A Rugged Journey to Ireland’s Remote Ruins

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If anyone can explain why 10,000 people each year make the stomach-churning passage to Skellig Michael, a desolate rock pinnacle eight miles off Ireland’s southwest coast, John O’Shea can.

From spring to early fall for the last 15 years, the ruddy-cheeked Kerryman has ferried passengers across the roiling Atlantic from Derrynane Harbour to Skellig Michael aboard his stripped-down fishing trawler, one of only 14 boats authorized to make the trip. If conditions permit a landing on the 54-acre crag, and often they don’t, passengers must then hop from a pitching boat onto a concrete quay and scale 618 stone steps. The steps are rough, narrow and slippery when damp, which they usually are, without so much as a flimsy handrail as a barrier between you and oblivion hundreds of feet below. And all this to view a scattering of ruins below the 714-foot summit.

Why would anybody brave such a journey?

“I guess they’re trying to figure out what those guys were doing out there,” Mr. O’Shea said as he set off with me, eight other passengers and four of his beloved mutt terriers under a steely sky last fall.

“Those guys” were monks who used to live on this remote rock, from A.D. 600 to 1200, according to estimates, and they were why I had come, too. Physical traces of that community remain, battered by wind and rain but still clinging to the upper reaches of the island: carved Celtic crosses marking graves; the ruins of a small church; a primitive oratory and a few beehive-shaped monastic cells painstakingly built of mortarless, flat stones stacked in ever-constricting circles. They were relics of a time before rationalism ruled the Western world when blind faith in the divine was the pole star of life. […]

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