Skellig Michael is a massive rock that sticks up out of the Atlantic Ocean off the West coast of Ireland. It is the sort of barren place that is home only to puffins, gulls and seals. But a community of monks lived on the rock for six hundred years—from roughly 588 to 1200 AD. The partly-imagined story of that monastic austerity is the subject of Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Sun Dancing, A Vision of Medieval Ireland.
Moorhouse gathers copious research into the luminous bits of a manuscript that tracks what might have happened as a small band of monks set out in a skin curach, a keelless boat that would take them where their God wanted them to establish a monastery and hermitage. It took them on a preternaturally calm sea, to Skellig Michael, where they hewed steep stairs out of the rock, built stone huts and carved pools to catch rainwater. The rock was nearly unapproachable so their rare boatloads of bread and meager supplies from the mainland got through once or twice a year when the weather and the seas permitted.
The story of the adaptation to the isolation, the austerity and the silence is as interesting as any adventure tale. Viking raids were slow to reach them but had a horrifying effect when they did. Some of the monks illustrated and copied books, others repaired the seine and fished, still others wrestled a small garden for vegetables from the thin rocky ground. They paused many times a day for prayer and they struggled with their inner demons in an effort to reach what we would probably call enlightenment. A few slipped from the perilous cliffs and died. Even fewer fell victims to hubris, shut themselves away as hermits and destroyed themselves. No one ate very much. Older monks mentored younger monks as anamchara or soul friends and confessors.
The first part of the book is the fiction-based-on-known-facts story of the settlement. This is followed by a section-by-section examination of the available research and what the times and the monks can tell us about medieval Ireland and the transition from pantheistic Druidical beliefs to papist Christianity—the Catholicism of Rome. The monks were very aware of their monastic precedents–the practices of the Desert Fathers and other anchorites influenced their views of their own vocations and chosen lifestyle. I found it fascinating. I know so little history of that time and Moorhouse makes a coherent picture of the slow passage of time on the rock and the evolution of the wider culture on the mainland over centuries of great change.
Sun Dancing—the name is taken from descriptions of transcendent or hallucinatory visions of fasting faithful at sunrise—is a nearly vanished piece of history brought to life, in typical Irish tradition, in the words of a skillful storyteller.
Sun Dancing: Life in a Medieval Irish Monastery and How Celtic Spirituality Influenced the World Geoffrey Moorhouse | Harcourt, Brace & Company 1997