Wednesday, June 07, 2017


Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

“If we cannot know God’s essence, we can stand in God’s place … 
on the high mountain, in the lonely desert, at the point where 
terror gives way to wonder. Only here do we enter the abandonment, 
the agnosia, that is finally necessary for meeting God.”

The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998)
Belden C. Lane


The Sceilig Mhichíl (Skellig Michael or Great Skellig) rock off the south-west coast of Ireland is probably as “fierce” a landscape that you will ever encounter in Ireland, subject, often without respite for weeks on end, to Atlantic storms and the isolation of less-than-forgiving seas. It is also a very special “landscape” that I have wanted to travel to for nearly 40 years and having been turned back previously 4-5 times by either weather or sea conditions, or by the more recent UNESCO imposed restrictions on visitor numbers, I finally managed to make it from Port Magee across the gannet-pierced waves west of Valentia Island’s Bray Head to the monastery island on the 27th May last.

Looking east towards Little Skellig over half-wall of Monastic Cell G

Even without a belief in a Supreme Being, I find it easy to admire, indeed wonder at, mankind’s architectural conversations, mankind’s communal constructs, in an attempt to get closer to God or the Gods. I think of the 10,000 BCE temple complex of Gobekli Tepe, the Pyramids, The Parthenon, Hagia Sofia, Angkor Wat, Chartres Cathedral, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat…. to name just a few. All places of wonderment… all places that were not designed for separation from community, but spaces which can tolerate the noise, and which encourage the volume of communal worship.

Roofless St Michael's Church Skellig Michael.
Little Skellig to right and Puffin Island close to mainland
directly ahead.

In every religion however, monotheist or polytheist, or I suspect in any form of “beyond us” worship, from time immemorial, there have been those individuals who have been quietist, those who have sought an alternative way of communicating with their God or Gods in isolated contemplative silence or in small communities where the volume of exhortation, of expectation even, was turned right down. In many cases this involved removing themselves from their societies and finding a space for reflection in “Fierce Landscapes”.

The "Fierce Landscape" of the northern shores of
Little Skellig (foreground) and Skellig Michael (distance).
Monastery just visible on top left of Skellig Michael.

The lines quoted above from The Solace of Fierce Landscapes,  are from a book written by Belden C. Lane, a Presbyterian theologian, which is an academic exploration, and affirmation of the history and purpose of the extreme abandonment of an individual from society, the agnosia, in the pursuit of encountering God.

This desire for quietness, for agnosia, a desire for remoteness from self in a way, amongst certain individuals, was evident from very early on in the Christian church and the absolute contradiction in a faith perspective between the demands of service to others and service to self was evident from the very beginning of the Christian faith when one considers the Gospel of Mark’s description of the feeding of the 5,ooo.

“The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they 
had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves 
to a desolate place and rest awhile.’ People were coming and 
going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. 
So they went off in a boat by themselves to a deserted place.”
Mark 6: 30-32

Jesus Christ appeared to demand that the disciples deliberately withdraw to a desolate place to rest, to contemplate.

Taking the “permission to withdraw” passage of Mark’s gospel as guidance the Desert Fathers, particularly following the example of St Anthony the Great around 270 CE, established the first contemplative monastic communities in the desert west of the Nile Delta. Although true hermits existed, and indeed even more extreme forms such as anchorites (those walled up in cells in monastic communities) and styilites (like St Simeon in Syria. See: Rihla 54, November 2015 at ) were to evolve in the future the vast majority of these early contemplative monastic hermitages were actually communities with male and female adherents, and properly termed coenobitic (from the Greek words for Common [koinos] and Life [bios]), and a little later adopted the Coptic Rules of St Pachomius for their actual function.

East Steps from Blind Man's Cove


This theological model for monastic communities established in the desolate places of the 4th century Western Desert of Egypt or the more formalised architectural lavra of the 5th and 6th century Judean Desert such as Mar Saba in the Kidron valley, was to be the model adopted in Sceilig Mhichíl where the early 7th century penitent monks – in contrast to the missionary "wandering" monks, like St Columba, and collectively  known as the Peregrini –really did take Mark’s Gospel at its word and “went off in a boat by themselves to a deserted place.”

Skellig Michael originally called the Green Skellig ( sceilg in old Irish is a reef of rocks at sea or a sheer cliff face) and was part of the territory of the Corcu Duibne petty Kingdom in west Kerry. The Corcu Duibne were subject to their overlords the Kings of Íarmumu (west Munster), the Eóganachta Locha Léin centred in Killarney who in turn were subject to the High Kings of Munster, generally the Eóganachta Chaisil, ruling from Cashel. There is some archaeological evidence for the presence of a hill fort just above the monastery complex and it is postulated that Skellig Michael was originally established as a costal island hill fort, like Dun Aengus on the Aran Islands, and that no longer functioning as such by the mid-6th century it was given to the early monks by the Corcu Duibne for them to establish their community. Saint Fionán is the member of the Corcu Duibne ruling dynasty most associated with the island.

The "hermitage" on top of Skellig Michael South Peak

Skellig Michael is a lavra or laura, a cluster of beehive cells centred on narrow alleyway beside in its case two oratories, with stout protective walls surrounding the complex. I say protective rather than defensive, because the walls were designed to prevent visitors or penitents in “great numbers” entering the monastery at random. Very unlikely in Skellig Michael’s case but perhaps even one visitor making his way up the south, north or eastern steps was one visitor to many. The visitor’s dormitory cell is located outside the enclosure walls on the edge of a precipice that was certain to create feelings of terror more than wonderment in that visitor. If the weather was bad he could have been stuck in this eerie for some time and almost certainly unlikely ever to return. But that is the nature of pilgrimage.

Gannet Colony on Little Skellig

Of very particular interest in Skellig Michael’s construction is that there is an even more desolate oratory or hermitage located high on the south peak of the island with two further praying platforms constructed nearby on the edge of oblivion. It is certain that the monastery primarily catered for monks who wished to exist in community but that there was room for the individual who wished to “withdraw” even from them for a period of time, or forever was a real incorporation of the Desert Father’s example. This is conjecture of course. There is no documentary evidence and we know very little however about the workings of the main monastery (apart from the fact that it had an abbot called Étgal in 884 who was abducted and starved to death by the Vikings) and even less of the south peak eagle’s nest hermitage that looked down on it.

The Ruin of the Guest Accommodation
outside Monastery Walls

There is no doubt however that the Skellig Michael monastery complex was very influential. The success of establishing it on a remote, storm-swept, almost inaccessible island created the 8th century precedent for the metaphorical and Christian-orientated prose-poem immrama voyages to strange islands and in particular the later stories of the Voyages of St Brendan the Navigator, where reality and metaphor are fully fused.

(See Rihla 29, June 2012 at )

In a real sense of monastic voyage achievement the monks success on Skellig also encouraged other monks to follow Jesus Christ’s instructions in Mark’s Gospel to “…go off in a boat by themselves to a deserted place” to establish 7&8th century monastic communities on other remote islands such as the Faroes and Iceland, 100 years before the Norse migrations to those places. 

Faroe Island stamps commemorating
St Brendan's "discovery" of the Faroe Islands (top) and Iceland (below).

By the mid-12th century however the full time coenobitic character of Skellig Michael had changed, and inhibited by Viking raiding, disputes over patronage and protection, or perhaps by more severe weather making even a marginal existence impossible, the monks decided to relocate. The island by this stage had become a significant place of summer pilgrimage and a new wooden-roofed church dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, was built amongst the cloister of stone-corbelled beehives, to cater for these pilgrims, around 1044.

A Skellig Puffin

Sometime after this date the monks of Skellig appeared to have relocated to the mainland. A little later they abandoned the “Desert Fathers” monastic rules of St. Anthony and St. Pachomius and adopted the Rules (Arrosian) of St Augustine and with the encouragement of Malachy Ó Morgair, the papal legate between 1140-1148, established on the coastline near Ballinskelligs an Augustinian Priory, also dedicated to St Michael. In contrast to the coenobitic existence of Skellig Michael however, Ballinskelligs Priory engaged in a public ministry and although the nature of their monastic calling had changed because they continued to live in community the monk/priests were now known as Canons Regular. Canon is derived from Kanon, a Greek word meaning “rule”.

Map of Ancient sites in Waterville/Ballinskelligs area by Seán O'Shea
in Butler Arms Hotel, Waterville

Skellig Michael remained in the hands of the Augustinians until 1578 when following the Desmond rebellion the Ballinskelligs monastery was dissolved and Queen Elizabeth I gave the islands over to the Butler family. The Commissioner of Irish Lights compulsory purchased the island in 1820 from the Butlers to build two lighthouses on the island and in 1826 on completion of the lighthouses the OPW, took over the care of the monastic site.


Our rihla to Skellig Michael ends on the mainland at the less known and even less investigated Oratory at Kildreelig. Situated about 5 km to the west of the Priory ruins in Ballinskelligs, the oratory is to be found to the left hand side of the road to Bolus Head about a half a kilometre the Cill Rialig Arts Centre and artists’ retreat in the refurbished pre-famine village at Dungeagan.

The oratory is a corbelled construction aligned east-west and there are two associated cross-slabs and a leacht (raised outside altar or marker stones for a graveyard) at the eastern end of the site looking towards the priory in Ballinskelligs below. The cross on one slab is that of a Tau or Coptic-type cross. The site itself is a cashel, or caher, a circular level piece of ground about 40 metres in diameter with a raised dry stone wall, at almost 2 metres high at extreme of slope surrounding the entire area. Typical of defensive or protective cahers there are two, perhaps three, basic souterrains on the site. It is likely that Kildreelig caher was given over to the monks of Skelligs at an early stage, perhaps 9th century, that they could have a main-land base to sit out the weather until they could attempt the crossing to the island.

Cross Slab 1

It is uncertain whether the oratory continued to be used as a “hermitage” after the Priory was established but what is certain is that the oratory derived its name from the monks in the mainland Priory.

Cross Slab 2 (Tau-type cross)

Kildreelig gets its name from Cill Rialaigh or Cill Riaghlach, meaning the Church of the Rules (religious). This in turn refers to the “Black” or Canons Regular of the Augustinian Priory, canons itself deriving from Gr. kanon (rule), and who were subject to the strict Arrouaisian interpretation and application of the Rule and who gave their name to the townland.  Another interpretation of the name, but less likely, is that of Cill Réidhleach (Rae), the Church of the flattened area of ground on a slope, which of course the caher with its rampart walls was.

Kildreelig is well worth a visit, appearing as it does to be a time capsule of an early Christian monastic site, supplanting the souterrains and buildings of an even earlier caher ring fort.   Now that the excavation and restoration of Skellig Michael is complete perhaps some attention to excavating the "daughter" oratory at Kildreelig should be undertaken.

Eastern doorway of Roofless Kildreelig Oratory

Standing on the caher looking at the ruins of the Priory to the east, with the Skelligs behind you to the west you are caught in a timeline, a timeline of faith and stone, of both withdrawal and of engagement, and even though the sun might be shining, it is a landscape that is fierce.

One large "puffin" on Skellig Michael!

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