Sun Dancing – A Book Review by Dennis P. McGeehan

Skellig Picture

 On one day a year, Saint Patrick’s Day, people around the world celebrate their Irish heritage, even if they have none. Parades, parties and the Wearin-of-the-Green are ubiquitous. It may not be a stretch to state that those who celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day the hardest, know the fewest facts about the man and the land that adopted him as their Patron Saint. He drove the snakes from Ireland (likely myth). He brought Christianity to the Irish (partially true).

Patrick was appointed Bishop to Ireland and can be rightfully credited with spreading and securing Christianity throughout the land, but he was not the first Christian missionary to set foot on the Emerald Isle.

There are tales of Coptic monks from Egypt who traveled to Ireland and the legend of a Roman soldier named Althus, who was present at Christ’s Crucifixion. He too is credited with first bringing Christianity to the Irish shores. The actual facts are lost in time and blurred with myth. These are illuminated, like the manuscripts, in the book Sun Dancing by Geoffrey Moorhouse.

Sun Dancing uses historical fiction to present the life of the men who lived and prayed on the skeilics, the precipitous rock islands littered about the coast of Ireland. The first part of the book uses historical narrative while the remainder presents short essays of the men and the  culture that have impacted the entire world.

Men sought the isolation of the skeilics to better commune with God. On these pinpoints of land that some saw as the end of the world, Irish monasticism developed. Here they copied the ancient books and developed a way of living and praying. Despite the cruelties of self-mortification, nature and invasion, they survived and flourished. Years later they journeyed from the skeilics and spread throughout Europe the ancient knowledge that would otherwise have been lost during The Dark Ages.

The narrative spans the years 588 A.D. to 1222 A.D. and depicts the monks in their beehive-shaped stone huts, in Irish called clochain. They survived by fishing and nurturing vegetables from the rocky ground. Their ascetic practices are graphically described and are not to be imitated by the modern reader.

For the modern reveler who raises a Guinness, the Scourge used to subdue the carnal desires will seem alien. Instead of voices raised in raucous song, faces drop onto the cold stone floors in oratories for prayer. For the person who meticulously plans their day, the peregrinatio, the traveling where the wind, waves and God takes you, will seem more folly than faith.

Here is Patrick, Brendan the Navigator and Brian Boru. Here is Olaf Trygvasson – the Viking who embraced Christ. Read about the Culdees, the Scoti and the Dancing Sun on Easter Morn.

More than Saint Patrick, the entire scope of Irish monasticism and life in the sixth through thirteenth centuries is presented. Here are disease and monsters, invaders and saints. Here is life lived explicitly on the edge of a cliff looking ever outward and upward to an horizon that the soul not the eyes can see.

Embrace your Irish heritage and drink deep from Sun Dancing as from a fine pint.

About Dennis McGeehan

Dennis P. McGeehan is a husband, homeschooling Dad of eight, a Martial Artist, Freelance Writer, Author and Speaker. He is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild. His latest book is titled The Diaries of Joseph and Mary.
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