One of the hero’s of the last two Star Wars franchise – The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi – will not be an actor nor actress, but a rocky outcrop off the coast of Ireland that’s home to a 1400-year-old monastery.
Rising out of the Atlantic Ocean, 12km from the coastline of County Kerry, Skellig Michael is one of the most dramatic settings in the movie. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most breathtaking and fascinating places in Ireland, the island has never become a major tourist draw.
Skellig Michael is largely glossed over in tourist guides and receives a minuscule number of visitors compared with major Irish attractions such as the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry and Blarney Castle. But with one of the world’s most popular film franchises showcasing its rugged environment, it was soon on the map.
Over a 12-month period, extensive filming for both Force Awakens and The Last Jedi took place on picturesque island. As a setting for both movies, the island has seen a major surge in visitors, as has been the case in locations across the world that have appeared in previous Star Wars franchise films.
One of the main reasons Skellig Michael has never been a big tourist draw is the same reason it has remained such an untouched place: its isolation and tempestuous surroundings. The island rises sharply out of the ocean, with steep, craggy rock faces making it difficult to access.
Visitors must catch a boat from Portmagee – it takes 45 minutes to reach Skellig Michael, passing its smaller offsider Little Skellig. Because of the turbulent weather and seas, boat tours only run during Ireland’s warmest months, from April to October, and even then they are a day-by-day proposition based on the conditions.
The fact that Skellig Michael is not easy to get to today, serves to make it all the more incredible that it hosted a monastery for up to 600 years – roughly from the seventh to the 13th centuries, according to historians. As stunning and unusual as the island’s natural appearance is, it is this monastic complex that makes it unique.
Due to the lack of visitors, the ancient stone buildings are extremely well preserved. There was controversy in Ireland after it emerged that parts of the site had been damaged during the Star Wars filming. The damage was reportedly minimal, however, and already fixed.
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Skellig Michael’s summit is more than 200-metres above the ocean and along its hills are a sequence of unusual, beehive-shaped structures. These were the homes and prayer centres of a hardy group of ascetic monks who set up the monastery on the island.
Asceticism, which these monks practised, involves entirely removing yourself from mainstream society and doing away with typical human pleasures as well as many comforts.
The monks scarcely could have chosen a more forbidding, yet gorgeous setting for such a life. Skellig Michael is buffeted by high winds and stormy seas for more than half the year and historians believe this weather may often have left the monks marooned through winter.
Mystery surrounds these monks and their early days. It is not known exactly when they arrived or how they survived the harsh weather and isolation. Mother Nature is believed to have eventually driven them back to the mainland in the 13th century after a long period of particularly unforgiving weather.
They left behind the monastery on the island’s north-eastern ridge. It is believed the monks chose this location because of the shelter from winds and the area’s abundance of rocks, which were used to build the monastery and its surrounding buildings.
The housing was built on the slope below the monastery and three stone paths allowed the monks to trek safely up and down. Only the south set of steps remain intact and they are used by visitors to the island to climb up to the architectural remains.
Alongside the largest oratory, or prayer room, is a small graveyard where more than 20 monks are buried. Overlooking the ocean and flanked by a nest of curious stone structures, there can be few more striking cemeteries in the world. Determined to live a life cut off from the rest of the world, the monks died in anonymity.
More than a thousand years later, the vestiges of the society they formed are set to be seen across the globe.
- Skellig Michael is off the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry and is reached by boat from the town of Portmagee. Several boats leave Portmagee daily between April and October each year.
- Iveragh Peninsula is one of the most beautiful and pristine regions of Ireland. It is directly south of the Dingle Peninsula, which is a well-known tourist destination. Iveragh has many of the same attributes as Dingle with a fraction of the visitors.
- About 40km north-east of Portmagee is the Rossbeigh Strand, one of the most popular surfing destinations in south-west Ireland. This long, gorgeous beach also is a great spot for swimming in the summer.
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