George Bernard Shaw described St.Michael’s Rock in The Beauty of Ireland as:
‘an incredible, impossible mad place. I tell you the thing does not belong to any world you and I have lived or worked in ; it is part of our dream world.’
There is no doubt but that St. Michael’s Rock is utterly unique, totally isolated, a huddle of domes crouching half way to heaven. For over 1,500 years it has been an essential part of our Christian heritage and thus part of the story of our parish.
This isolated 44 acre rock, just eight miles out in the Atlantic, rising majestically 714 ft out of the sea, is Europe’s best preserved and least accessible early Christian Monastic site. The rock also has a pre-Christian history and folklore has it that the Milesians were shipwrecked there a millennium prior to Saint Patrick. The Druids used the site to observe the sun, the flight of birds, the movement of the tides, stars and clouds as part of their doctrine of divination.
The Christian Brothers of Cahersiveen produced a Centenary Souvenir Record of their order covering 1860-1960 containing a learned article by the late Brother K.C Meers in which he stated:
‘What type of God-intoxicated Kerryman decided of old, to adventure all for the release of the spirit, to set up his abode of prayer and penance on the Sceilg…’
The word ‘monk’ means ‘solitary’. The practice of living in the wilderness, in order to get closer to God stems from the early middle-eastern Christian Church. In fact, it is generally accepted by historians that ‘the Egyptian spirit reigned in the ancient monastic foundations of the Irish and the Gauls’.
The cult of St. Michael was strong in the middle ages with a number of sites dedicated to him – St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, Monte Gargano in Italy and Mont-Saint Michel in Normandy with the barren Skelligs Michael pre-eminent as a place of learning, prayer and pilgrimage.
Tradition attributes this monastic foundation to St. Fionan in the sixth century. A community of some twelve monks at most, lived ascetic lives in these spartan conditions all year round. Perched on almost vertical windswept cliff walls, with its stone church, oratories, beehive cells, garden, graveyard, wells, stone terraces, retaining walls and cross stone slabs, the monastery is one of the most incredible and fascinating places in the world. The site combines a feat of engineering with a leap of faith.
Documentary evidence shows that the monastic site was plundered twice in the ninth century by the Vikings. The monk Giraldus Cambrensis states that it was abandoned in the twelfth century because it ‘being found bleak and going to and from it hazardous.’
Friar O’Sullivan writing in Louvain, Belgium in 1750, stated that it was ‘very much noted for pilgrimage over most of Europe.’
That sense of pilgrimage coupled with its strong attraction for tourists has, to this day, rendered St. Michael’s Rock, a key element in the local economy of the Iveragh Peninsula. Boats leave the mainland from a variety of points during the summer months, for an unforgettable day trip. Travellers are enraptured by the Rock’s sheer size, its pyramid-like symmetry and its ‘other worldliness’. Skellig Michael has long been recognised as unique and in 1996, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
‘..the last rock of an abandoned civilisation
whose dim lights glimmered in a distant age
to illuminate the edge
of a future life.’
Maidin Bhog Alainn by Iveragh Poet, Thomas Rua O’Suilleabhain. Translated by Derek Mahon from The Voices at the World’s Edge, edited by Paddy Bushe.