I picked this book up on the recommendation of a friend. It’s unusual. The first half is a set of imagined vignettes of the monks’ lives on Skellig Michael from its founding (circa 6th c) to eventual abandonment (circa 13th c). The second half is a set of non-fiction chapters about various aspects of early Irish history.
The whole book is well worth a look, although it’s good to remember that in the fifteen years since it was published, a fair amount of historical and archeological research has been done, some of which calls into question elements of the non-fiction chapters. For instance, the idea that anyone was wearing kilts (p. 205)this early in Irish (or Scottish) history has been reconsidered. Even so, it’s an accessible, intriguing entrypoint to the time period and culture.
If you’re looking for a good, relatively recent (1995), concise but not too concise, introduction to Ireland from the introduction to Christianity to the 12th century invasion, you could do far worse than this book.
Just under 300 pages plus another 50 or so of resources (glossary, suggestions for further reading, bibliography), it packs a lot into a relatively small package. For comparison, I have two others on the shelf, waiting to be read, at roughly 1000 pages each.
There were places I wanted more detail. For instance on page 39, he describes briefly that “the pre-Christian practice […] reckoned time in terms of three-, five-, ten-, or fifteen-day periods, based on the lunar calendar […] the seven-day week was entirely unknown.” This is fascinating, a huge entrypoint into how people thought about their world and their place within it, but the author gives us nothing further. Bummer.
But overall, it’s a quick, nice introduction to the subject, accessible, even droll in places: “Modern scholars do not quite know what to make of Virgil. Is he just a dotty professor, like many of themselves, and therefore to be humoured?” (212). Very few pages went by without me underlining and/or annotating something in the margin, which is usually a sign of book in which a good time was had by all.
This little book packs a punch. Not even 100 pages and nicely illustrated, it still manages to be a nice, concise introduction to the belief system of the pre-Christian Celts. Of course, the brevity may owe something to how little we know with any certainty. Phrases like ‘there’s no direct archaeological evidence of…’ or ‘we can’t be certain that…’ appear with distressing regularity in any book about the Celts. It’s an inescapable problem. But if you’re looking for an entry point, there are worse places to start and not many better.
This book is a quick read about a topic you (or at least me) thought you already knew something about–the smaller islands around England–but it turns out you’re wrong. The prose is informative without being dense, always a plus. My brain is still scarred from years of parsing academic articles. If I never hear the word ‘praxis’ again, fine by me. Anyway, this book. Victor Hugo lived for years in exile on Jersey? Who knew? I was hoping for more information about Iona, since one of my current projects is set there but the book was fascinating nonetheless, particularly in regards to explaining how/why/how much the scattered islands do/do not consider themselves part of England. Spoiler alert: more no than yes. The only real problem with the book is now I want to go see a whole bunch more places, all of which are relatively difficult to get to.