Thursday 18 January 2018

Feel the Force: What's it really like to visit Skellig Michael?

With The Last Jedi in cinemas on December 15, Nick McAvaney travels to its most stunning location...

An Aerial view of Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan / Fáilte Ireland.
An Aerial view of Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan / Fáilte Ireland.
Puffins on Skellig Michael. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.
A young girl dressed up as a Star Wars character on Skellig Michael. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.
Skellig Michael cradle, where Rey meets Luke Skywalker. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.
For 600 years Skellig Michael was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan/Fáilte Ireland

Nick McAvaney

I'm bouncing around our fishing boat with unbridled glee as we steer towards the Skellig Islands off the coast of Kerry.

Christian monks inhabited the island for 500 years a millennium ago, but it was the arrival of the Millennium Falcon recently, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, that has shot the small rocky outcrops into international stardom.

I do wonder what the monks of the Middle Ages would make of the sudden influx of Star Wars tourists, and the fact their monastery will feature as a Jedi outpost for Luke Skywalker in the 8th Star Wars instalment, The Last Jedi (December 15).

Approaching Skellig Michael, the larger of the two islands, is a magical journey. There are loud squawks as we pull into the dock, and puffins zip past my ears as I wander along a cliff path to the foot of the ancient walkway leading up the mountainside.

Puffins on Skellig Michael. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.
Puffins on Skellig Michael. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.

Only 13 boats are licensed to make the journey to Skellig Michael, but they won't dock if the water is too rough. Thankfully, the Force is on my side and I'm one of the lucky 114 visitors that's allowed to walk on the protected island on the day of my visit. But we're still outnumbered by puffins at least 10 to one.

The delightful birds, with bright orange beaks and feet, are everywhere, poking their heads out of every nook and cranny along the hillside as I hike to the island's cradle.

Our guide tells me they're not used to human contact, and so appear fearless as I creep closer for a photo. They do, however, look extremely nervous when considering a flight out to sea.

They are the complete opposite of the gannets and petrels who also inhabit the island and soar majestically through the air above. Using the slate steps as little runways, the puffins waddle towards the edge, pausing to consider their options, their saddened expressions silently asking: "Do I really have to do this?"

Then suddenly, they launch into the air flapping their wings madly and, without a hint of grace, plunge to the watery depths below. I wonder if they fly so close to us because they are truly not scared, or simply because they are incapable of steering clear of obstacles while in flight.

Those returning to the island land with a thud, and then waddle towards their nests to answer the call of their chicks - an eerie 'moo' that sounds like a combination of a wounded cow and a lost sheep.

"The puffins come for the tourist season," our guide tells me as I head up the slated steps, as Rey did on her journey to meet Luke, until I reach the island's cradle.

Rey must have run straight past Luke on her way to the monastery, which is further up beyond the point where they meet in the film.

A young girl dressed up as a Star Wars character on Skellig Michael. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.
A young girl dressed up as a Star Wars character on Skellig Michael. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.

I take a few minutes to soak up the splendid views out to Little Skellig and Co Kerry, posing on the spot with a lightsaber and Yoda toy that someone has thoughtfully brought with them.

Most people appear to be content with the cradle, but my journey is only half complete, so I continue to the 1000-year-old monastery, leaving others behind. Being alone helps me understand why the monks built their small place of worship on this island, which they believed was at the end of the earth.

I explore the six stone huts and small cemetery with childish enthusiasm, continually reminding myself this is where the greatest Jedi ever lived.

Daisy Ridley (Rey) was sick for most of the time during filming for The Force Awakens, my hotelier, Gerard Kennedy, tells me as we sit down for dinner in Portmagee later on.

Skellig Michael cradle, where Rey meets Luke Skywalker. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.
Skellig Michael cradle, where Rey meets Luke Skywalker. PA Photo/Nick McAvaney.

"She was very nervous too," he says, although admits she appeared much more relaxed when the production crew returned in August 2015 to film scenes for Star Wars VIII.

He's also quick to point out there were no A-list egos on show.

"They were both very down to earth. Mark Hamill even pulled a pint over there," he explains, pointing to one of their taps which has now features in their Star Wars tour for guests.

Gerard humbly admits he didn't know anything about Star Wars when the production crew first arrived, needing his son to explain the famous franchise to him. Even then, he still wasn't sure who Mark Hamill was when they left, but assures me he has a better grasp of the space saga and the Force now.

Gerard managed the Moorings hotel for 27 years and believes the Wild Atlantic Way driving route is mainly responsible for the area's popularity.

The following morning, I continue my journey along the Way to Valentia Island, which is seeing a resurgence in slate production thanks largely to a hefty order from the British Government to redo the roofing on the Houses of Parliament.

A long time ago, before the slate quarry opened, a dinosaur left its footprints in a rock on the island's shore. Two separate and easily identifiable tracks were discovered by a geology undergraduate in 1993, and there is also evidence of the tetrapod's tail, carved around 385 million years ago.

Later that night, I witness something that may have taken just as long to arrive in our skies - not from another galaxy, but certainly from far, far away - as I join a stargazing experience at Kerry International Dark-Sky Reserve, one of only three 'gold tier' reserves on the planet.

Every photon I see from the stars is absolutely unique, explains manager, Julie Ormond. I feel privileged to be able to witness them, and take in a glimpse of Saturn and its stunning rings for the first time.

Like most of my childhood friends, I always wanted to be a Jedi Knight, and as an adult, this is probably the closest I'll ever get to realising that dream.

But even if I can't save the universe, at least I've found a small part of the planet that's out of this world.

For more information, visit failteireland.ie. Skellig Michael's tourist season usually runs from May to October. See heritageireland.ie.

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