Aside from the dashing Finn O’Connell, the first member of the Fianna I created was Máirtín O’Sharcaigh. In my book, the members of the Fianna are from different moments in Irish history, and Máirtín is perhaps one of the oldest fighters in the group and certainly one of my favorite characters. Máirtín was a monk from the times of St. Patrick, and he is very much the spiritual center of the series.
While the Jesus ship sailed for me a long time ago, I must admit, there is something captivating about St. Patrick and the early Irish monks. I first learned about this unique history when I was backpacking the Kerry Way or “The Ring of Kerry” (sometimes when I was tired and walking by myself in the hills, I would sing “I fell into a burning ring of Kerry…” Yeah, anyway…). In a tiny town at the edge of the peninsula called Cahersiveen I met a young woman from Germany. Another German hosteller made a sexist comment to me, and she told him off in what was, well, some pretty epic German. So we became best friends, and she told me the next day she was taking a ferry to a place called Skellig Rock. I had no idea what that was or where it was, but it cost 15 euro and that seemed like a fair price for a new adventure.
The next morning, after way too much drinking and carrying on and singing the night before, I stumbled out of my hostel bunk and met my new friend in the lobby. It had been pouring rain for two days straight, but the day was bright and sunny. We hiked to the docks and jumped aboard a small boat captained by a friendly, jaunty Irishman wearing a wool cap. I figured it would be a short trip to wherever we were going. We flew across the Atlantic in our tiny vessel, but the trip was long and the rollicking waves were not doing much for my hangover. Forty-five minutes later we came to a giant green rock jutting out from the sea. My German friend had mumbled something about Irish monks the night before, and I waved it away. Yeah, sure, Irish history. Always game for that. I had no idea how awe-inspiring Skellig would be. In our motorized vessel it took us just under an hour to reach the island. For these monks living in the sixth century, it would have taken most of a day to row out through the choppy waters of the Atlantic, which might have been the edge of the universe for all these medieval folks knew. As the tour guide took us through the small stone huts and the humble graveyards, I was struck by the way these monks lived, so isolated, so simple, making a life on a tiny dot of a rock in the middle of nowhere.
What I would later come to understand is that these monks lived by a very different code of Catholicism than we know now. Not many people know this, but Ireland became a Christian nation much earlier than England. Stolen away as a slave from his Roman family, St. Patrick or Patricius lived in Ireland for six years. It was in those green hills that he had a vision, a vision of peace, of love, of compassion. He became a Christian and wandered through Ireland sharing the message of this new hippie God, Jesus. People loved the ideas he spouted, and it’s no wonder. The Celtic world was a vicious place and there was that whole Druidic business involving bashing virgins’ brains in and throwing them in bogs. I can only assume that folks were a little fed up with it all.
Patrick’s Christianity was about seeking out a simple life away from civilization, and unlike the modern Catholic Church, women were openly included into positions of power. St. Brigit, for instance, was one of the first major leaders of the Irish Catholic Church. The monks also fiercely valued knowledge. While Rome was burning and the rest of Europe was falling apart at the seams, the Irish monks were happily sitting in their monasteries making copies of all manner of texts, religious, pagan, didn’t matter. Knowledge was all that mattered.
In later centuries, the Vikings and the Roman Catholic Church would do a number on Irish Catholicism, but deep in the ruins one can still see the spirits of the old ways. For me and the main character of my book, Máirtín‘s spirituality and the spirituality of these early monks transcend the rules and regulations of organized religion. It speaks to something deep within the soul, deep within the earth. It’s quiet and grounding, the path of peace.
(Most of this stuff is just made up from memory, but I do vaguely reference in this post a great book called How the Irish Saved Civilization. It’s very entertaining and readable and a great book if you’re interested in learning about early Irish history).