Preserving the Monuments on Skellig Michael for the Future. (Special Section)

By Rourke, Grellan D. | Antiquity, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Preserving the Monuments on Skellig Michael for the Future. (Special Section)


Rourke, Grellan D., Antiquity


Introduction

This article will concentrate on the current conservation works programme, which started in the summer of 1978 and is currently on-going. It will deal with the scope of the work on Skellig Michael and the management plan in place to preserve the site and still allow a reasonable number of visitors access each season. Here I can only give a brief overview of the works; in due course a series of volumes will appear and will record in full the major programme outlined below.

Background

The island is home to the best-preserved Early Christian monastic settlement in Ireland. The largest element is the monastery itself comprising six drystone cells, two oratories, one mortared church and associated smaller structures and crosses. The monastery is constructed on south-facing man-made terraces on the steeply sloping eastern `peak'. To reach this place the monks constructed three separate series of steps from landing points on the east, south and north sides of the island. Associated with these are various retaining walls and small terraces. The highest point on the island lies on the western side and is curiously referred to as the South Peak. It is a steep pinnacle; on manmade terraces clinging to the rock below the peak itself are located the remains of an incredible hermitage. This remote place is reached initially by means of narrow ledges and then by climbing up with the aid of rock-cut hand- and foot-holds. The ascent is not for the faint-hearted.

This important site came into State care in late 1880, and in the closing decades of that century repair works were undertaken to the drystone retaining walls and major rebuilding was completed to the Upper Retaining Wall where the south wall of mortared St Michael's Church had collapsed. Some maintenance was also undertaken during the 1930s but this was not fully recorded. However, the greatest intervention had taken place prior to State protection of the site when the `Ballast Board' constructed the pier, roadway and lighthouses on the island. Throughout the period of construction in the 1830s the monastery itself was the base for the construction crews and during this time many alterations were made, particularly to the plinths, steps and terraces between the buildings. When they finally departed all their building rubble, etc. was concealed behind drystone revetments. The full extent of this intervention only became apparent during the current conservation works programme. However, it is important to bear in mind that had some of this work not been done more of the original monks' work would have been lost.

Organization of works

The island of Skellig Michael is located almost 12 km from Portmagee at the very edge of the Iveragh Peninsula in Co. Kerry. Access is difficult and setting up works in such a location is no easy task and requires a lot of pre-planning and a flexible approach. The season is short. It is well into May before there is regular access and such access can be maintained into September, although each year has varied somewhat depending on weather conditions. Setting up `camp' takes some weeks at the start of each season and realistically one can expect an actual working season of about 14 or 15 weeks before the site must be closed up again until the following year.

Bringing equipment, materials and labour to the island requires a lot of organization, knowledge of tides and winds, etc. and having experienced people upon which one can call is essential. Transport is normally by boat, although helicopters are used when necessary, particularly for getting building materials and equipment to the top. Over the years we have built up a good working team with experienced professional expertise. It is inter-disciplinary work where the elements of archaeology, architectural conservation and engineering are seamlessly intermeshed, all working together at the same time. Because of the nature of some of the works, specialist mountaineering and safety expertise are also constantly on call. …

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