Tuesday 22 May 2018

Skellig Michael by helicopter: A galaxy not so far away

As Star Wars hits cinemas, we take to the skies for a Millennium Falcon-style view of the Skelligs...

The view of Skellig Michael from a helicopter (photo: Valerie O'Sullivan), with Erin McCafferty (inset).
The view of Skellig Michael from a helicopter (photo: Valerie O'Sullivan), with Erin McCafferty (inset).
Skellig Michael, seen in an aerial photograph this winter. The island, with a monastic settlement dating from 588AD, is a major location in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Erin McCafferty, before her helicopter trip to the Skelligs
Ceann Sibéal or Sybil's Head, on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. It features as a location in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
A view from inside the helicopter. Photo: Erin McCafferty
Skellig Michael's six beehive huts seen from the air - the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Naoise Barry of Aerial Adventure

Erin McCafferty

It looks so peaceful from above. A giant, pointy, rock formation in varying hues of grey and green, rising majestically from the Atlantic.

In crystal clear December daylight, I can see the jagged edges of the coast - earthy brown and grey - contrasting with the deep navy blue of the sea below.

It’s only when you look closely at the edges of Skellig Michael, and see the frothy white waves crashing in wild abandon against the rocks, that you realise just how treacherous this tiny island actually is.

There’s an almost tangible power to it, with or without Star Wars - in which it features dramatically as a location. It casts a spiritual spell.

Skellig Michael, seen in an aerial photograph this winter. The island, with a monastic settlement dating from 588AD, is a major location in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Skellig Michael, seen in an aerial photograph this winter. The island, with a monastic settlement dating from 588AD, is a major location in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Skellig Michael's six beehive huts seen from the air - the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Skellig Michael is home to thousands of Atlantic puffins, at least from March to September. These colourful, enigmatic seabirds spend their summers on the island, breeding and fattening their chicks on locally available food which often comprises of high calorie sand-eel and sprat. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan
The monastic Island of Skellig Michael was founded in 588 by Saint Fionán - for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. It's a main location for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the second film in the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan
Skellig Michael, home to one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries. The word 'Scellic' means a steep rock. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Skellig Michael's monastic huts - for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Located 12 kilometres off the coast County Kerry’s Inveragh Peninsula, Skellig Michael is the most spectacular of all the early medieval island monastic sites. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Ceann Sibéal or Sybil's Head, on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. It features as a location in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Ceann Sibéal or Sybil's Head, on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the location is used to replicate the monastic Island of Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan
An aerial shot of Skellig Michael, which has six beehive huts situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Skellig Michael first became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits cinemas on December 15. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
View from Skellig Ring, Iveragh Peninsula, Wild Atlantic Way. Photo: Valerie O’Sullivan
Ceann Sibéal or Sybil's Head, on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Telling a few ‘Porgies’…Local Guide Muiris Walsh of Iveragh Historical Tours dresses as ‘Chewbacca’ in the newly named ‘Porgmagee’ (Portmagee) Co Kerry, where Film Stars and crew departed for Skellig Michael, the Location of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Spectacular: Skellig Island, taken from the air. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

Set around 12km off West Kerry, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is usually reached by boats, which are permitted to land between mid-May and September.

Today, however, I’m experiencing the Skelligs from some 1,500 feet above sea level - and the luxury of a twin-engine Dauphin helicopter.

It’s my first time in a helicopter and, given that I’m terrified of heights, I’m not sure what to expect. I cling to my seat nervously as we take off from a field on Valentia Island, and move away from the mainland.

The chopper shudders heavily as we climb into the air but the ride is altogether smoother once we’re airborne. I begin to relax, safe in the knowledge that it’s a powerful machine, and am soon struck by a feeling of pure freedom.

A view from inside the helicopter. Photo: Erin McCafferty
A view from inside the helicopter. Photo: Erin McCafferty

We get closer, swooping and diving and rounding the island, first clockwise and then anticlockwise, wheeling like a bird in the sky. 

I don’t want it to end.

It’s an expensive but awesome experience, courtesy of Naoise Barry of Irish-based Aerial Adventure, which mostly runs boat tours to the island, but also helicopter tours for those who can afford them – mostly rich Americans.

In 2014, Naoise flew the first Lucasfilm location scouts over the Skelligs.

It's no surprise that the island ended up stealing the show in the closing scenes of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and West Kerry features richly once again in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, as the planet Ahch-To where Rey spends time with Luke Skywalker.

Stories of Hamill pulling a pint in a local pub and the 450-strong film crew descending on the small village of Portmagee and surrounding area, one of the points from which boats leave for the island, are now legendary.

Ceann Sibéal or Sybil's Head, on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. It features as a location in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan
Ceann Sibéal or Sybil's Head, on the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry. It features as a location in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Photo:Valerie O’Sullivan

But there were scouts here some 1,400 years before Star Wars.

From the heights of a helicopter, it's easy to see why the island was chosen as a retreat by Catholic monks who in the sixth century began carving steps – approximately 600 of them – with their bare hands, into the sheer hard rock.

Later, they built small beehive-like huts, believing that life on Skellig Michael, with its lack of fuel for fires and its diet of birds, eggs and fish, brought them closer to God.

Most died before the age of 35. All suffered from severe rheumatism.

Scenes from The last Jedi were also filmed on the brow of a picturesque hill – Ceann Sibeal – on the Dingle Peninsula. Here, the beehive huts were recreated over a series of months last year before the five-day film shoot took place last August.

It's another stunning part of the Kerry countryside, and to protect its local flora and fauna, helicopters were not permitted to land anywhere near it.

A metal road had to be built from scratch to accommodate the traffic. The set itself was constructed at Pine Wood Studios in England, dismantled, shipped out and reconstructed here.

It too has now become a visitor attraction in its own right.

After approximately 90 minutes in the air, the helicopter shudders again as we land in a GAA pitch outside Dingle. I climb out and step on to land, feeling nothing short of elated. 

I'm not the only one.

Though Star Wars is a big marketing win for Tourism Ireland, the fact that there were traffic jams last summer and a rise in the number of visitors to the remote Dingle site, despite the fact that nothing of the set remains, is already causing problems for some of the local farmers whose fields they are walking across.

“There simply aren’t the facilities to accommodate them all,” explains Áine Uí Dhubhslaine, the owner of the Tig Áine coffee shop, which offers a perfect postcard-like view of Ceann Sibeal from its window. “It is worrying.”

Gerard Kennedy of the Moorings guesthouse in Portmagee, who has become something of a self-styled Star Wars expert after he got to know the crew and co-ordinated their accommodation for The Force Awakens, is more upbeat however.  

“It’s great for the area. Twenty years ago we were on our knees,” he says and his eyes twinkle. “And sure look at us now!”

Getting there

A full-day helicopter tour, including 100 minutes flying time around the Skelligs, costs approximately €2,000pp with Aerial Adventure (aerialadventure.ie), while a half-boat tour with the company costs roughly €200pp.

For more information on the Skelligs and West Kerry, and for Irish Star Wars locations and itineraries, see wildatlanticway.com/starwars.

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