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Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael monastery (Ireland), 6th–13th centuries (most of the stone construction dates to 8th–11th centuries) speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(upbeat jazzy piano) - [Female Narrator] I've just climbed down more than 600 stairs from the top of the rocky island known as Skellig Michael in Southwestern Ireland. I had to take a 90 minute bumpy boat ride to get here, and then I had to climb those 600 stairs, originally built by the monks who came here to get away from the world. This is one of the remotest monasteries, and it also happens to be a puffin sanctuary. And because it's so windy, I'm going to head back on another 90 minute bumpy boat ride to get back to Portmagee, Ireland, to talk more about the monastery of Skellig Michael. - [Male Narrator] Skellig Michael is the most dramatic landscape imaginable, and the most inhospitable. - [Female Narrator] Half of the year, you can't even go out on a boat to Skellig Michael. To make this journey, in some ways to make this pilgrimage out to Skellig Michael, reminds you of what the original monks who came here were trying to do, and that was to remove themselves from the world. Once you make the climb up the stairs, you reach the top of one of the peaks, and you see a small monastic community. - [Male Narrator] And it's extraordinary because the architecture is largely intact, even though it dates to at least the eighth century. Some believe that the community was founded much earlier, but we have archeological evidence that makes us fairly confident that these buildings were in place by the seventh century. There are actually records that date to the eighth century that clearly state that monks were living on Skellig Michael. - [Female Narrator] We think the earlier structures were made of wood and they no longer survive, as is common in a lot of places in Ireland. Starting in the sixth century, you have this great monastic age where people are establishing monastic communities across the landscape. And this group of monks are ascetics. They want to be removed from the world. They're modeling themselves off of anchorites: people in, say, Egypt who are similarly removing themselves from the world, and escaping to the desert. But here, there is no sand deserts, but you do have the ability to cross the ocean more than seven kilometers to a sheer Rocky outcropping. - [Male Narrator] The ocean becomes like a desert to separate this hermit community from mainland Ireland. But it's not just separation that's an issue here. It is a kind of physical suffering. - [Female Narrator] Which would have been one of the goals of a monk who is living this hermetic existence, would have been to model themselves off of Christ, to live in this state of penance, here marked by harsh conditions. Many of the monks probably did not eat much because, when I was there, you can see how hard it would be to grow things in that climate. - [Male Narrator] There's only one small patch of arable land in a small saddle between the two peaks that's known as the Saddle of Christ. And beyond that, the monks would've survived on the birds and the fish. - [Female Narrator] When you enter into the community, you bend down to walk through a small door, and you see terraced walls, and then you come upon this small community which is sixth beehive structures, a small cemetery, a church that was built in the later 11th to 12th century, and then beyond that, there are also two oratories or houses for prayer: one that's near the beehive structures, and one that's a little bit beyond, which is also where the toilet would have been. - [Male Narrator] These beehive structures are dark. When you enter, it takes some time for your eyes to adjust. But when they do, you can see the architectural method that was used to construct them, and that has kept them up for so long. These are, in a sense, corbel domes. This is an ancient way of enclosing an interior space without an interior support. It's known as a corbel arch, or in this case, a corbel dome. Flat stones are laid atop each other, each projecting slightly further out until they reach the center and are self supporting. - [Female Narrator] When I passed into the doorway and walked into the room and my eyes had still not adjusted, I was in there looking for cubbies, because the monks were able to use the corbelling to construct deep cubbies. As I was looking, I had puffins very angry with me that were living inside of the beehive structure. And from the outside, these beehive structures are circular, but when you go inside, they're square or rectangular, and they're still dry even to this day. The one known as Cell A is bigger than the other beehive structures, and we think this was a communal area where the monks would gather. High above the entrance, barely noticeable is a white quartz cross that has been embedded into the exterior. In the course of the life of Skellig Michael, we know that it was subject to raids from the Vikings. And this harmed the community, but it continued to survive. And while I was there, I was reminded of the challenges of the weather. It went from being overcast and windy, to being sunny and lightly windy, to being very windy with lots of mist, all in the course of two hours. - [Male Narrator] Historians believe that weather played a role in the eventual abandonment of Skellig Michael. There were changes to monastic life that may have played a role, and there may have been other causes, but we think that the island simply became impossible for human habitation. - [Female Narrator] And the monks left, and they relocated back to the mainland and constructed a monastery there. Sometime in the medieval period, pilgrims started coming here. And even after monks left, pilgrims were still making the journey to get to Skellig Michael because it had significance for people in Ireland. - [Male Narrator] And even now, one could consider the tourists that are able to visit the island as a kind of pilgrimage. - [Female Narrator] It has also become very popular more recently because it has appeared in the "Star Wars" movies. - [Male Narrator] And it really is Hollywood being inspired by true history. Luke Skywalker becomes a hermit. He goes to this remote planet. Very much the way that in the seventh and eighth centuries, intensely religious monks went to Skellig Michael. (upbeat jazzy piano)