we're going to talk about how it exists there today. The settlement has two different segments. And the first is the monastery itself, which is built on the island's east side, high up on sloping areas of rock. The monastery has three access points, all of which involve navigating a lot of steps, a lot of steps like they actually say in the vicinity of the visitor stuff that you may read, like the visitors advisor is like, please don't come if you're not ready to take on like 600 steps because it is vigorous work and it's not there's not an easy way up.
There's like I said, there are no amenities, there's no elevator, there are no chairlifts. You have to handle it yourself. And those steps are really amazing because they're cut from the rock of the island from the landing point where you would first step foot on the island up to the highest point where water can possibly reach. And then above that height, the steps continue. But from then on, they're made of dry stone masonry. The structures within the monastery include a church to oratories, seven beehive cells, water cisterns and a cemetery and locked, which I have also heard Irish people say Liaqat lacked as a square or rectangular structure built with layers of stones but no mortar.
Well, they have been found at a number of Irish early Christian monastic sites. Their function isn't entirely clear. There have been several theories, including that they may have marked graves of important holy people or were used to house relics or had some sort of social spiritual function. And there are also two large garden terraces and retaining walls which form the foundation of the entire site. The second area of construction is separate from the monastery itself on ledges of the South Peak.
It's composed of several structures and including an oratory altar locked and water cisterns. Steps cut out of the rock provide access to these structures, which are described in archaeological stratigraphic report written in 2011 as daringly constructed. I sort of feel that way about everything on Skellig Michael. It's so beautiful. But I don't know that I am its target visitor because I think I would spend the whole time screaming in fear that I would just fall. It's all very steep.
That name is apt and we're going to go a little bit deeper into talking about those daring structures that Tracey just mentioned and where they fit into the island's history. But first, we're going to pause for a quick sponsor break.
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The first known reference to Skellig, Michael goes all the way back to seventeen hundred B.C., it's referenced as the place where the prince is the fifth son of militias died when his ship was separated from the rest of his fleet during a storm crashed upon a rock and sank. This is, however, a folkloric account, so it remains unverified. There's another unverified story of Skellig Michael set in the 5th century in this instance, after a conflict between the kings of Cashel in the Kings of Munster.
The King of Westminster named Walke is said to have fled to Skellig Michael. And while this event is written as having happened in the fifth century, that account was recorded in either the 8th or the 9th century. So its its accuracy is hard to gauge. We know for certain, based on the structures that we talked about earlier, that monks moved into the island at some point. But exactly when that happened also isn't clear. The earliest estimates place it a place the start of the monastery somewhere in the sixth century, although it could have been built as late as the 8th century.
And then the earliest known reference to the monastery is in an animal entry from the year 824, which describes a Norse raid on Skellig Michael. Yeah, there's a lot of disparate accounts that that place that at different times, but it's somewhere in there. I think most people tend to favor the earlier thing because a lot of the accounts that happened later on and we'll talk about it in a minute, suggest that it was already functioning. The position of this monastery is actually quite well chosen.
It's 600 feet above sea level. And where it sits on the island and in relation to its peaks, offer some natural shelter and it has plenty of stones to use in building. So the monks could access stone from right there on the island to build these structures. And it enabled relatively easy water collection. So channels were cut into sloping stone to direct water right into cisterns that they had placed in the two primary systems that were used were built to hold roughly one hundred and twenty gallons.
That's about 450 liters of water.
One of the unique aspects of the monastery is the cell structures that are sometimes described as beehives is hives are shaped like inverted elliptic parabola.
So not not beehives like the flat ones in boxes that are manufactured, but the domed why, yes, the bees would actually build on their own or that, you know, sometimes people keep bees in baskets that are that shaped like an inverted Simmi Dome sort of structure. They have a doorway built into the front of each of them and steps that lead in and out of the doors. The beehive cells are all arranged along the monasteries, large oratory, but there are some differences among them and the cells are lettered for identification.
Yeah, and just for clarity, the cell letter order does not in any way pertain to their age order, which I was trying to explain this to, to a friend, and they got a little thrown by that. So just know that this the A through G does not in any way suggest that they came first and she was at the end there with completely separate naming system. So Cell A is the largest one. It actually has a second interior level and it's believed to have been a communal space and it's quite large at the base of the structure.
The walls of cells are one point eight metres thick, so that's almost six feet in. The interior space is about fifteen by twelve point five feet. That's about four point six by three point eight metres. And there's an interior height of 16 feet. It's about five metres.
Cells, B and C are smaller. There are about two thirds the size of cell A cell D is actually no longer intact, but it was probably the oldest cell on the site. Probably it collapsed before Cell C was completed. Cell E is bigger than B and C, but smaller than A like a word problem in Satie's cell. F is smaller in size to B and C, and it has these interior slabs that are arranged in a manner that suggests it might have been a sleeping area.
These cells were built at various points in time and they aren't homogenous in their size, as noted or in the way the stone work is done. Yeah, it's pretty clear evidence that they were worked on at various points in time, so it spans some number of years. There is a central church at the monastery that is St Michael's and it's partially collapsed. And what would have been its roof, which would have been made of wood, is long gone.
The church appears also to have not been built all at the same time, but in two different stages. The second one to expand on what was a fairly small church that was built in the first phase.
While a prominent and impressive aspect of the monastery is design is its retaining walls, they have experienced multiple structural failures throughout the life of the site, beginning when it was still occupied. The walls have been the focus of a lot of conservation and preservation work over the years. Yeah, they're amazing and that they really are, you know, holding up all of this manmade structure. But they definitely are bearing the weight of that manmade structure. And as a consequence, sometimes they get tired and they break up cells, don't really get walls, don't really get tired.
I know nobody needs to tell me, but they. So the daring structures that we referenced a little while ago make up what's come to be called the Hermitage. And so in the modern era, these manmade structures on Skellig, Michael s Peake's, they're a little bit away from. The others were first referenced in an 1840 one mapping survey. And then they made another appearance on record in the 50s when Lord Dunraven visited the island and wrote of having seen the ruins of a quadrangles building there.
The South Park ruins were noted again by visiting scholars in the 1950s, but it actually wasn't until the 1980s that a study of the site was ordered by the Office of Public Works. There are three terraces that make up the hermitage. There's a garden and dwelling terrace that's forty three feet. That's about 13 metres long. It ranges in width from six point five to 13 feet, which is two to four metres. One end of the terrace, which includes a section of the retaining wall.
It's about five feet or one and a half metres high and that remains intact. The other end of it, though, has collapsed. The oratory terrace sits at a right angle to the garden and dwelling terrace, and it's about 13 feet. That's four metres higher up on the peat. On this terrace is a small oratory with an interior space of seven point five by six point five feet. That's about two point three by two metres. And this terrace extends far past the oratory to the east, although it is quite a narrow sort of terrorists that you're you're on at that point from the oratory terrace.
The outer terrace used to be reachable via a traverse that was chiseled from the stone by the monks. But in modern times, it's a place that's really best visited by skilled climbers and no one else. It's treacherous to navigate the ledges that you have to move across. It's not clear if that outer terrace was ever completed, and it's also not clear what its function was.
Yeah, I watched a brief like newsreel of a team that was going up when they were doing some preservation investigation. And it's like, look, we found handhelds like there are literally basically just scaling up the rock face until they actually found something that a human could stand on. So it is not just something you would go, hey, I'd like to go up there. It's a again, not a place that I should maybe visit because it looks terrifying.
Some time before the early 11th century, the island monastery was dedicated to Saint Michael. Saint Fionan is also closely tied to the history of the monastery and may have been its founder. He's often referenced as the founder, but again, it's all a little unclear. Records of the late 12th century indicate that the settlement was occupied and having regular mass at that point. But soon after, in the 13th century shifting church structure in Ireland and increased instances of inclement weather on and around the island led the the monastery to be abandoned.
The monks who had been living there moved to the mainland village of Balance Skellig, and after that point, the monastery at Skellig Michael was considered part of the Balance Skellig Monastery. Yeah, but it wasn't really it's not believed to have been occupied after that point. It just kind of was was notated as part of their their larger kind of organizational structure. But again, like there had been a shift in climate and it really was not easy or safe to occupy that area any longer.
From the fourteenth of the 16th centuries, the island appears on navigational charts that were used by both Italian and Iberian seafarers. The monastery was officially closed in the 16th century with Henry, the eighth dissolution of monasteries, and it passed into private ownership by a family named Butler. The Butler family retained ownership of the island until eighteen twenty one. In November of 1820, Jay Butler was approached by the government's Board of Works about a permanent lease on the island.
So the. To light houses could be built there, and after some back and forth, legal experts investigating the situation determined that Butler's legal ownership of the land was not clearly documented after an appraisal of the property. The Butler estate was paid seven hundred eighty pounds for Skellig. Michael and the commissioners of Irish Lites assumed ownership of it. We're going to talk about the LightHouse's in just a moment. But first, we're going to pause and have another short sponsor break.
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There is no road along the northern shore of the island. There aren't many records of the actual construction process, but both lighthouses were completed and induced. By the end of 1826, the taller of the two lights was nearly 400 feet. That's one hundred twenty one metres above the high watermark. But the visibility range of twenty five miles or 40 kilometers, the lower light was 175 feet, or fifty three point three metres above the high watermark with a visibility range of 18 miles or twenty nine kilometers.
Both were non-moving lights and a sad note in 1869. So more than 40 years into the lighthouse's life, a small modern grave was added to the chapel at Skellig Michael. At that point, lighthouse keeper W Calahan buried two of his small children there after both had died of an illness. He then requested and was granted a transfer elsewhere as he was concerned for the health of his remaining child. So there is one instance of a modern I'm using the air quotes since it was in the eighteen hundreds, but a modern grave there at the site.
The upper light was in service for 44 years until it was supplanted by another lighthouse north of the Skellig Islands in 1870. The lower lighthouse has remained in use. That's still in use today, although there's been an update to it that we'll talk about in a moment. Yeah, there's actually been a couple of updates, but the Office of Public Works took possession of the monastery as a state guardianship in 1880 with the intent to repair the crumbling structures and establish an ongoing plan for conservation of the site.
In 1989, the lower lighthouse was renovated and updated with a rotating, more powerful light. The lower light in the original rubble masonry tower remained in use for 146 years. It was extinguished in 1966 and a temporary lantern was erected while an entirely new tower was built. The following year, the new lighthouse was online, boasting another upgrade to one point eight million candles light. In 1969, Skellig Michael helipad was constructed on the eastern coast of the island.
That helipad is made of reinforced concrete and three very thick columns supported off the cliff face. It is terrifying as everything else to me to look at on the the cliff side, the open side of the helipad. It is a one hundred and twenty one foot or thirty seven metre drop directly into the ocean in nineteen seventy eight.
Skellig Michael became the focus of a long term conservation project at that point, a retaining wall near the church that's part of the monastery. St Michael's had experienced a structural failure and it was prioritised as the project's first order of business. And additionally, steps that were leading up to the main entrance of the monastery also needed restoration. Natural water erosion had claimed some of the lower sections that reach into the water line and heavy use of these stairways during periods of lighthouse construction had also really damaged some of the masonry.
Only one of the three stairways leading to the main monastery is currently accessible to visitors. In nineteen eighty, excavation work began at the site and that work has continued for decades. The National Monument Service of Ireland was responsible for these efforts. That organisation has been part of various government departments over the years, but its work at Skellig Michael has continued seasonally throughout all those three organisations. Yeah, there's a narrow window winter. You can't really go there and do any sort of excavation to examine the ruins because it's just too cold.
In nineteen eighty one, a project was completed that had begun in nineteen seventy eight to finally automate the lighthouse.
In nineteen eighty nine, the commissioners of Irish Lights sold the island Skellig Michael to the state, which was already the guardian of the monastery, with the exception of the remaining active White House and its related structures. Yeah, the commissioners of Irish lights still retain that lighthouse area. And then in nineteen ninety six, Skellig Michael became a UNESCO World Heritage site.
On October 22nd, 2001, that lighthouse was converted to solar power, a lamp change which was done at the same time. Reduce the lights, reach to nineteen miles. Diesel generators are still on hand for backup power. In 2010, the focus of archaeological efforts shifted to the Lighthouse Road, and in 2013, seven tonnes of stone were brought to the island via military airlift to be used in the road's restoration. There have been two rescue operations launched from Skellig Michael to date on a.
Her twenty eighth 1916, three of its lighthouse keepers helped rescue two boatloads of survivors from the S.S. Marina, which was a British cargo ship that had been torpedoed by a German U. Boat. While 18 men died in the attack, more than 100 were saved. The three keepers were awarded one pound from the Board of Trade and an additional Guinee from the SS Marina's owner, the Donaldson line. Yeah, they each got that award. On February 27th, 1944, an aircraft exploded in midair after colliding with the highest peak of the island and falling in pieces into the water.
And British aircraft and the lighthouse keepers of Skellig Michael executed a search, but neither the wreckage nor any survivors were ever found.
Unfortunately, the use of Skellig Michael as a filming location has been the source of some friction. Archaeology specialist voiced concerns about the safety of the monastery and birdwatch. Ireland, which is an independent conservation group, criticized Ireland's minister of arts for approving the use of the island as a location without involving a third party specializing in conservation and bird habitat assessment. And unfortunately, those concerns were brought into sharp focus in 2014, when a helicopter on a site scouting flight caused a number of kittiwakes nests to be disturbed.
The downdraft from the chopper's propeller caused some of the chicks to be swept into the sea, and they were killed by seagulls. After this incident, everyone involved reassess the situation. Additional flights were cancelled. The filming schedule was reviewed to avoid the primary kittiwakes breeding season, although other birds still nesting on the island caused continued concern on the part of Birdwatch Ireland Birdwatch. Ireland's point of view is that there was a breach in established EU protocol by doing it this way.
The Office of the Minister of Arts remained insistent, though, that the European Union Habitats Directive was upheld. So there's some disagreement on that point. Yeah, I did notice there are a few instances regarding Skellig Michael outside of this, where there is disagreement about how restoration has been handled or whether, you know, everything has been executed in the proper way and to the letter of the law. And it usually everything I found just turns out to be a very similar back and forth of you.
Did it wrong? No, we didn't. We did everything like this. We don't agree with you. We think you're lying like that just goes on and on and on. So it's a little hard to pass out. Skellig Michael, unbeknownst to me, the site of much disagreement. But to end all of this on a more poetic note, it seems fitting to mention the island as it was seen through the eyes of one of Ireland's most famous creative minds in the 1910, writer George Bernard Shaw visited Skellig Michael, and it made a very strong impression.
He later wrote the following quote, But for the magic that takes you out far out of this time in this world, there is Skellig Michael, 10 miles off Kerry coast, shooting straight up 700 feet, sheer out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the graveyard and their beehive oratory does not know Ireland through and through. That's lovely. It is very lovely. Thanks, George Bernard Shaw. Thanks so much for joining us on this Saturday since this episode is out of the archive.
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