Thursday, 9 November 2017

Sun Dancing - Skellig Michael

Sun Dancing by Geoffrey Moorhouse is a book which has been sitting on my shelves, unread, for many years. 

I bought it during those optimistic years when I was at home with three small children, thinking I'd have plenty of time for reading, and in the days when the History Book Club sent a paper magazine out every month, featuring a selected Book of the Month. 

I bought many such books, mainly because one didn't have to do much, because they were sent out automatically. Little did I know how long it would take to get to a stage when I had the time to read them all.

But now, after all these years (my kids have all left home) I am finally clearing the backlog. 

Skellig Michael - by Jerzy Strzelecki

Skellig Michael has been making itself known to me recently in a number of ways: a recent programme about the coastland of Ireland, for example, and a song by Loreena McKennitt.

Skellig - Music, Lyrics & Images: Youtube

Sun Dancing is a book of two halves. The first is an imagining, a story of the founding of the Christian Monastery told through the centuries and through the eyes of various monks, beginning with Fionán in 588, who sets out to the rocky island to found the community and ending in 1222 when the brothers decide to abandon the community.

The second half of the book explains the background to the supposed events, drawing on the primary sources and explaining how the author has come to his conclusions, beginning with an exploration of the likely identity of Fionán, and going on to explain the daily lives of the brothers, the differences between the Irish and the Roman Church, the building of the boats that took them out to the island and introductions to such characters as Brian Boru and Olaf Tryggvason and how they fit into the story.

Having read this book so many years after purchasing it, I am now reading it as an author myself. As such, I found that the fictionalised chapters are perhaps lacking a little drama, but this is not supposed to be a novel. As a device for bringing the daily existence of the monks to life, it works really well.

How often have we all read historical fiction and wondered whether or not it was 'true'? With this book half the chapters are taken up with explaining the information on which the stories are based. 

We only stay with each character for a chapter, so it is hard to get to know them, but this was not the intention of the author. Rather it was to allow us to see these people as 'real', in a way that I think only historical fiction can do. So here we have the best of both worlds, both fiction and non-fiction. I might not have needed to know the minor details about monastic life (although much of it was familiar to me anyway) but what I did come away with was a sense of who these people were. Their treacherous journeys out to the island, their daily struggles for existence. 

The graveyard and oratory - by Jibi44

Look at pictures of Skellig Michael now, perhaps listening to the McKennitt song. It is an eerie place. Visit, if you can - it is some 12 kilometres from the Kerry coast and boat trips are available. Moorhouse's book allows us to visualise the people who inhabited the place for over half a millennium. (Some might also recognise it as a location in the Star Wars films.)

George Bernard Shaw, visiting in 1910, described the "incredible, impossible, mad place" as "part of our dream world...I hardly feel real again."  

To be given names, to read about daily lives, adds substance yet leaves the mystery, the sense of other-worldliness. 

I recommend reading this book if you want to get a sense of time and place and learn more about this intriguing island.


  1. Skellig is one of my favourite Loreena McKennitt songs. It is haunting and it's made me want to visit the place that inspired it. Thanks for the recommendation.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it - her music is so atmospheric.

  2. A thorough and interesting review, Annie, and the music (which I hadn't heard before) is hauntingly beautiful.

    1. Thanks Millie - I really wish it hadn't taken me so long to get round to reading it. The music is, as you say, beautiful :-)