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Heritage Regimes and the State

Regina F. Bendix
Aditya Eggert
Arnika Peselmann

Layers of Preservation Regimes and State Politics

Heritage Politics and Neglected Traditions: A Case-Study of Skellig Michael

Máiréad Nic Craith

Texte intégral

Acknowledgments. I am grateful to the National Folklore Collection at University College, Dublin, for permission to research their archives in relation to the Skellig Lists. I would like to acknowledge permission to publish material from the following manuscripts in particular:

NFC 1592, 208-210. Jerry Buckley, 78, Labourer, Cluain Droichead, Collector Seán Ó Cróinín, February, March 1961.
NFCS 282, 39-42. Kathleen O’Sullivan, 1938.
NFCS 413, 103-105. Eilís Nic Aodhagáin, school pupil in Scoil Mainistir ó dTórna, County Kerry, heard from her father (aged 39), January 1938.
NFCS 435, 230-33. Áine Ní Chlubháin, Fearannteóirín, Kilorglin, 1938.

I also wish to acknowledge the help of Dr. Michael Gibbons who forwarded me a copy of his original submission to UNESCO along with other relevant material. I would like to thank Dr. Catherine Swift of Mary Immaculate University College, Limerick, who was most helpful with my initial inquiries on the subject. Finally I would like to thank the peer reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.

1This essay explores a case-study of World Heritage in the southwest of Ireland from an anthropological perspective with particular reference to changing relationships between local stakeholders, the Irish state party and UNESCO. It examines the impetus for change in cultural practices at a local level and reactions to such impulses at national and international levels. Changing heritage practices at Skellig Michael reflect greater community involvement in the protection of heritage at local levels, as well as an evolving understanding of heritage in an international context. Moreover, the case-study illustrates the strong impact of ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) in continuing to guide the state party in Ireland and its willingness to listen to local actors and experts.

1 World Heritage Sites in Ireland

2World Heritage status is highly prized. Apart from the international legitimacy and universality it confers on the value of a site, it is also viewed as a guarantor of authenticity or “global cultural currency” (Kaschuba 2008: 37). Since it is anticipated that World Heritage status will attract foreign tourists, it is also perceived as a source of economic potential. At the time of writing, 936 properties form part of the cultural and natural heritage on the World Heritage List – that is, they are deemed to have “Outstanding Universal Value.” These include 725 cultural, 183 natural and 28 mixed properties in 153 states. Two sites are located in the Republic of Ireland.

3Ireland ratified the 1972 World Heritage Convention in 1991. Following this ratification, it successfully sought World Heritage status for two sites. Brú na Bóinne in County Meath (entitled the Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne on the list) was designated a World Heritage cultural site in 1993. Three years later, the World Heritage Committee conferred World Heritage status on Sceilig Mhichíl (more widely known as Skellig Michael). There is one other site on the island of Ireland with World Heritage status. The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim was inscribed as a natural site on the World Heritage list in 1986. Politically, this site is part of the United Kingdom.

4Skellig is an Anglicization of the Gaelic word Sceillic which translates as a steep rock. The site is an island or a ridge of rock jutting 200 meters out of the Atlantic Ocean. It is located some 12 kilometers off the coast of County Kerry in the southwest of Ireland. The island is primarily promoted as the site of a 7th century Celtic monastery which was dedicated to St Michael in the 10th century, but has many other remarkable attributes. An important lighthouse tradition is associated with the island, which is now uninhabited. The site is noted for its wealth of seabirds. “The steep rocky slopes and cliffs provide nesting places for species such as Fulmar, Kittiwake and Guillemot, while Storm-Petrel, Manx Shearwater and Puffin nest in burrows and other holes throughout the island” (DoEHLG and OPW 2008: 5).

2 The Nomination Process

5The nomination of Skellig Michael for World Heritage status in 1996 followed the passing of the Heritage Act in Ireland in April of the previous year. The 1995 Irish Heritage Act was designed to promote public interest in and knowledge, appreciation and protection of the national heritage. It established a new state body (an Chomhairle Oidhreachta, the Heritage Council) to deal with Ireland’s national heritage. It was Ireland’s first formal Heritage Act but followed other legislation dealing with heritage, such as the National Monuments Acts (1930, 1954, 1987, and 1994), the Holycross Abbey (County Tipperary) Act (1969) and the Canals Act (1986). Although the Heritage Act provided a definition of terms, such as “archaeological object,” “architectural heritage” or “heritage objects,” it offered no definition of cultural heritage. In fact, the concept of culture does not appear at all. While this may surprise readers today, it is important to place the Heritage Act in the context of its time. In previous decades, heritage was largely perceived in terms of material culture, and the concept of Intangible Cultural Heritage had not yet come to the fore – in the English-speaking world at least.

6Following the passing of the Heritage Act, the Republic of Ireland submitted a proposal for the acquisition of World Heritage status for Skellig Michael. They justified the nomination of Skellig Michael on the basis of criteria i, iii and iv, which require that a nominated site should:

(i) Represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
(iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared; and
(iv) be an outstanding example of a type of building or architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage (s) in human history.

7The Irish state argued that Skellig Michael was “an outstanding example of a perfectly preserved Early Christian settlement” (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 47). They also suggested that conservation and repair works on the island had provided an opportunity “to examine the structures in detail” and enabled them “to work out a relative chronology” for the cell structures on the island. The Irish Government proposed that Skellig Michael could be considered “a group of buildings in terms of the categories of property set out in Article 1 of the 1972 World Heritage Convention.” However, as the entire island was covered by the nomination, the Irish State hypothesized that it should also be considered as “a cultural landscape” as set out in paragraph 39 of the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 47).

8In June 1996, an expert mission of ICOMOS, the lead body in the case of cultural landscapes, visited Skellig Michael. Subsequently, ICOMOS recommended that the property be inscribed on the World Heritage List on the basis of criteria iii and iv, stating that:

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. (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 50)

9In December 1996, the World Heritage Committee awarded World Heritage status to the site.

3 A Cultural Landscape of “Outstanding Universal Value”

10While the concept of “cultural landscape” has been used by geographers, it is relatively more recent in the World Heritage context (Graeme 2007). In December 1992, the World Heritage committee formally recognized the concept of “cultural landscape” and three categories emerged in paragraph 39 of the Operational Guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention. The first refers to a landscape “designed and created intentionally by man” and includes, for example, gardens or parklands. The second is “the organically evolved landscape.” In this instance, the landscape “results from an initial social, economic, administrative, and/or religious imperative and has developed its present form by association with and in response to its natural environment.” The final category, “associative cultural landscape,” places great emphasis on “the powerful, religious, artistic, or cultural associations of the natural element rather than the material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent” (UNESCO 1996: 11). The quality of the landscape itself remains highly significant, with a strong emphasis being placed on the notion of “Outstanding Universal Value.”

11Since the category was new in 1992, there were no official cultural landscapes on the World Heritage List at that time. The first cultural landscape inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1993 was Tongariro National Park in New Zealand. Interestingly, this was deemed to be an associative cultural landscape and is a significant sacred space for the indigenous Maori people (Rössler 2008: 50). Technically, Skellig Michael is inscribed on the World Heritage List in terms of the categories of property as set out in the first Article of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, that is, as “a group of buildings.” However, since the entire island is included in the nomination, it is also considered to be a cultural landscape (UNESCO 2008: 3). At the time of its application, the Irish Government identified Skellig Michael as an organically evolved landscape, which had been connected with a Celtic monastic community. A strong emphasis on the monastic dimension is also reflected in the Skellig Experience, the heritage centre on the nearby Valentia Island. “It is inspired mainly by the extraordinary saga of the cloistered life of a community of monks who inhabited the unpromising, steep-sided pinnacle of Skellig Michael between the 6th and 12th centuries” (Royle 2003: 25).

12While the precise date of the establishment of the island monastery is unknown, tradition suggests that it had been set up by St Fionan in the 6th century AD. Some early written records about the monastery date from the end of the 8th century, and it appears that the monastery was formally dedicated to St Michael around the turn of the first millennium. The monks remained on the island until late in the 12th century when harsh environmental conditions forced them to move to the mainland (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 47). The remains of the monastery on the island are a great source of fascination and many of the rock formations have religious connotations, such as “the Needle’s eye” or “Christ’s saddle.” One prominent rock formation, commonly known as the “Wailing Woman,” is deemed “to represent one of the stations of the cross on the old pilgrim circuit” (McNally 1978: 122).

13In drawing specific attention to the material remains of the monastic settlement, the Irish Government were firmly placing the site in category 2a, which refers to relic or fossil landscapes “which came to an end at sometime in the past,” but whose distinguishing features are still visible (UNESCO 1996: 11). This was reaffirmed in the management plan of 2008, which stated that Skellig Michael “represents a unique cultural achievement, illustrating a significant period of history and a civilisation that has disappeared” (DoEHLG and OPW 2008: 5).

14In accepting the nomination for inscription, ICOMOS also gave prominence to the monastic remains (i.e. the group of buildings), emphasizing not just the exceptional state of preservation of the buildings on the island, but the significance of those buildings in universal terms. It noted that the monastic cells and other remains on the island are highly significant since they:

symbolize both the conquest by Christianity and literacy of lands so remote that they were beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire and the ultimate reach of organized monasticism which spread from Egypt by land and sea through Italy and Gaul to Britain and Ireland in a mere two centuries (the 5th and 6th). (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 49)

15The ICOMOS report described Skellig Michael as a small “desert” on the ocean. “All the physical components of the ideal small monastery […] exist here in dramatic and unique settings.” Unlike many other monasteries of the time, Skellig Michael had not been plundered by invaders, making it “the best preserved, and the most impressive of monastic settlements on Atlantic islets” (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 50).

16The magnetism of the Celtic monastic narrative is highly significant – as therein lies the appeal to universal relevance. The ruins of the island point to the widespread movement by Celtic monks in the Middle Ages to Christianize the island of Ireland and further afield. From the island of Iona in Scotland, the Donegal-born Colum Cille (also known as Columba) played a leading role in the Christianization of many Britons (Sharpe 1995; Herbert 1988, 1999; Broun and Clancy 1999). St Aidan established the See of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in the 7th century.

17Irish monks traveled well beyond Ireland and Britain and established monasteries across Europe. St Columbanus is reputed to have founded a number of monasteries on the continent at the turn of the 6th century. Most notable are the monasteries in Luxeuil (France) and Bobbio (Italy), where there is now a cathedral honoring his memory. The 7th century Celtic Saint Fiachra set up a hospice for travelers in France, in what is now Saint-Fiacre, Seine-et-Marne. (The Fiacre cab, a horse-drawn, four-wheel cab, is named after him.) St Gall is associated with Switzerland. St Killian was martyred at Würzburg in Germany in 689 AD and St Dymphna is linked with Gheel in Belgium. Latin Christian manuscripts with Old Irish glosses are located in libraries all over the continent, in places such as Karlsruhe, Leyden, Milan, Munich, St Gallen, Turin, Würzburg, and Vienna (Stokes and Strachan 1903; Nic Einrí 1971). The ruins of Skellig Michael point to the international profile of the Celtic “golden age” and hence its significance beyond the Island of Ireland. Moreover, they remind us that migration is not a new phenomenon. Instead it has been a regular feature of the human condition since the beginning of time (King 2007; Castles and Miller 2009; Harzig and Hoerder 2009; Nic Craith 2012).

4 Isolation, Integrity and Authenticity

18As well as universality, the notion of integrity is very significant for the concept of World Heritage and has been defined as referring to the “physical and/or contextual and/or environmental integrity.” All of these matters are easily confused or blurred with the notion of authenticity, and development on or around a site which could be deemed to be at odds with its intrinsic nature is perceived as diminishing its authenticity (Fowler 2003: 16). In the case of Skellig Michael, the island’s isolated position seems to have served as the key guarantor of authenticity.

19During the initial application process, the Irish state placed great emphasis on the remote position of the island. The state party argued that Skellig Michael was “the most spectacularly situated of all the Early Christian island monastic sites, particularly the isolated hermitage perched on narrow, man-made terraces just below the South Peak.” Moreover, the state party suggested that “its isolation in the Atlantic has helped preserve it. This seclusion has protected it from alteration and adaptations, other than those of the lighthouse builders, who were in occupation for a brief period in the 19th century” (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 47). Isolation was the key guarantor of the site’s authenticity. “Because the level of authenticity is so high, it makes this site of immense and immeasurable importance to the archaeologist, the architectural historian, the anthropologist, and the ethnologist” (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 47).

20ICOMOS had been impressed with the remote location of the island. They noted its position at “the extreme north-western edge of European civilization in the 1st millennium AD.” Although there were some twenty island monasteries off the Irish coast, and more around the Hebridean Islands off north-western Scotland, the ready accessibility of the Scottish islands meant that they have been constantly modified, altered or plundered over the centuries. In contrast:

the extreme remoteness of Skellig Michael, where the monastic settlement may have begun in the 7th century earlier than the Hebridean and Northern Isles sites, has allowed an exceptional state of preservation and, until recently, hardly any visitors […]. Skellig Michael must be claimed among the earliest, certainly the best preserved, and the most impressive of monastic settlements on Atlantic islets. (Advisory Body Evaluation 1996: 50)

21However, the integrity of the conservation work on the island soon became problematic. From 2005 onwards, concerns were addressed formally to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre by Michael Gibbons, an independent Irish archaeologist, by An Taisce (The National Trust for Ireland) and by some anonymous commentators regarding the restoration work. Concerns were raised about the lack of transparency in the decision-making process which led to the conservation work. In a direct submission to ICOMOS, Michael Gibbons suggested that stonemasons were frequently “left unsupervised and unmonitored for long periods of time.” He criticized the dismantling of sites “without proper archaeological supervision or record keeping.” He argued that the “conservation programme to date has been characterised by the destruction of original features and the over-restoration of monuments” (Gibbons 2007b).

22The lack of evidence and transparency regarding original versus reconstructed material was a crucial element in the complaints regarding the principle of authenticity. In his submission to UNESCO, Gibbons protested that “works undertaken as part of the conservation programme in both the Main Monastic Complex and on the South Peak have seriously compromised the authenticity of the site” (Gibbons 2007b). Gibbons made the case that the authenticity of monuments was “further compromised by the fact that no indication is given, either on site or in the draft management plan, of the extent of the reconstruction work involved.” Instead, “much of the stonework now visible to visitors is not original but the best approximation of the original work that 21st century masons, architects and archaeologists could conceive of” (Gibbons 2007b). The lack of distinction between the original buildings and the reconstructions had seriously compromised the authenticity of the site since “there is no way of telling which portions of monuments are original and which are replicas” (Gibbons 2007b).

23Interestingly, the issue of isolation, which was initially regarded as a key component in the maintenance of authenticity, was now identified as a crucial factor in damaging that same authenticity. In October 2006, the Tara Foundation uploaded a YouTube video for public consumption on the Internet. The YouTube video is entitled “Skellig Michael: The Fabrication of History” and is described as “a short film about unauthorised reconstruction on one of Ireland’s only World Heritage Sites – the spectacular Skellig Michael.” This description is interesting as it implies that the award of World Heritage status effectively removes authority from the national state party to undertake rebuilding on the island without appropriate permission from ICOMOS. At the time of writing, some 25,384 viewers have accessed this YouTube video which highlights the natural isolation of the island and the consequential difficulty in access. In this YouTube presentation, the Tara Foundation concludes “that the damage done to the site under the stewardship of the Office of Public Works (OPW) has gone unnoticed by the rest of the world.” The Tara Foundation accused the OPW of a lack of integrity and suggested that the restoration was in contravention of the Venice Charter (1964), which states in Article 9:

The process of restoration is a highly specialized operation. Its aim is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the monument and is based on respect for original material and authentic documents. It must stop at the point where conjecture begins, and in this case moreover any extra work which is indispensable must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.

24The Tara Foundation accused the OPW of the fabrication of history. “Conjecture has replaced evidence and investigation. Our present is now only understandable in terms of modern fundamentalist mentality. What we do not bother to understand, we erase. What we are left with is packaged, chocolate-box history” (The Tara Foundation 2006). This is in accord with Michael Gibbon’s accusation (2007a: 5) that “[g]enuine archaeological remains have been replaced by faux-monastic twenty-first century imitations.”

25The Irish Government refuted the allegations made by various bodies and largely relied on a case of urgency in defense of their restoration process. They highlighted the fragility of surviving structures on the island; deeming it necessary to deal with such structures before further damage was inflicted by the harsh environment and increasing visitor numbers. From their perspective, the team in charge of the conservation was experienced and responsible and included a range of appropriate expertise. The Irish Government requested an independent monitoring mission to review the controversy and evaluate whether the restoration had impacted on the “Outstanding Universal Value” of the site. The World Heritage Centre referred the issue to ICOMOS.

26A mission, headed by Tom Hassall (former President of ICOMOS-UK) took place in late November 2007 and their report thanks the Government of the Republic of Ireland for the invitation to consider the case. Members of the mission considered evidence from official bodies such as the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the National Monuments Service. Evidence was presented in person by Ian Lumley from An Taisce (The National Trust for Ireland) and by Michael Gibbons (independent contract archaeologist). Joe Roddy, Joe Feehan and other Skellig boatmen also had an opportunity to meet with members of the mission, who also visited the island.

27Overall, the ICOMOS evaluation noted the complaints, while also taking account of the oral, documentary and photographic evidence that the Irish Government presented in its rejection of the criticisms (UNESCO 2008). ICOMOS largely accepted the Irish Government’s argument for the urgency of the conservation project required, but highlighted problems with the recording of changes. Detailed documentation of any alteration is regarded as crucial to maintaining the authenticity of a site. At the time of the ICOMOS mission, only “short descriptive interim publications and annual summary articles have been published” (UNESCO 2008:8). (Some additional dissemination had occurred at various lectures and conference presentations.) ICOMOS further observed “that site sieving and metal detector scanning of spoil, which might have been appropriate in view of the paucity of finds, had not been employed.” Moreover, “walls were recorded in the plan, without individual top courses being recorded.” In order to redress this issue, it suggested photographs of all the conserved external elevations should be taken from a helicopter overhead. These images would serve “to distinguish the original from the new stonework” (UNESCO 2008: 8).

28While largely endorsing the Irish Government’s approach, the mission made some harsh criticisms of the procedures followed. The ICOMOS report suggested that “the authentic, original structures on the South Peak have been conserved and reconstructed, and as a result they are dramatically different from how they appeared before work started.” In particular, they noted that these structures “now look more like conjectural reconstructions published after the original survey.” Damningly, they argued that: “the new work is in its own way almost as remarkable as the original work” (UNESCO 2008: 11). The Economist described this as a “Solomonic judgment” (Anonymous 2009).

29Opportunities to engage with experts in the field were lost and the lack of public consultation was problematic. “The process of conservation and reconstruction, including the controversy surrounding these activities, has now become a part of the history of the property” and the reconstructed monument “will become the popular vision of Skellig.” The mission noted that:

“the cumulative effect is that a series of structures now exist which are totally different in appearance from what had originally survived before conservation. At present areas of old and new work can be distinguished, but in time the appearance of old and new work will be undifferentiated as the stonework weathers and lichens grow on all the surfaces.” (UNESCO 2008:7)

30ICOMOS urgently requested the full publication of changes during the reconstruction process, so that “the new work should be distinguishable from the old in all future publications.” This was not just “an added extra” but an essential component of the process of restoration and the maintenance of authenticity. “Until the works are published at an academic and a popular level the conservation works cannot be said to have been completed” (UNESCO 2008: 12). This is a key issue, as the original operational guidelines stress that reconstruction is “only acceptable if it is carried out on the basis of complete and detailed documentation on the original and to no extent on conjecture” (UNESCO 1996: 7). While some of the conservation works had dramatically altered the appearance of the surviving remains, ICOMOS concluded that the “Outstanding Universal Values” had remained intact. However, the site’s authenticity was reliant on open and detailed reporting of the scale of the restoration works.

31ICOMOS regretted the lack of public consultation during the entire process and noted concerns regarding the issue of publications. While the Irish authorities “recognize that full publication, at both a scholarly and at a more popular level, of the archaeological investigations and the conservation works undertaken from 1978 to 2007 is essential,” only “short descriptive interim publications and annual summary articles have been published,” although there had been “some additional dissemination of the results through lectures and presentations” (UNESCO 2008: 8). The mission received assurances that “a programme for ordering the records of the site stratification is about to commence, and specialists have been identified to contribute to the final report” (UNESCO 2008: 8). The mission further recommended the appointment of an Academic Advisory Committee, as suggested by the Heritage Council of Ireland, the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy. The World Heritage Committee endorsed the conclusions of the ICOMOS advisory mission and requested copies of a new management plan from the Irish Government. It also asked for an interim progress report.

32In 2008, the Irish Government published a formal management plan, which had previously been circulated in draft form. This ten-year plan had been prepared by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (DoEHLG), in conjunction with the OPW. The management plan defined its mission as the protection, conservation and promotion of an appreciation of the Skellig Michael World Heritage Site “by putting in place a management framework that will ensure its Outstanding Universal Value is preserved for present and future generations.” The plan re-affirmed the Irish Government’s commitment to the site as a cultural landscape, suggesting that it exhibits the “combined works of nature and man and [...] which are of outstanding universal value from the historical [and] aesthetic [...] point of view” (DoEHLG and OPW, 2008: 19).

33The plan addressed the issue of authenticity and integrity, noting again that the island’s isolation has “helped preserve and protect it from agents of destruction that have adversely affected most other sites of the period” (DoEHLG and OPW 2008: 22). It commented on the program of preservation on the island since the 1970s suggesting that the philosophy underpinning this work was that “all original features are retained and conserved in situ.” It also referred to the concept of integrity which had not been mentioned at the time of inscription. Defining integrity “as a measure of the wholeness and intactness of the natural and/or cultural heritage and its attributes,” it suggested that Skellig Michael exhibited two types of integrity: (a) Structural-historical integrity, “in that the structures have evolved over time; and (b) visual-aesthetic integrity, in other words, the iconic image that has been retained” (DoEHLG and OPW 2008: 22).

5 A Neglected Narrative

34Apart from the issue of conservation, further concerns related to the neglected narrative of lighthouse-keeping on the island. From an archaeological perspective, there was a sense of unease that the restoration works had concentrated primarily on the evidence for the early Christian period to the neglect of the island’s later history as a pilgrimage centre. Michael Gibbons lamented the focus on the monastery to the neglect of the more recent lighthouse-keeping tradition in an independent submission to UNESCO. The original application by the Irish Government had briefly noted the building of two lighthouses on the Atlantic side of the island, which were manned for some time but had gone automatic by the time the current process of conservation had begun in 1978. The decision to inscribe the island with World Heritage status did not focus on the lighthouse-keeping tradition.

35Perhaps such concerns have been taken into account as more recent official publications have made some reference to the import of the lighthouse buildings. The 2009 Annual Progress Report noted that “Skellig Michael is important not just for the famous early medieval remains – its importance is enhanced by the more modern buildings and other structures associated with the development of the two light-houses” (Skellig Michael Implementation Group 2009: 9). These lighthouses were crucial for the safe passage of ships around the southwest coast of Ireland for many decades and one unmanned lighthouse continues to operate today.

36There are potentially a number of reasons for the downgrading of the lighthouse tradition in favor of the monastery buildings. In the first instance, the state does not actually own the lighthouse buildings on the island. While it bought the island from the Commissioners of Irish Lights in 1989, the working lighthouse and ancillary areas did not form part of the purchase. Much more likely, however, is the national and international appeal of the narrative of Celtic Christianity as an icon of Irishness. The era of Celtic monasticism is often regarded as the “golden age” of Irish history. It is in keeping with the image of Ireland as a “land of saints and scholars” and reminds us of a few centuries when Ireland achieved international significance. Ireland “held and prized the bequest of Christianity and Rome […]. When the chance came, she carried her possessions to continental Europe, willingly restoring a tradition to places where it had been neglected and exiled” (Lehane 1968: 2).

37Lighthouse building and keeping is more associated with Britishness. Ireland was under British control at the time that Sir Maurice Fitzgerald requested permission for approval for a lighthouse on the island in the early 19th century. The site was subsequently purchased from the Butlers of Waterville who requested that the monastery buildings be treated with care. However, it subsequently transpired that the builders of the roads and the lighthouses were living in some of the monastery cells and storing explosives in others (Lavelle 1976: 54). The lighthouses were completed by 1826 with two semi-detached houses nearby as residences for the keepers and their families. Des Lavelle (1976), a fisherman and the “son, grandson and great-grandson of a lighthouse family on one side” tells the story of “the lighthouse and its men” in his memoir, The Skellig Story (Lavelle 1976: 54-67).

38There is some folk memory of the lighthouse keeping on the Skelligs in the Irish tradition which has recently been highlighted in a publication by Biddy Jenkinson. In Duinnín, Bleachtaire ar an Sceilg, she imaginatively re-creates the narrative of a song collected by Muircheartach Ó hAogáin in the early decades of the 20th century in southwest Ireland (Jenkinson 2011). The song refers to the folk memory of two lighthouse keepers on the island. Napier was probably from the Protestant tradition, while his working colleague, Cárthach, was Catholic. For a short period, Napier disappeared from the island and it was assumed by the police that his Catholic colleague had murdered him. However, no body was found and the Catholic priest, lexicographer and detective, an tAthair Peadar Ua Duinín, was hired to investigate. It transpired that Napier had temporarily escaped the drudgery of lighthouse keeping in favor of a life more in tune with nature.

6 Fractured Relationships

39Central to the story of Skellig Michael is the role of the local fishermen. At the time of the original nomination, the management structure on the site was largely informal. The Advisory Body Evaluation document noted that an agreement regarding permits was reached with the local boatmen and a “finite number of nontransferable permits” (1996: 49) was issued to those already established on the route. Only one trip a day was permitted with a maximum of twelve visitors. It was assumed that the informal management structure would suffice, but with time, problems began to emerge and relations became fractured. The boatmen, who regarded themselves as “spiritual guardians” of the island, expressed their concerns.

40Although they had been issued with permits for bringing visitors to the island, the boatmen were not willing to accept their terms and sign them. In the first instance, the boatmen felt that access to the island should be allowed throughout the entire tourist season (weather permitting). They were unhappy with the timing of permit issues, which occurred on an annual basis. This did not help the boatmen when endeavoring to secure longer-term bank loans for new boats and equipment. Moreover, the boatmen resented what they considered to be the preferential treatment given to cruise ships. They pointed out that unauthorized boats landed unannounced on the island both in and out of season, and were not regulated by permits or any other procedures. In particular, the boatmen were aggrieved with the non-transferrable status of their landing permits and were strongly of the view that these should be transferable to other family members. They pointed to the Killarney National Park where the jarvies (horse-drawn-vehicle drivers) were issued with transferable permits to carry passengers (UNESCO 2008: 9).

41The ICOMOS mission to the site in November 2007 met with some of the local boatmen and noted their difficult relationships with management. Although some attempts had been made in 1994 to reach a resolution, the lack of written records was problematic. “The authorities and the boatmen differ in their perceptions of what was agreed at that time and there are no formal agreed minutes of the discussions that took place” (UNESCO 2008: 8). The mission recommended the establishment of a “durable agreement with the passenger boatmen” which would “be reached through negotiation and compromise.” They noted “a degree of pragmatism on both sides” of the controversy “which could provide a foundation for a future agreement, provided that a constructive dialogue is maintained” (UNESCO 2008: 13). As a first step, they advised the OPW to establish an annual meeting with the respective boatmen to look at practical arrangements, and stipulated that formal minutes of these meetings be maintained. They recommended revisiting the issue of the non-transferability of permits and that the OPW should establish and make known “the future criteria for the issue of permits, once permits become available as present holders cease to operate” (UNESCO 2008: 13).

42In accordance with these recommendations, the 2008-18 management plan proposed annual meetings with the local boatmen in advance of the tourist season (DoEHLG and OPW 2008: 51). It also advocated written minutes of all meetings to help curtail future conflict. Permits would continue to be renewed on an annual basis, as the annual cycle was necessary to monitor visitor numbers to the island. However, management undertook to review the criteria for the granting of future permits for boats. To the concern of the World Heritage Committee, no meeting occurred in 2009 (SMIG 2009: 2). The Committee requested that the State Party “give higher priority to liaising with stakeholders who transport visitors in order to put in place formally agreed arrangements for landing and timetables” (SMIG 2010: 10). A series of meetings took place in 2010.

43Apart from the controversial issues involved here, there is a further dimension to the story that needs exploration. The original Advisory Body Evaluation document contains few references to the boatmen. This reflects the understanding of heritage at the time, which focused primarily on material culture. Since then, and especially with the adoption of the UNESCO Charter for Intangible Heritage in 2003, a more holistic approach has been adopted internationally towards heritage. Were the nomination to be made today rather than some two decades ago, it is highly likely that the narrative of the boatmen, and in particular the notion of these boatmen as “spiritual guardians” of the site, would be much more central to the application.

7 Skellig’s Intangible Heritage

44Skellig Michael’s heritage narrative has focused to date on primarily archaeological, architectural and restoration issues and these clearly point to built heritage as a particular sub-section of the heritage regime. As previously noted, this reflects the timing of the application almost two decades ago, and conflict between state representatives and the boatmen may in part reflect tensions between tangible and intangible heritage, between the built environment and the human factor.

45Since the initial application was made, there has been a gradual shift in emphasis in international legislation towards an appreciation of the wealth of intangible heritage associated with Skellig Michael. The 2008 management plan, for example, highlighted the significance of the island as a place of pilgrimage. “The presence of the monks on the island for such a long period of time has bequeathed us with more than just physical remains. They have imbued the place with a strong sense of spirituality, which is palpable to anyone who has had the opportunity and privilege of spending time there” (DoEHLG and OPW 2008: 20). However, there is much more to the island’s intangible heritage which remains a vastly under-researched resource. For the purposes of this essay, I would like to draw attention to the Skellig Lists, which represent a unique aspect of this island’s intangible heritage and can be accessed at the National Folklore Collection at University College, Dublin.

46The Skellig Lists refer to matchmaking customs during the season of Lent on Skellig Michael and should be set in the context of tensions between the Roman and the Celtic Church concerning the timing of Easter. A conference took place at St Hilda’s monastery in Whitby in 664 which decided that the Celtic church should adopt the Roman timing. Apparently the monks at Skellig Michael continued with the Celtic calendar. In consequence, Lent began later on the little island than it did on the mainland of Kerry. As Lenten weddings were not permitted, folk memory suggests that single men and women traveled to the island during its pre-Lenten period to pray for good partners, repent of their sins and/or get married. “When the monks were in Skellig long ago they used to marry people later than their own priests. I think they could be married there the first week of Lent. It was said, anyway, and I don’t know was it true” (National Folklore Collection (NFC) 1592: 208). This folk memory is confirmed in manuscripts in the National Folklore Collection in University College, Dublin:

When the Church Laws concerning Easter and Lent were first adopted in Ireland, they did not extend to the monastery in the rocky island of Sgeilg, west of Kerry for some time. Marriages could take place there on Ash Wednesday. There was an extra day in Shrove. So people who made up their mind to get married and hadn’t managed to do so by Shrove Tuesday need not wait till Easter. (NFCS 282: 40)

47However, folk memory also suggests that these proceedings were often more fun than prayer, and the “pilgrimages” were gradually curtailed.

48Verses were composed in parishes of Cork and Kerry to celebrate this Lenten anomaly and the opportunity it represented for un-married men and women. These rhymes were written in English and the poets usually remained anonymous. The verses were designed to scorn bachelors and single women who had not “found” a spouse before the season of Lent began and frequently ridiculed their unmarried status. “People didn’t like to be mentioned in these things at all. You may be sure tisn’t praised they’d be in it atall” (NFC 1592: 209).

49Examples of these rhymes abound in the National Folklore Collection in University College, Dublin. The first extract is from Schools Manuscript Collection (NFCS 413: 103) and is the one of several verses written by Eilís Ní Aodhagáin, who heard them from her father:

First came Eillen Buckley,
That small and red-faced girl.
She is courting Eddie Glavin
Who’s [sic.] face is like a squirrel.
Next comes Danny Slattery
That tall and saintly boy,
He’s all in love with Nora Callaghan,
He says for her he’ll die.

50Most of the rhymes were distinctly unkind and although the names were often changed, people could easily identify to whom they referred. The following is an example from the schools manuscript collection (NFCS 435: 232):

Pat Lyons I fear another year,
Is left to grind the bit,
Since Ganndal’s daughter from Clahan,
Cares not for him a bit,
He dresses in his toffee style,
And makes a gallant show
He is only a ladys’ gent, me, boy,
No matter where he go [sic].

51The rhymes often referred to the “pilgrimages” to Skellig Michael and the purpose of these journeys. The following account is related in NFCS 282 (p. 40) in the schools manuscript collection:

It is still a joke in this parish to send the unmarried people “to the Sgeilgs” on Shrove Tuesday night.
“Are you going to the Sgeilgs?” is a common question asked on the evening of Shrove Tuesday. And on Ash Wednesday morning, “You look worn out. Had you a good crossing to Sgeilgs?”

52In some areas, there was a custom of “sending people to the Skelligs” which was accompanied by a lot of noise and buffoonery:

On “the night of the Sgeilgs” the children of Bantry town get a long rope and tie on all the tin cans they can find. Two are “harnessed” at one end. They run making an awful noise – the following tin cans. The crowd runs after them. The noise represents the noise of cars – full going to Sgeilgs. The youngsters shout “Come on to Sgeilgs.” (NFCS 282: 40)

53Crofton Croker also notes the level of noise that accompanied such rituals. In 1832, he received a Skellig List from a friend in Cork, telling him that “the tumult in the streets, last Tuesday night, was extreme. Bodies of five hundred men and boys paraded the town, blowing horns, firing, breaking lamps et cetera; and all on the occasion of the Skellig Lists” (Crofton Croker 1839: 127).

54There is no doubt that these rhymes were extremely popular at one stage in southwest Ireland. Thomas Crofton Croker writes that a ballad publisher in Cork printed 13 different Skellig Lists in 1836. As his average presswork amounted to 300 impressions a day and his press was fully occupied for 12 days, he produced 3,600 impressions, which ultimately generated 15,000 Skellig Lists (Crofton Croker 1839: 126).

8 Conclusion

55With hindsight, it is amazing that greater prominence is not given to these unique sets of rhymes in relation to Skellig Michael as a World Heritage Site. However, these rhymes represent a fraction of the wealth of intangible heritage relating to the site which is yet to be researched and fully documented. There is much about Skellig Michael that remains to be told. The lack of interest in the Skellig’s List is symptomatic of the general neglect of the intangible heritage related to this site. This includes the neglect of the fishermen’s tradition or the narrative of the lighthouse tradition. One might ask why the monastery buildings attract such great attention whereas recent oral traditions, such as the Skellig Lists, or living traditions, such as the narratives of the boatmen, are neglected. However, the answer probably lies in the changing context of heritage. Interest in the intangible dimension of heritage is relatively recent and emerged subsequent to the award of World Heritage status to Skellig Michael.

56Overall, the Irish Government appears to be adopting a more proactive approach in general to the issue of World Heritage. In 2009, the then Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, suggested that Ireland’s “World Heritage programme has been in abeyance for a number of years,” a situation he was now rectifying. Since the establishment of an Advisory Group in 2008, the Irish Government has published a list of tentative World Heritage Sites. This rather extensive list demonstrates an enthusiasm for the acquisition of World Heritage status which is not necessarily matched by action on the ground – all of which must be set in the context of extensive cuts to the budget of the Heritage Council of Ireland which were announced in November 2010. Moreover, the focus appears solidly on elements of material culture. In a country like Ireland where the collection of folklore and oral tradition has such a long “heritage” itself, it is surprising that the Irish Government has not yet approved or ratified UNESCO’s Charter for Intangible Heritage. The story of Skellig Michael is unfinished and must now be set in the context of a country that is struggling economically and a government that may have neither the inclination nor the resources to finally achieve the targets set out by the ICOMOS mission.


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