Monday 20 May 2019

Ireland Inc. still a thousand miles from a Cead Mile Failte

Filming for the new Star Wars film took place on Skellig Michael this week. Photo: PA
Filming for the new Star Wars film took place on Skellig Michael this week. Photo: PA

Mandy Johnston

For years I have spent my summer holidays in the largely unknown town land of Lohar. It is neatly nestled in the mountains overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on the Ring of Kerry between Derrynane and Waterville. In terms of amenities, Lohar consists of a church…… and that is pretty much it. On paper, as a destination for tourists, it has nothing, and yet it has something that is out of this world. A natural asset that the World Heritage Committee describe as being of "exceptional universal value". Its stunning views of the Skellig Islands make its rolling majestic coastline a spectacular sight. A vista that must be experienced rather than simply seen on camera or film. The Skelligs are perfectly prehistoric and fantastically futuristic in equal measure.

This week the cast of the Hollywood block busting franchise Star Wars descended on the holiday village of Waterville to film on Skellig Micheal for Episode VII of the saga. On their arrival, the inevitable negativity ensued and provided us with the now all too familiar background music for Ireland Inc. The struggle of the Irish national conscience between economic prosperity and the preservation of the status quo. When coupled with last month's mind-numbingly embarrassing episode "the Garth Brooks omni-shambles", observers would be forgiven for thinking that we are a nation incapable of celebrating what we have and are unable to maximise the opportunities that come our way.

Before Star Wars Director JJ Abrams ever called "action" on the ancient monastic site, a sign was erected warning noisy American tourists to refrain from frequenting a particular establishment. Charming.

The land of a thousand welcomes indeed. An impossible task to boot, perhaps as futile an exercise as trying to find an Irish person who minds their own business.

Thankfully by the time the news broke that filming was to take place on Skellig Micheal, the Irish Film Board had already gained the necessary legal access required and filming on the location was by then a fait au complit. Had the process not been completed, we probably would have been engulfed in a massive and epic national discussion and talked ourselves out of yet another multi million euro money spinner, leaving Luke Sky Walker hovering in a moon craft over the another exotic location far, far away.

Bird Watch Ireland highlighted objections on behalf of thousands of puffins, manx shearwaters and storm petrels which use underground burrows for nesting sites. The National Monuments Service said that it was "examining the issue" and promised to submit a report to UNESCO later this week - by which time filming had finished, phew.

I have a great deal of sympathy with their case and the causes they represent however when the biggest box office movie franchise and merchandising success stories of all time wants to include you in some way, you say yes. Then you maximise every opportunity that you can to showcase this country as the beautiful, unique and special place that it can be. We are gaining a reputation light years away from our Cead Mile Failte standing of old. What is frustrating is the futility of it all. Even though objections are pointless, people feel that they need to play to their own galleries. Hence, the constant clamour to the airwaves to express the required outrage at the earliest possible juncture.

There are a lot of factors to consider when defining a nation as a tourism destination and we all have a part to play. In financial terms, tourism is now more important to our economy than agriculture. Everyone from Government, State Agencies, airlines, right through to shop assistants need to exploit every opportunity to promote Ireland in a positive light. Interest groups should perhaps pause to contemplate the wider view before formulating their next press release and pressing send to the world.

I am excited that the world will get to see Skellig Micheal. However fleeting its role, I have no doubt that it will look utterly spectacular on the big screen. Having seen it on the biggest screen of all, real life, I cannot imagine how Hollywood can ever add to its pure perfection. The majestic monastic home of the tiny storm petrels will once again afford us an opportunity to show our unique and beautiful land to the world. The force is with us.

Irish Independent

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