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?