SKELLIGS

From A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, 1837

SKELLIGS (THE), three islands in the parish of KILLEMLAGH, barony of IVERAGH, county of KERRY, and province of MUNSTER, the principal of which, or the Great Skellig, is 8 miles (W. N. W. ¼ N.) from Bolus Head, and 7 ¾ (W. S. W.) from Bray Head, in the island of Valentia. They form a range of lofty and widely detached masses of rock, extending in a west-southwesterly direction from Puffin island, an insulated rock forming the south-western extremity of the coast of Kerry. The first from the coast is a circular rock called the Lemon, which abounds with various kinds of fowl, and has an elevation considerably above high water mark; near it are two smaller rocks, which are dry at half ebb, but have 30 fathoms depth on the north side. About three miles further, in the same direction, is the middle or Little Skellig, consisting of a reddish kind of slate rising abruptly from the sea, and frequented by vast numbers of gannets, or Solan geese, and a great variety of other birds; the people of the mainland take these for their feathers, which are valuable as articles of trade, and also for food, which savours of fish and is eaten on fast days.

About a league farther from the shore is the Great Skellig, in lat. 51° 49' (N.), and lon. 10° 32' 30" (W.); it is a stupendous mass of slate rock rising majestically from the sea, and at the height of 50 or 60 yards dividing into two pyramidal summits, of which the taller has an elevation of 1500 feet above high water mark.

The middle region of the island forms a plain of about three acres, surrounded by precipitous elevations which overhang the waters that roar around their base; it affords some short but nutritious pasturage, and there are some indistinct traces of former cultivation. This spot, in the earlier ages of Christianity, was selected as a place of religious seclusion; there are still some remains of the abbey of St. Finian and of the cells of the monks who formerly lived here in the most austere solitude; the chapels or cells are built of stone dovetailed without mortar, and apparently in imitation of Roman architecture, with conical roofs of the same material.

In 812 the Danish pirates plundered this little monastery, and the monks, unable to obtain supplies of provisions, died of famine. There are also the remains of two small wells, which with the chapels were dedicated to St. Michael. The island has only two coves, in which a landing can be effected; according to Keating and other Irish historians, Irr, one of the sons of Milesius, attempting to land here, was shipwrecked and buried in the island. Near the summit of the higher cliff is a projecting crag overhanging the sea, at the extremity of which is a rudely carved cross, which it was considered an act of the most determined devotion to kiss, and which appalling task was frequently enjoined as a penance upon pilgrims who visited the island for that purpose.

This monastery became a cell to the abbey of St. Michael at Ballinskelligs bay, subsequently founded for monks of the order of St. Augustine, the ruins of which still form an interesting object on the shores of the mainland. The water at the base of the island is 90 fathoms deep, and abounds with a variety of fish. On the south side are two lighthouses at a distance of 650 feet from each other, distinguished by the names of the Upper and Lower Skellig rock lights; they exhibit fixed bright lights, at an elevation of 173 feet above the level of the sea at high water mark, bearing from each other N. by E. and S. by W., and are so arranged as to answer the purpose of leading lights to vessels sailing either north or south.

The erection of these lighthouses has been the means of preventing much loss of life and property; scarcely a winter previously elapsed without frequent and fatal shipwrecks, which since their completion have been of rare occurrence. The light-keepers are sometimes cut off from all communication with the mainland for months together, and as there is no supply of wholesome water on the island, they suffer at those times the greatest privations: it requires a perfectly calm day and a very steady and skilful crew to effect a landing on the rock. The rugged sides of the higher peaks present immense masses of a rotten slaty substance, apparently decomposed by the electric fluid, and it is not improbable that there may have been a third peak, destroyed by the same means.

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