by Sue Hubbard
I have come about as far west in Europe as I can go without falling into the sea. The next stop is America. It is a different world to the busy life in Islington, north London that I normally lead dominated by deadlines, art openings, friends and family. I am in retreat. I have been coming to this extraordinary place, Cill Rialaig, an abandoned hamlet of stone cottages on the edge of a cliff, 300 feet above the Atlantic in Kerry on the west coast of Ireland for some time now. The village was restored in the 90s as an artist's colony. Mostly for visual artists but the odd writer, like me, slips in under the net. You have everything you need, though it's very simple. A kitchen, a shower, a peat burning stove. I sleep in a tiny converted hay loft, reached by a ladder. It has steep eaves and the bed nearly fills the room and there is only one tiny window. It is the view from that window that brings me back, that has entered my heart. It looks straight out on the Atlantic. At night the sky, a black dome of twinkling stars, my own planetarium. On a clear night you can see every constellation. It is rare in the modern world to experience real dark. And across the bay there is the blip of the far off light-house, like a heartbeat. Waking in the morning is always different. Sometimes there's a thick sea mist and everything is invisible, as though someone has spilled a bucket of white wash. Or it might be raining; insistent grey Irish rain that soaks everything, including the sheep sheltering behind the dry stone walls. But if you are lucky the strait will be full of sun, the sea calm and the colour of pewter, and you'll be able to see out to the two little rocky, uninhabited islands of Scarif and Deenish and the soft mountains on the headland beyond. It's like a peep of heaven. This is what this place must have looked like a hundred, no five hundred, even a thousand years ago. The only sign of modernity is the barbed wire fence that keeps in the sheep. Ahead there is only sea, sky and the islands. The rest is a just patchwork of fields with their tumbling dry stone walls and the odd standing stone or carved Celtic cross their inscriptions erased by harsh storms that lash in from the Atlantic.
I come here to think and write. I have written a series of poems The Idea of Islands, about my response to the place which was published by Occasional Press, here in Ireland, with wonderful charcoal drawings by the Irish artist Donald Teskey. They express something of this bleak and beautiful landscape, scared by poverty and abandoned by previous inhabitants forced to emigrate to America or Canada to find work. The also explore in language that, I hope, is both painterly and muscular, the ‘anthracite dark' both actual and internal, and how it is we make sense of it in a secular world. These poems now form one third of my new English collection, just published by Salt: The Forgetting and Remembering of Air. It was here I also finished my recently published novel, Girl in White, and wrote the introduction to my book of art essays: Adventures in Art. Writing, walking, reading, sleeping; that's what you do here.
Now I have begun my third new novel which is set here. Who knows if it will work – and I hope so but I find it hard. Like all my writing it is deeply influenced by a sense of place. Not only this bleak and lonely landscape filled with ghosts but the extraordinary Skellig Rocks that sit on the other side of the headland ten miles out in the Atlantic. It is difficult to get there. The swell is so great that the boats can only land for a few weeks every year across a lenient sea. As they chug out into the ocean they pass the squat Lemon Rock and then the small Skellig, so jagged that it looks as though it has been drawn by a child. It is almost completely white with guano from the swarming, screeching colony of gannets that build their nests there and swoop over the bay to fish. But the goal of the trip is Skellig Saint Michael. I have seen the Great Wall of China, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul and the Alhambra in Granada but this is one of the most extraordinary places I have ever been. As I scrambled onto the little pier to be met by a puffin, and started the long dangerous climb up the hand carved steps, I realised that this place was utterly unique. I am scared of heights and it was frightening. Below the slippery steps there are jagged rocks and the boiling Atlantic. There are no hand rails. A few years ago an American tourist fell to his death. But nothing prepared me for the clutch of stone beehive domes that I eventually reached, clinging to the pinnacle against a duck-egg blue sky. The experience was spellbinding like, somehow, being closer to heaven. You don't have to be conventionally religious to be moved by this place. It is holy just because it exists not just on the edge of the land and a continent but on the edge of the human imagination. Those early monks who build it were descendants of the desert fathers who believed that holiness could only be achieved by withdrawing from the world. Built in the 6th century, it was a bolt hole for monks descended not from Rome but more likely from the early Copts. The norm in Irish monasteries at the time was utterly outside the convention that would later be established by the great continental orders such as the Benedictines and Cistercians. No Celtic community consisted of a monastery under a single roof. Instead it was a settlement of a number of separate buildings built around the church. There is still a tiny windswept graveyard outside the one on Skellig Michael where the tomb stones of monks buried six centuries ago are worn down like broken teeth.
The voyage originally made by Saint Fionán and his companions was in the great Irish tradition of peregrination pro Dei amore (wandering for the love of God). The purpose of these wanderings was not to proselytise but, as another monk Adomnán claimed when setting sail for Iona, ‘to discover a desert in the pathless sea.' This was about going into retreat, about going away to meditate on God and repent on man's original sin. It was a life of penance, near starvation and perpetual damp. There are no trees of any sort on Skellig Michael so it is reasonable to assume that there was no fuel, no fires and no cooked food. Fasting was a part of the monks' lives, a psychological and physical deprivation that made them feel as though they were true disciplines of a martyred Christ. The building, terraces and the three different staircases that lead to the monastery from the landing places were all constructed by them from stone on the skellig, their only tools iron hammers and chisels, a crowbar or two, and leather bags and ropes to form some sort of primitive pulley.
It is hard for us moderns to understand the medieval mind. The more I read the more I realise that their whole world view was completely different to ours. The idea of individualism did not exist until the Renaissance. It was as though the ego had not yet been invented. And if it did make an appearance it had to be chastised and mortified. The trials of such an existence were quite simply a preparation for death and the afterlife. An anonymous Irish monk wrote in the ninth century:
All solitary in my little cell,
With not a single soul as company;
That would be a pilgrimage dear to me
Before going to meet with death.
It is unclear why the monks left in the 13th century: climactic change or possibly the social transformation that began when the Vikings turned up. Luckily as a modern writer I don't have to be quite as extreme as those mediaeval monks but it is testing getting away from all the things that buoy up your normal daily life. Like the monks it takes you to what I call in one of my poets the ‘anthracite dark', to the essence of who you are; your deep griefs and joys. Like the weather the experience is sometimes bleak and grey and then at other times the fog will lift and the sun sparkle across the bay. And if all else fails, there's always the pub a couple of miles away. With luck it might be Irish music night, which as they say in these parts, is grand, especially when accompanied by a tot of Irish whiskey.
The Idea of Islands (Occasional Press) www.occasionalpress.net
The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt) www.saltpublishing.com
Girl in White (Cinnamon Press) www.cinnamonpress.com
Adventures in Art (Other Criteria) https://www.othercriteria.com
Photographs and text © of the author