Friday, 20 April 2018

When the monks from
Skellig Michael found
a home in Ballinskelligs

The monks from Skellig Michael settled at the priory in Ballinskellings in the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

After arriving in Ballinskelligs late yesterday afternoon, I made my way down to the beach and out to the ruins of the old priory at the end of the beach. As teenagers, we were told that some of the graves were open, and that this was the true home of the monks of the Skelligs Rocks, so I decided to make my way out to this remote monastic settlement, and to explore its ruins for the first time in over half a century.

It is said the monks of Skellig Michael called Ballinskelligs ‘the nearest thing to heaven’ when they settled in the area, and they made this place a spiritual centre in early Christian Ireland. According to legend, the monks had travelled across Ireland to find ‘a paradise on earth.’

These early Irish monks wished to emulate the sacrifice and the pure withdrawal into a life of faith exemplified by Saint Anthony who went out into the Western Desert in Egypt.

Ireland’s remote and deserted offshore islands offered a parallel experience. The monastic ideal was to demonstrate an intense devotion by acts of self-exile: peregrination pro Dei amore or ‘pilgrimage for the love of God.’

The monastic settlement on Great Skellig is said to have been founded in the sixth century by Saint Fionán, a saint from south Kerry who founded Innisfallen Abbey. The site attracted the support of the members of the local Corcu Duibne dynasty in Kerry, and there the love of God was brought to a new level, for no other Irish monastery was built in such a challenging location.

The beach at Ballinkskelligs, close to the monastic settlement founded by the monks from Great Skellig (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

While the monks settled on the rocks of Skellig Michael, they found a winter home on the mainland in Ballinskelligs.

The first definite reference to monks on the Skelligs dates to the eighth century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded.

By the ninth century, the continuity and survival of life on the remote monastery was challenged with the arrival of the Vikings. The flights of steps on three sides of the island, which had provided the monks with landing for their boats in different sea conditions, now gave the invading Vikings the opportunity to attack the monastic site from different sides simultaneously.

The annals record:

‘In 824 AD, Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Étgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger on their hands. There came a fleet from Luimnech [Limerick], in the south of Erinn, they plundered Skellig Michael, and Inishfallen and Disert Donnain and Cluain Mor, and they killed Rudgaile, son of Selbach, the anchorite. It was he whom the angel set loose twice, and the foreigners bound him twice each time.’

It is said that in 993 the Viking Olaf Trygvasson, later to become Olaf I, King of Norway, was intent on a raid of the monastery but instead was baptised a Christian by a Skellig hermit. His son, Olaf II, became the patron saint of Norway.

A lancet window in the old priory buildings in Ballinskelligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The dedication of the monastery to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044, when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded. It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery.

The church of Saint Michael is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century. His account of the miraculous supply of Communion wine for daily Mass in Saint Michael’s Church implies that the monastery had a large community at the time.

The Church in Ireland Christianity was being reorganised along diocesan patterns in the 12th and 13th centuries. These changes in Church organisation and government, and harsher winter storms, forced the monks to abandon the island.

By then, the monks on Skellig Michael had adopted the rule of Saint Augustine. Eventually, they left the island and settled on the mainland at Ballinskelligs, where they founded a new abbey. In the early 14th century, the Prior of the Augustinian Abbey at Ballinskelligs was referred to as the Prior de Rupe Michaelis, indicating that the island still formed an important part of the monastery at the time.

A number of buildings, mainly from the 15th century, constitute the priory, including a rectangular church. The church and the other buildings were arranged around a central cloister, which had covered walkways for working and praying. Parts of the cloister and a large domestic hall still survive.

The abbey is one of a number of important spiritual sites dedicated to Saint Michael in this area. For visitors who come to Ballinskelligs as pilgrims or tourists, this remains a place of peace and prayer.

The ruins of Ballinskelligs Priory … still a place of prayer and peace for pilgrims and tourists alike (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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