The Skelligs – A New Book By Peter Cox
The Skelligs are a pair of islands off Ireland’s west coast with a long and storied history. While they have some of the most dramatic landscapes anywhere on the planet, the human history of the larger island, Skellig Michael, is every bit as compelling.
Around the 6th century, early Christian monks seeking isolation and hardship founded a monastery on one of the jagged peaks of Skellig Michael. Over the next six hundred years or so, they gradually built an incredible array of structures on an island where there is virtually no flat space. They built terraces with massive retaining walls to support their monastery and even more impressively built a hermitage clinging to the side of the needle-like South Peak.
Today, these islands are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are visited by thousands of tourists each year. Awareness and interest in the Skelligs were further stoked by their inclusion in the recent Star Wars movies “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi”. If not for the inaccessibility and delicacy of the site, the visitor numbers would be in the millions.
As a result, many people who travel to Ireland in the hopes of landing on Skellig Michael are unable to do so. It is for this reason that I decided to produce a book of photographs to showcase the islands to those who can’t visit and to show a side of them that very few people get to see. Due to the restrictions, visitors are only allowed on Skellig Michael during the summer months, and then only during the middle of the day. Virtually no-one gets to experience sunrise, sunset or a beautiful clear night on the island. I have been fortunate enough to gain access to do just that, and this is the story of how that was done.
I’ve had a long love affair with these islands from the time I first became aware of them about fifteen years ago. For the last ten years I’ve been working to acquire images of them, and last December I achieved my goal of photographing the islands at night. I had dreamed of making photographs of the medieval monastic buildings on the island (including the iconic dry-stone huts with corbel roofs) against the backdrop of a cloudless, star-filled sky. Easier said than done.
Not only would I need a clear night sky, but I’d also need the moon to be a half-moon or less, otherwise it would drown out the fainter light of the stars.
And the window of good weather had to be big enough for me to be dropped and collected from the island with a high degree of certainty. The monks may have lived on this terrifying rock for many centuries without smart thermostats and Netflix. I did not want to copy them by being stranded there due to harsh sea conditions.
In December, things seemed to be shaping up in my favor. At least enough for me to start ringing round to get everything in place, just in case
Step one was putting my team together, starting with a gnarly seadog with enough experience and expertise to bring me to Skellig Michael by boat and (more importantly) remember to come and collect me the next day. I’ve got to know a lot of people along the coast, so that bit was easy enough.
Next, I knew I shouldn’t be on the island alone. Skellig Michael is a dangerous place. (After all, it’s reckoned no more than a dozen monks lived on the island, but we don’t know how many they started with.) Fortunately, I am friends with a mountaineer who has experience of the island. He readily agreed to join me.
The team was complete.
A Landing to Remember
The crossing over to Skellig Michael was uneventful. But the landing was an adventure.
At this time of year, the landing is not maintained, so the pier at the base of the rock was covered in algae. Imagine stepping from a bobbing boat on to an ice rink. Getting ashore requires decisiveness and great care to avoid finding yourself in the water between the boat and the pier. Although I was there for photography, initially I was keener to get our provisions ashore than my gear. We had food and drink for a week or so, in case we couldn’t come off the next day, and I was happier knowing we had landed them safely.
The South Peak
The island has two precipitous peaks, giving it the appearance of a pair of horns rising from the ocean from certain angles.
The monastery itself is just below the summit of the north peak—accessible to tourists without issue, other than a climb of several hundred medieval steps.
The hermitage and two other terraces on the south peak are much harder to visit. By harder, I mean slightly terrifying. I’m starting to wonder whether the monks weren’t in fact a banished troupe of acrobats. Imagine walking around the outside of the tenth floor of a skyscraper on a ledge no more than a few feet wide. That’s what it’s like in places. And if it isn’t like that, then you’re climbing up vertical rockfaces. The monks engineered the climb brilliantly, so the hand- and foot-holds that you need are always there, but the exposure beneath you is immense.
I was thankful for the presence and expertise of my mountaineering companions. With their guidance, I made it up and down the south peak safely that evening. I found the experience incredibly rewarding. Being in that place on a beautiful calm evening was the realization of a very long-held ambition. The journey up and down as unnerving but also highly rewarding.
A Magical Night And A Mesmerizing Morning
Back at the monastery on the north peak, we had dinner and I spent the next few hours making photographs. I used a dimmed camping light to illuminate the inside of the structures in some images. The 30-second exposures make the light look much brighter than it was.
It’s hard for me to capture in words just how magnificently ethereal the experience of spending a night in the stillness and brutal beauty of this soulful place was. Let me try: it was great.
I woke up at around 5 AM the next morning and watched the light gradually push away the night sky and stars. Among my favorite images were made in this pre-dawn stage, just as the stars were disappearing. I cannot remember having a better start to a day than that particular morning.
After some more photography and breakfast, we headed back down to the pier to be taken off the island.
As it turned out, the weather window we used was followed by several weeks of severe conditions. If we hadn’t left the island that morning, we’d probably still be there. Well, I would anyway. I’d have started eating my companions when the food ran out.
Now that the images were in place and the book layout complete, it was time to get the funding together to produce the book. I have published two previous books – “The Irish Light” in 2012 and “Atlantic Light” in 2015. Both were crowdfunded through Kickstarter and both projects were highly successful, achieving multiples of their funding goal. Both books are still in print today. “The Irish Light” is in its third printing, and “Atlantic Light” in its second.
It was logical to follow this path to publish the new book. Titled “The Skelligs: Islands on the Edge of the World”, I launched the Kickstarter on March 19th (sadly, two days too late for St. Patrick’s Day!). As of this writing, it has just reached its funding goal of €19,000 with 25 days still to go in the 30-day campaign.
I had wondered if this campaign would be as successful as the previous two – you never want to assume something like that. The fact that the subject matter is compelling, and that I have two previous successful projects under my belt are both points in my favor. However, given the uncertainty of these times, I hit the ‘launch’ button with some trepidation. Needless to say, I’m delighted and grateful for the support the project has received.
Three days before the project launched, I was forced to close my retail photography gallery in Killarney for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak. Overnight my income has plummeted, along with that of many people in this industry and others. This Kickstarter and the continued support that I hope it receives are a ray of hope. Right now, I can publish the book and ship the backer rewards. Your continued support for the project will provide an income that will help me to keep my business afloat so I can continue to employ my staff and produce beautiful images to share with you!
Please support and spread the word about the project. I look forward to getting your copy of the book to you!
Peter Cox is a long time friend. I have worked with him doing workshops in Ireland as well as Antarctica. He’s the walking icon of an Irelander. I purchased his first book and have backed him on Kickstarter for this book. I highly recomend this venture and book and I am sure you’ll find it a good investment for your photography book collection. I did my Kickstarter backing for the book and a print.
Peter is a professional landscape photographer living and working in the south-west of Ireland. He owns a photography gallery in the town of Killarney, County Kerry and teaches workshops all over the world. He has published two books of his photography, including the first book of drone photography ever published: Atlantic Light.