What is Skellig?


The monastery on the island of Skellig Michael, off the coast of Ireland, was built about A.D. 600-800, and was in use until about A.D. 1200-1300. The name comes from the Irish word Sceillic, which means “steep rock,” because the island rises out of the ocean 715 feet. There are 600-670 steps from the ocean to the monastery (depending on which part of the monastery), up which water and food had to be carried when the monastery was in use. In 1996, Skellig Michael became a United Nations UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Skellig Michael, Ireland (© SkelligIslands.com)
Skellig Michael, Ireland (© SkelligIslands.com)

Skellig is a song written by Canadian singer Loreena Mckennett. The song is about a monk who has spent years at the monastery on the island of Skellig Michael, copying the Bible and history books.

O light the candle, John
The daylight has almost gone
The birds have sung their last
The bells call all to mass

Sit here by my side
For the night is very long
There’s something I must do
Before I pass along

I joined the brotherhood
My books were all to me
I scribed the words of God
And much of history

Many a year was I
Perched out upon the sea
The waves would wash my tears,
The wind, my memory

I’d hear the ocean breathe
Exhale upon the shore
I knew the tempest’s blood
Its wrath I would endure

And so the years went by
Within my rocky cell
With only a mouse or bird
My friend; I loved them well

And so it came to pass
I’d come here to Romani
And many a year it took
Till I arrived here with thee

On dusty roads I walked
And over mountains high
Through rivers running deep
Beneath the endless sky

Beneath these jasmine flowers
Amidst these cypress trees
I give you now my books
And all their mysteries

Now take the hourglass
And turn it on its head
For when the sands are still
‘Tis then you’ll find me dead

O light the candle, John
The daylight is almost gone
The birds have sung their last
The bells call all to mass

Monastery on Skellig Michael (© SkelligIslands.com)
Monastery on Skellig Michael (© SkelligIslands.com)

Monasteries were often founded in harsh, remote outposts like the Skellig Islands off Ireland’s west coast. Monks occupied themselves with the copying of religious, literary and philosophical texts. Surviving manuscripts tell us much about the cultural identity and even individual characters of their creators via both the books’ beautiful ornamentation, and in the margins, the scribes’ own notations of a whimsical, personal or even racy nature.1

The song Skellig, with a video, is available on YouTube. I’ve owned the CD it’s on, The Book of Secrets, for more than 20 years, so I naturally thought of the song as I’ve been writing my series What are New Testament Manuscripts?. I hope you enjoy it!

  1. McKennett, Loreena. The Book of Secrets (LoreenaMckennet.com, 2014) Accessed 15-Feb-2020.

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