A familiar looking place
I watched as the Millennium Falcon skimmed over the surface of the immense body of water and approached the tall craggy island jutting powerfully out of the water. It was the first time I was watching Star Wars – the Force Awakens. As I watched I thought, “I know that place! That’s Skellig Michael”
Now, I have travelled a lot, but unfortunately not on an intergalactic basis, so it had to be somewhere more local. As Rey ascended the ancient steps and passed the stone beehive huts, I was sure that it was Skellig Michael. This is one of two huge sea crags located about 12 kms west of the Ivereagh Peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland.
A quick check with Uncle Google after the movie had finished confirmed my suspicion.
The Origins of Skellig Michael
The name Skellig derives from Sceillic which means a steep rock. The Skellig Rocks, comprising Skellig Michael and Little Skellig, are one of ancient Ireland’s most mysterious and amazing places. Their lonely and isolated location out in the Atlantic Ocean with nothing surrounding them but rough seas, have exposed them to the ferocity of the Atlantic Ocean for millions of years. Access has always been difficult, as the islands are being pounded on all sides by huge waves and great swells. Even with modern boats, visitors are only allowed during the summer months.
Naturally, being so remote and inaccessible, it is the perfect location for a Star Wars scene. It’s also especially fitting for a Jedi exile. While this was the end of the first movie, we all now know how it features much more in the second installation of this Star Wars trilogy.
However, it’s not only Luke Skywalker who has used the islands as a spiritual hideaway. The ancient steps and stone beehive huts that Rey walks past are part of a monastic site. Ascetic monks originally built the site sometime between the 6th and 8th century.
Skellig Michael is not only the perfect retreat for a Jedi
Across Ireland many monks fled to remote places such as this to escape from society and pursue a closer union with God. Saint Fionán founded the first monastery on Skellig Michael. But the first confirmed reference to the monks on Skellig occurs from around the 8th century.
Around the 11th century the island was dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel. The Catholic church celebrated this with the building of Saint Michael’s church inside the monastery.
In the 13th century the monks abandoned the monastery and moved to Ballinskelligs, on the mainland. However, the island continued as a holy place and was a pilgrimage for centuries after.
The monastery sits amazingly at the top of this precipitous rock. It is a true testament to the dedication and hard work of the ancient Irish monks. They built it right on the sloping rock plateau at the north-eastern summit, and enclosed it within an inner and outer wall. Probably due to the ferocity and changeability of the Atlantic storms, access was created via three sets of steps on the east, south and north side of the island. The different weather conditions dictated which ones you could use. Today, only the southern steps are open to the public, which no doubt were the ones Rey used.
The structures on the island are all drystone buildings that use corbelling, a technique commonly used across Ireland by the early Christian monks and saints. Another great example of this lies just nearby on the Dingle Peninsula: The Gallarus Oratory. This construction method was so strong and watertight that they have managed to survive for well over a thousand years. Amazing when you think that they have survived the ferocity of the Atlantic storms.
Pre Christian visitors
It’s not only the monks who came to these islands though. In ancient Irish folklore, legend says that Skellig Michael is the burial place of Ir, son of Milesius, who drowned during the landing of the Milesians (Celts). Kings ruled ancient Ireland, and legend also says that Duagh, King of Munster, took refuge on Skellig after a fight with the kings of Cashel.
Legend also says that the Viking King Olaf converted to Christianity here on the island.
In 1996, UNESCO added the island of Skellig Michael to the World Heritage list in recognition of its outstanding value to nature and history.
Naturally, the authorities have restricted access to the island. This is due to the highly fragile nature of the island, the ancient structures and also because it’s home to many nesting and breeding seabirds. Currently there is a limit of 180 visitors per day, and there is no access during the winter months. Anyone wanting to visit the island can do so via guided boat trips. The boats leave from the village of Ballinskelligs, on the Ring of Kerry.
Be aware that boat crossings can be cancelled at short notice due to bad weather. But even if you don’t manage to get out, there is so much else to visit on the mainland that your trip will not be in vain.
As for the Star Wars crew, well filming was no doubt extremely difficult. Getting tourists out to the island is difficult enough. Imagine getting an entire film crew out there.
Ian Middleton is a professional writer, photographer and author of several travel and photography books, such as Mysterious World: Ireland and A Practical Guide to Photography. His photography is for sale as beautiful wall art prints. Ian also runs a photography You Tube Channel. For more info visit his website: www.ianmiddleton.info