Earlier today, I drove to a place in North Dublin called Tower Bay, which is about five minutes from my house in Donabate – a small seaside town in Ireland.
Breathtaking cliffs leave you mesmerised as you walk down the path that has been carved into the cliff-face. It terminates at a gorgeous sandy beach. Along the way, you can view thundering waves lapping and locking, crashing together and falling apart, over and over again. Rocks jut upwards from unseeable depths, around which white foam shimmers. This is the landscape the archipelago of The Witcher 3’s Skellige was based upon.
Skellige, named after real-life Irish islands Sceilg Mhicíl and Sceilg Bheag – collectively known as the Skellig Islands – depicts a wild beauty that is truly Irish. From the familial clans to the rain-soaked hills painted a striking green, the rugged and treacherous landscape recalls the otherworldly presence of places like Connemara, the Cliffs of Moher and of course, the Skellig Islands themselves. In fact, Skellige has its own pair of Skellig Islands in The Witcher 3: Ard Skellig and An Skellig. The former means High Skellig in Irish, whereas the latter simply means The Skellig, resembling the Greater and Lesser Skelligs in reality.
Sceilg Mhicíl’s first mention in Irish history comes from a folk tale that tells of a group of people becoming shipwrecked. This tragedy occurred as the result of an intervention by the magical Tuath Dé, a supernatural race of ancient beings who damned the ship to dash against the rocks of the craggy island. Sound familiar? Our boy Geralt had to deal with an ancient race of spectral elves himself in Skellige, taking on the eponymous Wild Hunt as the world itself threatened to implode. It seems the Skelligs have a thing for attracting ancient races of supernatural beings.
The misfortune attached to the real-life Skellig Islands was perpetuated throughout Irish folklore, as documented by a report from the Kerry Archaeological Magazine in 1913 titled “The Skelligs”. The report tells of Irr, son of the mythical Míl Espáine, meeting his death at the island upon reaching it:
Irr lost his life upon the western main;
Skellig’s high cliffs the hero’s bones contain.
In the same wreck Arranan too was lost,
Nor did his corpse e’er touch Ierne’s coast.
This is particularly intriguing because it proves The Witcher 3’s Skellige doesn’t draw solely from the physical landscape of Ireland; it also draws from the history and folklore imbued in its real-life source material. From Birna Bran being tied to the rocks to the sirens that roam the seas and skies, it’s clear Skellige is an insurmountably beautiful but deeply cursed land – just like how the real-life equivalent is depicted in the Irish folk tales I grew up hearing.
In fact, the surnames of the clans associated with Skellige’s High Kings in The Witcher – the An Craites and the Tuirseachs – mean “haunted” and “tired” in Irish, respectively. “Tired” might not sound that scary, but “haunted” definitely resonates with the idea of a cursed ancestry. However, it is the juxtaposition of the archipelago’s untamed beauty with the wild danger and cursed nature of the Isles that truly brings Skellige to life. As Irish poet Derek Mahon would say, “At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.”
As is often the case in the traditional Irish folk tales young Irish children learn in school, warriors and poets come together in the tightly-knit clans of Skellige. Amidst booming choruses in wonderfully thick Irish accents and rivers in which blood and wine flirt, these tales are intoxicated by the sheer vitality imbued in the Irish/Scottish Gaelic culture. However, while the occupants of Skellige ostensibly resemble the Celtic Irish, their beliefs are far more in line with the Vikings who landed in Ireland in the late 8th Century. In fact, even the longboats associated with The Witcher 3’s Islanders and the layout of Skellige’s coastal capital, Kaer Trolde, bear striking similarities to Viking seafaring culture.
Although sufficiently gruff to be comparable to traditional Vikings, the people from the Skellige Isles are wonderfully bright and resourceful – among them are alchemists, druids, blacksmiths and many more incredibly talented tradespeople. The fact the other Northern Kingdoms discriminate against people from Skellige actually reflects the fact the Irish are often stereotypically seen as happy-go-lucky drunkards in reality, despite being well-educated and hardworking. Thanks for sticking up for us, CDPR.
Like Vikings, the people of Skellige fear the wrath of the almighty Ragnarok, following a religion that is strikingly similar to Norse mythology – a religion the Vikings brought with them to Ireland. In fact, the main goddess the people of Skellige worship is named Freya, and there are actually mentions of gods such as Tyr and Heimdallr in the game. However, this mythology is fused with the spiritual trust placed in Skellige’s druids, powerful elemental wizards of Irish legend who can control the weather itself. Attempting to tame lightning, rain and all manner of wind, the druids helped to shape Skellige into what it is today.
The fantastic representation of Irish mythological culture is not the only link connecting Skellige to Ireland, though. The literal landscape and nature of Skellige are also worth celebrating. If you visited Ireland and ventured out into the wilderness, it wouldn’t be long before you realised the locations of Skellige look as though they were plucked right out of the ground and placed into the game.
It isn’t just the famous areas of Ireland that capture this wild beauty either. While my very own Tower Bay is nothing short of spectacular, it’s also the norm for coastal parts of the country in general to boast views that are just as breathtaking. While the coasts have cliffs and sea, the inland areas of Ireland are filled with magnificent hills and thick evergreen forests that were once home to wolves and are still home to deer, foxes, squirrels and many other kinds of extraordinary fauna. Ireland’s greens, browns and blues may provide the country with consistency in its overall aesthetic, but no two parts of this small island are exactly the same – as is the case in The Witcher 3’s Skellige.
As an Irish person, witnessing this incredibly powerful depiction of my country’s natural beauty hit me hard. Amidst the cityscapes and post-apocalyptic wastelands of my favourite games, it’s rare for me to see anything that resembles my country outside of the parts that resemble every country. Sure, skyscrapers, bridges and roads are familiar, but the the rugged mountainous terrain of Ireland’s coasts, the unparalleled greenery of its forests, and the utterly untamed will of nature itself that surround me every day are rarely present. It felt enlightening to see this awesome beauty represented in a game as spectacular as Geralt’s quest to play Gwe – I mean drin – I mean find his daughter.
In Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s poem Postscript, while describing the Flaggy Shore in Co. Clare, Heaney wrote:
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
This is the beauty of the Skellige Isles – the beauty of Ireland. Awesome, magnificent and utterly sublime, Skellige harnesses the historical, mythological and visual beauty of Ireland, proceeding to catch the heart of the player off guard and blow it open.