As the Romans retreated in the face of invaders, Christianity also retreated westwards - to Ireland - and a few hardy souls still further out onto the Skelligs. These are three small rocky islands off the coast of south-west Ireland. Legend has it that, when St Patrick was banishing the snakes from Ireland, St Michael appeared here to join the spiritual battle.

They have been called the most westerly of Christ's fortresses in the western world. Certainly, as Europe entered the turmoil of the disintegration of the Roman Empire, it could be said that Christianity survived by clinging with its fingertips onto the cliffs of Skellig Michael!

Skellig Michael(14781 bytes)

Skellig Michael

Here, monks came to live and pray. They may also have brought with them sacred manuscripts  that were elsewhere being burnt.

It was a harsh existence, though. The eight miles of sea may have made the Skelligs a safer place than many - but it meant that they were cut off from the mainland for most of the winter. The rocky islands did little to help the monks with their cultivation and, it is believed, they had to resort to importing soil from the mainland in order to grow enough food to survive.

The monks - or, more likely, hermits - built small stone huts to live in. Given the harshness of the climate these were built with walls almost 2 metres thick. They are clustered together around a small chapel where the inhabitants woudl have met during the course of the day for communal prayer. So strongly were they built that they have survived to the present day.

Skellig Monk's Cell (25887 bytes)

Monk's Cell

In spite of their inaccessibility, the Skellings were attacked several times by the Viking invaders - although there was little to attract them in the way of wealth or material treasure. One abbot is known to have died at their hands - but, somehow, the little community survived until the end of the first millennium.

It is possible to visit Skellig Michael - although access continues to be difficult and subject to winds and tides and the local knowledge of the boatmen. The climb to the hermit-village is tortuous and difficult and leaves one in awe of the people who chose to make this their home.

They may have come to spend time in prayer in readiness for mission - or to undertake an exercise in penitence. Or, it may simply have been to find an isolation that enabled them to develop an ever deepening communion with God.

The photographs are from the Skellig Michael page linked below
and is used with the kind permission of Fran O Donnell, U.S.A

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