If you’re a Catholic Star Wars fan, chances are you probably have seen the first in the new trilogy of the epic space opera, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you are a fan and haven’t seen the movie, stop reading here and go see it: seriously, it’s good.
Now, for those who have seen it, do you remember the island at the end where Rey finds Luke? It had cobblestone pathways and ornate huts, just exactly the place one would expect to find a Jedi master. You probably thought that someone put a lot of work in building the movie set to make it look perfect, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The island we saw at the end of the movie was actually Skellig Michael, a perfectly preserved island seven miles off the coast of Ireland that was home to Catholic monks for almost a thousand years. Saint Finnian of Clonard founded the Gaelic monastery of Skellig Michael in the sixth century as a place for Irish Catholics to be able to devote their lives to God. St. Finnian called the island his green desert, relating back to the early Desert Fathers that came three centuries before him. He wanted the conditions of his green desert to be harsh, destitute, and secluded from the outside world. Their monastery is located six hundred feet above sea level on a plateau. It has six huts of stone construction, two oratories, a Church, and a number of stone crosses.
St. Finnian created a very closely knit community of monks. Those wishing to lead a life of monasticism would arrive on the island, not knowing if they would be turned away or permitted to stay, often for life. It was only when they arrived were they evaluated and a decision made. It is thought that only twelve monks and one abbot were living on the island at any one time. Once living there, monks had to adapt to the harsh conditions of the island. For food, the monks had to maintain personal vegetable gardens because of limited land available for the agriculture of grains. Fish and the meat and eggs of nesting birds on the island were also common staples. For water, the monks developed a system for collecting and purifying water in cisterns.
The island was continuously occupied until the late twelfth century. However, the climate around Skellig Michael became colder with intense storms. The worsening conditions caused the monks to move back to Ireland, to the abbey of Ballinskelligs just across the water on the Iveragh peninsula. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for highlighting the life of Catholic Monasticism. Every year, boat licenses are granted to tour operators to allow trips to Skellig Michael during the summer season.