This monastic complex, perched since about the 7th century on the steep sides of the rocky island of Skellig Michael, some 12 km off the coast of south-west Ireland, illustrates the very spartan existence of the first Irish Christians. Since the extreme remoteness of Skellig Michael has until recently discouraged visitors, the site is exceptionally well preserved.
Skellig Michael is an outstanding, and in many respects unique, example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe.
The island of Skellig Michael lies 11.6 km off Bolus Head, the westernmost tip of the lveragh Peninsula of County Kerry. Faulting of Devonian sandstone and gravels has created a U-shaped depression, known today as 'Christ's Valley' or 'Christ's Saddle', 130 m above sea level in the centre of the island, and this is flanked by two peaks, that to the north-east rising to 185 m and that to the west-south-west 218 m. The rock is deeply eroded and weathered, owing to its exposed position, but is almost frost-free. Landing is possible at three points, depending on the state of the sea. These communicate by flights of steps with the principal monastic remains, which are situated on a sloping shelf on the ridge running north-south on the north-eastern side of the island; the hermitage is on the steeper South Peak.
The approach to the monastery from Christ's Saddle leads to a long narrow terrace. A doorway in the rear wall gives access via a flight of Steps to a larger enclosure, which is in its turn terraced and subdivided; the lowest level contains the main monastic enclosure, comprised of a church, oratories, cells, a souterrain, and many crosses and cross-slabs. The white quartz paving between the buildings gives the ensemble an urban quality.
The Large Oratory has the usual inverted boat-shaped form, with a door in the west wall. It is built from coursed stone, rectangular at the base and becoming oval as it rises in height; the elongated dome terminates inside in a row of large slabs. The Small Oratory is more carefully constructed, and is considered to be later in date. Nearby are the unique remains of a beehive-shaped toilet cell. Cell A is the largest of the six cells and must have had a communal function. Several have cupboards and projecting stones for hanging purposes. They vary in plan - square, rectangular, and D-shaped; several retain their original flagged floors.
St Michael's Church is rectangular in form, unlike the oratories, and would originally have had a timber roof. Two stages of construction can be identified: a small church in mortared stone was later expanded, using much larger sandstone blocks.
The date of the foundation of the monastery on this island is not known. There is a tradition that it was founded by St Fionan in the 6th century; however, the earliest written records come from the end of the 8th century. It was dedicated to St Michael somewhere between 950 and 1050. It was customary to build a new church to celebrate a dedication, and this date fits in well with the architectural style of the oldest part of the existing church, known as St Michael's Church. It was occupied continuously until the later 12th century, when a general climatic deterioration led to increased storms in the seas around the island and forced the community to move to the mainland. However, a monastic presence was maintained as a dependence of Ballinskelligs Abbey. The church was enlarged in the 12th century and the older buildings were kept in repair. The prior of Ballinskelligs Abbey continued to be addressed in papal communications as 'Augustinian Prior of St Michael's, Roche ( = Skellig)'.
When in 1578 Queen Elizabeth I of England dissolved Ballinskelligs following the rebellion of the Earl of Desmond, under whose protection it had been, the island passed from the Augustinian Order to John Butler. However, although the monastery no longer existed, it continued to be a place of pilgrimage. Around 1826 the owner sold the island to the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin (later to become the Commissioners of Irish Lights), who built two lighthouses on the Atlantic side.
[in French only]
La date de fondation du monastère sur l'île n'est pas connue. On dit qu'il fut fondé par saint Fionan au 6ème siècle, mais les premiers écrits qui attestent son existence datent de la fin du 8ème siècle. Il fut dédié à saint Michel entre 950 et 1050. C'était la coutume de construire une nouvelle église pour célébrer une consécration, et cette date correspond au style architectural de la plus ancienne partie de l'église actuelle appelée saint Michael.
Le monastère fut occupé en permance jusqu'à la fin du 12ème siècle, puis une détérioration du climat déchaîna les éléments et contraignit la communauté à quitter l'ile. Toutefois, une présence monastique fut maintenue, en annexe de l'abbaye de Ballinskelligs. L'église fut agrandie au 12ème siècle et les bâtiments plus anciens furent entretenus. Le prieur de l'abbaye de Ballinskelligs continua de recevoir les communications papales adressées au "prieur augustin de la Roche ( = Skellig) de Saint-Michel".
Lorsqu'en 1578 la reine Elisabeth Ière d'Angleterre a dissous l'abbaye de Ballinskelligs, en représailles à la rébellion du comte de Desmond, sous la protection duquel était placée l'abbaye, la propriété de l'ile passa de l'ordre des Augustins à John Butler. Toutefois, l'ile demeura un lieu de pèlerinage. Autour de 1826, le propriétaire de l'époque, John Butler de Warterville, vendit l'ile à la Corporation pour la préservation et l'amélioration du Port de Dublin (plus tard nommée Commission des phares irlandais), qui construisit deux phares sur la côte ouest. Ces phares furent rendus accessibles par l'amélioration du débarcadère et l'aménagement à la dynamite d'une route dans l'à-pic des falaises sud et ouest de l'ile En 1880, l'ile fut reprise par l'OPW (Office of Public Works) qui, depuis, est responsable de l'entretien et de la préservation des constructions de l'île.