What do Star Wars, St. Fionán, and Byzantium have in common? Location, location, location. A movie director, a 6th century monk, and merchants from Constantinople were all attracted to these two islands, known as the Skellig Islands, rising off the southwest coast of Ireland.
On my way to Istanbul this fall I traveled by way of Ireland to join my son Gaelen who is staying in Galway for a couple months. We recently had the rare chance to voyage out to Skellig Michael, a rock pinnacle in the sea off the coast of County Kerry. The island is the home of a 6th century hermitage associated with St. Fionán. The weather and the seas cooperated for us the first time we attempted to visit the island. We are well aware of our luck as we heard of others who traveled to Portmagee harbor town on twenty occasions hoping to make the hour crossing, only to be disappointed.
People the world over will soon get a glimpse at this hermitage as it will be featured in an upcoming Star Wars movie. Skellig Micheal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the smaller Skellig island is a protected wildlife sanctuary populated by puffins and gannets. Dolphins surround the islands, while several seals seem to call them their home, too.
The hermitage is perched in a cleft of land clinging to the side of the rock face. The climb up to the tiny settlement of beehive shaped rock huts and a chapel is quite vertical and exposed to hundreds of feet of drop offs. The ascent can be fatal in the wrong weather. Apparently, fractured monks’ bones were a common find among archaeologists, so said our guide. The Skellig site felt reminiscent of the Anasazi cliff dwellings in the American West in terms of its extreme location and the austere setting. A good book about this sacred place is called Sun Dancing: A Medieval Vision by Geoffrey Moorhouse.
At the Skellig Michael visitors center in Portmagee I read that although the Skelligs seem as if they were as isolated as one could get, they were along a busy trade route on the southern coast of Ireland and such places were connected with a wider world, including Byzantium.
Byzantium, home of Constantinople, or modern day Istanbul. My detour to Ireland en route to Turkey suddenly seemed perfectly natural. Apparently, Byzantine merchants traded at a place called Reask (or Riasc in Irish) on the Dingle Penninsula. After leaving Skellig my son and I discovered that Riasc is the site of a 7th century monastery. As monasteries were centers of learning, it made sense why this particular secluded bay might have been a destination in Byzantine times.
Other examples of Irish connections with the Middle East and Central Asia can be found in Bob Quinn’s book The Atlantian Irish. While in Istanbul I plan to visit the Chamber of Commerce Library to see if they have anything recorded about trading at Riasc. Check back here in a few weeks for the rest of the story…Or, if anyone has suggestions where to find such records, let me know!