The Emerald Isle

SKELLIG MICHAEL Eight miles from Ballinskelligs Bay, off the tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, is the island of Skellig Michael, one of the most remote and enigmatic of the sacred sites of Europe. In fact, Skellig Michael is the most westerly in a line, sometimes called the Apollo St. Michael axis, that was known thousands of years before the advent of Christianity and which linked the holy places of St. Michael’s Mount, Mont St.-Michel, Bourges, Perugia, Monte Gargano, Delphi, Athens and Delos. Legendary accounts of Skellig indicate its importance in pagan times. The mythical early invaders of Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, tell of Milesius, whose son Irr was buried on Skellig in around 1400 BC , while another tells of Daire Domhain, a “king of the world,” who stayed on the island. Little is known concerning the origins of the Celtic monastic settlement, but local lore associates it with St. Fionán, the Kerry saint, while other sources suggest that the first monks could have been Copts fleeing Roman and Byzantine persecution in the 6th century. The first-known historical reference to the island comes from the end of the 5th century when the king of Munster, pursued by the king of Cashel, fled to Skellig. Another early mention of Skellig is to be found in the Annals of Innisfallen from AD 823, which tells how “Skellig was plundered by the heathen and Eitgal (the abbot) was carried off and he died of hunger on their hands.” From the early 9th century the Vikings repeatedly pillaged the monastery, killing many of its inhabitants. But somehow the monks endured, and legends tell that in 993, the Viking King Olaf Trygvasson (960s–1000), who introduced Christianity to Norway, was baptized by a hermit on Skellig Michael. The site was finally abandoned some time in the 13th century and many of the monks moved to the monastery of Ballinskelligs on the mainland. The small cluster of six “beehive” huts, two oratories and small terraces are located 714ft (218m) above sea level, accessed by a steep climb of 600 stone steps. Facing south, and sheltered from the winds, the site was favored by hermits and monks wishing to live a quieter, more solitary life of prayer and contemplation. While the slate rock huts appear to be round from the outside, their insides are rectangular, with the walls curving inward to form a corbeled roof and with shelves and sleeping platforms built into the walls. Terraces around the huts and oratories were used to grow vegetables, which, along with fish and birds’ eggs, were the main food supply of the monks. There are three wells on the islet, whose area is only 44 acres (17.8 hectares). At a rocky crag, higher up on the south peak of Skellig, called the “Needle’s Eye,” is another oratory, inaccessible today, that continued to be used as a place of pilgrimage even after the monks had abandoned the island in the 13th century. It is interesting to reflect on the identity of St. Michael, the patron saint of Skellig. St. Michael, venerated as an archangel in Jewish, Christian and Islamic teachings, is almost always depicted killing a “dragon” with a sword, and is said to carry the souls of the righteous to heaven. Scholars have commented on the similarity between the Celtic notion of the “Isles of the Blessed,” where the spirits of the deceased journeyed to the other world and Skellig’s later dedication to St. Michael. In this regard it is important to mention that a 13th-century German source claims that Skellig was the final scene of the battle between St. Patrick and the venomous snakes and devils that once plagued the island of Ireland. With the notion of St. Michael the Dragon-Slayer (dragons are synonymous with snakes in ancient mythologies), there is a clear indication of how folk memories of the old pagan religion persisted, even after it had been subsumed by the new Christian religion. LEFT: Skellig Michael or Great Skellig, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the larger of the two Skellig islands, with two peaks rising to over 755ft (230m) above sea level. An Irish Celtic monastery, situated almost at the summit, was built in 588. The monks lived in stone “beehive” huts (clochans), perched above nearly vertical cliff walls. OPPOSITE: Little Skellig, seen from Skellig Michael, is the smaller of the two Skellig islands. It is closed to the public, and accommodates Ireland’s largest, and the world’s second-largest, Northern Gannet colony, with almost 30,000 breeding pairs. 188

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