Skellig is a tough old rock and can survive Star Wars

As the ‘Star Wars’ film crew returns to Skellig Michael on Monday, Liam Quinn agrues that the claims the Unesco World Heritage Site will be damaged simply don’t stand up.

Skellig is a tough old rock and can survive Star Wars

Photograph courtesy of Madeleine Weber.

The facts in any story have an awkward habit of revealing some truths. The Skellig Rock, about which the current fury rages, is in fact, about 350m years old. Good hard rock. Atlantic-proof.

Skellig Michael has played host to monks who arrived around the 6th century and the rock continued to be used as a religious getaway on and off until the 12th century. In the scale of things, human habitation on the rock, starting with the monks and ending with lighthouse keepers, is just a blip in the progression of time.

In terms of the Skelligs’ survival as a place, we can rely on the testament of time and its wildlife — the rocks have not been knocked over by the fiercest storms that the Atlantic can muster.

Puffins (5,000 pairs), kittiwakes (900 pairs), shearwaters (6,000 pairs), storm petrels (500 pairs), fulmars, and guillemots (the gannets, 60,000 of them, prefer Little Skellig and it is the second biggest gannet breeding ground on earth) come and go, breeding season after season as they have done for millennia.

The birds’ survival does not depend on interpretive centres, on man-made structures. We have in place laws to ensure that we do not encroach in a way that might disturb the wildlife or impact on the structures on the rock. We should, and do, rely on these laws.

Skellig Michael has endured many storms but also provides the occasional breathtaking vista.  Photographs courtesy of Madeleine Weber.

The current outcry of hysterical special interest groups and intellectual journalistic hyperbole, while for the birds, also misses the point entirely — that this is a robust environment and can withstand significant natural abuse. That is, the onslaught of nature, and the presence of man.

When the first lighthouse was built on Skellig Michael (1821) extensive work was carried out. Granite was imported and iron used in the lighthouse construction. To prepare a landing stage, tons of rock was dynamited and blasted into the sea. A considerable portion of the lower path set by the monks, which lead up to the eastern side of the beehive settlement, was destroyed.

In 1969, a helicopter pad was built. There were fortnightly supply flights to the rock to supply the lighthouse keepers. There is a story (courtesy of Commissioners of Irish Lights) of an earth closet (toilet) drain that had to be cleared. The keepers had the idea of clearing the drain by detonating a number of fog signal charges in the choked drain. It did not go well.

In more recent times, the Board of Works carried out ‘remedial’ work on the pathways and stone constructions. Human activity has been part of the Skelligs for centuries. Yet despite the human activity, the birds of the Skelligs have prospered. Seals bask at the base of the rocks, rabbits roam the rock. The natural world of the Skelligs is surviving. Nature’s habit.

The master debaters, distant and disconnected bureaucrats and intellectuals, who rail against Star Wars and the number of annual visitors, make their case from afar, fingering their keyboards with white knuckled indignance.

These are the people least affected by what they say and propound. While nature must be preserved and antiquity respected, present realities cannot be ignored and people must live.

Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Epic comes to mind: “I made the Iliad from such a local row, Gods make their own importance.”

These gods will soon move on to their next crib as the locals of the Skellig region will suffer continued fallout from their needy musings. The reality is that there are about 14 boats bringing visitors to the Skelligs during the all too short visiting season (May to September).

The fabled beehive huts on Skellig Michael. Monks arrived on the island as early as the 6th century. Photographs courtesy of Madeleine Weber.

Each boat is restricted to bringing 12 passengers. This equates to a maximum of 180 people visiting the island on any one day in the height of the season and in perfect weather. In reality, with cancelled days due to bad weather, about 12,000 are brought out by the boatmen in any one year.

A Unesco report published after visiting the islands (1997) concluded that the local boatmen very much saw themselves as protectors and guardians of the island.

The report said: “The World Heritage site is confined to Skellig Michael, but this island together with Little Skellig form prominent features visible from the mainland.

“Skellig therefore acts as a magnet for extensive tourism to the Iveragh peninsula. The majority of visitors only see Skellig from the mainland and do not visit the island.”

Unesco is not opposed to visitors and at least seem to have held the issue of visitors to the Skelligs in some reasonable perspective. The boatmen and the wider dependant community deserve at least the same attention and protection afforded to the puffins, gannets and antiquity.

The people of this coastal region have a right to live and work in their communities and they should be listened to, respected, and not just regulated from a distance. They have a right to prosper, to afford to educate their children to the same standard as that of their critics’ children, and to avail of the same opportunities.

Leaving the use of Skellig Michael as a film location aside, some locals believe that Kerry is already becoming a theme park — an interpretive centre for our past. Boat builder Martin Moriarty of Valentia Island said: “The horses in Killarney are wearing nappies and the fishermen are chasing whales and dolphins, skills are being lost and we export our children, we must use what we have.”

Another Valentia boat builder, Fionán Murphy said: “In the rush to preserve our past we are in danger of sacrificing our future.”

The Iveragh peninsula has already been economically devastated and its communities diminished. In the rush to preserve antiquity, we may end up creating communities in rural Ireland as relevant, as socially viable, and as influential in their country’s affairs as Native Americans are now in theirs. The communities on the Iveragh peninsula have made the best of what they have and in doing so have an appreciation of their environment that is unmatched by those that would lecture them from afar.

An Taisce and others (including journalists) set against permission being granted to the Star Wars film makers have no problem with the ‘natural’ elements impacting on the Skelligs environment but they completely fail to accept that man is also part of this natural environment.

Scattered throughout Kerry there is evidence of early ancient settlement, which these critics rightly seek to preserve. But they studiously ignore the current evidence of widespread rural depopulation.

If, today, a religious order of monks were to apply for planning permission to set up a monastery on Skellig Michael to continue the monastic life of the original monks, they would be unlikely to succeed with a planning application.

An Taisce would be the first to object, trumping antiquity and the preservation of the relics of our imagined past over our present or any imagined future, spiritual or corporal.

There are 129 species of lichen to be found on Skellig Michael. Lichens (according to World Heritage Ireland) are the only known organisms that are composed of two or three different organisms. Typically, they are composed of a fungus and an algae living together in such a close biological relationship that when separated the lichen as an organism ceases to exist.

The relationship of man and the Skelligs are similar. If we ban all contact with the Skelligs, as some would encourage, the monastic site would, over time, fall into the sea and the mystical, ‘otherness’ magic of the island, with it.

Star Wars, film, and art (no matter how ‘low’) are part of our cultural reality. We need to accept that reality. Skellig Michael can handle the extra organisms for a couple of extra days in its millennia.

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