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Irish Hermits and Tomb Shrines

The stories of the Desert Fathers have always been compelling reading for the eager monastic disciple the world over. Little by way of literature seems to have escaped the Vikings, but some monastic Rules and several penitentials have survived. Their fierce asceticism however soon cools our ardour. We have to realise these men were tough beyond reckoning. No doubt they were hardy enough to have survived childbirth and youth and the general life-expectancy was not that great. But the tales of endurance, of psalm-singing in freezing waters, and of praying with arms outstretched beyond belief, are enough to convince us that none of us today would have managed. We are not born tough as they were in days of old

On the other hand there must have been times when life seemed good. To sit in the cave of St Colman Macduagh at Keehilla (Co Clare) for any length of time is to discover an altogether different dimension to peace. To look out from St Macdara’s Island (Co Galway), or from Cill Eine (Inishmore, Aran), to the mountains of Connemarra is to indulge in breathtaking beauty. To stay a while on Illauntannig (St Seannach’s island)(Co Kerry) off the north coast of the Dingle Peninsula, with its temperate climate and lovely beach, watching the clouds on Mount Brandon is, as they say, ‘something else’. Even in the north, on Inishkeel, Inishdooey and Tory island, all in Co Donegal (at least on a sunny day) must indeed have seemed ‘like another world’.

The islands on the west coast are such a fascination. Even today they have something of being the ‘Ireland’ beyond Ireland, an ‘Ireland’ more real than that experienced on the mainland. This is not necessarily fantasy – it is, I am told, how some islanders see it. Conditions however out there are such that, while it was possible to live on them for centuries, the battle eventually became too much. We read with great sadness of the moves to the mainland. But then it was feasible for hermits to live out there. The islands are so numerous and so many were colonised. They form as it were a string of pearls weaving in and out from the mainland as on a thread, from Skellig Michael, Inishvickillane, Inishtooskert, Illauntannig, Scattery, the Aran Islands, St Macdara, Omey, High island, Inishbofin, Inishturk, Caher, Clare, Duvillaun, Inishkea south and north, Inishglora, off Belmullet, Inishmurray, Rathlin O’Birne, (and of course Glencolumbkille), Inishkeel, Cruit, Inishdooey, and Tory. They formed a route for the most fervent of pilgrims – and on beyond to the Western isles of Scotland and even to Iceland.

Hermits may not have been fully solitary in the strict sense of the world. Two’s, three’s or even half a dozen may have been more viable. Clusters of hermits over a given area, as happening in the deserts of Nitria and Scete in Egypt, had several advantages. In the Annals one finds even bishops as hermits. If we wish to see something of what the monastic life is about we can do no better than look to them.

The hermit life has often been seen, in the Eastern tradition, as a goal of the monastic life. On the other hand it has stressed very strongly that no one should attempt it without a thorough training and the approval of one’s spiritual father. The life has been called the ‘angelic life’ – as a symbol of the total dependence on God for all one’s needs.

Having said that, a solitary hermit in a cell made of branches left no trace behind him. But saints who depart this life often left disciples who, sensing the saint’s abiding presence, called on their prayers. A little altar might be built over where his body lay and later a little shrine containing his bones. Many of these have been found; they are quite astonishing and they still fill us with awe.

In the Burren, tucked away out of site in a little hollow stands the grave of St Cronan (7C). Of its type it is quite large. It is made of only four pieces of stone, two for the sides, two for the ends, rather like a tent. One end piece is only a half piece – allowing the disciple to put his hand inside and touch the earth where his dear one is buried.

In the early eighth century saints were given their ‘houses’, a small stone edifice where the saint lay. Examples can be found easily at Ardmore for St Declan and at Clonmacnoise for St Ciaran, though that of St Molaise on Inishmurray is probably the earliest. The church on St Macdara’s Island and the one at St Benan’s on Inishmore, Aran are so tiny that only 6 persons can get inside. These too may have been ‘houses’ where disciples could sing God’s praises in the company of their intercessor in heaven.

The Iveragh peninsula seems to have had more than anywhere. Scattered in a vast ring round the peninsula, often looking out to sea, can be found small sites with a bee-hive cell, an outdoor altar and a small tomb-shrine on top of it. Sheer astonishment is experienced when one finds them, sometimes on remote hillsides, sometimes in a field, sometimes on an island, for there they have sat for so long while world history went on its way. What strikes me strongly is how much they are like the hermit sketes of Orthodox monasticism, which I have visited on Mount Athos in Northern Greece.

But the greatest of all was Skellig Michael, on Great Skellig 7 miles out to sea, off the Iveragh Peninsula. Truly this is something else. It takes us beyond words. Our minds are assailed by impossible questions: How did they do it? why did they do it? and for so long. Here nature is at its most awe-inspiring; it is scarcely any place for humans even to venture. What did they live on? How did they survive? The wind, the cold, the Atlantic gales that could blow one away in a trice; and, besides the monastery on the north peak, that hermitage on the south peak at 700 feet, death defying, absolutely unimaginable that it was ever built, let alone manned, – and the loneliness; all these truly terrify, and disturb beyond endurance. Comparisons among the brave are invidious: among Orthodox, the Desert Fathers baked in Egypt, some Syrians lived on pillars, the Russians froze in Siberia; but surely the Irish on Skellig Michael were their brothers.