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