To cruise around the base of these two rocky outcrops on an Ireland tour, some eight miles off Ireland’s wild Atlantic coasts evokes wonder and astonishment. Skellig Michael, a great pinnacle of rock rising dramatically some 700 feet from sea level, has played an extraordinary part in preserving Christianity during what, over most of Europe, is known as the Dark Ages, a time when the light of Christian civilisation was eclipsed following the fall of Rome and the wholesale invasion of its territories by pagan barbarians. Yet, on these far western shores, paganism was held at bay and the light of the Christianity burned bright. In Ireland there are no Dark Ages: instead the country celebrates its Early Christian period as its golden hour.
Over halfway up Skellig Michael is a cluster of corbelled beehive huts that were once home to a Celtic monastic community that occupied this unlikely spot for half a millennium from the sixth century onward, before transferring to relatively more comfortable premises on the mainland. What is intriguing about the site is its resemblance to the earliest forms of eremitical monasticism in the eastern Mediterranean, the tradition of St Anthony and the Desert fathers. Ireland was never incorporated into the Roman Empire: did an early form of monasticism, therefore, arrive here directly from the eastern Mediterranean following the western seaways? Celtic Christianity was characterised by austerity and erudition, the former undoubtedly a feature of monastic life on this rocky outpost.
Skellig Michael’s noisy sister, a mile to the north-east, is the breeding ground for tens of thousands of gannets, making it one of the largest such colonies in the Atlantic. The aerial displays of such a quantity of these strong but graceful birds, plunging into the ocean from a great height and with remarkable accuracy to carry off their catch for the young in their nests, provides a truly unforgettable multi-sensory experience.
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