The Office of Public Works (OPW) announced today that another significant rockfall has occurred at the famous Skellig Michael UNESCO World Heritage Site in Co. Kerry, with a large amount of material being deposited from upper slopes onto the roadway in an area vital to the OPW operation on the Island.
This follows on a similar event that occurred in the winter of 2015/16 when boulders falling from the steep slopes above caused damage to the Lighthouse Road and its seaward wall, for a time threatening visitor access to the Monastic site last summer and causing concern at the implications for tourist safety.
The rockfall was discovered on Friday, April 7th when staff of the OPW arrived at the Island to carry out the normal pre-season maintenance works and safety checks before the scheduled opening to visitors in Mid-May next. The OPW workers had been delayed somewhat by bad weather in recent days and last Friday was the first opportunity they had to access the site.
“It is frequently problematic to get to the site in April” said Grellan Rourke, the OPW’s Senior Conservation Architect for Skellig Michael. “We would normally expect to have to deal with some level of winter storm damage and our staff usually have to do a good deal of clean-up work before the site is ready for visitors, but the level of rockfall we have encountered this year is highly exceptional and, because of where it has come down, deeply worrying indeed.”
The rocks, shale and other debris material which has been discovered is located on the Island’s Lighthouse Road close to the accommodation huts maintained on the Island for use during the summer by the OPW’s conservation works staff. The accommodation consists of a number of lightweight prefabricated structures which are used during the season when the Island is open to visitors and while none of the huts were actually damaged by the falling rocks, the rubble has landed close enough to them to give rise to serious concern.
Mr. Rourke said today, “Some of the material is very large and would definitely have caused severe damage to the structures had they been hit directly. It’s quite clear that, had these rocks come down directly on top of the huts, there would have been a significant threat to anyone inside.”
The OPW stressed that the location involved is part of the site’s service area and is not directly accessible normally by visitors; however, it is of concern because of its nearness to a key staff circulation zone that would normally be very highly trafficked by both Guides and Works staff right throughout the summer.
Following the discovery, OPW are mobilising immediately to visit the site with their specialist Safety Contractor to begin a detailed examination of the slopes concerned to try and assess if there is any further imminent danger of landslides or rockfalls which threaten the safety of those either visiting or working there.
“Following the major rockfall last year, we mounted a very successful project to both repair the damage that was caused and carry out a detailed geological survey of the upper slopes of the Island to assess the risks of further large rock displacement” an OPW spokesman said today.
“However, it is clear that there is still a very pronounced threat and we will, following this recent event, be carrying out inspections with our professional team to try and evaluate the position as a matter of urgency. We will also be moving to clear away the debris and rehabilitate the site and, though it does not appear that there has been serious damage caused to the roadway this year, there has been some loss of a portion of the seaward wall beyond the huts location which we will need to inspect and repair.”
The OPW stressed that it is too early at this stage to speculate about the possible effect of this event on visitors and whether the opening date for the Island on 14th May is under threat. The normal areas where visitors are allowed are not directly affected by this rockfall and no debris has landed in areas where they normally congregate; however, the OPW staff presence on the Island is vital to the management of the visitor operation and any threat to their safe functioning and the provision of a safe place of work for them is a significant issue that needs to be addressed.