A Hollywood future meets the unique history of an Irish past this week when Star Wars -The Force Awakens brings it’s emotional and cultural fix to the world. Most fans watching the two hour movie will not realize as Skellig Michael awakens on screen that the location represents a deep seated connection to the ancient past of Ireland.
Twelve miles off the coast of South Kerry lies the Skellig Islands, a Unesco world heritage site I recently had the good fortune to visit. Skellig Michael contains an historical treasure that dates back to some time between 600 and 800 AD. Sitting atop the jagged 700 ft high mystical peak, reached only by a steep climb on a switchback rock path, lies an ancient Irish monastery composed of bee hive rock mounds and a early Christian temple. It is thought that the community was originally established as an escape from religious persecution. This unique example of an early religious site was inhabited until the late 12th century when circumstances of climate deterioration and intensifying storms combined with an increasing religious tolerance moved the monks back to the mainland of Ireland.
Topping the island are six stone beehive huts, primitive celtic crosses and the ruins of a church. The cemetery has been there for over 1300 years. What ever possessed the monks to establish a life in this particular location and how did they survive? What did they eat? It’s so hard to imagine what life must have been like in this primitive setting, especially in the cold of winter. Their existence must have been so solitary and well, very monastic, which I suppose was the whole point.
There are only 13 licensed boats that can make the 50 minute journey from Portmagee on a regular basis, limiting the number of visitors that can descend on the small island. Journeys are weather dependent and visitors usually don’t know until the day of departure whether the seas will allow the lucky few to visit. That is indeed a good thing, as the route is a bit dangerous and there is enough to worry about once you arrive without dealing with crowds.
The day of my trip was calm and unusually sunny as John O’Shea pulled his boat, the L’Oursin up to the concrete dock. Coming ashore involved timing and balance. The waves would roll in and roll out, pitching the boat to and fro. It was important to make the jump when the L’Oursin hit the right rise, misstep, and you could risk going overboard. Captain O’Shea was very cautious with his passengers disembarking. I can’t imagine what it must be like in rougher seas.
As I climbed the 618 stairs to the top of Skellig Michael I could hear the music from the Star Wars theme playing in my head. It got louder as my heart raced, blood coursing through my veins during the steep climb. No handrail or protective fencing is installed for most of the path, making the views across the Atlantic that much more spectacular and the stairs that much more precarious. The only photos I had seen beforehand were taken on rainy, overcast, grey days when the rocks must have been so slippery. I was incredibly grateful we had such cooperation from Mother Nature and the weather gods. It’s easy to see how they arrived at the original name Sceillic meaning steep rock.
You’ll find the climb to the summit is well worth the effort, no matter the weather. As birds carve circles in the sky and make their way to little Skellig, a wildlife sanctuary a short distance away, on this particular day we can see for miles out into what feels like it might be the end of the earth. Puffins, storm petrels and manx shearwaters make there home here because it is a protected eco-system.
That concept is in sharp contrast to the modern helicopter pad that received international stars, camera crew and many extras occupying the small island for 4 days. As you can see from the above photo, it was quite a climb, even for those arriving in the luxury of a private helicopter. It must not have been easy to set up the equipment at the top.
I worry about the impact this new found fame will have on the island and secretly pat myself on the back for getting here before the onslaught. Tourism Ireland has announced there will be a dedicated Star Wars campaign in early 2016 (can you blame them) and “Skellig Michael is one of the very few ‘real world’ locations to feature in the movie.” Naturally, visitors will be anxious to see it for themselves. Star Wars fans have been known to be a little obsessive. The benefits of bringing tourism are obvious to the politicians, but at what cost to the fragile environment existing here. Ticket sales have already exceeded expectations. Is it only a question of time?
Movie goers will (perhaps) see Luke Sky Walker emerge from the magical ruins and believe he is on a far away planet in deep space. Their reaction will be accurate, as Skellig Michael awakens to a movie going public who will be seeing a truly out of this world landscape. Let’s just hope the Force will not bring a destructive evil to this environmentally sensitive site filled with so much unique and isolated cultural heritage.