The monks of Skellig Michael kept Christianity alive during years of darkness
This Christmas millions of cinema-goers will watch The Last Jedi, the much-hyped eighth instalment in the Star Wars series. The trailer for the film, itself a cinematic event, opens with dramatic footage from a daunting cliff-top on the edge of the world, illustrating just how far from civilisation the Jedi knight Luke Skywalker has strayed.
Star Wars is set in a fantasy world of gigantic proportions, largely created by special effects, but this location is real. Indeed, it played an important role in a real-life civilisational battle between darkness and light in which a religious brotherhood endured great hardship to win.
Skellig Michael, off the coast of County Kerry, is notoriously inaccessible. Possible only to reach in the summer months (depending on the weather), the monastery is designed to put off visitors, who must climb 600 steps to reach it. But then the monks who once lived there had quite unruly visitors – the Vikings.
The great Kenneth Clark, in Civilisation: A Personal View, said of the Dark Ages that “If a new civilisation was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic. For 100 years after 550AD a group of monks huddled off the coast of Ireland. They did art in gold with few human references and copied Gospel books.”
Thomas Cahill’s famous book argued that the Irish “saved civilisation”. Well, they certainly brought it to the English. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Frank Stenton has written that “the strands of Irish and continental influence were interwoven in every kingdom, and at every stage of the process by which England became Christian.”
And yet while Pope Gregory’s mission to Britain, after he spotted two blond boys he called “angels, not Angles”, is well known, Ireland’s formative role in civilising the English is more obscure.
Monasticism had begun in the deserts of Egypt under St Anthony, but after the practice spread west and was popularised by Benedict of Nursia it was keenly taken up by the Irish. Like the Egyptians, they found plenty of harsh, unforgiving places where they could get closer to God.
Nowhere was more unforgiving than Skellig Michael. The monastery there was founded before the 8th century and at some time became associated with the archangel (churches on mountains and hills are often named after Michael). The monks survived off their vegetable gardens, birds’ eggs and whatever else they could find, cut off from civilisation entirely during the winter months. It was bitterly cold. It was tough. It was on the edge of existence. And that’s where God could be found.
It was in places like Skellig Michael that monks laboured in freezing cells to preserve many of the ancient texts. Indeed, Irish monks were so obsessed with books they even started a war over one, a debacle called the Battle of the Book. This took place in the kingdom of Cairbre Drom Cliabh in the north-west of the country between 555 and 561. Two clans fought after St Columba had illegally copied a version of the Psalms belonging to St Finnian. It’s most likely the only war to have been waged over copyright infringement, and it led to “thousands” of deaths.
After St Augustine’s mission to Kent in 597, the ruling family of neighbouring Essex also embraced the new faith, but Christianity still had a very tenuous toehold in England when King Edwin of Northumbria invited his council to consider it. When the Italian priest Paulinus had told the Northumbrian elders about this new religion, a counsellor said, in the Venerable Bede’s famous words, that “when we compare the present life of man on earth with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your thegns and counsellors”.
The new religion did not fully take off until the reign of Edwin’s nephew Oswald, who had grown up in exile as his uncle may have been intent on murdering him. Oswald had spent his youth in the Gaelic-speaking west of Scotland, culturally linked to Ireland and strongly Christian. Unlike that of his predecessor, Oswald’s Christianity was not strategic and political but genuine and heartfelt. He meant for his countrymen to benefit from the new faith too.
Oswald called for an Irish missionary to spread the word in the kingdom, with Oswald working as interpreter. The first monk they sent, Cormán, had failed to make any headway and went back to Iona complaining that the English “were an ungovernable people of an obstinate and barbarous temperament”. Another holy man, called Aidan, told him: “It seems to me that you were too severe on your ignorant hearers. You should have followed the practice of the Apostles, and begun by giving them the milk of simpler teaching, and gradually nourished them with the word of God until they were capable of greater perfection and able to follow the loftier precepts of Christ.”
And so Aidan – described by Bede as “a man of outstanding gentleness, holiness and moderation” – was sent to the heathens instead. The Irishman, Bede wrote, “never sought or cared for any worldly possessions, and loved to give away to the poor who chanced to meet him whatever he received from kings or wealthy folk. Whether in town or country, he always travelled on foot unless compelled by necessity to ride.” He also ransomed slaves, and many afterwards joined his growing band of Christians.
According to a recent article by Michael Duggan in Oremus, the Westminster Cathedral magazine, Aidan’s arrival caused “a ripple effect in the conversion of the English”. After a while there were hundreds of Irish monks in Northumbria. Soon, Bede recalled, “many English nobles and lesser folk” went to Ireland “either to pursue religious studies or to lead a life of stricter discipline. Some of these devoted themselves to the monastic life, while others preferred to travel, studying under various teachers in turn.” The Irish “welcomed them all kindly, and, without asking for any payment, provided them with daily food, books and instruction”.
Aidan was succeeded by another Irishman, Finan, who converted the king of Mercia south of the Humber, which was at that point resolutely pagan. The first bishops and priests in this region were all Irish or Irish-trained. East Anglia was converted with the help of Fursa, “of noble Irish blood and even more noble in mind than in birth”. Irish monks got as far south as the kingdom of Essex, where in the 7th century they built a church west of the old Roman city of Londonium, naming it after the major Irish saint Bridget. The current St Bride’s, in Fleet Street – famous as the journalists’ church and the inspiration for the wedding cake – is the seventh church on the spot. Its name still testifies to Ireland’s role in converting the future capital.
As for Oswald, he died fighting the Mercians. But having fallen in battle with pagans, he was soon hailed as a saint. Before his burial, a beam of light was seen coming out of his grave. His cult spread across northern Europe and his image is found today in many old churches in England and Germany.
Oswald’s head was taken to Durham Cathedral and his arm ended up in Peterborough. A second head turned up in Frisia, where it was reverently received, apparently without scepticism. Others were found in Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany. As none of Oswald’s contemporaries mentioned him having five heads – probably the first thing a casual observer would have mentioned – we can be fairly sure they aren’t all authentic.
Oswald earned his halo. He and Aidan had helped to create the Northumbrian Golden Age, a sudden flowering of culture in what had been one of Europe’s darkest corners. This era saw Lindisfarne Priory, Whitby, the Venerable Bede and the even more influential Alcuin, who helped to bring about the Carolingian Renaissance. The showpiece of this culture was the Lindisfarne Gospels, a multicoloured masterpiece made at a time when most books used only three colours, laboriously written and illustrated in the Irish style by a monk called Eadfrith.
The work of Irish missionaries to England was hard and often dangerous, but we have all benefited from their labours. As Kenneth Clark famously put it, European civilisation has been saved “by the skin of its teeth”. Thanks in large part to the Irish.
Ed West’s Saxons vs Vikings: Alfred the Great and England in the Dark Ages is published by Skyhorse
This article first appeared in the December 22, 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald