Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Local and seasonal! The Diet Of The Skellig Island Monks

Local and seasonal! The Diet Of 

The Skellig Island Monks

Skellig Michael

On Skellig Michael, the six corbelled stone beehive huts and two boat-shaped oratories, the stone built terraces, retaining walls and stairways are visible proof of much Early Christian activity.

It is probable that a small groups of monks came here and established the monastery in the 8th century and that it was continually occupied until the late 12th or early 13th century. How did they survive on this bare and hostile rock? With little arable land available to grow grain, vegetable gardens were an important part of monastic life. Fish and the meat and eggs of birds nesting on the islands were staples.

Skelligs, as seen from Valentia's Bray Head

I got some more detail during a recent visit to the Skellig Experience on Valentia island, just above the bridge from Portmagee. It is quite a small centre but the exhibits, mostly without the aid of modern technology, still yield a wealth of information.

Where did the monks get fresh water? At the monastery on Skellig Michael, rain water falling on the rock face was channelled by hand-cut and natural ducts into 5 storage "wells" which still function today.

Sure-footed goats, like these on Ballycotton lighthouse island, would 
have done well on Skellig Michael.

The monks of course liked their meat but here had to rely on sheep and goats, surefooted animals who could survive here better than pigs and cattle, and were the ideal providers of dairy produce and meat for the situation.

Many monks would have been skilled hunters and fishermen before joining and so they could provide meat and skin from seals and catch all kinds of fish (for the fast days). Skellig Michael's seasonal, summer seabirds, and their eggs, were abundant - and free. Yes, quite a few of those adorable puffins ended up in the monastery pots.

Seals were targets for the hungry monks

If you want a rather dramatic idea of what life might have been like in the early centuries of the monastery then perhaps find yourself a copy of the recent Emma Donahue book called Haven. It re-imagines the day to day life as rough and claustrophobic, pretty horrid, especially with a fanatical Prior at the helm. A lot of research went into Haven but it doesn’t seem to have captured the public’s attention in the way that her best-selling Room did.

Back to the exhibits: “The woody, fibrous roots of the Skellig Sea Pink are akin to poor quality peat, but major fuel supplies had to come from the mainland, as is still commonplace on many Irish islands today.” And that was how the monks kept themselves warm and dry and cooked.

The monks knew their herbs, grasses and plants. The leaves and shoots of the young Common Sorrel were used in salads, and could be used to make soup. It was also used to curdle milk for cheese making. It has a good Vitamin C content and was eaten as spinach.

Seabirds were at risk of ending up in a cooking pot

This Sow Thistle plant is rich in minerals. It could be used with other vegetables, when the boiling of the leaves removed the bitter taste. Also used in salads. The leaves of the young White Clover were added to soups and salads.

The portion of the stem below ground of the Common Polypody was chopped up and used in the treatment of coughs and chest problems and as a tonic. Scurvy grass was a source of Vitamin C. While the Scarlet Pimpernel was used in the treatment of rheumatism, liver and kidney ailments.

So the monks made the best of what was available before they eventually left the island and headed, it is said, for Ballinskelligs.

The battered gates 

The next group to make a home on Skellig Michael were lighthousemen. Beginning in August 1821, the Exhibits tells us, it took explosives, five and a half years' work, imported granite and sandstone, cast iron porches, tons of lead, one life lost, and one boat gutted by fire to master Skellig.

On 22nd. April,1987, the final lighthouse crew of Paddy Dirrane, Aidan Walsh and Michael O'Regan locked the Station's 25 doors and went ashore for the last time, leaving Skellig lighthouse with its new, radio controlled, electronic heart to battle alone. But the basic lighthouse infrastructure remains unchanged, as service tradesmen and technicians must still visit on occasions and stay while they carry out regular maintenance.

Breakfast at the lighthouse. Crested crockery though!

There is not too much detail on the menu for the lighthouse families and it seems that their breakfast consisted of wheatabix, boiled eggs and tea, all served in lighthouse cookery which had its own special crest. The crested crockery, "In Salutum Omnium", was once standard lighthouse issue. Now it is a rare antique - in which a cup of tea, made, with Skellig rainwater, would taste perfect!

Families lived here and children were born here. Lighthouse and family records tell that on 30th October 1897, James Martin King, second son of Thomas King and Mary Murphy, was born at Skellig lighthouse - the last child to be born there. 

The Experience displays have a few cartoons on lighthouse life. In one, the wife is having a go off the husband: You conned me into this marriage with your promises of night life and the bright lights!

The exhibits here may need a bit more space but it is well worth a visit. There is a corner on the local seabirds, lots of models and a interesting detail on each bird.

And don’t forget to take a look at that battered gate. That once stood some 150 feet above sea level but a massive storm uprooted it along with its concrete pillars and later it was found at the bottom of the sea, recovered and is in use here as an entrance. Just one illustration of how tough life can be just a few miles off the Kerry coast.

Very informative exhibit on seabirds.

Skellig Experience Centre is just past the bridge, on the left.  It has an exhibition area, an audio visual, gift shop as well as a fully licensed restaurant. And don’t worry, puffin is not on the menu. They offer regular meals such as Quiche Lorraine, Beef Lasagne, Irish Stew, salads and more. Check out the website here or better yet go and visit. And by the way, they can arrange a boat trip to the Skelligs!

The Skelligs Experience (with its grassed roof)

Also on this trip:

The Lobster Waterville

Skellig Experience Centre - The Monks Dinner

McGill Brewery*

Royal Hotel, Knightstown

A Right Royal Progress Through The Kingdom

* Post to follow

Recent Kerry posts

Killarney's lovely Victoria Hotel

Dinner at The Ivy in Killarney

Dining at The Harrow Killarney

Excellent Lunch at Brehon Hotel

Seeing Red at the lovely Sneem Hotel

Lunch at Killarney Brewery & Distillery in Fossa.

Dingle Drive, Slea Head and more 

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