Rock saints heady

Patricia Craig has a windy time on Skellig: Sun Dancing: a medieval vision by Geoffrey Moorhouse, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 18.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Skelligs are a group of rocks rising out of the sea about 20 miles south of the Blaskets, off the Kerry coast in South-West Ireland. The larger rock, Great Skellig or Skellig Michael, rears up dramatically to 714 feet; and it was here, towards the end of the Sixth Century, that a group of monks established the tiny anchorite colony which miraculously endured for nearly 700 years.

Around 1222, as mysteriously as they'd arrived, the monks abandoned the stronghold to gannets and stormy petrels. All that survives of this early Christian experiment in asceticism is the remains of stone beehive huts and oratories which cling to the cliff-face like giant molluscs. All that survives in material terms, that is. Intractable and all but inaccessible, Skellig Michael exerts a profound attraction on the imaginations of those susceptible to its associations. Among them Geoffrey Moorhouse, who first caught sight of the Skelligs over 30 years ago, and now attempts first to reconstruct the lives of several waves of hermit monks, and then to dispense information concerning monastic practices, Irish social arrangements, medieval craftsmanship, barbaric medical experiments, the Four Masters and all the rest of it.

Sun Dancing begins in AD 588, with a monk named Fionan and a few companions impelled by some driving force towards the barren Atlantic sea-rock. Their aim, and the aim of their successors, was to purge their lives of human comfort and ambition in the interests of attaining purification. These anchorites followed a regime as purgatorial as possible, replete with self-induced sleeplessness, semi-starvation, self-abasement and the constant danger of being blown right off their rocky perch by a violent gust of wind. During the Ninth Century they were also a target for Viking predators after ecclesiastical plunder. The quatrain praising a stormy night - "Since tonight the wind is high/The sea's white mane a fury/I need not fear the hordes of Hell/Coursing the Irish Channel" - might as readily have been composed by a monk on the Skellig as anyone else.

The title of Geoffrey Moorhouse's book seems greatly at odds with the misery and stoicism enacted on the island; but in fact the phenomenon referred to - the hoped-for sighting at Easter of some unusual solar movement - was tied up in the minds of believers with celestial rejoicing over Christ's Resurrection. Moorhouse, we may take it, is trying to elucidate both the impulse towards martyrdom of these early anchorites, along with the Christian exultation they hoped to achieve, and the persistent allure of the site of their exorbitant privations.

The fictionalised incidents he recounts are plausible, and he's garnered a good stock of information about medieval monasticism. But the mind- set of the Skellig hermits remains incomprehensible. It was all, as Louis MacNeice has it in relation to the Ancient Greeks, "so unimaginably different, and all so long ago".