Tuesday 24 September 2019

How 'Star Wars' draws tourists from far, far away to a kingdom on the edge of the Atlantic

Fans dressed as Chewbacca and Darth Vader approach Skellig Michael. Picture: PA
Fans dressed as Chewbacca and Darth Vader approach Skellig Michael. Picture: PA

Michelle Devane

A rocky outcrop off the coast of Co Kerry that featured in two 'Star Wars' films has transformed the tourism scene in south-west Ireland.

'Star Wars' fans have flocked to Skellig Michael, a sheer-sided island 19km off the Wild Atlantic Way, and other Co Kerry sites since they were seen in the two latest films in the franchise, 'The Force Awakens' and 'The Last Jedi'.

The Unesco world heritage site was inhabited by monks from around the sixth century for about 500 years, with residents living in stone beehive-shaped huts in a monastery clinging to the cliff faces on the 200m-high rock.

Publican Gerard Kennedy, who runs The Moorings guesthouse in Portmagee, said the village had been transformed by the interest generated by 'Star Wars'. "It's been very positive," he said, adding that an entirely new industry had been created in the Kingdom.

Mr Kennedy was involved in providing and arranging accommodation for the cast and crew. He was told rooms were needed for a team who were going to film a puffin documentary on the island.

"We were all dying to find out," he said. "We thought they were the BBC - the BBC are forever doing documentaries on puffins (on the island)."

He said he knew there was something awry when they came back to him to say they needed rooms for 180 people.

But it was not until one of the crew handed him a business card with Lucas Films embossed on it that he knew it was 'Stars Wars' for definite.

"I hadn't even seen a 'Star Wars' movie - if it was 'Mrs Brown's Boys' I would have known it all right," Mr Kennedy said.

"I was telling Mark Hamill this afterwards - the crew were getting a real kick out of it that I hadn't a clue who they were."

Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker in the long-running franchise, ended up pulling pints in his bar.

"I went from never seeing a movie to be among all the cast," Mr Kennedy said.

Vincent Kidd, proprietor of the Royal Hotel on Valentia Island, said it had brought areas like Valentia, Portmagee, Dingle and Donegal to an "audience of billions" that no marketing campaign could ever hope to achieve.

"You'd want an astronomical budget to do what 'Star Wars' did for the Wild Atlantic Way and area in particular," he said. "The Skelligs now will always be synonymous with 'Star Wars'. It has put not just Kerry but the whole western seaboard on the world stage.

"It's done so much for the whole country and tourism in the region, it's had a monumental effect."

Mr Kidd said he saw an immediate impact in increased visitors when the films were released. Even though the outcrop is accessible only from May to September, he said fans were still coming year-round.

Earlier this year, the first May The Fourth Festival was held. Fáilte Ireland, the national tourism body, got behind them to push the festival. The three-day 'Star Wars' themed event took place in Portmagee, Ballinskelligs, as well as Valentia Island and Ballyferriter and Dingle. Enthusiasts dressed as Darth Vader, stormtroopers and Chewbacca travelled to take part in the events.

It was so successful that plans are afoot for the second festival. It is expected to include screenings of the films and a céilí with participants wearing 'Star Wars' costume.

Irish Independent

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