Saturday, February 24, 2007

Skellig Michael

From the sixth century to the thirteenth there lived on an island off the west coast of Ireland a community of monks. The island was called "Skellig Michael" for it was dedicated to the Archangel by that name. Skellig Michael was a rocky precipice at the mercy of the Atlantic storms. The monks dwelled in stone bee hive huts and ate garden vegetables, seaweed, honey, fish and shellfish. They kept an orderly and rigorous horarium, chanting the psalms, praying in the solitude of their huts or in more remote caves, high on the cliffs, in silence except for the winds, waves and sea gulls.

Author Geoffrey Moorhouse describes the details of life on Skellig Michael, and of Irish monks in general, in his book Sun Dancing (1997). I read it on a cruise to Bermuda a couple of years ago. Looking out to sea I would think about the Irish monks in another part of that same ocean, long ago. There is something about being surrounded by nothing but water that puts the soul immediately in touch with the infinite.

Moorhouse tells of the "green martyrdom" sought by the monks, the penitential life of strict fasting, solitude, silence, poverty, chastity and obedience. According to the traditions of Celtic monasticism, the Irish cenobites wore long white robes of undyed wool, the front of their heads shaved from ear to ear, with long hair flowing in the back. The shaving of the head was called the "tonsure" and was different from the Roman practice of shaving the crown of the head.

There is also mention of the "extreme violence" of the pagan Irish culture, including human sacrifice. Such grotesque practices disappeared with the coming of Christianity, but the Irish belligerence was not tamed. Irish monasticism was a stranger to pacificism; the monks on the mainland would have feuds and communities would battle each other over land or cattle. The skelligs seemed to be peaceful, however, for many centuries, except for occasional Viking raids.

No one knows for certain why the monks eventually left Skellig Michael and withdrew to a monastery on the coast of County Kerry. Moorhouse explores the various changes that occurred in Irish culture due to the Viking and Norman incursions, which may also have led to the monks' departure. Sun Dancing is a collection of stories about forgotten heroic souls, whose radical lifestyle remains a source of mystery and fascination. Share


alice l. said...

They may have been forced to leave the promontory because of the mini ice age which descended over Europe. They would not have been able to grow
vegetables, etc. That is when Germany and England stopped growing grapes and became beer producers.

Georgette said...

Very fascinating! I'd never heard of this place. The photos of the monastery at that first link are especially interesting. Thanks for educating me :)

elena maria vidal said...

You're welcome, Georgette. It really is fascinating!

Alice, that could very well be.

alice l. said...

Why do you think the Danes are so peaceful now considering they were the Vikings?

elena maria vidal said...

I think the Vikings were essentially a very practical people, and they ceased raiding because it ceased to be practical. But when they did raid, it was always highly organized and planned ahead of time, not a haphazard attack. I don't know why they picked on the Irish monks on the Skellig, though. They had nothing the Vikings would be interested in.

sc said...

Skinhead monks, you don't say!

elena maria vidal said...

Well, not quite.