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Pré-Publication, Document De Travail Année : 2017

The Reification of Sceilg Mhichíl


The history of Skellig Michael is shrouded in mystery: from the earliest times to the present, memories of shipwrecks, ghosts and graveyards have associated the place with death and the Otherworld. The choice of St Michael, the arch enemy of satanic forces, as patron saint of the rock reinforces the grim feeling that its steep slopes and hardly accessible peaks have been a key battleground for the endless struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. The scanty evidence that has survived from the distant past leaves ground for so many conjectures that imagination and irrationality have surreptitiously found their way to the heart of rational modern and contemporary interpretations of the site, to the extent that it is difficult to know if the heritage of Skellig Michael that is being handed down to present and future generations is a fake or not. Yet preservation and conservation have been on the agenda for decades, particularly since 1996, when the island and its early monastic remains were added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Heritage policies naturally raise several questions. Should ancient sites be made untouchable, turned into museums and venerated as sacred ? 1 Or should life be breathed into them for fear that heritage might come to be understood as fixed, inert, in other words dead and irrelevant ? 2 In any case, heritage is a social construction, and attitudes to it are but one aspect of the tyranny of the present over the past. This paper will examine Skellig Michael in this perspective. Because of the rich folklore associated to the site and possible parallels that can be drawn with comparable sites in Europe, it will also argue that the site's intangible cultural heritage deserves as much attention as its currently acknowledged tangible and natural heritages. As all World Heritage Sites, Skellig Michael was considered for inscription on the UNESCO list on account of its « outstanding universal value ». 3 According to its Management Plan 2008 – 2018, « it is the interaction between the monks of Skellig Michael and the island's topography in what was physically a harsh environment that gives the site its outstanding universal value ». 4 Besides, « the Skelligs islands have been recognized as two of Ireland's most important sites for breeding seabirds for several hundred years ». 5 The 1 Christophe Charle argues that there are similarities between the cult of saints in the Middle Ages and the cult of heritage sites today. « Pour une sociologie historique du patrimoine », in Duanmu Mei et Hugues Tertrain (eds), Temps croisés I, Paris, Editions de la maison française des sciences de l'homme, 2010, p. 32. 2 « Faire passer dans notre patrimoine le souffle de vie et en finir avec une vision trop répandue selon laquelle le patrimoine ne serait qu'un ensemble de choses inertes », Rapport Querrien, 1982, quoted by Dominique Poulot, « De la raison patrimoniale aux monde du patrimoine », in Les mondes du patrimoine, Socio-anthropologie 19, 2006, Accessed 29 April 2017. 3 It is held to have « cultural and (…) natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries » and to be « of common importance for present and future generations of humanity ».
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hal-01651917 , version 1 (29-11-2017)


  • HAL Id : hal-01651917 , version 1


Catherine Maignant. The Reification of Sceilg Mhichíl. 2017. ⟨hal-01651917⟩
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