Star Wars at 40: How Kerry became the centre of a galaxy far, far away

In 1977 we were introduced to Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia for the first time. To mark 40 years of Star Wars, Greg Murphy took a trip to Skellig Michael (aka the planet Ahch-To), set to take centre stage again.

Star Wars at 40: How Kerry became the centre of a galaxy far, far away

Describing somewhere as out this world has never been so accurate when you’re talking about West Kerry, and that’s before we leave Portmagee to journey to ‘a galaxy far, far away’.

Arriving into the already stirring fishing village at 8.30am I couldn’t help but feel that it was going to be a special day.

My destination, the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre on Valentia Island, and from there, to the home of the first Jedi temple on the planet Ahch-To, known to locals as Skellig Michael.

The 1,500-year-old monastic settlement, seven miles off the Irish coast was the location chosen by Disney and Lucasfilm to play a significant part in the latest instalments of the Star Wars trilogy.

The skipper of my boat for the day was Jamie Duff, and along with his trusted deckhand Liam, he took myself and 11 others across the Atlantic Ocean to the iconic rock sticking out of the sea.

The passengers on board my vessel were as diverse as a Mos Eisley cantina, with people travelling from Colorado and Los Angeles in the US, Essen in Germany, and even as close as Dublin and Cork.

On the hour-long journey I had plenty of time to ponder how far the Star Wars franchise has come since it began entertaining fans 40 years ago, and just how important it is, not only to cinema but to the people who have been following it since 1977.

Back in 1973, a young George Lucas introduced his original idea, The Journal of the Whills, to Universal Studios but when they canned his project, 20th Century Fox stepped in and, after a few rewrites, Star Wars was born.

The first film, A New Hope, was released in 1977 and starred three unknown actors: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo respectively.

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford as Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo

Lucas never believed it would go on to be successful, and made a bet with fellow director Steven Spielberg for 2.5% of the profits, that his Close Encounters film would be far more successful.

The movie was an instant hit, and it is estimated that Spielberg has earned over $40m from Star Wars, despite having nothing to do with the creation of the films.

As we made our way across relatively smooth seas to Skellig Michael I expected the Millennium Falcon to fly over our heads at any minute, such was the feeling on the boat that day.

After we landed and made our way across the narrow walkway to the beginning of the steps, the views were already spectacular.

What shocked me most is how warm it was on the island - 7.2 miles out into the Atlantic and it was far warmer than it was on the mainland.

When we reached the start of our climb, we were reminded by guides just how dangerous it could be on the way up and the way down.

“If you’re not sure whether or not you suffer from vertigo, you’ll find out as soon as you reach the first ledge.” With this in mind, I started off on the climb of 618 steps to the top of the rock - turns out, I don’t have vertigo.

All the way to the top, it was very easy to see why director JJ Abrams chose the location for the instantly iconic closing scene of The Force Awakens, which was released in 2015.

JJ Abrams directing the The Force Awakens on Skellig Michael

JJ Abrams directing the The Force Awakens on Skellig Michael

It didn’t look like a place on Earth; it was almost like being on another world.

Abrams said, in a video release by the Irish Film Board, he was drawn to the UNESCO World Heritage site because he wanted to find somewhere that was authentic and looked ‘out of this world’.

“I can’t believe they let us shoot there. It was so beautiful.

“It’s sort of a miracle this place. We could not be more honoured to be here, or feel luckier.” Despite being on screen for less than five minutes in The Force Awakens, director Rian Johnson made it very clear that Skellig Michael would play a significant part in The Last Jedi, due out in December.

The Force Awakens is the seventh movie in the Star Wars saga, a story that fans have been waiting for since the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983.

While George Lucas released his prequel trilogy, consisting of the Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith, it was beginning to look like we would never find out what happened after the original trilogy came to an end.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm for a whopping $4.6 billion in 2012 it made a promise to the fans - the story would continue and a new trilogy was commissioned, along with a number of spin-off stories.

Back on Skellig Michael, the peak is 714ft above sea level, and by the time I got to the monastery at the top my heavy breathing was reminiscent of Darth Vader with a faulty helmet.

Daisy Ridley as Rey on the island.

Daisy Ridley as Rey on the island.

The buildings at the top were built by the early Christian settler monks and still stand to this day.

The sixth-century monastery was established to be as isolated as possible from the rest of civilisation at the time.

Ireland was once considered to sit at the very edge of the world. If that’s the case, Skellig Michael was as far away from life as you could get.

We spent around an hour and a half taking in the scenery and views before it was time to make our way back to the bottom and onto our boats.

The climb back down can be as treacherous as the way up, and I was reminded again of the words of advice given to us by our guide.

“A great way to get around Skellig Michael is on your bum. You can always wash your pants, but you can’t wash away a broken leg.” I managed the descent on my two feet, but this was my favourite part of the adventure.

On the climb, we were advised to keep our eyes on our feet due to the instability of the steps, and on the way down I took in everything that I missed.

The landscape was just dazzling to the eye. The island has been so well preserved over thousands of years; I was double taking at every turn of the path just to take it all in.

Our boat ride back to the mainland included a scenic detour around both Skellig Michael and Skellig Beag, the latter being home to the second largest gannet colony in the world - all 70,000 of them The seas were far rougher on the way home, but the passage was made easier by the ‘in-flight service’ of teas and coffees.

At times you would be forgiven for thinking we were aboard the Millennium Falcon, diving our way through the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back.

Once our tour of the islands finished, it was, thankfully, time to make our way straight back to Portmagee across the rising waves.

In my head, the saga’s iconic theme music was playing as we headed back to shore.

The score for Star Wars has become one of the most recognised and best loved musical arrangements ever created, and that was down to one man: John Williams.

Williams wrote the music for every Star Wars movie and with each new story came a different sound. Every character had their own individual theme. The most significant of which is the Imperial March, written for the ultimate movie villain - Darth Vader, who was voted third greatest villain of all time by the American Film Institute.

Vader was played by 6ft 4in actor David Prowse and voiced by a man who, in my humble opinion, has a voice more impressive than Morgan Freeman: James Earl Jones.

Darth Vader with Princess Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher.

Darth Vader with Princess Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher.

Back on dry land at the Skellig Experience Visitor Centre, I sat down with manager John O’Sullivan to talk about the impact the filming of Star Wars has had in the area.

“We are an organisation that relies on tourism, and since Skellig Michael appeared on the big screen, business has taken off,” John told me.

“The number of people going out to the island has remained the same, due to the strict licences issued by the OPW. These allow 15 boats to land every day carrying a maximum of 12 passengers.

“There has however been a huge increase in demand and people coming to visit the centre where we have our exhibition, cafe and merchandise.

“We have had to build a bigger car park to accommodate the sheer numbers of people coming to the centre.” The following day in Portmagee I met up with Ger Kennedy, owner of the Moorings Guesthouse and Restaurant and Bridge Bar.

The Bridge Bar became the unofficial Star Wars hub when the cast and crew were filming in the area.

You might remember seeing a video on IrishExaminer.com of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) learning to pull a pint of Guinness and spending time with the locals.

I met Ger the morning of The Lion’s final game against the All-Blacks in July. The bar was busy so we found a separate lounge area, not before I was shown the special Star Wars themed corner with a free-standing Darth Vader and a Guinness tap.

“Back in January 2014 I was approached by a group who said they would be coming down to film some footage on the Skelligs, making a documentary on the wildlife,” he told me.

“I assumed it would be for the BBC or similar and they said that they would be in contact to organise accommodation and transport to the island.

“A few months later we got a call from the group saying they would be arriving with a crew of around 180 people, and I thought to myself that’s some documentary.

“When they arrived then there was a crowd from Disney and the Irish Film Board and they then told me that they were filming something big.” When the crew were finishing up with shooting, they arrived at Ger’s pub for their wrap party and he told me about the night that he had a Jedi Master pulling pints downstairs.

“He was in behind the bar, and I didn’t know him at all. They were here and I didn’t realise who they were.

“We were quite busy that night and I said to the lads ‘We’re too busy to be showing people how to pull pints which is something we would normally do.

“The barman was a real Star Wars fan and he told me it was Mark Hamill.

“There was a great atmosphere in the bar. He was very generous with his time. Despite getting off the shoot late in the day, he stood for pictures and signed autographs for children.“

Walking around the village, it was easy to get a sense that the locals enjoyed playing host to one of the biggest cinematic features in recent years. Merchandise was scattered throughout corner shops and local cafes, enticing fans in to sample the local wares and spend their money.

So far, Skellig Michael has featured in The Force Awakens, and is due to be a major location and plot device in the upcoming The Last Jedi, hitting cinemas later this year.

The next installment is expected to be a tribute to Princess Leia/General Organa actor Carrie Fisher, who sadly passed away in December, having completed the filming of her story in the franchise she loved so much.

Her passing was marked with world-wide mourning by fans who loved her for the character she played on screen, but also the character she was off of it.

As I left West Kerry, destined to return soon, 40-years of movie history hit me like a wave, just as it had this small area, which has now become a jewel in the crown of the Star Wars empire.

May The Force Be With You.

www.skelligexperience.com/

THE WONDERS OF WEST KERRY

It’s impossible to see all the wonders of West Kerry in one day so an overnighter is a must.

I stayed in Quinlan and Cooke Boutique Townhouse in Cahersiveen.

My room was appropriately named the Skellig Suite and was a piece of heaven.

After rambling around a rock in the Atlantic Ocean all day, I was grateful for a huge bathtub, a enormous TV, and a giant bed.

QC’s are well known for their grub and their seafood selection is spectacular.

I found myself in the bar tucking into traditional fish and chips.

It got quite busy so booking in advance is recommended, even if you’re just stopping for a quick bite.

www.qc.ie

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