Like many introverts, I’ve always thought a secluded, monkish lifestyle would be preferable to the loud people-stew in which public school immersed me. When I was learning world history in school, I admired the monks in the scriptoriums. I’ve seen Ireland in films that assure me the mainland and its islands are stunning. Few of these landscapes compare to the sheer rock faces sweeping out of the North Atlantic Ocean on Skellig Michael.
Moorhouse examines the medieval monastery on this remote rock in an uncommon format. Since we know little to nothing about the individuals who lived and worshiped there for hundreds of years, Moorhouse uses his research to develop seven stories. The first is set in 588 (or thereabouts), when the first monks landed on the island. They continue throughout the centuries, ending in 1222 when he estimates the inhabitants abandoned the island permanently. His stories are surreal. The strangeness of their outlook only matched the hardships the monks faced. To a person in the 21st century, they seem pretty odd.
In the second half of the book, Moorhouse explains the research he used to create the stories in short essays. He bases everything on his findings about Viking raids, monastery practices, and Irish culture at the time. The result is a fascinating mosaic that helps readers immerse themselves in the time and the place. As a result, he convinced me that my years of romanticizing this life were misguided.
While it’s not your typical history book, I would highly recommend Sun Dancing to anyone interested in the history of Ireland, Celtic Christianity, or Medieval history.