A Letter from Ireland:
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The Skellig Islands, Star Wars and an Irish Lent.

Have seen Ireland’s Skellig Islands feature in the most recent Star Wars movies? But, did you know there is also a strong connection between this place and Lent which precedes Easter. And, it’s not what you may think! Read on to find out more.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. Earlier this week we had the start of Lent – which remains quite a big deal in Ireland. This was a time of year that affected our shared Irish ancestors in many ways. It was a lean time in the larder as the food from the previous harvests thinned out. It was also a time when frivolity of all sorts was frowned upon – in including the celebrations that accompanied a wedding. This meant there were a flurry of weddings in the weeks leading up to Lent – then a break of 40 days or so – before normal activity resumed after Easter week.

Except in one situation….. and more about that next.

Welcome to The Skellig Islands.

Well, there is a very special island – no more than a rock really – that clings to the coast of County Kerry. It goes by the name of “Skellig Michael” and became the monastic home to a dozen hardy monks over a number of centuries. It is also one of the surreal locations used in the latest Star Wars movies. Maybe you have visited Skellig Michael? It requires a fine day, calm seas and a little luck.

The monastery on Skellig Michael was founded by Saint Finian around 500AD. He built a number of beehive stone huts and oratories there with a dozen other monks, and lived off the meat and eggs supplied by the local bird population. It was a life of austerity and isolation – a life of few distractions you might say

However, the weather patterns started to change in the 1100s and made it extremely difficult to reach the island by boat as the tides and swells changed. The island was abandoned shortly afterwards – but its isolation made sure that the location remained undisturbed through the subsequent centuries.

Would You Like Your Name on The Skelligs List?

Now, the word “Skellig” has come to mean something else over the years here in Ireland – and it’s a meaning that your ancestors would have been familiar with, especially if they came from Counties Cork or Kerry.

As I mentioned, marriages were forbidden in the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday. The necessary feasting and frolicking would have been considered out of the question. However, the monks of Skellig went by a slightly different church calendar compared with the mainland of Ireland – and Lent kicked in a little later. A loophole was discovered.

As a result, it became customary for number of women who were in need of a husband, and a number of men who were in want of a wife – to head over to Skellig Michael at the beginning of Lent for a spot of permitted matchmaking. The women meditated on the strengths they required in a husband, while the men prayed for repentance for their sins. Or, at least that was the plan

However, the tradition soon became an excuse for frivolity and dance among the attendees – resulting in the event eventually being banned by the church of the time. The names of the men and women who travelled to the island were kept on a “Skellig List” – and while the practice of travelling to the island vanished, the use of the “Skellig List” lasted well into the 1800s and a little beyond.

The list became a way to make fun of the bachelors and maidens of the parish who were considered to be “still wanting” for a wife or husband. It became the tradition to publish “Skellig Lists” across a number of parishes each Shrove Tuesday. They were composed by local anonymous Bards as a set of verses – and the contents, names and rhymes were eagerly anticipated by all in the community.

Here are just four verses of one particular “Skellig List”. It’ll give you a flavour of what fun they were if you were NOT named in the list, and how embarrassing it must have been to be ridiculed. It comes from Castlegregory in County Kerry – and was composed as late as 1951:

“Our musician Patsy Rea who hails from Knockmealmore

The hinges he has torn almost off Jeff Millers cabin door

He’s badly struck in Dora Fay, he say she is the one

And when he get his way they will wheel around the fun.

 

Next Phil Hanrahan he thinks he is a mechanic

If this does not get the lady for him he’ll be in an awful panic

He often takes a trip to the village of Annascaul

And if there is anything wrong with his Eileen Connolly he’s sure to fix it all.

 

The last is Minnie Hanrahan who once was of men so shy

But now she has change her methods and she is very sly,

To find out who she is going with is a job too much for me

But when she’s down in Maharees tis Drummonds for the tea.

 

I must conclude a finish but I had some more to say

All my friends who are not in this I’ll deal with some other day

When some of you are married and have a child or two

Remember they will be out all night just doing what you did do.”

(Sourced from Ireland’s Other Poetry).

How about you – would you like to be named on a “Skellig List”? It gives you a little flavour of the power of the ancient Bards. They could praise or ridicule you – and sometimes you weren’t sure which one it was!
That’s it for this week’s letter – a journey to a small monastic island off the coast of County Kerry – before settling on an old Bardic tradition that has long gone. But who knows? It may re-appear again one of these days. Stranger things have happened in these parts!

Do feel free to comment below with any questions or maybe some of your own Lenten stories to share!

Slán for this week,
Mike and Carina.

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