Whose insane idea was it anyway? Apparently, one morning around 750 AD an Irish monk, or perhaps hermit or anchorite, looked West across the sea from the rocky cliffs of Kerry and saw a pair of pyramidal rocks rising from the deep. Evidently the life he was living in some stone oratory or beehive hut was not sufficiently uncomfortable for him, so he went down to the beach, dragged a curragh (a canoe-like boat made of hide) into the surf and paddled out to the Skelligs, a trip that, powered only by human strength, would have taken some five or six hours, depending on how heavy the seas were that day. No trace of this visionary or madman is left to us, but the larger of the two islands, Skellig Michael, provided a precarious home to a community of perhaps a dozen monks for the next five centuries.
In the first Christian centuries, suffering for God took the form of martyrdom; devout Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperor and died (albeit not in numbers as great as once was claimed) in the Roman arenas, often in the wild beast shows. Once the Empire itself became Christian, other avenues to salvation had to be found. In the deserts of Egypt, holy men began living lives of extreme asceticism, dwelling in caves or huts far from other human beings, surviving on the bare minimum of food necessary to sustain life. These were the first hermits or anchorites; when some of them decided to live their lives of extraordinary privation in small communities, they became the first monks. The monks who removed themselves to the Skelligs were the spiritual descendants of those early desert fathers, albeit in a very different geographical context. In fact, they were more hermits than monks since they did not live according a particular Rule (like the Rule of St Benedict, which laid out the details of monastic life for its followers). They simply sought the most extreme environment imaginable in which to live and pray.
Today, getting from the mainland to the Skelligs is not terribly difficult. You go to the little town of Portmagee in the morning. Assuming that the weather is not impossible, someone will approach you on the dock, asking if you want passage out to the islands; this all happens in a typically Irish haphazard fashion: there are no tickets, you don’t have to book ahead, the boats leave sometime after 10, but that might be 10:30 or 11:15. The boat we took carried 10 passengers, and the trip took 45 minutes, during which everyone was thoroughly soaked by the salt spray that broke over the boat as it forged through a bit of chop to get out of the long harbour and onto the sea. No one was seasick. The fog was so thick that the islands were entirely invisible from the mainland; you wondered how it ever occurred to anyone to row out there in the first place. And then, after half an hour or so, there they were, looming out of the grey, looking for all the world like something from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
The climb begins immediately, from the jetty. I can’t imagine how the first monks made it to the top, but their successors built a staircase, and it’s still in use, all 700 or so steps of it. You climb right up into the clouds, sometimes with a vertical drop down to the pounding waves right next to you. Any monk who fell, one imagines, went directly to heaven.
Finally, up on top of the rock, you come to the monastery, a cluster of beehive huts and stone crosses. There a guide awaits to explain the mysteries of the place to those who make it. There are those who don’t– some people give up after a hundred steps because their knees or hearts can’t take it, and we encountered one poor German fellow crawling back down from the first terrace, paralysed with fear. The monks, he tells us, spent their days in prayer and in finding ways to survive. They ate puffin meat and puffin eggs (for puffins, see my next post), and grew a few vegetables, cabbage and the like. There’s no scriptorium– not for these hard-core ascetics the aesthetic pleasure of illumination. The Vikings tried to raid the Skelligs a few times, but evidently gave up; there wasn’t much there, after all, and it must have been easy for the monks to drop rocks on their heads from above.
Century after century unrolled like this: prayer, fog, a diet of sea birds and air. And then, in the twelfth century, the Church intervened, calling the Skellig monks back to the mainland; evidently their radical spirituality, individualistic and essentially ungoverned, didn’t fit Rome’s program. The Skelligs were left to the birds, who are the only permanent inhabitants these days; even the guides and archaeologists are only temporary visitors. There are no modern buildings on the island except a disused lighthouse. There is no café, no gift shop, no toilets. It belongs to the sea.
So after a few hours we stagger back down the stair, legs shaking from the climb, pile back into our waiting boat, and return to the 21st century and a well deserved pint.