Two Islands and Their Martyrdoms

[This was an essay for a class called Irish Writing in English: Literature of the Sea with Dr. Theresa O’Byrne. Another great class, forcing me to read things I never would have been exposed to otherwise. Basic assignment was to write an essay on any topic relating to the course using two course texts and at least two outside scholarly sources. It’s not great, I got a B and I think she was generous. But I found the subject interesting.]


Two Islands and Their Martyrdoms

The styles of martyrdom displayed on Skellig Michael and Iona are very different and represent a kind of evolution in how martyrdom has been undertaken in Ireland historically. The evolution of Christian martyrdom starts with the red martyrs, those who give their lives and blood, hence the “red” in in devotion to their religion. Next comes “white martyrdom”. Once Christianity became established, the opportunities to give ones life for it were few and far between, so martyrs had to seek out distant, isolated locations with harsh conditions. Finally, “green martyrs” typically lived in a community, and the martyrdom they experienced came from refusing the physical comforts and desires of ordinary life. These “martyrs” often ministered to local laity and acted as centers for religious life in the community. The monks on Skellig Michael lived a life of great privation and hardship. They were isolated and exhausted from living on subsistence rations. While it is true that they formed a small community, it would be a mistake to consider then to be undertaking green martyrdom. They were all living a life of white martyrdom. The monastery at Iona, in contrast was one of green martyrdom. There the monks were not isolated, they were a part of a community that looks to them as spiritual leaders and they ministered to those people as part of daily life. St. Columba was the head of the monastery at Iona, and was the head of the community there as well. In fact, several stories from the Life of Saint Columba involve monks setting out to find a more remote place. These stories share many similarities with the story of the founding of Skellig Michael as told by Geoffrey Moorhouse.

The Island of Iona was remote, but at the time that Columba arrived there in his exile it was not a location sufficient for “white martyrdom”, it was “a centre of trade and travel. Sea lanes brought goods from France, the Mediterranean and beyond.” (108) The island was to be a place where Columba could carry out his penance. He would establish a monastery there, and a lay community grew up around the monastery. The Life of St. Columba shows a picture of a much more domestic setting than one would expect for monks seeking a white martyrdom. Columba is shown at sea with local sailors, (163). Adomnán describes Columba visiting workmen building a wall on the coast of Iona (177). The Life of St. Columba suggests a setting of traffic and commerce and population enough to fill a small village or more. “Green martyrdom” occurs in a setting that has community, like Iona. It is the martyr’s own ability to refuse the material goods and turn away his own desires that makes him a martyr in this setting. The monks at Iona served the lay people that lived alongside them.

The life of the monks at Skellig Michael was different. Even their arrival at the Skellig was fraught with far more danger and risk than was the trip of Columba to Iona. The twelve monks that accompanied Fionán were told by him that they must “Surrender to what will be and wait for the sign. Where the boat begins to lead, that way you must go from then on. It will be meant.” (4) At sea at the mouth of the Shannon, this was a dangerous proposition. The way led to Skellig Michael, a singularly uninviting crag of rock in the sea. The monks formed a community there, but it was one of privation and asceticism. The Skellig provided almost no protections from the elements until such time as the monks could build shelter. The skellig was so sparse that it couldn’t produce enough food for the twelve monks that settled there.  The community of monks lived a life of “white martyrdom”; they were distant from all they knew, in a place of harsh conditions, with little to do but try to perfect themselves in the eyes of their god. They were isolated, but even they required food. So they were forced to make trips to the mainland to procure provisions. This contact was the full extent of their commerce, at least in the beginning. There were no trade routes like at Iona, and there was no lay community for the monks to minister to. They were on their own, just as they’d hoped for for so long.

In some ways, Iona was a more difficult location to attain the much desired martyrdom. Because of the relative abundance of creature comforts, the monks on Iona were hard pressed to develop the kind of asceticism required of “green martyrs”. The island was ruled by the cousin of Saint Columba who gave it to the monks for their monastery. While the amenities were severe, still there were indulgences for Columba. His sparse hut was “slightly larger than those of his disciples, … and placed on top of a slight hill.” (109) Soon, the monastery expanded as monastic penitents flooded into the island to partake of the peaceful and contemplative life of the monk. The monks at Iona were not just martyrs, they performed the function of missionaries also (109). Columba went out from Iona on numerous trips detailed in Adomnán’s Life of St. Columba. He acted as an emissary to the Picts on at least two occasions, reportedly helping soothe a monstrous beast in the river and healing a cursed well. The demands of being missionaries are not those of martyrdom. Iona was a place where self-denial would have to be the course to martyrdom, not the demands of the environment.

The environment of Skellig Michael was entirely sufficient for the demands of “white martyrdom”. After 250 years of habitation on the Skellig, the monks were still enjoying a subsistence lifestyle. They had small garden and harvested the eggs of the birds on the island. They fasted twice a week. It was a deliberately hard life. It was the very definition of “white martyrdom”. They found a harsh location that required endless toil to survive on. All time not spent in the daily activities necessary to sustain life was spent in contemplation. Even beyond the mere environment, the Skellig was ultimately also the target of predators, the Viking raiders. In one raid the Vikings killed an Abbot (59) seemingly with no more remorse or thought than a sea storm would feel. They were just another hardship the monks faced. Despite the added burdens, they did face those hardships. They continued to live on the unforgiving and dangerous island because those were the very traits that made it a suitable place for their martyrdom.

Martyrdom on the two islands took on two very different complexions. Saint Columba reached the island of Iona after traveling the world. He was a missionary and an emissary of the Celtic monasteries, helping to spread Christianity. He was given Iona by his kinsman. It was a safe place for his base of operations. It was a monastery, but it had little of the fundamental deprivation that truly remote locations like Skellig Michael had. Iona was a crossroads and a location on shipping routes. There was a lay population at Iona and in surrounding locales that required ministering to. It was a site of martyrdom; that martyrdom came from within the monks themselves. They chose to live a life of contemplation and to forego their physical  wants and desires. They dedicated themselves to their god and to attaining spiritual perfection, even in the presence of plenty. The monks at Skellig Michael had a different path. They chose a location that was as difficult, harsh, and forbidding as possible. They wanted to be forced into a life of asceticism. By locating on the Skellig, they were making it their “desert” in order to practise “white martyrdom”. They lived alone, with no outside distractions. They lived a bare bones life that left them with nothing to do but survive and try to come closer to god. Their choice was costly, but it denied them the possibility of doing otherwise. They were dedicated to the Skellig, it was their monastery. The paths were different for the two monasteries, but the goal was the same: a life of contemplation and of striving to be more perfect in the eyes of god.


Works Cited

Adamnan. The LIfe of Saint Columba. London: Penguin, 1995. Print

Moorhouse, Geoffrey. Sundancing: A Medieval Vision. Cork: The Collins Press, 1997. Print

Olsen, Ted. Christianity and the Celts. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2003, Print

Rolfe, Alexander. “Columba and Spiritual Proximity.” Heroic Age Spring 2004: Web


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