Last week I finished reading Sun Dancing by Geoffrey Moorhouse. The title doesn't give much indication of its subject matter. Something to do with red Indians perhaps? In fact the book is about Ireland or at least a very small piece of Ireland: Skellig Rock. It rises out the sea like the tip of a mountain peak, its highest point 715 feet above the waves, eight miles from the south west coast of Kerry. There are two separate summits on the rock. The top of the lower, more rounded peak, was the site of a primitive monastic settlement which existed there roughly between the years 600 and1200. It consisted of a huddled group of half a dozen stone built, beehive shaped huts. It is a rare illustrated history of Ireland that does not contain a picture of this settlement, and it often features in books of European history as well as an illustration of how Christianity tenaciously survived in Europe after the collapse of Rome.
I ordered the book after reading a review of it, because of the hundred people or so who have stayed on the rock this century I happen to be one of them. I stayed on the island some time in the seventies. Even then there were several boats plying out to the rock in the summer months. Getting there was easy but would I be allowed to stay? At that time the lighthouse on the rock was still manned and I expected I would have to get permission from the head keeper to stay.
The boat I journeyed on was the first to land at the rock the day I went out and I was the first to climb all the hundreds of ancient steps that lead up to the monastery. Just climbing those steps alone is a remarkable experience. Reaching the top and passing through some weirdly contorted rocks I came to a paved level walkway which traversed to the right to the surrounding wall of the settlement. I ducked under the lintel of an opening in the wall. I think it extremely unlikely I shall ever experience again the sensation I had that moment; it was like living a dream, stepping back in time. The place was just remarkable: more spacious than I had imagined from the photographs, it was built on three large terraces - twenty foot high in places.
But would I be allowed to stay? Soon other boats arrived. One of them belonged to a man called Des Lavelle. His book on Skellig Rock had just been published - it was in the Irish best sellers list; had been for weeks. Thinking back it was perhaps seeing that book in the shops that had caused me to visit the Skellig that particular year. I recognised Lavelle from the number of times I'd seen him in Knightstown on Valentia island, his home village, which I had often visited. I don't ever remember speaking to him then but seeing him on the Rock I did. "Your book's doing very well," was my opening gambit. He was looking out to sea at the time through a pair of binoculars. He put them down and turned to me. "Isn't it now?" he said reflectively. "Number one - how amazing." As if musing on the achievement of some distant far away hurling team. We had an amiable few words until I mentioned my hopes of staying on the island. His demeanor changed. He became slightly dour. "Oh," he said drawing in his breath and shaking his head slightly "I don't think they'll let you do that."
It was with some foreboding then that I approached the head keeper as I met him on his way to do a bit of fishing, rod in hand. "Would it be all right for me to stay?" I asked tentatively. "Oh yes, of course you can," he said in an offhand manner and sauntered off to the island's landing stage. When I gave Des Lavelle this news he did not seem best pleased. I camped in what is called the monastery garden, a small enclosed terrace just below the settlement; the only place possible to camp.
My two days on the island enabled me to explore the island far more than if I had been there just on a day trip. I discovered a second flight of steps leading down to the north side of the island. Where they reached the water's edge they had been cut in rock. On the higher peak, shaped like a steeple, I discovered small hand and foot holds had been made to make it possible to the climb to the highest point. All over the island I came across small terraced ledges no bigger than a hallway table which apparently the monks had built simply to grow a few ears of wheat.
But my most vivid memory of the island was the bird life. Birds were everywhere, swarming in the air and nested on every available ledge. It was difficult to scramble anywhere without stepping on a nest. In the evenings I'd lie on the edge of the cliff above the monastery. Fulmers floated just a few feet away from me as they homed in on their roosts. Most delightful of all were the puffins; so unsteady as they came into land as though they hadn't quite mastered the art of flying. At night the walls of the huts began to murmur as behind even the narrowest of cracks, storm petrels were nested. Peering in one would see two little eyes glinting back.
I also got to visit the lighthouse. I was invited there on my second night by a man doing maintenance work on it: a Dubliner. I never met a man more ill suited to his job. The isolation was driving him demented - he kept referring to the number of days he had left to go before he could get back to Dublin. It was the want of company that had caused him to invite me. He had little of it from the lighthouse men. They were indeed like monks, self-contained, busying themselves with their own hobbies and talking very little - one was making the model of a ship in a bottle. I suppose that type of temperament was needed to exist in the job - it's sad to think, with automation, it's a way of life that has now all but vanished.
On the third morning the weather was bleak; only one boat turned up. Fearing that bad weather might be setting in, I went with the boat back to the mainland. I was constantly hit by spray and had nowhere to shelter from a biting wind. It was the most wretched sea voyage I have ever made. I was perished by the time I landed, but I had no regrets. My two days on the Skellig were two of the most memorable days I have ever had. After reading Sun Dancing I think its time I returned.