Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
You saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, right? Maybe you saw it more than once. Remember that island they find Luke Skywalker on? With all the little huts and steps? Someone must have put a lot of work into that, don’t you think? It looked like the perfect place to find the master of an ancient order like the Jedi and it somehow looked like a place of historical value—not just a movie set.
Well it turns out that the place wasn’t built for the movie: it is several hundreds of years old and is near-perfectly preserved. It’s called “Skellig Michael” and it was home to Catholic hermits and monks for almost a millennium.
I had the chance to read through the new short book by Register blogger Philip Kosloski titled The Last Monks of Skellig Michael and was astonished about this beautiful place with a mysterious history, as Kosloski puts it.
Actually, I’m a little embarrassed. I had read back in 2015 on Reddit that the island was located off the coast of Ireland and—as far as I was concerned—it was rumored to have had something to do with monks. But other than that, I’ve known almost nothing about it. And here’s the embarrassing part: I thought the book I was reading was a short story, perhaps some fictional allegory Kosloski’s brilliant mind had come up with. (That’s actually not a bad idea, Philip!)
Suffice it to say, I was pretty hooked when I got into the first few pages. The author quickly wrapped me up in the enigmatic antiquity of the isle(s), how and why the first hermits make this difficult place home, and what happened to them.
It turns out, the island was not the subject of any major use before an abbot decided to make the island his “green desert.” What’s a green desert? Think of the Desert Fathers—those ancient hermits of the Christian Middle East who endured the most austere conditions in order to better devote their lives to God. That’s what the Irish (and perhaps other) Catholics wanted around the sixth century: to have a place in which they could practice an austere life for God. They fittingly called it a “green martyrdom.” The conditions were to be harsh, the locale destitute of ease, and the location remote as to be completely secluded from the secular world.
St. Fionan, who was said to have founded “Green Skellig,” created a close-knit community. The correct word might be more like, “exclusive.” According to Kosloski, any new monk who wished to make this place his home would arrive, be evaluated, and either stay (for life perhaps) or go back to the Emerald Isle. The hopeful monks would apparently not know if the place was to be their home until the abbot gave them word upon their arrival—a daring and indefinite vocational choice to be sure. If you were going to stay on Skellig, you had to be all in. And if you were “all in” and were not permitted to stay, you had to give that trust over to the Lord.
I learned so much more in Philip’s excellent writing: everything from the construction of the Bee huts, the layout of the places Mass was celebrated, the conditions of the island, relevant quotes and texts, to the question many people have in mind: what happened to the monks. And I wont spoil that for you. Oh—and there’s plenty of fun Star Wars facts and history included.
I think the place is really special and it shows once again that the Christians of antiquity, though spread throughout the world, did not vary too much in their ideas of the penance hermitage. They realized the value in solitude and mortification—something I hope many Christians realize once more.
I was rather ignorant of even the slightest details Kosloski presented, but if you’re aware of the history of this special place you’ll definitely want to pick up The Last Monks of Skellig Michael by Philip Kosloski. You can probably read it in a short sitting, but I bet the cost of the book that you’ll re-read it some point soon — maybe when The Last Jedi comes out in theaters and you want to show your friends some sweet Catholic history facts.