Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Irish Is.

Channel-hopping the other evening we landed on David Lean's Ryan's Daughter on TCM.

Something in the setting, in south-west Ireland, caught my eye time and time again, something I'd seen on a DVD of the BBC Coast series. It was impossible to construct a precise geography of the location - not surprisingly, because it was filmed at several different places, including a beach in South Africa, all pretending to be one locality - but there was one recurring backdrop that fascinated me. It's the one above, the view from the school-house in the film. If you blow it up to maximum size there's a distant island, on the horizon left of centre. (The nearer island is called Dead Man's Island, I suppose from its resemblance to a corpse.) It's cone-shaped and pinnacled, and, if you're attracted by islands, and the remoter the better, it seems to good to be true.

It's called Skellig Michael, shown here against a backdrop of magnificently brooding Atlantic clouds. It's one of a pair of offshore sea-mounts breaking the surface about 10 miles from the County Kerry mainland. (The other, Little Skellig, lies a bit closer inshore.) Skellig Michael featured in Coast 3, when fruity presenter Alice Roberts explored it, but a bit too superficially for me.

It looks too inaccessible and steep-to to be inhabited, and indeed it's home only to a colony of puffins. There's a short story by D.H.Lawrence, which of course I can't find just when I want it, about a man whose urge to isolate himself drives him to seek out ever smaller and remoter islands. I might have sensed the ghost of Lawrence's hero on Skellig Michael if it hadn't been eclipsed by something that would have made him feel crowded: the remains of a monastery and the ghosts of the dozen or so monks who lived and worked there at any one time.

The remains are well preserved, some might say suspiciously. They're fascinating, a walled hamlet of beehive-like cells, oratories, scriptoria, ambulatories and hermitages, and I suppose sheep-fanks and lazy-beds, built in Skellig stone mostly in an ancient technique called corbelling: you lay each course of stone very slightly overlapping the one below it, so that walls curve upwards and inwards until you can cap the apex with a large flat flagstone. As a drystone waller I was particularly interested in this technique, and can't wait for sunnier days to try it at home.

These monastic cells date from the earliest christianisation of the British Isles. They are the husk of the seed that produced the Celtic church. Now I discover to my disappointment that the Skellig Michael site, recognised and protected by UNESCO, is being 'improved' in the process of restoration. The 'improvement' has included new building.

Oh dear. And apparently Ryan's Daughter was a remastering of the very powerful original. Is nothing sacred?


Dave said...

I suspect you refer to 'The man who loved islands'.

Z said...

I'm afraid not, Christopher.

Dave said...

Oh, and once your hermitage is finished, I shall move in.

I, Like The View said...

strange, but coincidence today I was reading about a vacancy on a small island, mainly inhabited by puffins, for which a keeper is required (so, kind of like a light house keeper, but on an island inhabited by puffins)

but! of far more interest is the word ver: colonic

Rog said...

I seem to remember seeing this on Coast. Dr Alice is more Ginger than Fruity.

Christopher said...

Dave 1: Ah, thank you. I knew I could rely on you, the Oracle of Long Stratton.

Z: I assume you're answering the final question in this post? Otherwise you've made a very interesting existentialist statement that I'd be very happy to discuss with you over your wall.

Dave 2: You shall have first refusal. Would you rather it said 'Hermit' on the bell-push or 'Anchorite'?

I: Yes, I saw that too, and thought how well it would suit Dave, who I believe is quite used to light housework.

Rog: We saw all the Coast episodes in one littoral orgy this time last year thanks to a generous DVD donor. It seemed to me that the shades of ginger varied from tangerine to plum via pomegranate and persimmon. I mean, how fruity can you get?

Z said...

Oh, the existentialist statement, of course. I expect you are very tall? Even so, I'm afraid you will only see the top of my head over the wall.

Dave said...

Well I believe those accepting the anchoritic life tended to live in a simple cell built against one of the walls of the local village church. Once the inhabitant had taken up residence, the bishop permanently bricked up the door.

I think I'll go for Hermit.

Dave said...

Z. How odd. I was sure that Christopher was a 6'+ Scotsman.

Real life, as it so often does, disillusioned me.

Christopher said...

Z: I thought you'd cleverly incorporated gaps for wee folk to communicate through?

Dave: Sad news. The sign to go above your hermitage door (well, opening) which I commissioned from a local signwriter has been delivered, but with an initial K instead of H. Should I accept it? Please advise.

Z said...

Indeed *wee* did. I am very literal-minded however and you said "over", so I forgot.

Dave said...

I might add that those 'gaps/windows' were a swine to fit and I trust they will be used regularly for communication.

I suspect, Christopher, that anyone calling himself Kermit in France might find his legs being eaten.

Christopher said...

But so did you. Literally.

Z said...

In any case, you are taller than I am.

I'm disconcerted. I knew that Dave was polite, but I hadn't realised quite how much he hadn't cared for the ornamental bricks.

Still, only another seven to go, hey Dave? And I'm ready to tackle the scaffolding by the end of May.

Christopher said...

Quite understand your feelings about Kermit and the Kermitage, Dave; one of your recent posts set out your attitudes to becoming legless.

The very first comment I left on your blog, Z, very tentatively and gingerly and beset with doubts about trespass, was about walls as a means of communication, as evidenced in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I think.