|Character||Fl (3) 15s|
|Sectors||W Vis262°-115° (213°)|
|Light Range||19 nautical miles|
|Height of Tower||12 metres|
|Height of Light above MHWS||53 metres|
These two magnificent mountain tops rising like gothic cathedrals out of the sea are composed mainly of old sandstone and slate. The outer Great Skellig or Skellig Michael is half a mile (0.8 km) long by 714 feet (217.6m) high. The inner Lesser Skellig is a quarter of a mile (0.4km) long by 445 feet (124.6) high.
Legendary references to Skellig rocks go back to pre-Christian times; but the collection of beehive dwellings, oratories and crosses are attributed to Saint Finian around the sixth century. Located close to the beehives is a medieval chapel and two wells dedicated to Saint Michael, patron saint of high places. The monastery, as it is usually referred to, is positioned on the south side of the 611 foot (186.2M) North-East peak at a height of around 550 feet (167.6m) above sea level. The approach is from the lighthouse road, on the south side of the rock, climbing over six hundred steps via the south side of the rock, climbing over six hundred steps via Christ's Valley, a saddle at 442 feet (128.6m) between the two peaks, into the cashel above which are the beehives. The large sloping and flat area above the monastery gives the impression that stone for the cashel and beehives would have been quarried from what was a much higher North-Eastern peak. I very much doubt if the monks brought the stone from the mainland.
Occupation of the monastic site by monks would have probably ceased with the dissolution of monasteries in 1538 by Henry VIII. Subsequently the settlement seems to have been periodically visited by pilgrims either for fervent religious reasons or just simply for peace and quiet. Today literally hoards of tourists make a one day pilgrimage during the summer months - weather permitting - so much so that on occasions Skellig Michael has been closed to visitors whilst Board of Works tradesmen repaired the damage done to the monastic site.
Compared with the monastery the lighthouse presence is comparatively short (1826) nevertheless its history is, in its own way, just as fascinating.
Early in 1818 Maurice Fitzgerald, Knight of Kerry, reminded the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin that over twenty years previously the Grand Jury of the County of Kerry had looked for a lighthouse on Bray Head, Valentia Island, which had been agreed but suspended until the opinion of Trinity House had been taken. Fitzgerald also reminded the Board of two merchant ship casualties in Dingle and Ballinaskelligs Bays both for the want of a light between Loophead and Cape Clear Island. Mr Fitzgerald was informed that the subject would be looked into.
Eighteen months later Inspector of Works and Inspector of Lighthouses, George Halpin, made his report to the Board in which he recommended Great Skellig rock instead of Bray Head as the best position for two lighthouses. His reason for two lights was so as not to be confused with the fixed light at Loophead to the north and the flashing light on Cape Clear Island to the south. The Board agreed and Trinity House were informed, who at first queried the size of Great Skellig before giving their sanction in November 1820. The Board then approached Mr J. Butler of Waterville, Co Kerry for terms on which he would lease forever Great Skellig Rock. He replied the following month stating a rent of £30 per annum for the 986 years left on his own lease. He hoped that it was not too extravagant as heretofore both he and his fathers had been paid a rent of 16 to 18 stone of puffin feathers which would rear 100 sheep in Summer and 50 in Winter. He also mentioned he was prepared to leave the valuation to any fair person. By March the Board agreed to pay £30 per annum but would prefer the fee or purchase of the rock. The Law Agent meanwhile had been checking up on Butler and was not satisfied with his powers to sell or lease and in May recommended an inquisition which was held in Tralee during July where a value of £780 was placed on the rock. This amount was paid into the Butler estate in November 1821.
Construction work on the rock appears to have started in August 1821. The buildings, rock cutting and roadways were designed by Inspector George Halpin and carried out under his direction by Workmen of the Board. At each station, the tower and dwelling were built of rubble masonry with slate cladding on the outside walls. The dwellings were semi-detached (one house for the Principal Keeper and one for the Assistant) the lower was two-storey, the upper single. Each had attic rooms. The pitched roof of the lower house was flattened circa 1910. Each house had its own cast iron porch and all four are still in situ. The only "imported" stone was granite for the lantern blocking, tower, floors and stairs, windowsills and certain wall coping stones.
Unfortunately there are no detailed records of the building and construction of either station or the approach road from the East landing at Blind Man's Cove. The North landing at Blue Cove together with the path and steps had already been constructed by the monks and only required modifications at the landing and lower end of the Corporation. The east landing road being set into the rock towards its lower at Blind Man's Cove necessitated blasting tonnes of rock into the sea. Unfortunately a considerable length of the lower end of the path and steps leading up to the eastern end of the beehive settlement were permanently destroyed and lost forever.
Two incidences are however recorded in the Board's minutes. The first occurred in December 1821 when Mr Hill's sloop John Francis was burnt off Port Magee whilst conveying materials to the rock. Hill looked for compensation but the Board declined to pay. The other was more serious and happened on the 16th November 1825 when one of the labourers Peter Cane was killed during a rock blasting operation. His wife submitted a petition the following February pointing out her distress, so the Board awarded her a pension of £6 per annum and £3 for each of her children by her husband under the age of sixteen.
During the five and a half years of construction, Inspector Halpin made three brief reports and in each he emphasised the difficulties that had to be contended with. By April 1823, the roads were being cut and prepared, March 1924 had not started on building the stations and at the late stage of January 1826 one, presumably the lower lighthouse was built and ready to receive the lantern but the other (upper) had not been commenced. The Inspector hoped the Spring, Summer and Autumn would be moderately favourable so that the lights could be exhibited before winter sets in - his wish was obviously granted! During August the lights were almost complete and the Ballast Board ordered the Inspector to issue a Notice to Mariners stating the lights would be exhibited on Monday 4th December 1826. Not surprising, the cost of the whole operation was £45,721:5s 10d. Finishing work went on for the best part of another year.
The lights were fixed, first order catoptric, each using Argand oil lamps and parabolic reflectors. The upper light was 372 feet (121.3m) above high water and could be seen at a distance of 25 miles (40.2km) in clear weather, the lower light was 175 feet (53.3m) above high water and could be seen for 18 miles (29km). Each tower was approximately 48 feet (14.6m) overall height and they were 745 feet (227m) apart. The tower and dwellings were painted white.
Two or three items of interest are perhaps worth mentioning during the early years of the Skellig lights. During the winter of 1845-46 rape seed oil was tried by the Service and found to be better than sperm oil. It was generally introduced and by 1849 the two Skellig lights benefited from the change. Wooden divisions were added to one or two bedrooms in 1862 to give more privacy for the younger members of the families. In April 1865, the PK of the upper station complained that he had been cruelly beaten up by the PKof the lower station. They were summoned by the Board and the 'lower' PK, who had a drink problem, was dismissed. Towards the end of 1889, the parish priest of Cahirciveen claimed, in the interest of the Roman Catholic Church, that the Keepers who since 1880 had been appointed caretakers by the Board of Works of the national monuments on Great Skellig, should be of faith and desired that the present Protestant Keepers should be replaced. The Board ordered that the reverend gentleman be informed that they cannot accede to his request but assured him every care is taken of the monuments.
On a sad note, a minute was read to the Board on 3rd April 1869 from W. Callaghan, PK of the lower station requesting removal to another station stating he had buried two of his children on the rock and another was lying ill. It was noted by the Inspector but the request was not immediately carried out. The small grave in the medieval chapel reminds us of the two unfortunate mites, Patrick, aged 2 who died in December 1868 and William, aged 4 who died in March 1869.
When Inishtearaght, the most westerly island of the Blaskets, 22 miles (35.4km) north of Skellig rocks, was established on 1st May 1870, the upper light of Skellig was discontinued.
A block of eight shore dwellings for the Keepers and families of Skellig and Inishtearaght were built at Knightstown, Valentia Island, at the turn of the century by Mr W.H. Jones of Dunmanway for £7,570. The Keepers took up residence in 1901 and both Skellig and Inishtearaght became relieving from Valentia Harbour. Times change, Keepers preferred, quite naturally, to live in their own homes and the Knightstown dwellings were sold in 1964.
A proposal by the Engineer, Mr C.W. Scott in 1904 to built a new and more powerful light on the projecting spur of rock below and to the west of the disused upper light got as far as a detailed survey being made during the summer of 1905. It was discussed with new lighthouse works (1906-07) at conference level in London but the end result was, after Captains Brederic (Board of Trade), Clare, and Blake (Trinity House) had visited Great Skellig in July 1906, to improve the light in the existing tower and establish an explosive fog signal on the western spur.
Trinity House and the Board of Trade sanctioned in April 1907 a triple flashing third order light and an explosive fog signal 3 quick reports every 10 minutes. Chance Brothers of Birmingham supplied the optic and pedestal and David Brown of Leeds the rotation machine. The new 120,000 candelas light, using a vapourised paraffin incandescent burner was established on 22nd December 1909 with a character of 3 quick flashes every 10 seconds.
Soon after the automatic fog signal was established, 13th June 1914, difficulties were experienced so it was temporarily discontinued in July, checked both on the rock and at sea and was re-established by 9th December. On the Inspecting Committee's recommendation in 1919, the automatic fog signal machinery was removed and the signal operated manually. The character was altered to one report every six minutes from 1st June 1934 and from 1940 until 1948 the signal was discontinued. Two severe rock slides, between the lower station and the fog signal, occurred in November 1953 and were sufficient to cause a Notice to Mariners to be issued stating the signal would be out of action until further notice. Consideration was given and the sanction obtained for a fog signal firing house on the balcony of the tower but the Inspecting Committee on Tour in 1959, realising that there had been no requests from mariners for the re-establishment of the fog signal, recommended that it should be discontinued. By August 1960 a Notice to Mariners stated that the fog signal was permanently discontinued.
For their help in rescuing two boatloads of survivors from the SS Marina early in November 1916, the three keepers were awarded £1 each from the Board of Trade and one guinea each from the owners of the Marina. During the 1939-45 war, an aircraft crashed, exploded and fell in flames into the sea off the north side of the rock on 27th February 1944. A search by Keepers and a British aircraft found neither survivors nor wreckage.
The 1962 Inspecting Committee on Tour recommended the modernisation of Skellig lighthouse. This entailed replacing the hand operated derrick crane at Cross Cove by a diesel driven derrick; a complete overhaul of the dwellings for both tradesmen and Keepers including electric light, central heating, bathroom and WC and an office for the Principal Keeper, increased storage capacity for diesel fuel oil and fresh water; demolishing the 1826 tower and the 1924 connecting corridor to the dwelling and building a new tower and adjoining engine room. The 1909 Chance Brothers optic and pedestal was retained and converted to electric with a 3KW 100V lamp replacing the vapourised paraffin mantles and driven by a ¼ h.p. (185W) electric motor. A temporary light was mounted and exhibited from a spur of rock close to the old tower from 24th May 1966 until the 1,800,000 candelas light came into operation on the 25th May 1967. The 40-foot (12.2m) tower and dwellings are painted white. The whole operation took just over two years and the cost almost £49,000. The Engineer-in-Chief, Mr A.D.H. Martin, was responsible for the design of the tower and engine room and also for the modernisation of the dwellings.
Fortnightly reliefs by helicopter took over from the Service Steamer out of Castletownbere in November 1969 and a reinforced concrete landing pad was built on the rock near the diesel derrick at Cross Cove.
One of the recommendations of the 1978 Inspecting Committee on Tour was that the Development Committee gave consideration to the unmanning and automating of Fastnet and Skelligs after 1982. This they did in March 1981 and both the Engineer-in-Chief, Mr N.D. Clotworthy, and the Inspector and Marine Superintendent, Captain H.N. Greenlee, in their reports agreed that automation was possible but were conscious of security and vandalism. Work went ahead from 1985 with new generating sets, 1 kW metalarc lamps for the optic, remote control and monitoring link via Knockgour to Castletownbere Helicopter Base and Irish Lights Office and of course, security fencing and gates strategically placed to prevent trespassing. Keepers were withdrawn and the station became automated on 22nd April 1987.
Before concluding, there are one or two interesting points I feel should be mentioned. Tragically, as far as I know, two Keepers have lost their lives on Great Skellig. The first was Michael Wishart who was one of the Keepers removed from Tuskar in 1821 for his indirect involvement in a smuggling episode; he fell to his death at Skelligs whilst, according to Commissioner Robert Callwell but not in the Board's minutes, cutting grass for his cow. The second was more recent when Seamus Rohu was reported missing on 22nd August 1956; his comrades and others searched the rock and the Valentia lifeboat and the Service Steamer Valonia searched the sea, alas, all in vain.
Prior to the advent of the radio telephone the Keepers relied on semaphore signalling, with a pair of long handled bats, to Bull Rock 16 miles (25.5km) away. The signaller positioned himself in front of a large whitewashed patch of vertical rock on the road between the lower station and Cross Cove. The Keeper on Bull Rock read the message through a telescope and he in turn would semaphore to shore via Dursey Island.
The late Principal Keeper Brendan McMahon, told me a delightful Skellig story when I met him on the Kish Bank Lighthouse in 1980. In 1950 Brendan was a senior Assistant Keeper on Skellig and at the time of the incident, acting PK. The earth closet which was a small building close to and on the southside of the tower had become choked; Brendan had one of his bright ideas, he would clear it by detonating a number of fog signal charges buried in the choked drain. The end result was not as Brendan had envisaged but a cascade of slates from the closet roof plummeting 170 feet into Seal Cove below the tower. Brendan had to search the station for spare slates to repair the roof before the PK returned on the next relief day and also carry out what he had tried to avoid doing in the first place - shovel out the choked EC and, no doubt, wash down the besplattered walls!
A full chapter or possibly a book could be written on the flora and fauna of the Skellig rocks but for my exercise a summary will cover the subject.
Both rocks are bird sanctuaries in their own right. The Less Skellig is one of three rocks around Ireland on which Gannets nest literally in their thousands; the other two colonies being Bull Rock, 16 miles (25.5 km) to the South East and Great Saltee Island off the South coast of Wexford. A few pairs of Razorbill, Guillemot, Fulmar and Kittiwake nest on Little Skellig and on flora compared with Great Skellig is minimal.
Many more birds nest on Skellig Michael but not, of course, the Gannet, although they can be seen executing their magnificent dive whilst fishing off the rock. In population pecking order, Storm Petrel head the list followed by Manx Shearwater, Puffin, Razorbill, Kittiwake, Fulmar, Guillemot and Herring Gull, plus a few pairs of Great and Lesser Black Back gulls, Chough, Raven, Hooded crow, Oyster catchers and Wheatears.
Between thirty-five and forty different plants have been identified with Sea Pink and Sea Campion covering a large area of the rock.
Grey Seal bask on the lower rock ledges or swim effortlessly around the rock. Rabbits, more than likely brought on by lighthouse keepers, have almost reached plague proportions. A dozen ferrets were introduced, instead of myxomatosis, to the rock to control the rabbits but the ferrets simply disappeared! Keepers did keep goats for obvious reasons but like other rocks, they went wild and have now died out.
The less said about the Skellig Lists, the better, but suffice to say they were satirical, humorous and defamatory poems published on Shrove Tuesday linking less than eligible bachelors and spinsters of the mainland who might avail of the opportunity of journeying to Skellig Michael to enter into the bonds of Holy Matrimony during Lent which on Skellig was pre-Georgian and consequently started later. The combined efforts of church and law eventually stopped the practice of the Lists.
What is not widely known is that George Bernard Shaw landed on Skellig Michael on 17th September 1910. He was very impressed by the way he was rowed out and back by the two rocks, and by the Keeper who only asked for newspapers and literature to be sent out to him -
"But for the magic that takes you out, far out of this time and this world, there is Skellig Michael ten miles off Kerry coast, shooting straight up seven hundred feet sheer out of the Atlantic. Whoever has not stood in the graveyard and their beehive oratory does not know Ireland through and through."
22nd April 1987 was a sad day for Skellig Michael. After just over 160 years of continuous manning, the station was made unwatched electric. The rock too, except for Irish Lights interests, has been sold to the Board of Works.
The light was converted to solar power from 22 October 2001.The existing third order rotating lens was retained. When Skelligs was automated in 1985, an attempt had been made to install an energy efficient rotation mechanism but difficulties in controlling the rotation at the required speed could not be resolved at that time. The speed of the solar powered optic was therefore reduced, the character of the light being changed from 3 flashes every 10 seconds to 3 flashes every 15 seconds, and the lens is now rotated using an energy efficient PRB 22 drive pedestal. In addition, the mercury bath in which the lens rotates was cleaned to reduce the drag on the lens. This was a difficult operation requiring very stringent safety procedures, including a satisfactory inspection on site by an official from the Health & Safety Authority. The 1kiloWatt metal arc lamps were replaced with 35 Watt discharge lamps fitted in a lamp changer incorporating glass reeded diffusers, reducing the range of the light to 19 nautical miles.
The monitoring system was replaced with a Datac 932 unit that communicates through the cellular mobile phone network directly with the central monitoring centre in Dun Laoghaire. As always at Skelligs, due to its location, line of sight communication paths were difficult to achieve. Aerials for the monitoring system were located on top of the store at the entrance to the compound.
The systems are powered by an array of 48 Solarnova 50 Watt solar panels arranged to charge two parallel connected 24 volt 2750 Ah lead acid batteries through regulators. Finding a suitable south-facing site for mounting solar panels was also not without difficulty. The solar panel array was mounted on stainless steel frames located on the old oil tank bases at the entrance to the station and tied back onto the rock face. More solar panels than usual were used to compensate for the fact that this location is not quite south-facing.
To provide back up power, two of the diesel generators were retained; these can be switched on remotely from Dun Laoghaire to charge the main batteries if required. They also provide intermittent conditioning heating for the dwelling and provide domestic power for visiting personnel.