This Christmas millions of cinema-goers will watch The Last Jedi, the much-hyped eighth instalment in the Star Wars series. The trailer for the film, itself a cinematic event, opens with dramatic footage from a daunting cliff-top on the edge of the world, illustrating just how far from civilisation the Jedi knight Luke Skywalker has strayed.
Star Wars is set in a fantasy world of gigantic proportions, largely created by special effects, but this location is real. Indeed, it played an important role in a real-life civilisational battle between darkness and light in which a religious brotherhood endured great hardship to win.
Skellig Michael, off the coast of County Kerry, is notoriously inaccessible. Possible only to reach in the summer months (depending on the weather), the monastery is designed to put off visitors, who must climb 600 steps to reach it. But then the monks who once lived there had quite unruly visitors – the Vikings.
The great Kenneth Clark, in Civilisation: A Personal View, said of the Dark Ages that “If a new civilisation was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic. For 100 years after 550AD a group of monks huddled off the coast of Ireland. They did art in gold with few human references and copied Gospel books.”
Thomas Cahill’s famous book argued that the Irish “saved civilisation”. Well, they certainly brought it to the English. The Anglo-Saxon scholar Frank Stenton has written that “the strands of Irish and continental influence were interwoven in every kingdom, and at every stage of the process by which England became Christian.”
And yet while Pope Gregory’s mission to Britain, after he spotted two blond boys he called “angels, not Angles”, is well known, Ireland’s formative role in civilising the English is more obscure.
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