Skellig Michael to feel the force as 'Star Wars' fans provide tourism spike
Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30
The locals say there has always been a spiritual, even cosmic, force on Skellig Michael - and that force will awaken next summer with an influx of tourists.
Hopes are high in the small coastal village of Portmagee, Co Kerry, that the release of the new 'Star Wars' film next week will serve as a free advert for their community.
Previously, Portmagee and its 200 inhabitants passed under the radar of tourists - despite its proximity to Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It is located seven miles off of the Ring of Kerry on the western outskirts of the Iveragh Penninsula.
However, inclusion on the Wild Atlantic Way four years ago has seen the number of visitors to the area pick up. In fact, Portmagee was chosen as the first winner of Ireland's tourism town award in 2012.
Prior to that the village's only accolade was their award-winning public toilets.
However, since 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' was filmed on Skellig Michael 18 months ago, the locals have been bracing themselves for the scores of fans who will come and visit.
It gets about 12,000 visitors per year and demand is high for boat spaces to get out to the rock, due to the limited capacity on the 14 vessels licensed to ferry people to the island.
This is made even more complicated by the fact that the boats are only licensed to travel out to Skellig Michael during the summer months - but locals would like to see this period extended.
Local fisherman Eoin Walsh said that these licences will have to be extended to meet demand.
"The OPW only allow us to land from May until September. We lose about six weeks of good weather out of it in April and October," he said.
"If the licence catered for this we could meet demand. Already I have a group from Sweden booked in for next summer, an Irish group in May and an American group for June."
Patricia and Gerard Kennedy own the The Bridge Bar opposite the marina, where actor Mark Hamill and his colleagues boarded boats as they went out to the Atlantic rock for filming.
When filming wrapped up there this summer, Hamill made his way inside the bar counter and poured himself a pint of Guinness.
Gerard still has the unwashed glass and said that he has plans to put it on display for the legions of fans who will come knocking at their door.
"He was sitting up there first, at the end of the bar, and someone said to me 'that's your man there' - but sure I hadn't a clue," he explained.
"He was leaving and one of the barmen said: 'Mark, can I get a photograph with you?', and he said 'sure - I'll go in there to you'," added Gerard.
"We are going to get a little plaque saying that Mark Hamill pulled his pint here."
The couple have been running the popular bar since 1988 and are a little unsure as to what the future holds for them as the fans begin to make their way to south Kerry.
However, Patricia said that she would be reluctant to change anything for the new clientele and said that she would like to see the region hold on to its original character.
"We are very mindful that this area is not turned into a 'Star Wars' zone," she said.
"It is always going to be the Skelligs. It will never be 'Star Wars Island'. It just happens that 'Star Wars' was filmed there.
"I can't imagine these people coming with their lightsabers and all that gear.
"They were here for both lots of filming and we could not tell the difference between who was a 'Star Wars' fan and who was a Skelligs fan, to be honest.
"We do know how big it is going to be, but I am frightened. I am frightened because I grew up here and we love our village."
Skellig Michael is adorned with a sixth century monastic settlement that can only be reached by a series of stone steps that were hand-carved by monks.
However, Patricia said that she can see the links between the island and the force that will draw more tourists there next year.
"If Luke Skywalker was going to hide out somewhere, there is no better place - because of that feeling of being on a planet far, far away," she said.
"It is so far out, and is affected by the unpredictable weather. If you get out there will you get back in? If you make a 3,000-mile trip from wherever you are in the world - will you even get to see the thing?" she asked.
"It is hard, and that is why it seems to have so much appeal to people. I don't think that 'Star Wars' fans are going to get a fictional feeling about the Skelligs. They will realise that this is a very sacred feeling."