I have yet to actually set foot on either Skellig. Geoffrey Moorhouse, in the preface to his Sun Dancing, describes being captivated by its appearance while on a family holiday in Kerry – his young children precluded him from visiting on that occasion, but subsequently he wrote this fine, thoughtful blend of fiction and historical fact.
Moorhouse, from his Guardian obituary, sounds a very admirable figure:
Geoffrey Moorhouse, who has died aged 77, was a Guardian journalist of deep integrity who moved out of daily newspapers to write books on a variety of themes, most often invoking the human spirit.
Sun Dancing is in two sections: “The Tradition” and “The Evidence.” “The Tradition” comprises a sequence of seven fictional recreations of life on the Skellig from foundation to the return to the mainland. These fictional chapters convey, in a way that a dryly historical text couldn’t, the sheer physical challenge of life on the rock, and the depth of faith (not without some doubts for some of Moorhouse’s characters) that made this, for seven centuries, a sustained presence (a digressive thought – the withdrawal of quotidian human life from places such as the Skelligs or indeed Blaskets or St Kilda is often depicted as an inevitable side effect of progress – yet surely by definition it is the precise opposite, as the human capability for a certain kind of life disappears)
“The Evidence” takes up the rest of the book. Here Moorhouse discusses certain themes and topics as they occur in his fictional portrayals. He is an elegant, witty writer, as well as evidently deeply versed in the historical and religious context (although a reference to “the shores of Westmeath” did set some alarm bells ringing)
The book it reminded me of most was Philip Ball’s “Universe of Stone”, on Chartres Cathedral. Moorhouse, like Ball (although in less detail, perhaps because we simply have less detail) describes lucidly the philosophical, historical, cultural and other contexts. Unlike Ball, however, religious faith is not a rather abtruse factor (one would never know from Ball’s account that Chartres remains an active place of worship today) but a force Moorhouse describes with sympathy and skill, and also places at the heart of the narrative.
We read of a pious hermit whose practice is extreme even for Skellig Michael and whose practice is ultimately a hubristic disaster. We read of Viking raids and the messy realities of medieval Irish life. We read of the monks wrestling with cosmology, and conceiving of the world as a sphere suspended in air. We read of the co-existence of the older, pagan ways with the Christian world – one of the most arresting stories tells of two monks whose rapprochement after an argument involves the traditional Irish method of reconciliation – sucking nipples. Here Moorhouse skillfully negotiates the risk of anachronistically projecting modern notions about sexuality and the body onto his narrative, perhaps slightly succumbing to the temptation but in ways that conveys with raw force the physical reality of life on the Skellig.
Those who posit a Celtic Church without all the nasty bits supposedly imposed by Rome will not find comfort in Moorhouse’s book. The pre Synod of Whitby Irish Church did not lack for elaborate penances, especially around sexual issues. Moorhouse writes that Ireland, uniquely, converted to Christianity without martyrdom, and that perhaps to compensate for this relative lack of suffering for the faith the Irish took to penance to a greater degree. I would have liked to read more about these topics, and the mini essays in “The Evidence” are a little too mini at times; but nevertheless Sun Dancing is a fascinating voyage into the medieval Irish mind via one of the most extreme places on Earth.