Plan of Salvation The Monastery "Halfway to Heaven" Next Photo © Irish Tourist Board
(Skellig Michael is) "an incredible, impossible, mad place. I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in; it is part of our dream world." -George Bernard Shaw
The Rock off the western Irish Coast known as "Skellig Michael" was inhabited by Irish Monks for over 600 years; from 588-1222 A.D. "Skellig" (or skeilic) is a Gaelic word used to describe a rock island out in the ocean. In the Middle Ages many high places were named "Michael" after the Archangel Michael. It is home to some ancient stone bee-hive huts. The monastery was founded by Fionαn, believed to be one of the original monks who was a member of the community of St. Brendan the Navigator.
"It was in places like Skellig Michael that Western Civilization was preserved." -Sir Kenneth Clark
"As I climbed the path winding up to the ancient constructions near the top of the cliff, I sensed that I was on the threshold of something utterly unique, though I was by no means a stranger to monasteries, which I had visited throughout Europe, and even farther afield at one time and another. But nothing in my experience had prepared me for this huddle of domes, crouching halfway to heaven in this all but inaccessible place, with an intimidating immensity of space all around, where it was easy to feel that you had reached a limit of this world. A holy place, to be sure, which would still have been so, even if it had never known the consecrated life of prayer." -Geoffrey Moorhouse
(-from the Author's Note in his book, "Sun Dancing". Copyright © 1997 Geoffrey Moorhouse. All Rights Reserved.)
George Bernard Shaw writes about his visit to Skellig Michael:
Parknasilla Hotel, Sneem, 18th September 1910.
My Dear Jackson,
We are both here in the only place in the world that makes Tarn Moor a mere dust heap.
Yesterday I left the Kerry coast in an open boat, 33 feet long, propelled by ten men on five oars. These men started on 49 strokes a minute, a rate which I did not believe they could keep up for five minutes. They kept it without slackening half a second for two hours, at the end of which they landed me on the most fantastic and impossible rock in the world: Skellig Michael, or the Great Skellig, where in south west gales the spray knocks stones out of the lighthouse keeper's house, 160 feet above calm sea level. There is a little Skellig covered with gannets white with them (and their guano) covered with screaming crowds of them. The Bass rock is a mere lump in comparison: both the Skelligs are pinnacled, crocketed, spired, arched, caverned, minaretted; and these gothic extravagances are not curiosities of the islands: they are the islands: there is nothing else.
The rest of the cathedral may be under the sea for all I know: there are 90 fathoms by the chart, out of which the Great Skellig rushes up 700 feet so suddenly that you have to go straight up stairs to the top over 600 steps. And at the top amazing beehives of flat rubble stones, each overlapping the one below until the circle meets in a dome cells, oratories, churches, and outside them cemeteries, wells, crosses, all clustering like shells on a prodigious rock pinnacle, with precipices sheer down on every hand, and lodged on the projecting stones overhanging the deep huge stone coffins made apparently by giants, and dropped there God knows how.
An incredible, impossible, mad place, which still tempts devotees to make "stations" of every stair landing, and to creep through "Needle's eyes" at impossible altitudes, and kiss "stones of pain" jutting out 700 feet above the Atlantic.
Most incredible of all, the lighthouse keeper will not take a tip, but sits proud, melancholy and haunted in his kitchen after placing all his pantry at your disposal will also accompany you down to the desperate little harbour to squeeze the last word out of you before you abandon him, and gives you letters to post like the Flying Dutchman also his strange address to send newspapers and literature to; for these he will accept.
I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world. And you talk of your Hindhead! Skellig Michael, sir, is the Forehead.
Then back in the dark, without compass, and the moon invisible in the mist, 49 strokes to the minute striking patines of white fire from the Atlantic, spurting across threatening currents, and furious tideraces, pursued by terrors, ghosts from Michael, possibilities of the sea rising making every fresh breeze a fresh fright, impossibilities of being quite sure whither we were heading, two hours and a half before us at best, all the rowers wildly imaginative, superstitious, excitable, and apparently super-human in energy and endurance, two women sitting with the impenetrable dignity and quiet comeliness of Italian saints and Irish peasant women silent in their shawls with their hands on the quietest part of the oars (next to the gunwale) like spirit rappers, keeping the pride of the men at the utmost tension, so that every interval of dogged exhaustion and drooping into sleep (the stroke never slackening, though) would be broken by an explosion of "up-up-upkeep her up!" "Up Kerry!"; and the captain of the stroke oar a stranger imported by ourselves, and possessed by ten devils each with a formidable second wind, would respond with a spurt in which he would, with short yelps of "Double it double it double it" almost succeed in doubling it, and send the boat charging through the swell.
Three pound ten, my dear Jackson six shillings a man including interest on the price of the boat and wear and tear of ten oars, was what they demanded. They had thrown down their farming implements (they don't fish on Saturdays) to take to the sea for us at that figure.
I hardly feel real again yet.
Hindhead! Pooh! I repeat it in your teeth. POOH!
Celt and Saxon you and me I mean me and you or it is you and I? Meredith and Anatole France! Is Box Hill a beehive cell 700 feet up?
What does any Parisian know of Skellig Michael? Get out!
"Christianity Today": "To Skellig Michael, Monastery in the Sky" _____________________________________________________________________________________
Copyright © 2001 S.G.P. All rights reserved.
Book Review: "Sun Dancing" (About Skellig Michael) Celtic Pages Next