Skellig Michael's star turn in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is 'the best advert for Ireland ever made'

It’s easy to see how magical Skellig Michael captured Hollywood’s imagination, writes John Daly.

Skellig Michael's star turn in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is 'the best advert for Ireland ever made'

Lightsabre? Check. Death Star dome tent? In the bag. Brayar Blaster pistol? Locked and loaded.

As the chopper arcs and wheels 1000ft above the azure blue of Dingle Bay, we’ve left the normal world far behind on a flight path edging us closer to the un-earthly Star Wars domain of Ahch-To, sanctuary of The Last Jedi.

Having climbed the ancient steps of Skellig Michael many times in my youth, the stunning celestial view from the front seat of a twin-engine AS365 Dauphin helicopter as we circle above this massive ocean outcrop is almost beyond description — all too easy to see how such a geographical wonder, and Unesco World Heritage site, captured the hearts of Hollywood as they searched for what film director JJ Abrams called “somewhere otherworldly and sacred.”

George Bernard Shaw described Skellig Michael as “an incredible, impossible mad place, part of a dream world” — a portrayal that has changed little over the intervening century.

Just 12km off the Iveragh peninsula, this remote and lonesome world where early Christian monks built their inaccessible monastery around the 6th century, was deemed the “closest place to God that humanity could reach”.

The perfect place then to film one of the most eagerly awaited movies of the last decade.

THE STORY SO FAR

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, follows on from where its 2015 predecessor, The Force Awakens, left off.

But where Skellig Michael got its Hollywood close-up in the previous film for just the closing, but spectacular, few minutes, this time around the prehistoric monastic island dominates a large chunk of the new movie.

Indeed, the stunning standard of cinematography is such that the island is the biggest star in the movie, with some industry insiders labelling it “the best advert for Ireland ever made.”

With a high-powered cast starring the late Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Benecio del Toro and our own Domhnall Gleeson, this will be the longest ever Star Wars film at two and a half hours.

Much of the film, and particularly in those early scenes on Scellig Michael, revolve around Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill, and who set in motion the plot’s forward momentum.

The hero of the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker, has spent years hidden away on this windswept isle — a once proud Jedi knight now turned broken and bitter at the cards life has dealt him.

Rey has finally tracked the former galactic hero down to his lair, and hands him his trusty lightsabre — an offering she hopes will convince him to train her in the ways of the Jedi, and fashion her fighting skills as the next generation to fight the Evil Empire.

WHEN SKELLIG MET TATOOINE

Viewed from the air, the painstakingly constructed Jedi hideaway carefully constructed with all the expertise Hollywood could muster bear a striking resemblance to the iconic beehive huts constructed by those hardy monks eons ago.

This was no accident, according to the film’s director and co-writer, Rian Johnson.

“Our design for Ahch-To, that beehive structure, is directly inspired by those ancient huts on Skellig. We played around with the geography of them to fit what we needed, but the design came from the original, we wanted to fit in with what was on the islands.”

For those familiar with the earlier films in the Star Wars franchise, the ancient monastic structures from the 6th century actually bear an uncanny resemblance to Luke’s original family home in the desert of Tatooine.

“It was an incredible but entirely co-incidental connection,” Johnson explained.

“It’s funny how things rhyme sometimes.”

The 44-year old director, whose previous screen credits include episodes of Breaking Bad and the 2012 thriller, Looper, starring Bruce Willis, admitted to having arrived in Kerry well prepared for the 600 steps that became his daily trek to work during filming: “I was very psyched for the climb before I did it for the first time, people had warned me it was a real tough trek. But I found it pretty doable, mainly I guess from having built it up so much beforehand.”

Having endeared himself to crew and locals alike for his grounded and even-handed approach to this massive project upon an often inhospitable landscape, the director paid tribute to those who climbed those steps with serious weight on their shoulders on a daily: “All of our great Irish crew, who acted as sherpas carting our equipment up those steps, they had the toughest job — and they handled it superbly.”

POINTING HOLLYWOOD TOWARD THE KINGDOM

In early 2014, Naoise Barry, who worked for many years with the Irish Film Board, took a Diskey-Lucasfilm location scout to Skellig Michael for the first time.

It proved a momentous move in setting in motion a chain of events that eventually saw the green light given to bringing Star Wars to Ireland — surely one of the biggest coups ever in the history of attracting overseas productions into the country.

Naoise went on to co-ordinate Irish government support for the making of The Force Awakens, and then became Pinewood Studios’ Head of Production in charge of the Irish portion of The Last Jedi two years later.

“Rian Johnson and all of the Star Wars crew who worked here were very, very happy with the welcome and work ethic of the local people, both in the Dingle area and in all the other locations along the Wild Atlantic Way.

“They even took the trouble to buy space in local newspapers, including the Irish Examiner, to thank everyone, and that is something very rare. Don’t forget, these people are some of the most talented in the movie business, people who film all over the world. When they extol the virtues of Ireland and its people, its is no idle praise — they really mean it.”

Inspired by his experience on both Star Wars productions, Naoise recently founded Aerial Adventure, offering guided helicopter and boat tours behind the scenes in the making of these two extraordinary movies.

“During 25 years in the film business, I’ve taken movie stars, leading directors and Hollywood studio executives on aerial tours, showing them how beautiful Ireland is, and encouraging them to make their movies here. Aerial Adventure is an organic extension of that.”

PORGMAGEE — IRELAND’S NEWEST VILLAGE

Place names can often be the cause of consternation in Kerry — just look at the controversy around changing of Dingle to Daingean Uí Chúis a few years back.

This time it’s Portmagee’s turn — now adopting a new moniker, Porgmagee, just until the December 15th opening of The Last Jedi.

Inspired by the hundreds of puffins who roost on Scellig Michael, director Rian Johnson ordered the design of a new cuddly creature into the Star Wars universe: “When we first came on the island to scout its suitability, I saw hundreds of these adorable creatures,” he explained. “They are part of Scellig Michael, and now part of our film.”

The Porgs now join other creations like the Ewoks, Jawas and Ugnaughts - all of which have populated various previous episodes of the Star Wars story.

Gerard Kennedy, owner of The Moorings, where many of the cast stayed and played, said: “It was my brother in law who came up with the idea of Porgmagee — it’s quite similar to Portmagee, and is a bit of fun in the lead up to the film’s opening.”

The recently erected notice that temporarily welcomes visitors to the pretty fishing village may not have the size and weight of the famous Hollywood sign on the Los Angeles hillside - but it is still stopping traffic for an amused and confused public.

STAR POWER AT LOW WATTAGE

All Dingle residents agree on one thing — none of the Star Wars stars displayed any sign of the A-list ego so often associated with Hollywood royalty.

Rather, they were low key, easy going and clearly very comfortable mixing with the locals all across the peninsula.

“They were really sound, down to earth people,” said Gerard Kennedy of The Moorings.

“Mark Hamill even pulled a pint behind our bar, and Daisy Ridley regularly danced hornpipes with my two kids. They were genuinely lovely people, no airs and graces at all.

“These people work very hard themselves and expect the same of anyone they hire — but in return they certainly are not found wanting.”

And while the production kept the cash registers in hotels, B&Bs and restaurants ringing merrily through the extended filming schedule, it was done in a very democratic manner: “They spread it around a number of businesses, and were very careful to be as equal as possible they with everyone.”

Interestingly, Gerard shamefacedly admits he knew nothing at all about Star Wars before the production hit Dingle — an omission his kids quickly corrected.

“As soon as I heard Disney, I thought it was just a kids cartoon, like Mickey Mouse or something. My own youngsters weren’t long educating me to — I know better now!”

SCELLIG MICHAEL IMMORTALISED IN LEGO

Amidst the welter of merchandising that will inevitably accompany the release of The Last Jedi next week, one piece stands out — a Lego set of Scellig Michael.

The picturesque island hideaway now adorns a Lego box, priced around €25, containing materials to build a beehive hut and including the figures of Luke, Rey and a Porg.

Encouraging kids aged 7 to 12, to “go with Rey in search of a hut on the mountainside on one of the islands of the planet Ahch-To. Teach her to use a lightsaber and try to destroy a stone boulder.”

It also includes fish and a frying pan — the staples of life for the reclusive Luke, just like those hardy monks who inhabited the sacred isle back in the 6th century.

TAKE A BOW, WILD ATLANTIC WAY

Traffic jams will surely be a feature of Irish tourism in 2018 — especially those locations along the Wild Atlantic Way where both Star Wars productions filmed.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens broke box office records around the world in 2015, bringing the magnificent scenery of Skellig Michael and the Wild Atlantic Way to the attention of millions of people everywhere,” said Niall Gibbons, CEO of Tourism Ireland.

“The fact that The Last Jedi was also shot on location along the Wild Atlantic Way is another fantastic coup for Irish tourism.”

Tourism Ireland will shortly launch a new Star Wars advertising campaign, capitalising on the global publicity around the film. Martin Joy, the Disney Lucasfilm location manager, underlined the area’s unique natural beauty when he noted: “We needed to find somewhere completely from another time and place for these films, and we were just completely blown away by this extraordinary place.

“It certainly fed into our Star Wars universe.”

And the best bit of all? It never rained during the extended filming on Scellig Michael, not once. “All the cast and crew assumed that we get brilliant here all the time,” laughed Gerard Kennedy.

“And none of us were inclined to inform them otherwise.”

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