Guest Post by Shaun Jex
Skellig Michael sits 11.6 kilometres off of Ireland’s Iveragh Peninsula. The island juts out of the Atlantic Ocean; its craggy peaks and sheer cliffs give the land an ambiance of austere foreboding. The frequency of violent winds and storms make journeys to the Skellig a risky enterprise. Little about the place suggests warmth or welcome, but for the medieval monks of Ireland this inhospitable atmosphere served as its greatest draw.
Early Christian History
The last Roman Emperor fell in 476 CE, beginning the era known as the Middle or Dark Ages. The fall of the Rome came roughly 440 years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, 164 years from the conversion of Constantine, 151 years from the Council of Nicea, and 95 years after Theodosius I declared Nicene Christianity the official state religion of Rome. A mere two hundred years had passed since Anthony the Great, the first Desert Father, took to the Nitrian Desert and set an example for centuries of hermetic monks who chose to abandon society and devote their life to prayer and study. As Rome crumbled, a group of Irish monks continued this tradition by establishing a hermitage on the forbidding peaks of Skellig Michael.
The Christian faith came to Ireland in the fourth century. It spread in the fifth century through the work of a young bishop named Maewyn Succat, more commonly known as St Patrick. That Christianity came to Ireland just as Rome dissolved proved fortuitous to Western history. As Thomas Cahill notes, “...as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature - everything they could lay their hands on.” Of Skellig Michael, historian Kenneth Clark said, “...for quite a long time – almost a hundred years – western Christianity survived by clinging to places like Skellig Michael, a pinnacle of rock eighteen miles from the Irish coast, rising seven hundred feet out of the sea.”
The Founding of the Hermitage
Dates vary as to when monks first established a community on Skellig Michael. Estimates range between the sixth and eighth centuries. The earliest known reference comes from the Martyrology of Tallaght, a compilation of saints from the Roman calendar, written between 797–808 CE. In an April 28 entry, the book references the death of a Skellig monk named Suibni. The Diocese of Kerry asserts that this reference from so distant a location (329 km) suggests that the monastery had already established a widespread reputation.
To understand why the monks decided to move to such a forbidding locale, it helps to understand the culture of Irish Catholicism as expressed through one of its most ancient texts. The Cambria Homily, composed in the seventh century, is the oldest known Irish homily. According to Padraig O’ Neill’s ‘Background to the Cambria Homily’, it “may be the first piece of continuous prose on a religious subject extant from Old Irish.” The work details three separate types of martyrdom:
“Now there are three kinds of martyrdom that are counted as a cross to us, namely, white, blue and red martyrdom. The white martyrdom for someone is when they part for the sake of God from everything that they love, although they may suffer fasting and hard work thereby. The blue martyrdom is when through fasting and hard work they control their desires or struggle in penance and repentance. The red martyrdom is when they endure a cross or destruction for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles when they persecuted the wicked and taught the law of God.”
This idea of white martyrdom likely influenced the monks to establish a hermitage on Skellig Michael. They cut themselves off from society and lived in austere conditions where they could devote the majority of their time to prayer and study.
In the sixth and seventh century, the community bore the name of Sceilig Figil, or Ocean Rock Vigil. The name Michael would not appear until sometime around the eleventh century as documented in the Annals of the Four Masters. The text provides a brief reference in 1044 noting, “The Age of Christ 1044. Aedh of Sgelic-Mhichil”.
Tradition credits Saint Fionan (470–549 CE) with founding the community. A travelling missionary, Fionan also established churches in Aghowle, Mugna Sulcain, and Clonard, where he also built a substantial monastery.
Building of the Hermitage and Monastery
By the ninth century, construction on the island began. Monks built a hermitage on the southern peak of the island. The hermitage consisted of three terraces, an altar, several cisterns and other minor stone constructions. The cisterns worked in a network with water flowing from one to another as they filled, creating a system of water filtration.
The monastery sits on the northeast portion of the island. Three sets of steps were built to the monastery, though only the south set remains accessible to the public. Monks used local stone to build retaining walls and terraces, placing gardens along the outside of the structure and buildings on the interior. According to World Heritage Ireland, these retaining walls also created a microclimate that allowed for better gardening.
Living quarters were clochan or beehive cells constructed without mortar. The roofs of the cells are corbelled, a roofing technique that creates the recognizable pointed dome atop the buildings. The typical cell had accommodations for three monks. Each had a small cupboard and stone pegs from which they could hang items. The largest, known as cell A, served as a communal cell and contained two levels. Three cisterns sit around the grounds, positioned to collect water run-off from the rock above the monastery.
A structure known as the “Large Oratory” is the oldest surviving church on Skellig Michael. The building has an inverted boat shape, common in Irish monasteries along the Atlantic coast. A graveyard sits to the east of the monastery, though a portion has been lost to collapse. Another church, called St Michael’s, is the only portion of the monastery built with limestone mortar. Construction on St Michael’s occurred at least a century after the original construction of the monastery, with portions being built as late as the twelfth century.
The Annals of Inisfallen detail the history of Ireland from approximately 433 CE to 1450 CE, with the bulk of the work being compiled in 1092. Scholarship suggests that the text originated in Emly and other houses of Munster, Ireland before coming into the possession of the monks of Inisfallen Abbey. The text provides the first history of Vikings raiding the monastery of Skellig Michael. An entry dated 824 states, "Scelec (Skellig) was plundered by the heathens and Etgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger on their hands."
The Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh (The War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill, or, the invasions of Ireland by the Danes and other Norsemen) tells of Ireland’s battles with the Vikings, including the story of Ireland’s legendary king Brian Boru (941–1014 CE). The book mentions an 850 CE raid by the Norsemen. It reads, “There came a fleet from Luimnech in the south of Erinn, they plundered Skellig Michael, and Inisfallen and Disert Donnain and Cluain Mor…”
Over a century later, Olaf Tryggvason (king of Norway from 995 to c.1000 CE) may have come to the island. According to some traditions, a hermit on Skellig Michael baptized Tryggvason in 993, two years before he assumed throne. Tryggvason led the first efforts to Christianize Norway. It was a later king, Olav II, who went on to became the country’s patron saint.
The Last Days of Skellig Michael
Historian and clergyman Giraldis Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales, mentions the monastery again in his work about life in the twelfth century. Two of his major works, the Topography of Ireland (c. 1188 CE) and the Conquest of Ireland (c.1189) share history he learned while on a military campaign to the country. In the Topography, Giraldis mentions an incident at Skellig Michael he refers to as “Of the Stone in which a Cavity is Every Day Miraculously Filled with Wine.” In it he writes, “There is an island with a church dedicated to St Michael, famed for its orthodox sanctity from very ancient times. There is a stone outside the porch of this church, on the right hand, and party fixed in the wall, with a hollow in its surface, which, every morning, through the merits of the saint to whom the church is dedicated, is filled with as much wine as will conveniently suffice for the service of the masses on the day ensuing, according to the number of the priests there who have to celebrate them.”
By the thirteenth century, weather and the changing organization of the Catholic Church ended full-time life on the island. The monks are said to have moved to Ballinskellig, a small town on the Irish coast. Though Skellig Michael ceased to function as a year-round community, the monastery remained a prominent location for pilgrimage all the way into the eighteenth century.
Image CreditsAll four images used in this post are © National Monuments Service. Dept. of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
Thanks to Shaun Jex for a fascinating insight into the monastery at Skellig Michael. Shaun runs his own blog, 'Walking the Jericho Road', over at https://shaunjex.com and you can find him on Twitter @shaunmjex.