As unlikely as it may seem, the rugged mountain-island seen on these pages is hailed as “a place sanctified by a thousand years of prayer.”1
Virtually lost in the sea, eleven kilometres off the Irish coast, Skellig Michael attracts some eleven thousand people a year who undertake a risky excursion to experience, close-up, the supernatural atmosphere created by events that played out there. And while the constructions at its summit look more like prehistoric beehives than human dwellings, they were built by hands that knew how to join together in works of faith and piety.
Without further ado – even without even having to climb the mossy staircase that twists and turns to the peak – let us discover something of its history, shrouded in the mists of time…
From darkness to light
Back in the fifth century, the great St. Patrick set about his epic task of liberating the Irish nation from the clutches of paganism.
The land situated at the northwest of Europe, which would later be dubbed the Isle of Saints, lay, in those distant times, in the hands of the Druids, the minions of Celtic polytheism. In this context, it fell to the Apostle of Ireland to be, before anything else, its exorcist. Lighting the torch of faith meant first repelling the poisonous snakes, toads, magicians and most of all the invisible spirits that oppressed souls. It was he who liberated the the people “from the worship of idols and spectres, who conquered and destroyed the idols they had for worshipping; who had expelled demons and evil spirits from among them, and brought them from the darkness of sin and vice to the light of faith and good works.”2
His bold offensive resulted in a resounding victory for the Holy Church. Once the way was cleared, the Word of the Gospel took deep root. The island became a focal point for monasticism for Europe and its missionaries at the vanguard of opening new fields for the Faith.
Many to this day marvel at how one man achieved such lasting success, almost single-handedly. But the humble Patrick never saw his mission this way. His grandeur essentially lay in his admiring and even being moved by his own littleness, as an instrument of the Almighty. His effectiveness lay knowing who to call in times of trouble!
High King of the Angels
According to tradition recorded in the thirteenth century by Irish monks, St. Patrick had driven the demons to the south-western edge of Ireland onto an isolated crag, more than 11km west of the Iveragh Peninsula, in the Atlantic. The patriarch appealed to heavenly aid, invoking the Archangel St. Michael to expel them definitely.
As he raised his hands aloft, the heavens illuminated and an angelic host appeared on the peak of the mountain under the command of this “High King of the Angels” who fought against the demons, casting them into the sea. After the extermination, the heavenly spirits gathered around their invincible general for the return to Heaven. It is said that the Archangel left his miraculous shield on the mountain.
The point of St. Michael’s sword
Invoked by St. Patrick, St. Michael appeared with his heavenly host on the island’s peak, casting the demons into the sea
St. Michael defeats the Dragon – National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo
That St. Michael has a penchant for the place is suggested even by its geography. The Skellig Michael monastery is situated on an invisible line of seven shrines dedicated to St. Michael, stretching from Ireland to Israel, forming a sword-shape on the map.
Along the mysterious and celebrated “Sword of St. Michael,” each location is marked by the special presence and action of the Archangel. Most of these shrines are built on mountains and some on islands, such as the famous Mont Saint-Michel on the coast of Normandy and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, England. The monastery of Skellig Michael finishes the line and is therefore at the “tip of the sword”.
Climbing “Skellig Michael” today
Visiting the locale today is an unforgettable experience. Departing from the mainland by boat is like crossing the Rubicon, for once having set foot on the island the only way is to go is onward and upward! As visitors get ready to scale, they are duly cautioned regarding the risks involved and the total lack of tourist amenities on the island…
The view from the peak, however, is ample reward for the perilous climb. At that height tourists have a bird’s eye view – or rather the view of a warrior Archangel! – of the Irish mainland.
There, nature seems imbued with the spiritual beauty of St. Michael. Seabirds soar over the defiant crags, symbolizing the superiority of the Prince of the Heavenly Militia over the infernal abyss. The wind attacks the waves hurling them against the rocks, suggesting the overwhelming impetus with which the Prince of the Almighty launched himself against Satan. The lightning, and the thunder peals which often crown this scene, evoke the cry of him who was first to defend the rights of the Creator: “Quis ut Deus? – Who is like unto God?”
Life in the middle of the ocean
On the dizzying summit, pilgrims encounter a monastery dating to the mid-sixth century and much preserved in its original form. It was likely built under the abbacy of St. Fionán of Clonard, one of the Fathers of Irish monasticism and master of the so-called Twelve Apostles of Ireland.
That generations of monks could have survived and thrived there, two hundred and eighteen metres above sea level gives cause for thought, especially considering the warmth, musicality and sociability usually associated with Irish. What motivated the religious of Skellig Michael? Were they some type of “supermen” who awoke in their austere cells keen on descending the six hundred and seventy steps that they themselves had carved into the rock to fish for breakfast? Did they look forward to the perilous forays to adjoining island – Little Skellig – to gather eggs for lunch? And what inspired them to add a solitary hermitage in a particularly rugged nook on the southern peak, to the monastery that already boasted cells, oratory, and later on a church?
Such a life can only be understood as the expression of a deep-seated supernatural enthusiasm. The rustic building and the austerity of the customs testify to the faith and the fibre of those souls who made a radical surrender of themselves to God to carve out a life at the edge of the known world up to that time. These men consecrated their existence to drawing down blessing from Heaven on emerging Christendom. Their life was sweetened by the awareness of their link to the Communion of Saints. There were convinced that their every act weighed on the events of Holy Church of their time and of all times.
We glimpse this connaturality with the supernatural in an account of a British traveller to Ireland in the 12th century: “In the southern part of Munster, […] there is an island with a church dedicated to St. Michael, famed for its orthodox sanctity from very ancient times. There is a stone outside the porch of this church, on the right hand, and partly fixed in the wall, with a hollow in its surface, which, every morning, through the merits of the Saint to whom the church is dedicated is [by a miracle] filled with as much wine as will conveniently suffice for the service of the Masses on the day ensuing, according to the number of priests there who have to celebrate them.”3
The constancy of the monks who lived there teaches today’s Catholics to accompany the Church in her Calvary, with a sorrow that does not limit itself to seeing God offended, but which rises up and cries, “Quis ut Deus?”
On the forefront in every initiative
From within a routine of prayer, toil and study, the religious built and added to their monastery with ingenuity. The curious cells or clocháns, rounded on the outside and rectangular within, wonderfully resisted the lashing Atlantic rains, and served both as living quarters and storage space for a community of twelve. The monks cultivated vegetable gardens behind a wall built to mollify the climate – a “windshield” so effective that their crops gave twice the yield of mainland Ireland. They also developed a sophisticated water purification system.
However, the primary claim of the remote monastery at Skellig is its always having played a pivotal role in life of the Church. The monks of Skellig Michael baptized barbarians and the site functioned as a thriving monastic centre until the 13th century, and later a pilgrimage site. During the era of the Penal Laws decreed against Catholics in England and Ireland in the wake of the Protestant Revolution, the island served as a shelter for those determined to remain united to the immutable doctrine of Holy Church.
Link between past and future
Skellig Michael is a place where Heaven and earth meet. Its legacy lingers on as a link between a blessed past and a glorious future, and the holiness of life lived there is relevant to this day.
Mediocre souls might minimize the need for today’s faithful to match the audacity of a St. Patrick or the constancy of the monks who pioneered a Christianizing epic. But the example of these forerunners indicate that authentic Catholics always accompany the Holy Church in Her sufferings, struggles and in her moral demands.
In these days, when, lamentably, she is besieged, persecuted and disfigured, it falls to her children to be with her on her Calvary, pierced with a true sorrow that ought to be “the sorrow of an Archangel, which does not limit itself to seeing God offended, but which rises up and cries, ‘Quis ut Deus?’ and sets into motion the battle against the devil to cast him into the depths of hell.”4 ◊
1 O’DONOGHUE, Noel Dermot. The Angels Keep Their Ancient Places. Edinburgh; New York: T&T Clark, 2001, p.4.
2 O’DONAVAN, John. Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. 2.ed. Dublin: Hodges, Smith, and Co., 1856, v.I, p.155; 157.
3 GERALD OF WALES. Topography of Ireland. In: WRIGHT, Thomas (Ed.). The Historical Works of Giraldus Cambrensis. London: George Bell & Sons, 1894, p.95.
4 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Conversation. São Paulo, 13/9/1971.