Wednesday 28 September 2016

Skellig Michael: Is 6th-century rock star selling out to a galaxy far, far away?

The Force Awakens

Graham Clifford

Published 06/09/2015 | 02:30

'Star Wars' is coming back, but should it be a welcome guest on ancient Skellig, asks our reporter.

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Just days old, the little bird would easily fit into the palm of my hand.

Nestled between the stone walls of a monastic beehive hut, the grey, fluffy storm petrel chick is ­sheltered from the elements. In ­another corner I hear a Manx ­shearwater cooing as the winds  roll in from the Atlantic. This is Skellig Michael, monastic rock, ecological paradise and since last year, a film set.

On September 14, the Star Wars crew will return. Lights, cameras and action will, for a period, replace the peace which envelopes this stunning isle, 12km off the coast of south Kerry, and many are worried about the ecological consequences and the long-term impact on the great Skellig. Others believe the concerns are misplaced and that the Star Wars film will boost tourism to the south west.

At the monastic settlement, so pristinely preserved over the centuries, visitors to the island stop to catch their breath after climbing 600 steps. Here stands the sacred monastery where monks lived and prayed from the 6th to the 12th centuries. Next week it may be Luke Skywalker's hideaway.

I meet siblings Jason and Elaine Kelly from Tullamore. Both believe that, once the UNESCO heritage Island is protected, the impact of the Star Wars filming could be very positive.

Graham Clifford at Skellig Michael
Graham Clifford at Skellig Michael

"Once more people find out about the Skellig and come to experience it, wouldn't that be a good thing?" asks Jason. "You can see by the size of the island that it's not designed to take a big influx of people. But the impact on tourism to Kerry and Ireland could be substantial. And you don't have to be a monk to appreciate the spiritual dedication of those who made this beautiful and unique monastery."

Elaine believes we need to promote Skellig Michael more. "I'd say one in 10 of my friends have been here. It's not advertised, it's not easy to get here. The Star Wars film will promote it internationally and I've no problem with that."

In the Butler Arms hotel in Waterville, where some of the cast and crew stay during filming, owner Paula Huggard told Review that they already had walk-in queries from Star Wars fans asking how to get to the Skellig Rock.

"It's great for our area," she says. "Tourism provides a livelihood for so many people here so we feel it's a very positive thing. Of course, at the same time, we have to be careful to protect and respect the Skellig and I'm sure that will be done."

Currently 13 local boatmen have licences to bring visitors to the Skellig - the season operates between April and September. They have the capacity to transport around 150 people a day, weather permitting. It costs around €60 per person to go on the trip and most boats can take 12 passengers at a time. This year I was told the boatmen lost 40 days due to the adverse weather conditions.

When I mention Star Wars, they are non-commital - the film-makers pay the boatmen for the use of their boats and for lost earnings. They ask them to sign a confidentiality agreement - if they talk about the production they lose the package, the entire project could be threatened and potential earnings lost for their neighbours and friends. In an area with little heavy industry, and where tourism offers a lifeline, locals feel it wise to accept the offer.

This week, Minister Jimmy Deenihan incensed opponents of the filming when he said "this will expose Skellig Rock to the world and will bring thousands of tourists (there) over time." While staff at the Office of Public Works (OPW) have been told not to speak to the media, it's understood some are very concerned by the long-term impact to the island. Long after the camera crews leave, will the Skellig be over-run by the 'thousands of tourists' Minister Deenihan talks about?

In 2009, two American tourists died when they fell from the rock.

Graham Clifford on Skelligs
Graham Clifford on Skelligs
Darth invader: A Star Wars fan poses in front of the Skelligs Rocks near Portmagee in Co Kerry. Picture by Don MacMonagle

"When tourists come because of the film, they'll want to get out to the island so what happens then? More boat licences, more people on the rock, or the price of tickets going through the roof?" asks Waterford native Peter Wright, who visited recently.

"I'm shocked by what's happening. It's akin to handing the Book of Kells to a major corporate brand for a weekend and saying do what you want with that. Local businesses are selling Star Wars T-shirts, it's all wrong. It's a real case of taking a short-term view to make a few euro and not considering the long-term consequences. The Skellig is absolutely incredible, why would we disrespect it in this way?"

Poet Paddy Bushe, who lives locally, says the nature of the project is also of huge concern. "The process has been shrouded in secrecy - why were the OPW or the National Parks and Wildlife Service not consulted? It's appalling that media queries are being handled by the Irish Film Board, which has no responsibility for the long-term management of Skellig Michael. If the Skellig isn't safe, then nowhere is safe."

And American tourist Shona Payas tells me: "This breaks my heart. Does everything have a price? Are the Irish people so stuck for cash they need to exploit this gem, this beautiful, sacred and splendid place?"

In a bid to find out if a maritime exclusion zone is to be reinstated (the LÉ Samuel Beckett was deployed in the area last year) I was passed from the Defence Forces to the Department of Defence, then on to the Department of Transport and finally to the Irish Film Board. Not one department could give any information. Last year, we also provided an Air Corps helicopter to carry out a reconnaissance mission over the rock. Amazingly, the Government did not charge the film production company for the use of the naval vessel or helicopter.

An Taisce has asked Arts Minister Heather Humphreys to explain why the Disney Lucasfilm Star Wars project was given the go-ahead. They've also sought an outline of the proposed contingencies for the management and mitigation of a range of "potential adverse impacts" on the ecology and archaeology of Skellig Michael. Also, they say one of the "greatest threats" from filming involves "the risk of accidentally bringing rats to the island with all the cargoes, including extensive food and catering". Were rats to arrive, the ecology of the rock would be utterly altered forever.

In her hut high above the Atlantic waters, the tiny storm petrel chick sleeps. The visitors leave, the hum of the boat's engines fade and the sound of the sea and the whistling wind seeps through the dry stone walls. Peace returns but for how long? And if Star Wars fans flock to this rock, will its tranquillity be shattered forever?

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