By Guy Freeland*
Pilgrimage to Skellig Michael
From my perch along the gunwale of a fishing boat I look out across a gently heaving Atlantic Ocean towards the soaring needle-sharp pinnacles of two rocks on the very Western limits of Europe: Skellig Michael and Small Skellig. Two red sandstone and slate islets 12km off a small island (Valentia), off a remote peninsula (Kerry) of a much larger island (Ireland), off my own even larger island (Great Britain), off continental Europe.
Beyond, there is nothing but the Atlantic. It was from Valentia Island that the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858 to Trinity Bay, Newfoundland, the shortest distance between the two continents. Receding behind our wake is Western Europe. All that attached us to the world we have known from birth is severed. Now we are totally in the presence of God alone and totally dependent on God alone. Or so it would have seemed to the Irish Celtic monks who, probably as early as the sixth century, rowed out from the rugged Kelly coast in their leather covered boats to build a monastery on the most isolated and inhospitable place they knew, Skellig Michael.
We first approach Small Skellig. Some passengers spot dolphins. The skipper says ominously that dolphins are only seen in this area before a storm. We anxiously inspect the sky. It seems clear enough, but the weather in Western Ireland can change dramatically in a very few minutes, as I discovered next day when I got drenched by a sudden violent squall. We circle Small Skellig. The 6.5 hectare rock is white with many of the over 20 000 pairs of gannets which nest here, the world’s second largest colony. All around us gannets are dive-bombing vertically into the ocean; fortunately, they are aiming for fish not us.
Now it is the turn of Small Skellig’s precipitous neighbour, the 18 hectare Skellig Michael. On its twin-pinnacled heights (the highest is 218m) the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared in ancient times, as he did on those two other remarkable sea-girt mounts, Mont-St-Michel, France and St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall. But these two latter mounts are tied-islands easily accessed on dry land at low tide. Skellig Michael could only have been reached in the warmer months; during winter the monks would not only have been cut off from human contact and supplies but would have been subjected to frequent storms. (In 1951, a wave severely damaged a lighthouse 53m up the cliff.)
The Skipper takes us in close and circumnavigates the crag. A great winding flight of approximately 600 rough-hewn steps comes into view, climbing precipitously 182m up the near-perpendicular cliff to the monastery site on a small plateau. I can see almost nothing of the monastery itself apart from its situation, and we are not landing. I have mixed feelings about this – could I realistically have climbed those 600 uneven steps? It would have been the descent which might have sent me tumbling to my doom.
But how did a handful of monks ever succeed in constructing those steps – there are 2300 altogether on the island – not to mention their primitive monastery? It would have taken a faith and fortitude that defies modern comprehension. Well, I won’t be climbing the stairway to heaven, at least not today, but I know what I will miss from a superb film we saw back at the visitor centre yesterday. The monastery consists of six stone “beehive” huts, which were the monks’ cells. They have a roughly rectangular base but a domed corbelled roof. There are two chapels in the form of an up-turned boat, the larger being a mere 3.6 x 2.4 x 3m.
In form, the chapels are identical to the larger Gallarus Oratory (see photo) which I was to visit (along with some beehive huts) the next day. These chapels have a door at the west end and a single small window at the east above where a stone altar would have been placed. The boat-shaped form (which, of course, is symbolic of the Ark, in its turn a symbol of the Church) is ideal for draining off rainwater. It was at the famous Gallarus Oratory (which could be as early as the sixth century) that I encountered my squall. But, whilst I got soaked to the skin, the interior of the chapel remained as dry as a bone.
One can but wonder at the faith and austere asceticism of the monks of Skellig Michael, but as we chug our way back to Valentia my thoughts turn to even more extraordinary acts of piety. The Skellig monks had a specific destination, but there were monks who made the ultimate act of renunciation of the world. Proclaiming their total faith in God’s providence, they cast off their boats without rudder or oars and allowed the winds and currents to carry them wheresoever God willed. In the reign of King Alfred (849-899) three such Irish monks are said to have landed on the north coast of Cornwall.
This was peregrinari pro Christo, to voyage for Christ, to allow the elements to take you to what the monks called the place of their resurrection. When you finally reached that destination you would know that that was where God had ordained that you should work, fast, pray and finally rest in the Lord until the day of resurrection.
The sea is relatively calm but seems to be alive, breathing in synchrony with deep swells. Each of the dark headlands along the Kerry coast is capped with a distinct crown of snow-white cloud as if it were an island. The air seems to have a silvery quality, beneath a pale blue sky flecked with whisps of white cloud. It is ethereal. It is as if our surroundings are a translucent film through which we are peering into an unseen, but powerfully felt, super-sensible realm.
There is no longer any mystery as to how the monks found God in the waters of the deep. What the desert was to the Desert Fathers, whom they sought to emulate, the sea was to the Celtic monks. It was their desert.
There is, however one monk in particular whose tracks I am keen to follow, not across the Atlantic but just along the coast of South Western Ireland and up the Shannon river, for this is the land where he was born and died. The monk in question is St Brendan of Clonfert, more commonly known as St Brendan the Navigator or Voyager.
St Brendan was born in the 480s near Tralee, County Kerry, and died at the monastery established by his sister, Briga, at Annaghdown probably in or around 577. He was buried at the monastery of Clonfert, which he had founded on his travels up the Shannon, and is said to lie somewhere within the walls of the Romanesque cathedral erected on the site (which I was able to visit).
There is no doubt that he was indeed a great navigator. There is evidence of many voyages: up the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland to the Faroes and even Iceland, and to Wales and Brittany. Michael Galovic’s icon of St Brendan captures beautifully the steely qualities of the great seafaring Celtic abbots (illustrated).**
St Brendan is venerated as one of the “Twelve Apostles of Ireland”, but his worldwide fame derives from a remarkable medieval work which many believe records a voyage to America. The work, probably a reworking of a much older version, possibly dates to around 800. This ancient text is the:
Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis
The Voyage of St Brendan the Abbot (there is a Pelican edition and also one published by Colin Smythe) tells the story of how Brendan, having built a wooden-framed boat clad with oak-tanned oxhides, set out on a voyage of pilgrimage to the legendary Promised Land of the Saints with seventeen monks. According to tradition, he sailed from Brandon Creek on the Dingle Peninsula (“Brandon” is an old spelling of “Brendan”). He eventually reaches his destination and returns to Ireland to die.
The Navigatio is, however, anything but a modern travelogue as all sorts of wondrous events occur. They encounter crystal columns, fiery mountains, miraculous springs, talking birds and the mythical Gryphon, and even have a chat with Judas Iscariot. The best known incident is when the monks mistake the mighty fish, Jasconius, for an island and are only disabused when the “island” suddenly dives after they light a fire for their cooking pot on his back! (The illustration is from a fifteenth-century manuscript)
It quickly becomes clear that, as for instance with Dante’s Divine Comedy and parts of the Old Testament, the Navigatio is a carefully crafted allegory which conveys moral, spiritual and theological messages. The wonders are signs that, in one way or another, relate to stations of the Church Year, particularly the Paschal Triduum. The $60 000 question, however, is that of whether the allegory could have been constructed over recollections of an actual voyage of the great navigator saint, or perhaps a number of voyages of Irish monks. And was the Promised Land what we call America? There have been a number of attempts to demythologise the Navigatio, but solid evidence that Irish monks could have “discovered” America a millennium before Columbus and centuries before the Vikings had to await the attention of the intrepid maritime explorer, Tim Severin.
Severin, inspired by his wife’s conviction that, despite its wondrous embellishments, the Navigatio was a description of an actual voyage, set about investigating the possibility of recreating it. Examining the prevailing winds and currents, Severin realised that the voyage could have been achieved by means of the “Stepping Stone” route up the West coast of Ireland to the Hebrides, thence on to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and eventually Newfoundland, Canada.
But if the winds, currents and stopping off places were right could the journey have been done in a leather-clad boat? The solution was plain. Build such a boat and see if it would take you and an equally crazy crew to America. So it was off to a boatyard to construct a leather boat, following the detailed description in the Navigatio. Boat built, ready to sail on Brandon Creek, blessed by the Bishop of Kerry and it was all aboard for America. Departure had been set for May 16, 1976, St Brendan’s Day on the Western calendar (the Orthodox day is January 15) but was delayed by bad weather for 24 hours.
I am not an avid reader of maritime adventures but Tim Severin’s book is as good as they come (The Brendan Voyage, Gill & Macmillan). The boat itself we were able to inspect – in an understandably battered condition (and without the red Celtic Crosses which adorned the original sails) – in its retirement home at Craggaunowen. Needless to say, the voyage was successful and landfall made at Newfoundland. As they hopped from stepping stone to stepping stone, Severin was able to match descriptions in the Navigatio with actual places.
So did St Brendan “discover” America? You bet!
Celtomania, particularly in its Irish manifestation, has been sweeping the world in recent years: traditional Irish songs and pop music, Irish dancing, Irish poetry, Celtic art and decoration. And every airport has its Irish pub with Guinness on tap. But along with everything else comes Irish religion, both in its pagan Druidic and its Celtic (not Roman) Christian forms.
The great age of Celtic Christianity was from c.400–c.1000, when Celtic monks, particularly in Ireland, kept the light of Christianity and Ancient learning alight during the centuries of darkness following the withdrawal of the Roman legions from western Europe. If you wanted to find a scholar who knew Greek you would probably have had to go to Ireland.
It is a myth that the Celtic Christians of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany were cut off from Rome and Constantinople. Latin was their liturgical language and it is even likely that the Communion wine the early monks of Skellig Michael used was imported from Byzantium. However, geographical remoteness, and the fact that the Romans never colonised Ireland or some other Celtic areas, did result in the development of a form of Christianity which contrasted in certain respects with that of the Roman Church. Celtic Christianity did, indeed, in significant ways have more in common with Coptic Egypt and the Orthodox East.
Why is it that so many people have been caught up in Celtomania? A great deal of romantic delusion surrounds Celtic Christianity but there are definite features which appeal to our times. Let me list three:
First, Celtic Christianity was decentralised in comparison with Rome. It was organised around monasteries ruled by powerful abbots and abbesses. Sometimes the offices of Abbot and Bishop were combined, sometimes the Bishop resided in a monastery that was under the rule of its Abbot or Abbess. A diocesan structure and the Roman monastic orders were only imposed/adopted under Anglo-Norman pressure during the eleventh century.
Two, there have been few cultures which have granted greater equality to the sexes than the Celts. From the time of Ireland’s second patron saint, St Brigid of Kildare (probably, 453-523), abbesses exercised the same ecclesiastical and secular authority as an abbot, often governing mixed monasteries of male and female (even married!) religious. (A highly contentious issue, but there are early documents which state that episcopal orders were conferred on St Brigid, who very possibly had been a Druidic High Priest before her conversion.)
Third, Celtic poetry, hymns, art and theology reveal an extraordinary affinity with the natural world. The simple, severely ascetic lives of the Celtic monks and nuns living in loving harmony with plants and animals, seeing God in the whole creation and leaving the slenderest of ecological footprints on the earth has strong appeal for an environmentally sensitive generation.
Remarkably, it would seem that Celtomania has its uses for Orthodox clergy struggling to bring the younger generation of those brought up under communism back to the faith of their ancestors. Recently, I read a report of a conference paper given by a priest from the far east of Russia who had been exploiting Russian Celtomania – I had no idea that there was such a phenomenon! – to ignite an interest in young people in their own saints and Christian heritage.
This resonated strongly with me because it was the discovery of the Celtic saints (of Cornwall rather than Ireland) which had played a pivotal role in my becoming an Orthodox from a Godless (but benign) upbringing. And here was a Russian hieromonk appealing to Celtic Christianity and its saints – with their profoundly Trinitarian theology, Orthodox-like spirituality, environmental sensitivity and concern for communal welfare – to lead those brought up in an atheist state back to the Orthodoxy of their Motherland! Glory be to you, O God!
* Guy Freeland is an Honorary Lecturer at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College,
** Michael Galovic’s icon is reproduced in his prize-winning book, Icons + Art, Honeysett Press. The Foreword is by Guy Freeland. This is the only monograph to be published so far on the work of an Australian iconographer. It can be purchased from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Bookcentre, 242 Cleveland Street, Redfern, 2016. Tel. 02 9698 5368, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.