Skellig Michael is a peak of bare stone rising hundreds of feet out of the cold Atlantic six miles off the western coast of Ireland. A rugged pinnacle of granite, it stands in defiance both of the distant mainland and the fierce lashings of the surf. Brutal and inaccessible, with cliffs rising to unlikely heights then sloping steeply to precarious ledges, it seems unapproachable and uninhabitable, and yet for more than one hundred years beginning in the sixth century a small group of Christian hermits made Skellig's Rock their home.
Nine years ago I visited the spot. I had been sailing that summer with the merchant marine and had docked in Cork, Ireland. After a day and a half by train and car, I found myself waiting on a dock as the sun rose and the fisherman and his son who were to take me talked together to decide if the day were calm enough. The trip could only be made, they said, in the best of weather. At last they decided it was possible.
It was an hour before we had worked our way through the channel and out to open sea. The waves rose to heights of 10 feet or more, so that, riding a crest, we seemed to rest atop a mountain, then slipping into a trough a moment later, to wallow in a valley made entirely of water. It was another three hours before we reached the rock.
Following a trail rising higher and higher above the waves, I came to the plateau on which were perched half a dozen stone huts, the ruins of a tiny church, a Celtic cross carved in stone, an improvised terrace forming a small garden, and a graveyard--although the soil seemed hardly deep enough to cover the roots of plants, let alone the dead. No more than 50 feet from the last of the huts the rock ended and fell in a straight, vertical drop hundreds of feet to the rocks and waves below.