Exploring early medieval asceticism on the Skelligs

June 21, 2023

The 1820s road and two lighthouses were the first structures to be built on the island since a permanent monastic presence ceased in the 13th century. The upper lighthouse (to the left) was decommissioned in 1870 and is now a ruin. It is linked by a meandering path to the lower lighthouse, which is now fully automated and requires only occasional maintenance visits. Both lighthouses and the adjacent accommodation for the keepers and their families were built from rock excavated to build the lighthouse road to the right of the picture. IMAGE: Valerie O’Sullivan

Skellig Michael – the larger of two rocky islets that lie 8 miles (13km) west of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland – was the favoured retreat of early medieval monks seeking an escape from worldly temptations. Reading the newly published Book of the Skelligs, Chris Catling gains some insights into the conditions those hermits endured and the reasons why the islands were added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1996.

The photographs in the newly published Book of the Skelligs focus on their monumental form. The two islands rise almost sheer from the sea, at an angle never less than 90°, apparently without beach or landing place, devoid of greenery, and lacking any place to shelter from the driving Atlantic wind and rain. Striking in appearance, compelling tothe eye, the Skelligs (their name is derived from the old Irish word sceillec, a small or steep area of rock) have all the right characteristics to attract myths and legends. With nothing but ocean and sky beyond, the islands have often been taken to represent the edge of the world. The author and cleric Giraldus Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales (c.AD 1146-c.1223), referred to Ireland as ‘the farthest island of the West’ and wrote ‘beyond those limits there is no land, nor is there any habitation either of men or beasts… only the ocean’.

The long flight of steps that leads from the eastern landing place up to the monastery, with the lighthouse road at the bottom left of the picture. IMAGE: Valerie O’Sullivan

The larger of the two islands – Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichíl in Gaelic) – plays a part in the Irish origin myth as the burial place of one of the three sons of Míl Espáine, the ancestors of the Gaels. This myth is first recorded in the Historia Brittonum (‘History of the Britons’), which was written by the Welsh monk Nennius c.AD 830 but is probably considerably older. It seems to have arisen from the idea that Ireland was first populated by people from the Iberian peninsula (Míl Espáine is probably a corruption of Miles Hispania, Latin for ‘Soldier of Spain’) and the belief that Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland, came from Hiberia, the Graeco-Roman name for the Iberian Peninsula. Skellig Michael is thus portrayed as a place that witnessed the very beginnings of Irish history.

In his Confessio, composed in the 5th century AD and surviving in manuscripts dating from the 800s, St Patrick emphasises the liminality of Ireland in boasting about his own role in fulfilling the prophecies (in Matthew 24:14 and Acts 1:8) that the message of the Gospels would eventually spread from Jerusalem to the remotest ends of the earth. This gave Ireland a very special place in the unfolding of the history of Christianity, and the Skelligs themselves were endowed with even greater significance as marking Christianity’s western edge.

Add to this rich mix the fact that islands and mountains have been regarded as especially holy or numinous places since long before Christianity and it is not surprising that Skellig Michael attracted the attention of early Christian ascetics. There, on this isolated twin-peaked rock, they could practise their faith in imitation of the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent fasting in the desert, with no chance of a quick escape back to the mainland.

A phased plan of the monastic settlement. IMAGE: Grellan D Rourke

Later medieval tradition attributes the founding of the monastery to St Fionán (Finnian) of Iveragh in AD 549, but there is no written or archaeological evidence to support this. The earliest reference to monastic activity on the island is found in annals written by later medieval monks recording key events in the lives of the Irish kings. The Annals of Inisfallen, compiled in 1092, is one of three chronicles that records a Viking raid on ‘Scelec’ in AD 824, during which the island was plundered and the abbot Etgal was ‘carried off into captivity’, presumably in the hope of a ransom being paid. Unfortunately, he ‘died of hunger in their hands’ (probably starved to death), a later commentator says, for refusing to reveal where the monastery’s treasures were to be found. We also learn from the annals of a second Viking attack in 838 and the names of three further abbots: Flan (882), Blathmhac (950), and Aedh (1044), the latter described as ‘the noble priest, the celibate, and the chief of the Gaedil in piety’.

The steps leading from the Blind Man’s Cove landing site were probably built at the foundational stage of the island’s settlement to carry materials and food up to the monastery. IMAGE: © Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland

Tomas Ó Carragáin and John Sheehan, the authors of the chapter on the early medieval archaeology of Skellig Michael in The Book of the Skelligs, say that the modern visitor only sees the final stages of the monastery’s development, and that we are only beginning to understand the foundational work and the subsequent phases. They suggest, however, that the island’s three sets of stone steps must have been an important element in the foundational phase, enabling the island’s early inhabitants to negotiate the island’s rugged and fractured terrain.

The east landing, on the sheltered landward-facing side of the island, was and remains the primary place to come ashore, but long flights of stone steps also ascend from the south landing (little more than a cleft in the rock and a shallow inlet) and the north (with its narrow shelf of rock), each being used according to the prevailing weather and sea conditions. All three staircases combine steps cut into the bare rock with those made from one or two flagstones supported by coursed stone foundations.

From these landing stages, steep steps and paths climb the 130m to the relatively sheltered col – the U-shaped hollow that lies between the island’s two summits. Once known as ‘Christ’s Valley’, and now as ‘Christ’s Saddle’, the col is the point from which further paths lead upwards to the monastery in the lee of the North Peak (185m) and the hermitage near the summit of the South Peak (218m).

The monastery itself stands on a series of terraces, created by constructing massive drystone retaining walls and backfilling the space behind them. The massive revetment walls were constructed with great skill from high-quality stone to withstand the pressures they came under from the infill material used to create the level terrace. The masonry shows signs of constant collapse and repair, although one section of the oratory terrace, standing to a remarkable height of 5m, is thought to be unaltered since its construction 1,500 years ago.

Prominent in this aerial view are the massive retaining walls that enabled level terraces to be built on the island’s steep slopes. The sheltered lower terraces, known as ‘the monks’ gardens’ were probably used to grow vegetables and grain crops. IMAGE: © Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland

The carefully paved main terrace has a church, large oratory, graveyard, and six domed beehive cells that were occupied, perhaps, by 12 monks and an abbot. This overlooks a smaller paved terrace with a small oratory and a ‘monks’ toilet’ at the northern extremity of the site. Rainwater was captured in rock-cut channels and stored in a number of stone- lined cisterns dotting the site, and there are two further sheltered south-facing terraces referred to as ‘the monks’ gardens’.

In addition to the monastery, there is a further series of early medieval structures collectively known as ‘the hermitage’ just below the South Peak, the highest point of the island. These exposed, dangerous, and inaccessible structures are not visible from lower levels and their existence, along with the routes linking them to Christ’s Saddle, remained unknown and unrecorded until surveys were carried out by rope-supported archaeologists and a helicopter in 1982 and 1986.

Homes for monks (and, later, for Jedi): probably dating from the 8th or 9th centuries. IMAGE: © Photographic Archive, National Monuments Service, Government of Ireland

Reaching the hermitage involves following a narrow ledge that winds round the western edge of the peak, with a 70m vertical drop in places, to the Needle’s Eye. This 7m-high vertical crack in the rock has to be scaled using the technique that mountaineers call ‘chimney climbing’. Above lies a 15m- high gulley that is reached by clinging to natural spurs and fissures, as well as toeholds and handgrips chiselled into the rock face. A second route, only recently discovered, begins easily enough with four terraces supporting a drystone stairway, but then involves ascending a near-vertical rock face using rock-cut steps and toeholds. Those who have made the climb testify to its challenges – especially on the descent and in high wind.

Anyone courageous enough to make the journey, or sufficiently trusting in divine protection and with a strong enough desire to come closer to God, would emerge on to the lowest of three terraces; this one is called ‘the garden terrace’ because it lacks structures. The second terrace, 4m higher up, is named after its tiny oratory, with its partly preserved altar and a cross-slab; it also has a clear view down on to the main monastery. A third terrace – the most exposed and difficult to reach – is located higher up on the western side and has been interpreted as the location of a hermitage or shelter. Together the three terraces and their structures, colonising a precipitous, dangerous, and inhospitable peak, show a remarkable level of skill and faith.