Monday, December 22, 2008

But manly strength has force to tame the storm*

photograph by 88rabbit (retrieved from Flickr.com 22-12-2008)
The current, holiday edition of The Economist has a good read on Fastnet Rock, the southernmost point in Ireland. Little more than a jagged hunk of slate protruding from the Atlantic, the Vikings called it Hvastann-ey ("Sharp-Toothed Island"), while its Irish name is An Charraig Aonair ("The Rock that Stands Alone"). Since 1854, it's been home to two successive lighthouses. The current one has been (sometimes just) standing against the fury of the ocean since 1903.

The chief foreman of its construction, a stonemason named James Kavanagh, was singleminded in his devotion to his duty:
He lived on the rock continuously for ten to 12 months of each year from August 1896 to June 1903, sleeping on a damp bed of rock close to the landing strip in quarters carved out of the rock face, known to this day as “Kavanagh’s hole”.
The project ultimately cost him his life:
Seven years of living in a hole in the rock, progress frustrated by maverick tides and his delayed shipments, suddenly shattered his health. Having set the last stone, he went ashore with his son (also a mason on the rock) at the end of June 1903 complaining of illness, and died of apoplexy a week later.
Kavanagh was following in the footsteps of an ancient Irish tradition. It's easy to imagine that on some wet, cold night in his cave quarters--they were probably all wet and cold--he turned a thought to the one-time residents of a similarly uncomfortable home, fifty miles to his northwest.

photograph by donapatrick (retrieved from Flickr.com 22-12-2008)
The monks of Skellig Michael (Irish Sceilig MhichĂ­l, or "Michael's rock") were seeking a different sort of light than James Kavanagh, but they were every bit as determined, and often paid the same price.

Skellig Michael and its smaller craggy sibling jut sullenly from the ocean about seven miles off the coast of County Kerry.

Even today, getting to it requires a sturdy boat and great cooperation from the weather.  In the 7th century, when men seeking God probably landed there to turn away from the world and its ephemeral distractions, it must have seemed impossibly remote.  It was perfect.

They built beehive-shaped monastic cells that afforded minimal shelter and space for one person to offer glory to God.  There was a place to listen to a brother reading from the Holy Scripture, there was a garden, and there was a place to bury those who'd finished their earthly trials and awaited Christ's return.  What more did they need?  Skellig Michael would remain the westernmost outpost of Christianity for centuries.

Occasionally, particular monks would find the relative bustle of the monastic community too great a distraction to commune effectively with God.  For them, one last option remained.

A trip down from the monastery, across the middle of the island-- known as Christ's Saddle--and another, steeper ascent to the crag's highest point would lead these pilgrims to Skellig Michael's hermitage.  There, alone in an eyrie nearly 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, they would drink collected rainwater and at last, one hopes, finally find the holy communion they'd sought. Modern visitors seeking a taste of their experience are cautioned by the Oxford Archaeological Guide to Ireland that "access is difficult and is recommended only for the dedicated and fit."

Those of us who are softer in body and spirit than early medieval Irish ascetics might do well to find one of the remaining men who manned Fastnet Rock before it was automated in 1989. A pint of Murphy's tastes better than rainwater, and the last keepers of Fastnet will surely be able to explain why, when the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin bought Skellig Michael in 1820, the first thing they did was build a pair of lighthouses.


* St. Columban's Boat Song, c. 600

Photo credits:
Fastnet Rock: 88rabbit
Skellig Michael: donapatrick

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