Forgotten Hermitage in the Desert of the Sea

“The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael” by Walter Horn, Grellan D. Rourke, Jenny W. Marshall, and Paddy O’Leary [University of California Press, 1990]
This book is a dramatically told and visually stunning account of a ninth-century hermitage discovered on the South Peak of Skellig Michael, an island off the west coast of Ireland. It is the story, pieced together from fragmentary remains, study, and conjecture, of a man’s attempt to live on a tiny ledge some 700 feet above the Atlantic on the outer edge of the European land mass, alone, as close to God as possible, in what is perhaps the ne plus ultra of ecstatic monastic solitude. Richly illustrated with maps, plans, and photographs that capture both the astonishing beauty and isolation of the hermitage, the text also includes reconstruction drawings of the site that combine a surveyor’s accuracy with an artist’s imaginative response to the hermit who found spiritual refuge on a pinnacle.
skellig 2
“On Skellig Michael, an island at the western edge of the European land mass—at the time the monastery was founded, the western edge of the Christian world—was a hermitage even more awesome than Meteora seven hundred feet above the sea, clinging to the narrow ledges of an austere pinnacle, the Skellig Michael hermitage is a visual wonder and a marvelous feat of construction. The island of Skellig Michael lies 11.6 kilometers off Bolus Head, the westernmost tip of the Iveragh Peninsula, County Kerry, Ireland. The mass of rock from which the island was formed in the Devonian period some four hundred million years ago consists of hard compressed sheets of sandstone mixed with silt and gravel. During the great Armorican upheaval that created the mountains of Kerry two hundred million years later, Skellig Michael, which is connected to these mountains, rose above the sea. This mountain building was accompanied by the mass movement and translocation of rocks called jointing and faulting by geologists. Subsequent faulting and erosion over millions of years created a U-shaped depression, today named Christ’s Valley or Christ’s Saddle, 130 meters above sea level in the middle of the island. On either side of this small valley a peak rises, one to the northeast 185 meters high and one to the west-southwest 218 meters high
skellig 3
Between the sixth and eighth centuries the island became a place of refuge from the world for a small settlement of ascetic monks. The broad summit on the northeastern side of the valley became the site of their monastery, comprising six beehive cells and two oratories. Probably no more than twelve monks and an abbot ever lived here at one time Legend ascribes the founding of the monastery to St. Fionan, who lived in the sixth century. The earliest documentary reference to the monastery is an entry in The Martyrology of Tallaght , written near the end of the eighth century by Máel-ruain (d. 792) in his monastery near present-day Dublin. It commemorates the death of a monk of Skellig called Suibni (Suibni in Scelig ). To be acknowledged in this manner in the festology of one of the most celebrated monasteries of Ireland, located at the opposite side of the country, Skellig Michael must have been a well-established and widely known monastic settlement. The monastery there may well have been founded as early as the sixth or seventh century, but in the absence of documentation more precise dating is not possible.
skellig 5
The monastery is referred to simply as Skellig in the eighth- and ninth-century entries in monastic festologies and annals (The Martyrology of Tallaght , the Annals of Ulster , and the Annals of Inisfallen ). Sometime after the tenth century the monastery became known as Skellig Michael. It is likely that in the late tenth or early eleventh century the monastery was dedicated to St. Michael. This is suggested by two references to the monastery in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters . The first reads “Age of Christ, 950. Blathmhac of Sgeillic died”; the second, which reads “The Age of Christ, 1044. Aedh of Sgelic-Mhichil,” is the first reliable mention of the name Michael in the annals. On this basis we assume that the dedication to Michael took place between 950 and 1044. It was customary in a monastery to build a new church to celebrate a dedication, and the oldest part of the church now known as St. Michael’s fits architecturally into this time period. With its mortared straight walls and large stones, the church is unlike the dry-stone corbeled oratories and beehive cells built earlier at the monastery.
The church of St. Michael was mentioned in The History and Topography of Ireland , by Giraldus Cambrensis, who was in Ireland with the Normans in the late twelfth century (1183 and 1185). His account of the miraculous supply of communal wine for daily mass in St. Michael’s church implies that the monastery of Skellig Michael was in constant occupancy at that time.

In the thirteenth century, living conditions on the Atlantic islands of Ireland degenerated to such a degree that year-round occupancy of the island probably became impossible. A general climatic deterioration, linked to a southern shift of the circumpolar vortex, began around 1200, and as a result the polar ice cap expanded. Colder weather and the increasing frequency and severity of sea storms appear to have forced the monks to withdraw to a site on the mainland on Ballinskelligs Bay, near Waterville, County Kerry.
Historical as well as climatic reasons explain why in later centuries the monastery of Skellig Michael never again came into full-time use. Many Irish monks, imitating the withdrawal of St. Anthony into the desert, sought a desert in the sea and founded monasteries on hundreds of islands—the Orkneys, the Shetlands, the Faeroes—eventually reaching from the coast of Great Britain as far as Iceland. The monastic ideal of going into exile for the love of God, peregrinatio pro Dei amore , flourished in the Irish church, which was dominated by the monasteries. By the late eleventh century, however, the Irish church had begun to shift from a monastic to a diocesan structure typical of the Christian church elsewhere. At the same time, European orders of monks with no tradition of island monasticism, like the Canons Regular of St. Augustine, had established themselves in Ireland. The importance of these European monastic orders increased with the Norman conquest of Ireland in the late twelfth century. The great age of Irish eremitic island colonies, typified by Skellig Michael, was coming to an end.
skellig michael
The monks of Ballinskelligs monastery on Ballinskelligs Bay certainly continued to maintain and use Skellig Michael. They were proud of their association with its venerable history; in fact, in later centuries the prior of Ballinskelligs was still addressed in papal letters as “Augustinian prior of St. Michael’s, Roche (de Rupe ).” ….
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We discovered that a hermitage had been constructed on this peak during the known full-time occupancy of the island, that is, between the eighth and thirteenth centuries. One monk left the motherhouse to live as a hermit on the heights of the island’s other peak.”

The text is available on-line at
See further;;doc.view=print

For a video documentary about Skellig Michael see

Saint Finnian of Clonard (‘Cluain Eraird’) – also Finian, Fionán or Fionnán in Irish; or Vennianus and Vinniaus in its Latinised form (470–549) – was one of the early Irish monastic saints, who founded Clonard Abbey in modern-day County Meath. The Twelve Apostles of Ireland studied under him. Saint Finnian of Clonard (along with Saint Enda of Aran) is considered one of the fathers of Irish monasticism. See further and

“Skellig Michael rises to 714 feet at its highest point, the monastic site at the NE pinnacle of the island is at a height of 600 feet above sea-level. The monastery developed between the sixth and eighth c. It is located on a terraced shelf on the E and SE sides of the NE peak. The monastic site contains six beehive cells, clocháin , and two oratories as well as a number of stone crosses and slabs, a number of leacht -like structures (the largest of which is known as the Monks’ Graveyard) and two cisterns. It also contains a later medieval church as mentioned. It has been estimated that no more than twelve monks and an abbot lived here at any one time, a number which has its own significance.
The monks built a series of steps or stairways at three points from landing points at the N, E and S of the island, these too are an extraordinary achievement.
Higher still on the S peak of the island at 700 feet above sea-level is found a hermitage which clings to the ledges of the rock. Recent surveying and study has led to the conclusion that what had been seen as the site of an oratory is in fact what has been described as “one of the most daring architectural expressions of early Irish monasticism : a hermitage built virtually in the air on the treacherous ledges of an Atlantic rock rising straight up from the ocean to an altitude of 218 metres” (see W.Horn, J. White Marshall, G.D. Rourke, The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael , Berkeley, 1990, 23). There were no level surfaces on which to build, these had to be created by erecting walls at the edge of natural, sharply slanting ledges,a remarkable feat….. “these walls could have been built only by men who believed that every stone theylaid brought them one step closer 
to God. By building a hermitage at the top of the island, they reached the ultimate goal of eremetic seclusion – a place as near to God as the physical environment would permit” (ibid. ).

In the third century Christians from Egypt withdrew to the desert to live lives of prayer, fasting and meditation. This began as a withdrawal into solitude but in the early fourth century groups of these ascetics began to live in common. The ideal of withdrawal from the world remained however. In the province of Thessaly in Greece in a place where bare rock was eroded into isolated columns, hermits established themselves from the fourteenth century onwards on these columns. A network of hermitages and monasteries evolved, accessible only by ropes and nets. This group is called Meteora, “suspended from the air”. The hermitage on Skellig Michael is at least five hundred years older and the main monastery is older again. The hermitage consists of three separate terraces, the recent study has called them the ‘oratory terrace’, the ‘garden terrace’ and the ‘outer terrace’.
It is believed that it was constructed in phases sometime in the ninth century and that it served as a place of retreat, a hermitage for the island community. Although only fragmentary remains were found and despite the dangers involved in surveying and studying such an exposed site the following remains were found: the N wall and much of an entrance wall of an oratory, two interconnecting water basins (indicating that the site was probably inhabited), flagstones which seem to indicate a paved terrace, a rectangular leacht , a cross-inscribed stone, slabs which may have formed part of a slab-shrine and the fragments of retaining walls. One interesting feature is the design of the interconnecting basins or cisterns. When the water reached a certain height in the first basin it then flowed into the second basin. This process allowed for the cleaning of one basin while water was retained in the other basin – a process of filtration. A depression in the first basin also assisted this process, its function was to gather silt. This feature, just one aspect of the meticulous work that went into the construction of the hermitage, dealt with providing a source of fresh-water, one of the most basic needs on the island.
We know little about the founding of the monastery itself, it is attributed to Fionán whose cult is still strong in the South Kerry area. The earliest reference we have is found in the Martyrology of Tallaght, which was compiled towards the end of the eighth century . This refers in an entry for April 28th to the death of a monk of Skellig called Suibni. This record – of a monk from a monastery far away from Tallaght – must surely point to the fame and importance of Skellig even in the eighth century. In the Annals of Ulster and The Annals of Inisfallen there is record of a Viking attack in 823 in which Etgal, the Abbot of Skellig, was carried off and left starve to death: Scelec do orgain do gentib 7 Etgal dobrith i mbrait co n-erbailt gorta leo / ” Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Etgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger at their hands” (Annals of Inisfallen, ed./transl. by Seán Mac Airt, 1951/1977, 124-5). The text, War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill , also records mention of Viking raids, one which tells of Etgal’s end and the other which is dated 850 and states: Tanic longes o Luimniuch i ndescert nhErend cor inriset Sceleg Michil, ocus Inis Fathlind, ocus Disirt Donnain, ocus Cluian mor…. / “There came a fleet from Luimnech in the south of Erinn, they plundered Skellig Michael, and Inisfallen and Disert Donnain and Cluain Mor…..” (ed. Todd, 1867, 228-9).

Other Viking attacks are recorded at different times during the ninth century. The contact between Vikings and Skellig was not all one way or destructive however. Legend has it that a hermit from Skellig baptised the famous Olav Trygvasson in 993, he was to become King of Norway and was the father of Olav II who became the patron saint of Norway.

Life on the Skellig must have been difficult at the best of times. It has been suggested by some that the site was not inhabited in the winter but we can’t be sure about this. Access to the island must have presented a problem and the community could have been isolated for long stretches even during the summer. They would have had fish, eggs and seabirds to sustain them and the monastic garden they cultivated is a marvel in itself, experiments have shown that they achieved a micro-climate in this sheltered and carefully cultivated place which allowed vegetables to grow at twice the speed of mainland sites. A carefully engineered system for collecting and purifying water was also developed. Despite its isolation the monastic site is quite sophisticated and shows how this community managed to deal with the often hostile environment.
It seems that living conditions along the Atlantic islands of Ireland became almost impossible due to changes in climate in the 13th c. It seems that there was a general climatic deterioration at this time with a southern shift of the circumpolar vortex (which began c. 1200) and resulted in the polar ice-cap expanding. Year-round occupancy of Skellig Michael became too difficult and the monks retreated to the mainland (we have record of this in the writings of Giraldus Cambrensis). Here, at the new Augustinian foundation at Ballinskelligs, the links with Skellig Michael were maintained. The arival of the Augustininas may also have had something to do with the decline in the full-time use of the rock (if this was in fact the case at this stage). The Continental orders had no tradition of island monasticism and would have had little of the charism of the earlier Irish monasteries with their spiritual links with the Desert Fathers.”

“Skellig Michael is an outstanding, and in many respects unique, example of an early religious settlement deliberately sited on a pyramidal rock in the ocean, preserved because of a remarkable environment. It illustrates, as no other site can, the extremes of a Christian monasticism characterizing much of North Africa, the Near East and Europe.
The island of Skellig Michael lies 11.6 km off Bolus Head, the westernmost tip of the lveragh Peninsula of County Kerry. Faulting of Devonian sandstone and gravels has created a U-shaped depression, known today as ‘Christ’s Valley’ or ‘Christ’s Saddle’, 130 m above sea level in the centre of the island, and this is flanked by two peaks, that to the north-east rising to 185 m and that to the west-south-west 218 m. The rock is deeply eroded and weathered, owing to its exposed position, but is almost frost-free. Landing is possible at three points, depending on the state of the sea. These communicate by flights of steps with the principal monastic remains, which are situated on a sloping shelf on the ridge running north-south on the north-eastern side of the island; the hermitage is on the steeper South Peak.
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The approach to the monastery from Christ’s Saddle leads to a long narrow terrace. A doorway in the rear wall gives access via a flight of Steps to a larger enclosure, which is in its turn terraced and subdivided; the lowest level contains the main monastic enclosure, comprised of a church, oratories, cells, a souterrain, and many crosses and cross-slabs. The white quartz paving between the buildings gives the ensemble an urban quality.
The Large Oratory has the usual inverted boat-shaped form, with a door in the west wall. It is built from coursed stone, rectangular at the base and becoming oval as it rises in height; the elongated dome terminates inside in a row of large slabs. The Small Oratory is more carefully constructed, and is considered to be later in date. Nearby are the unique remains of a beehive-shaped toilet cell. Cell A is the largest of the six cells and must have had a communal function. Several have cupboards and projecting stones for hanging purposes. They vary in plan – square, rectangular, and D-shaped; several retain their original flagged floors.

St Michael’s Church is rectangular in form, unlike the oratories, and would originally have had a timber roof. Two stages of construction can be identified: a small church in mortared stone was later expanded, using much larger sandstone blocks.
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The date of the foundation of the monastery on this island is not known. There is a tradition that it was founded by St Fionan in the 6th century; however, the earliest written records come from the end of the 8th century. It was dedicated to St Michael somewhere between 950 and 1050. It was customary to build a new church to celebrate a dedication, and this date fits in well with the architectural style of the oldest part of the existing church, known as St Michael’s Church. It was occupied continuously until the later 12th century, when a general climatic deterioration led to increased storms in the seas around the island and forced the community to move to the mainland. However, a monastic presence was maintained as a dependence of Ballinskelligs Abbey. The church was enlarged in the 12th century and the older buildings were kept in repair. The prior of Ballinskelligs Abbey continued to be addressed in papal communications as ‘Augustinian Prior of St Michael’s, Roche ( = Skellig)’.”

skellig story
This is the story of two of the world’s most stunning and unspoilt islands, Skellig Michael and Small Skellig, as seen, researched and photographed by Des. Lavelle, fisherman, diving instructor, author and passenger-boat captain who has taken thousands of visitors to Skellig, and has been personally fascinated by these islands over many years. The book describes the extraordinary isolation of this Early Christian monastic settlement. It tells of the history, legend, geology, plant life, seabirds, seals, the lighthouse and the underwater world. Originally published in 1976, the current (O’Brien Press, Dublin, 2010) edition is readily available.

See also The Skellig Experience website:

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