Skelligs as it Was

Book review by Frank O’Shea

HAVEN. By Emma Donoghue. Picador 2022. 257 pp. $32.99

Some years ago, Tintean carried an article by Mike O’Shea about a day trip to Ballinskelligs by a group of 19 from Killarney, The article told that up to ten boats, each with a dozen people, visited the island every day and that it was a wonderful experience, though not without danger.

Now we have a novel set in Ballinskelligs in the seventh century. The writer is Emma Donoghue, whose books have been enthusiastically reviewed here more than once – The Wonder (2016) and The Pull of the Stars (2020), perhaps others. The truth, however, is that, unless you have an interest in stories set in those times, you may find this more than a little tedious.

It is a work of historical recreation, something that may not appeal to everyone. The plants and animals, the birds and fish and sea creatures of the time are accurately described, as is the religious fervour of the day. This is at the height of the influence of monasteries like Clonfert, Bangor and Clonmacnoise which attracted large numbers of monks.

Donoghue starts her story in Clonmacnoise on the river Shannon, where the abbot is powerful enough to be able to keep a wife. A new monk named Artt joins the monastery after travelling widely and acquiring learning that greatly exceeds that of other people in the place, including the abbot. He dreams one night that God has called him to set up a monastery in an isolated island off the south coast. He selects a young monk named Trian and an older one named Cormac and they set off to find their new location.

The journey down the Shannon and then on to the open water of the Atlantic is described in great detail, the trio eventually landing on Skelligs. It turns out that there is not much vegetation on the island – only one little rowan tree, for example – but an abundance of birds. These have no experience of humans and are quite tame; they and their eggs form much of the diet of the trio in their first months. 

Cormac plants a few seeds and Trian catches a few fish, but Artt is more interested in trying to put up a cross and build a church. He commands Trian to do some copying of two books he has brought with him, something for which the young man is unsuited because he is lefthanded. There is little by way of drama among the trio, because the two monks have taken vows of obedience to Artt.

The main troubles begin when the birds leave the island at the end of summer and the monks have difficulty finding anything to eat. This doesn’t seem to bother Artt, but the other two begin to realise that he expects all three of them to die on the island and then go to heaven. Fortunately, hunger and human frailty cause Cormac and Trian to understand that they are dealing with a lunatic and they have to take some action, something that doesn’t happen until the final few pages.

The book requires some patience and you may find yourself speed-reading much of the story. Whether you would finish it if it was written by someone other than Emma Donoghue is doubtful.

Frank is a member of the editorial team of Tinteán