Carol Hunt: Our cultural censors need to celebrate the joy and wisdom the Star Wars franchise brought to many Irish kids
Published 20/12/2015 | 02:30
A long time ago, on a continent far far away, a young Egyptian archaeologist scoffed at my attempts to enlighten him about Irish history.
We were standing in the shadow of the great Pyramids of Giza, which my young friend told me were the oldest burial chambers in the world. "Have you not heard of Newgrange?" I asked him. He looked at me blankly. "It's part of a complex of monuments known as passage tombs," I said.
"It was constructed around 3200 BC, which makes it about 600 years older than the Giza Pyramids and 1,000 years older than Stonehenge." He started raising his eyebrows, but I was now full of the enthusiasm that foreigners abroad get from bragging about their home country, so I continued.
"It's an astonishing piece of archaeological engineering, on mornings around the winter solstice a beam of light penetrates an opening called the 'roof-box' and travels all the way into the chamber, illuminating it dramatically." That was when he started laughing. "No, no, no," he said. "Nothing like that is older than our pyramids," he insisted. "If there was something like your Newgrange, we would have heard of it." And he refused to listen to any more.
He's got a point. Everyone has seen or heard of the pyramids. How many films have you watched that have those great structures looming in the background? How many books and TV series use them as part of the plot? Thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Maybe millions. Consequently the pyramids of Giza have been a tourist Mecca for travellers. No one ever looks blankly at Egyptians when they say the pyramids are the oldest passage chambers in the world. No one contradicts them and says, "ah, but over in Ireland… "
A few days ago I watched the new Star Wars film. Many of you will know that it features a scene which was filmed on the majestic rocky outpost of Skellig Michael, off the west coast of Kerry. When St Fionan founded a monastery there in the 6th century CE, it was a dangerous desolate rocky outpost. It was the edge of the known world: the boundary between the known and the unknown; physical reality and the mystical beyond.
There was a lot of noise when the Disney Corporation landed there to film a pivotal scene for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Cultural critics of the Star Wars franchise complained furiously about the sale of our ancient heritage to a giant global corporation; they bemoaned the cynical monetisation of wonder; the turning of our edge-of-the-world-refuge into just another bit of stuff that can be priced and sold off. In short, the self-appointed cultural guardians of our heritage and history explained why we were making a huge mistake allowing Luke Skywalker claim refuge on Skellig Michael.
We were abasing ourselves, showing the world that we were the type of people who would sell our grannies for a small profit or a few minutes of fame. And yes, perhaps they have a point. We should be careful in protecting our heritage. But sometimes it's just not good enough to keep a treasure on a shelf to throw sugar at. Sometimes we need to share the love. And sometimes there is a case for getting off an elitist high-horse and admitting that there is such a thing as popular culture.
I remember seeing the first Star Wars film in 1977. I was 12 and it was the first film my mother allowed myself and my brothers to attend without adults. My big brother was in charge, which was quite an event in itself. But even before the film came out we knew there was something different about this experience.
Remember, Ireland in the 1970s seemed very cut off from the rest of the western world. Censorship was rife. It was only five years since that veritable dictator John Charles McQuaid had ceased ruling the country. We only had one, conservative, TV channel. Very few famous bands or individuals visited our shores. Even at the age of 12 I knew there was a whole big world out there, one that we weren't allowed to take part in, for fear that we would be corrupted, contaminated or misled. Our betters knew better than we did, we were told.
And then came Star Wars, the ultimate dream movie; a fairytale space/western/romance/thriller that connected kids from all over the world. The characters were real; they told jokes, they were wry, warm, observant, cynical and very, very human - even the robots (especially the robots). To kids on the cusp of teendom, they identified with our feelings of isolation, our fears of not fitting in or belonging somewhere. Because all of the heroes in Star Wars are adrift. They are all glorious misfits, without family or friends - until they find each other. Star Wars is, ultimately, a story about finding your place in the world, with people who understand you for who you are. It's all about the love.
But it wasn't just the movie, it was the marketing and the merchandising too. I know these are words that make our cultural censors choke, but they brought pure joy to kids who wanted the chance to own 'stuff' that reminded us of the film. And again remember, this was in the days when you saw a film once and that was it. No re-runs, no DVDs, no downloading from some dodgy internet site. So if you didn't recall what Princess Leia looked like when she was giving her message to R2-D2, you needed to get the figurine to remember. In order to re-enact the story, you needed as many figurines as possible (my mother still finds them buried in the garden).
Sometimes we couldn't remember which way a scene went (no Google, no reruns) so we'd have to recreate it ourselves. George Lucas made us all into mini-directors. And then we heard there would be a sequel (whatever that was) and there would be a huge, devastating revelation in it. Do you remember where you were when you learned Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father? Sadly, for many of us it wasn't in a cinema, but in a school-yard, where the kids who had managed to get early tickets for the first screening of The Empire Strikes Back couldn't help themselves from sharing the awful truth. It was too big to keep in. By the time Return Of The Jedi opens, we know Leia too has the Dark Side in her genes, which in a weird way meant we all could be Darth Vader's children.
This was momentous stuff, particularly for 1970s Irish Catholic kids, reared on the 'sins of the fathers' - we had been told that having 'bad thoughts' make us into bad people. According to Star Wars this was most definitely not the case. We could choose. Which may explain why hundreds of thousands of Irish people cited their religion as "Jedi Knight" on the census forms.
We now find that Luke has sought refuge on the hallowed rocks of Skellig Michael. Could anything be more apt? For this Star Wars fan, it's a kind of homecoming; a welcome recognition that Star Wars is more than just a movie, or a franchise. It's a part of our cultural heritage. And now ancient Ireland is a part of the Star Wars heritage. We have shared the love. We are connected to the universe. The Force is with us. Beat that pyramids!