The silence and remoteness of the island of Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast provide us with a fascinating insight into early Irish monasticism.
Not long after St Patrick’s time, men slowly began to remove themselves from society and would retreat to the solitude of the rugged countryside following the example of Christ who would often retreat alone into a mountain or desert to pray (Mt. 14:23). These men who lived as hermits, found it easier to pray and discover God in such environments and solitude. But most of these men would only be alone for a time. Other men would hear of the lives these hermits were living, and would go out in search of these hermits.
It was not long before these hermits would have a number of followers, and sometimes even a local resident community. This was the beginning of early Irish monasticism, and these monasteries became the de facto centres of early Christianity in Ireland. St Finbarr of Cork and St Ciaran of Clonmacnoise are just a couple of examples. Although they lived together as a community, they retained a hermit spirituality and had very little interaction with one another. It was not until the likes of Sts. Francis, Dominic, and Benedict that monasticism took a more communal approach.
These early Irish monks appreciated the value of silence, and understood that it is only through silence that one can encounter God and hear His voice. Some hermits specifically chose landscapes that would ensure their physical separation from society, and Skellig Michael is certainly one such place. Even today it is very difficult to travel to the old monastic site, and even then it is still quite a journey to the top of the mountain where the monks resided. To be precise, there are 618 steep rock steps to reach the beehive huts where the monks lived.
St Fionan is said to have been the founder of this monastery in the 6th Century, and between 12 and 15 monks resided on the premises until about the 12th Century. The silence these early monk sought is what modern man flees with the noise of the modern world. They flee from their consciences, and they flee from God.