Sceilig Mhichíl or Skellig Michael is found some eight and a half miles off the coast of South Kerry. It’s monastic remains have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it ranks with the likes of the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China, Chartres, the Acropolis and the Taj Mahal as one of the most important heritage sites on this planet. In terms of the Christian heritage of Kerry and of the whole country it is one of our most precious and inspiring places, remaining as it does in an “in-between-place” – between earth and heaven, between land and the great deep, between worldly concerns and those of the spirit.
It is an extraordinary place, remote, often inaccessible, inspiring and always challenging. In about 200AD Daire Domhain, King of the World is said to have paused a while off the Skelligs to gather his forces before the great battle with the Fianna at Ventry Strand, Cath Fionntrá. In the Irish Annals, Skellig is referred to as a place of retreat and refuge from the fifth century. The name Sceilig Mhichíl comes from the tradition that St. Michael appeared here with all the Heavenly Host of Angels in order to help Patrick banish the serpents from Ireland.
It ranks with Mont. St. Michel and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall as one of the great coastal Christian sites associated with the Archangel Michael. It is known simply as “Skellig” or Scelig in the eighth and ninth centuries, it becomes known as Skellig Michael after the tenth c. In the Annals of the Four Masters an entry for 950 records: “Age of Christ, 950. Blathmhac of Sgeillic died”. An entry for 1044 reads: “The Age of Christ 1044. Aedh of Sgelic-Mhichil”. This seems to be the first reliable mention of the dedication to Michael in the Annals. It would seem that this dedication happened sometime between the dates referred to in the two entries recorded above.
The building of the medieval church may have been undertaken to celebrate the new dedication, this probably took place in the late tenth or early eleventh century. During the late twelfth century there is mention of the church dedicated to St.Michael in Giraldus Cambrensis’ The History and Topography of Ireland . There is also mention of miraculous practices associated with the island. Giraldus Cambrensis was in Ireland c. 1183-1185 and wrote:
“In the south of Munster near Cork there is a certain island which has within it a church of St. Michael, revered for its true holiness from ancient times. There is a certain stone there outside of, but almost touching the door of the church on the right hand side. In a hollow of the upper part of this stone there is found every morning through the merits of the saints of the place as much wine as is necessary for the celebration of as many masses as there are priests to say mass on that day”.
(Topographia Hibernica et expugnatio Hibernica , ed. Dimock, 1867, 5:351. Translated subsequently by J.J. O’Meara (1982) and published as The History and Topography of Ireland . The above is taken from p.80 of this translation). It should be noted that Giraldus Cambrensis seems to have kept to the east of the country, he seems to have never travelled west of Athlone. This accounts for his appalling sense of geography, to think that he could have described Skellig as being near Cork! There’s no beating ignorance! What would Mick O’Connell, Mick O’Dwyer and Maurice Fitzgerald say! This account does however point to how well known Skellig must have been across Ireland.
Skellig Michael rises to 714 feet at its highest point, the monastic site at the NE pinnacle of the island is at a height of 600 feet above sea-level. The monastery developed between the sixth and eighth c. It is located on a terraced shelf on the E and SE sides of the NE peak. The monastic site contains six beehive cells, clocháin , and two oratories as well as a number of stone crosses and slabs, a number of leacht -like structures (the largest of which is known as the Monks’ Graveyard) and two cisterns. It also contains a later medieval church as mentioned. It has been estimated that no more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time, a number which has its own significance.
The monks built a series of steps or stairways at three points from landing points at the N, E and S of the island, these too are an extraordinary achievement. Higher still on the S peak of the island at 700 feet above sea-level is found a hermitage which clings to the ledges of the rock. Recent surveying and study has led to the conclusion that what had been seen as the site of an oratory is in fact what has been described as “one of the most daring architectural expressions of early Irish monasticism : a hermitage built virtually in the air on the treacherous ledges of an Atlantic rock rising straight up from the ocean to an altitude of 218 metres” (see W.Horn, J. White Marshall, G.D. Rourke, The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael , Berkeley, 1990, 23). There were no level surfaces on which to build, these had to be created by erecting walls at the edge of natural, sharply slanting ledges,a remarkable feat….. “these walls could have been built only by men who believed that every stone theylaid brought them one step closer to God. By building a hermitage at the top of the island, they reached the ultimate goal of eremetic seclusion – a place as near to God as the physical environment would permit” (ibid. ).
In the third century Christians from Egypt withdrew to the desert to live lives of prayer, fasting and meditation. This began as a withdrawal into solitude but in the early fourth century groups of these ascetics began to live in common. The ideal of withdrawal from the world remained however. In the province of Thessaly in Greece in a place where bare rock was eroded into isolated columns, hermits established themselves from the fourteenth century onwards on these columns. A network of hermitages and monasteries evolved, accessible only by ropes and nets. This group is called Meteora, “suspended from the air”. The hermitage on Skellig Michael is at least five hundred years older and the main monastery is older again. The hermitage consists of three separate terraces, the recent study has called them the ‘oratory terrace’, the ‘garden terrace’ and the ‘outer terrace’.
It is believed that it was constructed in phases sometime in the ninth century and that it served as a place of retreat, a hermitage for the island community. Although only fragmentary remains were found and despite the dangers involved in surveying and studying such an exposed site the following remains were found: the N wall and much of an entrance wall of an oratory, two interconnecting water basins (indicating that the site was probably inhabited), flagstones which seem to indicate a paved terrace, a rectangular leacht , a cross-inscribed stone, slabs which may have formed part of a slab-shrine and the fragments of retaining walls. One interesting feature is the design of the interconnecting basins or cisterns. When the water reached a certain height in the first basin it then flowed into the second basin. This process allowed for the cleaning of one basin while water was retained in the other basin – a process of filtration. A depression in the first basin also assisted this process, its function was to gather silt. This feature, just one aspect of the meticulous work that went into the construction of the hermitage, dealt with providing a source of fresh-water, one of the most basic needs on the island.
We know little about the founding of the monastery itself, it is attributed to Fionán whose cult is still strong in the South Kerry area. The earliest reference we have is found in the Martyrology of Tallaght, which was compiled towards the end of the eighth century . This refers in an entry for April 28th to the death of a monk of Skellig called Suibni. This record – of a monk from a monastery far away from Tallaght – must surely point to the fame and importance of Skellig even in the eighth century. In the Annals of Ulster and The Annals of Inisfallen there is record of a Viking attack in 823 in which Etgal, the Abbot of Skellig, was carried off and left starve to death: Scelec do orgain do gentib 7 Etgal dobrith i mbrait co n-erbailt gorta leo / ” Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Etgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger at their hands” (Annals of Inisfallen, ed./transl. by Seán Mac Airt, 1951/1977, 124-5). The text, War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill , also records mention of Viking raids, one which tells of Etgal’s end and the other which is dated 850 and states: Tanic longes o Luimniuch i ndescert nhErend cor inriset Sceleg Michil, ocus Inis Fathlind, ocus Disirt Donnain, ocus Cluian mor…. / “There came a fleet from Luimnech in the south of Erinn, they plundered Skellig Michael, and Inisfallen and Disert Donnain and Cluain Mor…..” (ed. Todd, 1867, 228-9).
Other Viking attacks are recorded at different times during the ninth century. The contact between Vikings and Skellig was not all one way or destructive however. Legend has it that a hermit from Skellig baptised the famous Olav Trygvasson in 993, he was to become King of Norway and was the father of Olav II who became the patron saint of Norway.
Life on the Skellig must have been difficult at the best of times. It has been suggested by some that the site was not inhabited in the winter but we can’t be sure about this. Access to the island must have presented a problem and the community could have been isolated for long stretches even during the summer. They would have had fish, eggs and seabirds to sustain them and the monastic garden they cultivated is a marvel in itself, experiments have shown that they achieved a micro-climate in this sheltered and carefully cultivated place which allowed vegetables to grow at twice the speed of mainland sites. A carefully engineered system for collecting and purifying water was also developed. Despite its isolation the monastic site is quite sophisticated and shows how this community managed to deal with the often hostile environment.
It seems that living conditions along the Atlantic islands of Ireland became almost impossible due to changes in climate in the 13th c. It seems that there was a general climatic deterioration at this time with a southern shift of the circumpolar vortex (which began c. 1200) and resulted in the polar ice-cap expanding. Year-round occupancy of Skellig Michael became too difficult and the monks retreated to the mainland (we have record of this in the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis). Here, at the new Augustinian foundation at Ballinskelligs, the links with Skellig Michael were maintained. The arival of the Augustininas may also have had something to do with the decline in the full-time use of the rock (if this was in fact the case at this stage). The Continental orders had no tradition of island monasticism and would have had little of the charism of the earlier Irish monasteries with their spiritual links with the Desert Fathers.
The movement to a stronger diocesan-based structure may also have contributed to the change. The island probably continued as a place of summer retreat and the community would certainly have been involved with the many pilgrims who came to the island. The Augustinian foundation was also dedicated to St. Michael, it was also known as ‘de rupe Michaelis ‘ up until the sixteenth century emphasising the link with the Skellig. In the notes on Malachy of Armagh (November) I’ve noted that the location of this house on the Iveragh Peninsula has led to it being associated with the monastery of Ibracense where Malachy is said to have spent some time but it is generally felt by scholars that this monastery was somewhere in East Munster, in the region of Cashel. It would seem that this house at Ballinskelligs became a house of Arroasian Canons somewhere around 1210, around the same time as Rathkeale in Limerick. The Arroasians who came to Ballinskelligs seem to have come from Rattoo near Ballyduff in North Kerry. There is mention of these canons still being in Ballinskelligs in 1555. Dissolution of the priory came in 1578. The priory and lands were granted to one John Blake in 1585 at a rent of £6. 13s. 4d.
Skellig itself is listed as a penitential station for pilgrims undertaking penance in the early sixteenth century and we have accounts from the eighteenth century of pilgrims coming from all over Ireland and from Europe at Easter to follow the Stations of the Cross and to kiss the stone slab near the hermitage on the S pinnacle (this was a hazardous undertaking, this slab has now disappeared, probably a victim of the extreme conditions of its location). After the Desmond Rebellions, Queen Elizabeth 1 dissolved a number of monasteries which had previously been under the protection of the Earl of Desmond. It was also around this time (when the mainland foundation was also dissolved) that the rock passed into private hands, it remained so until 1820 when it was taken over by the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin. This body, which became the Commissioners of Irish Lights, purchased the island and erected two lighthouses on the Atlantic side of the rock. This area was made more accessible by improving the landing place and blasting a road out on the S flank of the island.
Even today with mass tourism bringing many visitors to the Skellig, there is always an element of pilgrimage about going to Skellig. Many of those who go carry that spirit of pilgrimage in them and find, as many before them found, that this place at the edge of the world is still one of the great pilgrimage places of Europe and the world. Note: You may have wondered what a leacht is. No major study has been undertaken which can give us a more definite picture but these dry-stone structures found in many medieval ecclesiastical sites may function as burial places for the saints and holy men and women associated with the site or to house their relics. They may also have served as places of prayer , where the leacht could be used as an altar for Mass or as stations of the cross.