The monastery, which is contained within an inner and outer enclosure, is situated on the sloping rock plateau at the north-eastern summit.The location was well chosen to provide shelter and water collection and there was an abundance of stone, which facilitated the building of the monastery.The monks used a system of retaining walls to construct level terraces upon which they constructed their buildings within the inner enclosure. The lower terracing within the outer enclosure provided garden areas for cultivation.
A series of cells form the north side of the inner enclosure. Cell A which faces the Large Oratory, was the communal cell and it had an upper level in the interior. The cells date from more than one period and reflect the development of drystone construction during the early medieval period. Cell F is a typical dwelling cell. They focus on the Large Oratory, the most important building in the working monastery. The area around the oratory is paved and there is a special area of quartz paving to the front. Associated with the oratory are leachta and the Monks’ Graveyard.
An additional terrace was added in order to construct the Small Oratory. Alongside this is the monastic latrine which is a small beehive structure constructed over a steep ravine.
Access to the Monastery
The monks constructed three sets of steps to their monastery, affording access during differing weather conditions. These are known as the East, South and North Steps. Only the South Steps are accessible by the public today. The three flights of steps start as rock-cut steps and are then constructed of dry-stone once they are out of reach of rough seas. The South and North Steps meet at Christ’s Saddle, the only reasonably flat part of the island, and continue as one as far as the monastery.
A short section of the original South Steps was removed to create the lighthouse road in the 1820s. It is from this road that the visitors begin their ascent and the first couple of flights are not original. The steps are very dramatic as they wind their way up the island affording great views back to the mainland and Little Skellig. There is a long flight, which leads up to Christ’s Saddle where the visitors can rest before continuing up to the Monastery itself. At the top of the access steps there is a nineteenth century entrance, which leads into the Upper Monks’ Garden. The original entrance can be seen at the other end of this garden, located at the top of the East Steps.
These massive walls were constructed of drystone to create level terracing for the establishment of the monastery. The stones used are of considerable size with the short ends visible in the wall face. The walls also provide shelter from the prevailing winds and create a microclimate, which facilitated the growth of essential foods. The walls date from different periods and reflect repeated collapse and reconstruction over time.
There were a number of entrances into the monastic enclosure, each replacing a previous one. The present-day entrance is the third to have been constructed. The Outer Entrance at the top of the East Steps housed a gate, which could be secured.
The Large Oratory
This is the earliest extant church within the monastic enclosure and is a traditional inverted boat-shaped oratory. It has a wide west doorway and a small rectangular window in the east wall. It is rectangular in plan with thick walls constructed of dry stone. The internal walls show signs of later lime washing dating from the nineteenth century when the lighthouse families used the oratory as their church.
St. Michael's Church
This is the only monastic structure on the island constructed using lime mortar. It dates from two periods, the first possibly relating to the dedication of the site to St. Michael in the late tenth or early eleventh century. The second phase dates to the twelfth century. The church has an east window and a door on the north side and sandstone was brought from Valentia Island for its more decorative elements. It would have had a timber roof structure and was probably slated. It was rendered externally and most likely lime-washed so would have looked considerably different to the other monastic buildings. Part of this church collapsed in antiquity.
The Monk's Graveyard
The monks’ graveyard is located to the east of the Large Oratory and is defined by large long orthostats along its base on the north and west sides. Collapse on the east side has reduced its overall size. The series of crosses set into the west side are in their original locations. These crosses are roughly shaped and some have plain incised decoration.
This is a typical dwelling cell within the monastic enclosure and is the only one located on the lower pavement level. It is almost square internally but becomes circular above lintel level, corbelling as it rises. The entrance area is paved and a raised section on the other three sides would have accommodated sleeping areas for three monks. Each had their own cupboard built into the walls and there are a number of projecting stone pegs in the interior for hanging satchels and suchlike.
The drystone buildings on Skellig Michael were all corbelled. This is a technique where individual stones are laid horizontally, each one placed over the previous one in such a way that it overhangs on the inner face. In this way the interior space reduces as it rises up to form a dome-like structure. All the stones are positioned so that they slope outwards allowing for wind-borne rain to run off and so keep the building watertight.
The term leacht is used to describe small rectangular stone-built structures which are usually found in association with early churches. Their precise function is unclear but they may have been erected to commemorate a particular holy person or to serve as an altar or prayer station in the rituals of the early church.
Between Saint Michael’s Church and the Large Oratory there is a leacht which is a drystone structure that had a large upright cross(now broken) built into its western end. Excavation revealed that this structure did not contain any burials, but three burials were interred around it.
As there is no fresh water supply on Skellig Michael, the monks devised a sophisticated method of water collection to serve their needs. Two water cisterns were constructed within the inner enclosure of the monastery and a third a little to the west. These were designed to collect water from the exposed sloping bedrock above the monastery. The cisterns were constructed before the cells within the monastery, indicating the importance of water management for the survival of the community. The cistern illustrated here is incorporated in the base of the platform underlying Cell B.
Over a hundred stone crosses of varying sizes have been recorded on the island. The two largest are highly decorated and are located to the north and south of the Large Oratory. The cross on the north is set into the leacht which pre-dates the oratory. These crosses and associated leachta are early features of the monastery.