There is debate over when the Skellig monastery was first founded, but it was part of the early Christian monks’ attempts to find sanctuary, refuge, seclusion and closeness with God in distant and remote places. As a rock in the Atlantic 11.6 km off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry, Skellig is about as remote as it gets.
The monastery was probably founded in around the sixth century, no one is entirely sure and I have been unable to find any real agreement on this date. It consists of a collection of drystone beehive huts that are as weathertight today as they would have been when they were built. The integrity of the construction is truly remarkable.
They would have been inhabited by a community of 12 monks and an Abbot. The conditions would have been harsh to say the least. We know they had fresh water because a rainwater collection system still exists, and works as well when it’s been cleaned out, but beyond that we don’t know much about their day to day existence. They would have lived and eaten very simply.
If the community of 12 on Skellig Michael was not remote enough then there was also a hermitage built high on another point of the rock, it’s almost a sheer cliff so currently inaccessible. It is possible that this was also a refuge during viking attacks of which there were several.
The first was in c. 795 CE. They were attacked again in 812 CE and again in 823 CE. Some records of this third attack remain beyond the fact that it occurred. It is recorded in the Annals of Ulster and the Annals of Inishfallen that this time the Vikings took Etgal, the Abbott of Skellig Michael, and they starved him to death. There were also further attacks in 833 CE and 839 CE.
Somehow despite all this the Skellig community survived. It isn’t known exactly when monks ceased to live on the rock, but Gerald of Wales reported that they returned to the mainland to become part of the Augustinian priory in Ballinskelligs at the end of the 12th century, however other sources report that there was still repair work going on into the 1300s.
For more information and References see my extended post on Skellig.
The photos are all mine