Monastic site set to become another Irish place of pilgrimage for film fans

'Braveheart', starring Mel Gibon. Many people are still surprised that the film was shot in Meath and Wicklow and not in Scotland.

If Skellig Michael features in the upcoming ‘Star Wars’ film, it will join a host of Irish locations to feature on the big screen, says Noel Baker.

SKELLIG Michael off the Kerry coast is no stranger to tourists, often seeking a sliver of its air of peace and tranquility. Future visitors, however, might be a little different.

It’s probably a leap of imagination to say Jedi robes and lightsabers will be the order of the day from 2016 onwards, but you never know. In December of next year the eagerly anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII will open in cinemas around the world, and if the unmistakable domes of Skellig make a celluloid appearance, it could open up a new frontier for this monastic site.

Starring on the big screen can have a long-lasting impact. Take the salt lake of Chott el-Jerid in Tunisia, north Africa, which became famous when it was transformed into the home of one Luke Skywalker on the planet of Tatooine, in the original Star Wars: Episode IV. According to one Tunisian tourism website: “Today, many thousands of diehard Star Wars fans make the pilgrimage to Tunisia to visit all the film set locations in the country’s south.”

Could the same thing happen on Skellig? At this stage, it’s pure supposition. It’s expected that the film crew — understood to be operating under the name Foodles Production UK Ltd — will shoot for three days next week, beginning on Monday. Seasoned Star Wars watchers have already claimed that Foodles is effectively an alias for Disney, the main driver behind the revived Star Wars series following its purchase of Lucasfilm.

However, three days of filming on a massive production which has already taken in shoots in Abu Dhabi and the UK might not result in reams of finished celluloid, and there can be no guarantee that any of the footage will end up in the completed picture. But if it did, Skellig will have found yet another reason to attract people to its distinct beauty.

Gerry and Margaret Collins are well placed to speak about the advantages of your home place featuring on the silver screen. The couple have operated the Quiet Man Museum and B&B in the south Co Mayo village of Cong for more than 20 years, all because of the cult following for the John Wayne classic, first released in 1952.

“They come in their thousands,” Gerry Collins says of the tourists that descend on the town every year. “The best way to put that, in my opinion, is 80% of the people who are coming into Cong do so because of The Quiet Man.”

It wasn’t always like this, however; Gerry maintains that before he and others began emphasising the town’s link to the John Ford film, there was just the odd aficionado turning up for a look. Once the area began to create an ‘experience’ around the film, the number of visitors began to soar. Visitors have included members of John Wayne’s family, including his first wife Josephine who wrote in the guest book: “The Duke would have loved this.”

“They are coming from all over the world,” Gerry says. “It’s having a massive effect on Cong.

“It’s a cult following. Some of them know every word of it. All they want to see are the locations.”

Asked whether he felt Skellig might hold a similar appeal to Star Wars buffs, he said: “You would think that would be the case.”

Ireland has hosted some memorable shoots, even if the finished movies were not always classics up there with The Quiet Man.

Director David Lean’s enduring love story Ryan’s Daughter was filmed in the Dingle peninsula in the late 1960s, while the same part of Co Kerry was also the setting in the early ’90s for the less critically acclaimed Far And Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Mel Gibson’s Scottish epic Braveheart was filmed in Ireland, primarily in Co Meath and Co Wicklow, while Wicklow was also the setting for Excalibur and Zardoz, both directed by a resident of the county, John Boorman. The North Wicklow Film Trail — otherwise known as The Excalibur Drive — starts and finishes in Roundwood and is one of a number of film trails advertised by the County Wicklow Film Commission.

Vibeke Delahunt of the County Wicklow Film Commission said there were no statistics to show how films or TV programmes have influenced tourist numbers in the county, but that certain spikes could be seen when new movies appear. Surprisingly, this can happen even when the film has been panned by the critics, with Vibeke mentioning efforts such as 2010 rom-com turkey Leap Year and PS: I Love You still attract visitors here.

There also does not seem to be too much of a difference between a film being set and shot in Ireland and a film being shot here but purporting to be set somewhere else.

“Braveheart is still very popular,” says Vibeke. “I lot of people are still surprised that it was shot here and not in Scotland. I think if people really like the film they want to see [where it was shot].”

And it’s not just Hollywood blockbusters, either. “Ballykissangel completely transformed Avoca,” says Vibeke, adding that while the town no longer receives 10 coach loads of fans a day, as it once did, many people are still drawn to the place thanks to the BBC drama.

Down in Eyeries in West Cork, the occasional visitor from France pitches up because of 1977 film Un Taxi Mauve, aka The Purple Taxi. A French-Irish-Italian curio starring Peter Ustinov and Fred Astaire, it was “a huge deal at the time”, according to Colman O’Sullivan, who provides film location services in the area.

His father has a horse and trap in the film and Colman says: “It still brings a few people coming to the village enquiring about it.”

However, the real deal as far as the Beara town is concerned is 1998 BBC drama Falling for a Dancer, which featured a young Colin Farrell. “Every second Tom, Dick, and Harry from around here was in it,” Colman says, adding that Farrell was back in more recent years for Neil Jordan’s 2009 film Ondine.

However, when it comes to visitors, the movies have to compete with Fáilte Ireland commercials shot in the area, which have attracted plenty of visitors keen to see the spectacular scenery for themselves.

If Skellig does make it into Star Wars, it may well find itself a whole new set of visitors, but the likelihood is that they will leave this rare place a little more enlightened than when they arrived.

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