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ireland: skellig michael

Off the coast of south-western Ireland, at the edge of the known world (in the Middle Ages at least), lie two rocks jutting out of the Atlantic, known as the Skellig Islands. The largest, Skellig Michael, is the site of an incredibly remote and inaccessible Christian monastery constructed in the seventh or eighth century and occupied for 600 years.

George Bernard Shaw wrote in a letter of his visit to the Skelligs in 1910:

I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world.

Perched on the rock some 200 meters above sea level, the monastery occupies what little horizontal space there is on the island, the rest being steep slopes and sheer cliff faces, with a precarious path of steps leading up to the complex from the boat landing. Then, as if the monastery wasn't remote enough, there is also an even more secluded hermitage on the other side of the island.

The remains of the monastery itself, a few 'beehive' huts huddled together behind a wall, are testimony to the extremely spartan lives the monks must have led here, part of a long ascetic tradition in Ireland, which in turn was inspired by the desert hermits of Egypt (St. Anthony) and Syria (St. Simeon Stylites). A small graveyard tells of the tenacity of their community - estimated at about a dozen monks at a time - in withstanding the violence of the Atlantic for hundreds of years.

And yet, looking out over the ocean on a clear and sunny day from the strangely high vantage point offered by the rock, the austere beauty of the place gives some indication of why the Irish monks chose this particular, impossible place to retire from the world.

Unfortunately no photos of this truly awe-inspiring place. Instead, here are some photo galleries. Or, for a spectacular and appropriately otherworldly impression, watch the final scene of Werner Herzog's film 'Herz aus Glas' ('Heart of glass', 1976).

For an in-depth study of the island, see 'The Forgotten Hermitage of Skellig Michael'.

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