Back then, if your mission was to serve and worship God, you had two options. The first was to dedicate your life to helping others in the community, where the poor – most people on the island – could easily seek you out.
The second, worshipping God in isolation, was seen by some as purer... but, boy, was it austere. Not to mention, perilous.
In utter isolation
Nowhere illustrates this more than Skellig Michael on the Skellig Islands. Punching out of the Atlantic Ocean some 13km off the Kerry coast, this merciless shard of rock was chosen as home by an intrepid band of religious men around the 8th century. Building beehive huts on ledges 700 feet above saw-tooth rocks, the miracle is not that the monks managed to settle here, but that their followers remained until climate change forced a move… several centuries later.
Visiting this Unesco World Heritage Site is one of the most breathtaking experiences the west coast has to offer. But visits don’t come easy. Boats only sail (from Portmagee) if weather permits. If it doesn’t, try the Skellig Experience Centre on Valentia Island instead.
Islands of devotion
Lough Erne in County Fermanagh is peppered with no fewer than 154 islands, many featuring monastic remains. But none is more important than Devenish, founded in the 6th century by St Molaise. Ruins here range from a small 6th-century church to a 16th-century cloister, plus a round tower boasting some beautiful Romanesque carvings.
Afterwards, why not take a stroll in Enniskillen, where the main street is so long its name changes six times?
Island refuges offered isolation, sanctuary, and a certain safety. You’ll find the remains of a similar settlement at Nendrum, dating from the 5th century, on Strangford Lough’s Mahee Island in County Down. Regarded as the best pre-Norman monastic site in Northern Ireland, ruins here include a round tower, huts and one of the world’s oldest excavated tide mills (619AD).
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Surprise finds in strange places
Ireland’s early monastic communities didn’t do things by halves. Think of St Kevin’s famous settlement at Glendalough. A veritable city in its time, with a round tower, several churches, a farm and a sizeable lay population set deep in the Wicklow Mountains. Despite its remoteness, Glendalough spent several centuries as an internationally renowned ecclesiastical centre.
Near Macroom, County Cork, you’ll find a similarly blissful setting at Gougane Barra. The remains of a 6th-century monastery founded by St Finbarr are strewn over two small islands in the lake valley here. It’s said that Finbarr was led by an angel near here to the mouth of the River Lee, where he founded another monastery, the precursor to the city of Cork.
It’s not a bad route to follow, once you’ve explored the forest park braided with walks and nature trails.
From humble beginnings…
Or what about Ardmore, the tiny west Waterford village in which St Declan established his 5th-century monastery? A stunningly preserved round tower, the ruins of a church and oratory, and a hermitage said to have belonged to the saint himself are amongst the attractions here – though, rest easy, spiritual restraint is not a requirement for modern pilgrims: Ardmore is also home to a five-star hotel.