A rock in full sail heading for eternity
The two rocks emerge from the sea like the sails of giant schooners bending against the onslaught of the Atlantic winds. Often trails of water vapour issue from the upper reaches of the islands as the warm moist ocean air is forced upwards for the first time since leaving the Caribbean on the Gulf Stream. The smaller island is home only to the gannets that circle above the surrounding sea like pieces of confetti. The larger island though betrays signs of habitation over many centuries. Most recently there are the two lighthouses; an earlier abandoned one, and below the line of the blanket of mist an automated one
The earlier signs of habitation are altogether more dramatic. Ever since seeing a black and white photo in Kenneth Clark’s impressive book Civilisation and the engaging claim in the text that ‘for almost a hundred years western Christianity survived by clinging on to places like Skellig Michael’, I became haunted by a desire to visit this unique site set some eight miles off the south-west coast of Ireland, well out into the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. From the water line in three places round the island, sets of steps painstakingly cut in the rock were built to take the visitor up six hundred feet of almost sheer ascent to a pair of man-made terraces in all not a hundred yards wide clinging to the side of a precipitous fall. On this slim strip, protected by low walls is first the monastery garden on which the community of around twelve depended for root vegetables. Then, as the terrace closes up to the last cliff edge before the northern summit of the island is the monastery itself, comprising five magnificently preserved ‘bee-hive’ circular stone cells and a similarly shaped oratory. Built at any time from the end of the sixth century when the community first inhabited the island, their relative permanence is in sharp contrast to the tiny medieval church crammed on to the constrained site and now severely ruined.
The small community of monks had deliberately chosen this isolated and hostile spot, but we can hardly believe the privations they must have gladly embraced. Apart from the limited supply of vegetables produced in the thin soil of the garden terrace, the only other source of food would be the birds’ eggs stolen in season from angry parents’ nests. Cut off from the mainland by the often-perilous Atlantic swell, it is inconceivable that the monks had the means either to cook or to kindle warming fires. With the cells far from being water- and wind-tight life especially through the long days and nights of winter must have been harsh beyond measure. In such conditions a venture outside the relative shelter of the twin terraces was almost suicidal, for the steps were exposed to every onslaught of the billowing winds and driving rain.
Most remarkable of all to my mind is the thought that this community survived for well over six hundred years. During that long period, as far as we know, there was no lack of vocations to this extremely harsh and dangerous life. The small community of no more than twelve men replaced those who perished in this hostile place or through age were taken back to the mainland.
What drove them to seek this inhospitable existence we can only speculate, for no records of any kind survive from the monastic foundation itself nor its mother house on the mainland Kerry coast. Only the briefest of references in otherwise unrelated contemporary documents gives us hints of life on Skellig Michael, but the background of similar monastic settlements enables us to begin to build up some kind of rationale. First, the monks were driven by the example of the Desert Fathers of Egypt to seek for isolation and seclusion. As Christianity became tolerated and accepted in the North African Roman world, the desire to find solitude was an urgent matter for some to separate themselves off from the relaxing standards that the lifting of persecution had brought in its wake. So too the monks of Skellig searched for a silence that contemporary society denied them, and on their rocky island they found it.
Second, the Irish monastic movement was fuelled by an almost fool-hardy confidence in the providence of God. Stories abound in the tradition of monks setting sail with limited resources and no clear idea of where they were bound, simply relying on God’s guidance to bring them ‘to the haven where he would have them be.’ Connected to this was also the image of life as journey, so destination was not as important as was the travelling. Simply to trust in God to direct and safeguard one’s life was a strong theme in the monastic psyche.
I have little doubt that the monks of Skellig Michael often felt themselves to be on a journey, surrounded as they were by the waters of the Atlantic, and oft-times visually cut off from the distant shore. In this hidden place many a life was perfected as it drew back into the silence of eternity, and travelled on into God’s graciousness. A rock in full sail heading for eternity.
Chris Collins is Vicar of St Aidan’s Grangetown, Sunderland in the Diocese of Durham.