There is perhaps no more evocative place on Earth to stage a cliff-hanger than on a rock that juts like an angry iceberg out of the wild Atlantic Ocean.
This is exactly where we left Luke Skywalker and Rey at the end of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” And, if the trailer is to be believed, it’s where we will greet them again this winter when “The Last Jedi” opens in theaters. Rey went to the island in search of Luke, who had camped out at the first Jedi temple on the planet of Ahch-To.
Back on Earth, the tiny, uninhabited island of Skellig Michael stood in for the sacred ground. It’s part of Ireland, right at Europe’s westernmost tip. Appropriately, it was once home to an actual monastery.
When I first saw “The Force Awakens,” I shot up in my seat during the final scene, my heart in my mouth. That wasn’t just because Rey had actually made it (and… wait, was that really Mark Hamill?) but because I was wowed by the location. I had to find this island and pay a visit.
Eighteen months later, I did.
Ireland’s wild west
The “Ring of Kerry” on the southwest coast of Ireland is a popular bus route for tourists — a little like the US’s historic Route 66. But less popular is a second route called the “Skellig Ring,” which drifts further north and brings us to the village of Portmagee, the departure point for Skellig Michael.
In another part of the world you could imagine this town sprouting neon attractions and amusements, but not here. That’s not to say that the locals aren’t attempting to capitalize on the Star Wars connection, but their efforts are cute rather than naff — wookiee and ewok nicknacks in the windows, “Home of Star Wars” signs, that kind of thing. Niagara Falls, this ain’t.
The most Star Wars-centric place of all is perhaps The Moorings. It’s a bar and restaurant with rooms right in the heart of Portmagee. It’s probably got the best claim to fame in town: The upstairs lounge served as a hub for the production team while the kitchen served lunches to the cast and crew, some of whom also stayed in rooms upstairs. Others stayed in holiday cottages on the edge of town and a hotel in a neighboring town.
In the bar area you can have your photo taken with a full-size Star Wars-branded picture of Skellig Michael. There’s also a looping video of Mark Hamill pouring a perfect pint of Guinness behind the bar. You can have a go at that too if you ask nicely.
When Disney scouts first came to town, they told Gerald Kennedy, who has run The Moorings with his wife Patricia for 28 years, that they were making a documentary. Even months later when JJ Abrams popped in and Kennedy was handed a Lucasfilm business card, he had no idea was what lay ahead. His son had to explain to him what Star Wars was.
That ignorance didn’t last long — and now he’s something of an expert. Earlier this year Kennedy, was bemused to find himself at the Star Wars convention in Orlando on behalf of the Irish tourist board. Not that Portmagee and the Skellig need more tourists. In fact, said Kennedy, there have been concerns that the area might find itself overrun with tourists, just as the Ring of Kerry is now.
“It’s a relaxing place. It’s very special, it’s very spiritual,” said Kennedy. “Is this going to destroy everything that we have?”
Pushing the boat out… or not
It doesn’t matter how many people come to Portmagee, though. Since 1996 the island has been a Unesco World Heritage site. A limited number of boatmen with permits are allowed to land on Skellig Michael every day, delivering no more than 180 people. The whole world could flock to this remote corner of the world and the rules would stay the same. And don’t think any exceptions were made for Disney.
“Everybody was very worried, but they came, they just fitted in, and that was it — we didn’t take much notice,” said Kennedy.
The crew came to Portmagee twice, he said, each time for a period of six weeks. For “The Force Awakens” they arrived in August 2014, right in the middle of tourist season. Then they returned in September 2015 to film “The Last Jedi.”
“When I read the script for Episode VIII, I went, ‘Oh my God, we’re going back?’,” said Hamill in a recent interview with Vanity Fair. He was not thrilled at the prospect as the first time it took him an hour and a half to climb the rock.
Now that I’ve been to Skellig, I can see how the idea of using it as a location seems utterly crazy. Every day of filming began with bouncing 180 cast and crew members, along with all their equipment, out to sea in fishermen’s boats that slide down the waves like hot sauce over ice cream. Our ship’s captain described the sea as having “a bit of a chop”, which was quite the understatement. There were moments during the 45-minute trip when I was worried I might be about to see my breakfast reappear.
Even if you dodge the nausea, you will inevitably arrive in a state best described as wind-whipped and soggy. Then comes the climb — a vertiginous upward, and later downward, slog. I had an easier time than Hamill by the sounds of it, but my knees were weak and shaky the next day.
Then there are the elements. If it’s too rough to leave the harbor, you’re out of luck. This makes planning a trip to Skellig Michael all the more tricky. To secure one of the 180 coveted spots, you have to book well in advance. And even then there’s no guarantee that your boat will leave the harbor on the big day.
For a week before I arrived in Portmagee, I checked not just the weather, but the shipping and coastal forecasts and the small craft warnings twice a day. Four days before I was set to leave, the gales were hitting force 8 and “turning cyclonic.” But when I called the captain of our ship the night before we were due to sail, he had good news for me: “The trip’s going ahead tomorrow, so you’ll need to be at the harbor at 9 a.m.”
A spiritual isle
Thankfully, it worked out, and I was halfway up Skellig Michael, rubbing shoulders with fluffball puffins, of which there were hundreds.
The climb up and down is steep — 600 steps in all — and exposed, often with sheer drops down to one side. In one direction is the outline of gannet-infested Little Skellig, the smaller sister island. To the other side is the Atlantic and then nothing. It’s worth stopping frequently to admire these vistas. It doubles as a great excuse to catch your breath if you’re as unfit as I am.
Even today, when you know that the shores of North America are on the other side of those thousands of miles of slate-blue sea, it feels like you’re perched at the very ends of the Earth.
The monks who populated this desolate rock sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries did not have the same grasp of world geography as we do today, or the same beliefs about metaphysics. But they felt it too, perhaps even more keenly. “This is the edge of the world,” said Bob Harris, an official Skellig Island guide who was waiting for us by the beehive huts at the very top of the island’s northern peak. “Anything that the human mind can conjure up was there,” he gestured out to sea.
When they came to Skellig with their prayers for the souls of all men, the monks were willing martyrs. “They thought they were going out into the wilderness to engage in spiritual warfare,” said Harris.
It was only when I reached the peak of Skellig Michael and listened to Harris, who has been doing this job for 30 years, that I realized there are two different ways of looking at the island. It could be easily be viewed as a bleak place — a craggy, isolated rock where people came to pursue an austere way of life.
But for the monks, who believed nature was full of spirits, it was alive. Nowhere are you left more exposed to nature than on this green island. The monks were surrounded by bird life and often lashed with the full force of the wind and waves of the Atlantic, which itself is home to dolphins and seals and whales. “They didn’t come to an empty place, they came to a place that was spiritually charged,” said Harris.
There’s no small irony then that Skellig Michael appealed to Abrams and the Star Wars production scouts when they were looking for a suitable place to represent the first Jedi temple. Aside from a few tumble-down stone sculptures that could pass for a crucifixes there are no overt symbols of Christianity here. And yet there is something about reaching the beehive village poised on top of this rock that inspires reverence, both in the fortitude of men of faith and the awesomeness of nature.
Perhaps in the Star Wars universe, no one planet can contain all the many varied ecosystems we see in the films. But one planet in our universe certainly can — and luckily for us, we live on it. So many of the Star Wars landscapes that seem otherworldly are in fact augmented versions of the world that surrounds us. Skellig Michael is perhaps the least augmented and most otherworldly of all.
We don’t yet know what real meaning we should attach to Ahch-To. We don’t why Luke went there, what he’s been doing or what effect his time there will have on him, on Rey or on the Force. What we do know — just as the monks who came here over a millennia ago knew, and just as the locals here will tell you today — is that Skellig Michael truly is a special place.
How to get there: Ryanair flies direct to Kerry from London and Frankfurt. Aer Lingus flies to Kerry from various US cities via Dublin. Car hire is available at Kerry airport.
Boat trips: Skellig Landing trips run everyday, weather depending, between May and October. Book well in advance and contact boatmen to arrange.
What to bring: Warm, waterproof clothing, good walking shoes, medication if you suffer with seasickness, water and snacks. There are no facilities, including toilets, on the island.
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