Star Wars on Skellig Michael: A force for good or evil?

Lucasfilm using Skellig Michael to shoot scenes for the film has caused controversy, with environmental groups concerned it could damage the island’s fragile environment and threaten its bird population, despite the obvious tourist benefits. Heather HumphreysMinister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and Justin Byrne a council member of An Taisce, argue the pros and cons.


Filming is a boon for Irish film industry and tourism, says Heather Humphreys

Skellig Michael is undoubtedly one of Ireland’s most stunning landscapes. The world famous island has captured the imagination of monks, locals, artists and visitors for centuries. So when it caught the attention of one of the world’s biggest film production companies, I was faced with a challenge: Could we find a way to facilitate a limited amount of filming which could have untold benefits for the Irish film and tourist industries, while being absolutely satisfied that the environment and wildlife on this incredible island were fully protected?

Last summer I travelled to Skellig Michael while Lucasfilm was shooting scenes for the next Star Wars film, due to be released later this year. I saw first-hand how the stringent ecological controls being enforced by my department were working. Confident of our success last year, I’ve agreed to let the production company come back for limited filming this month, which is expected to last between two and four days.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and the National Monuments Service are both sub-sections of my department. Just like last year, we will have experts on site for the duration of filming to ensure all of the ecological and environmental conditions we have stipulated are being adhered to. They will have the authority to shout ‘stop’ if they have any concerns. And if you think they might be shy about using that power, trust me; I saw them do it last year.

The value of attracting a major film production company like Lucasfilm to shoot scenes in Ireland for what is expected to be the biggest global movie hit of 2015 is hard to quantify. The Irish TV and film sector is worth about €550m to the economy, supporting roughly 6,000 jobs. When international film produc-ers come here, they hire local crews and help create spin-off support jobs. Attracting a heavyweight like Lucasfilm will have untold benefits for our reputation as a world-class film location.

There are, of course, obvious benefits for tourism too. When the Star Wars film is released later this year, the incredible scenery of Skellig Michael will be brought to a huge global audience. Tourism chiefs believe this could help to bring hundreds of thousands of extra tourists to Ireland. According to the Irish Film Board, one in five tourists says their decision to come to Ireland was influenced by film.

Of course I understand people have concerns about the fragile environment of Skellig Michael. It’s a Unesco World Heritage Site, a National Monument, and Special Protection Area for birdlife. That means it is subject to a range of legislative protections under Irish and EU law and I have a statutory obligation to protect the island. It’s an obligation I take very seriously. Any suggestion that I am not fully complying with my obligations is completely inaccurate.

There have been some other inaccuracies doing the rounds in recent weeks. First of all, taxpayers won’t be footing the bill. Costs incurred will be recouped from Lucasfilm, just as they were last year. The number of helicopter flights will be limited. The areas on the island where the filming actually takes place will also be restricted; mostly the crew will be filming on the same trails walked by tourists every day.

Speaking of tourists, up to 180 visitors are permitted on the island on any given day. In contrast, during the shoot the maximum number of people on the island is expected to be around 100 at peak times, and all their activities will be under strict supervision.

It’s also untrue to say this decision was taken overnight. Experts from my department have been dealing with Lucasfilm for months, and I wouldn’t have consented to anything without being happy that the firm is going to stick to our strict conditions.

We’re taking a range of other precautions to ensure the important birdlife on the island is not threatened. As the filming is taking place in September, most of the breeding species, such as the iconic puffin, will have already left the island. There will be some breeding species left, but they are nocturnal birds, so we are ensuring no filming takes place at night. Concerns were also expressed about rats getting on to the island. We will have very strict protocols in place to avoid that happening; all equipment will be wrapped and boats will be checked before they leave Portmagee and again before anything is unloaded onto the island.

As a minister with a wide-ranging portfolio, I often have to balance what could be seen as competing priorities. This country’s unique heritage and our growing film industry are two very different elements of my brief about which I feel hugely passionate. When it comes to Skellig Michael and Star Wars, it’s not about pitting one priority against another. It’s about striking the right balance. I am satisfied we are striking that balance by safeguarding the unique environment of Skellig Michael, while allowing some of Ireland’s finest scenery to feature in the biggest blockbuster of 2015.

Filmmaking can work in harmony with the natural environment, providing the right checks and balances are in place. We have those safeguards in place on Skellig Michael, and Ireland and the southern region will reap the benefits.

Heather Humphreys is the arts, heritage, and Gaeltacht minister.


Skellig Michael isn’t just a backdrop but a vital ecosystem that we need to protect, says Justin Byrne

If you are making a movie, the magic of the Hollywood is so strong that it can literally move mountains. Hollywood’s magic dust can even rub off on the little people in the back rooms. Actually, it doesn’t really rub off on people; producers spread it about liberally.

A meeting here, a phonecall there and you can be made to feel you are an indispensable part of the production. Soon enough, you start to think like Hollywood, you have to get the shot, the location, the feeling. It’s so important that you would move heaven and earth to push things along. Knock down a set, rebuild it, paint in a bit of scenery, Red tape is for the penpushers in city hall. The Hollywood way is to do it and let someone else figure out the details. Who will know anyway?

This works great on the second reel but not so well in real life. Places like Skellig Michael are not the back lot of some studio, they are very fragile and precious ecosystems and that is why we have rules to protect them. We limit access to Skellig Michael precisely because it is beautiful and sensitive.

We stop tourists from climbing its walls because it is fragile and we restrict access to the nesting birds because they are protected under the law. We have a minister, Heather Humphreys, whose job is supposed to be to protect our heritage.

I think she has failed in this. Perhaps she has been seduced by Hollywood. She signed a consent for filming at literally the 11th hour. An Taisce was notified about it at 3.10am. In my experience; when a minister signs off on something in the middle of the night it usually costs us a lot.

It takes a special type of access to talk to a minister and her people in the small hours.

If someone wants to film on the island there are protocols in place to ensure that the island is protected. However, the protocols only work if they are followed and if effective. The effects of something as potentially intrusive as filming have to be assessed.

Public consultation should be part of the considerations. When things are carried out in secret, the decision and the assessment are not published, and boats and equipment are lined up on the pier in Portmagee and it’s not even clear if permission was granted — it is shocking to experience.

You can’t help now but wonder what corners were cut, and what compromises were made and even if the odd arm was twisted. If there was nothing to hide, why has it all been so secret and continues to be?

It is tempting to think that the island has been there for millions of years and that a little bit of filming won’t make it crumble into the sea. It won’t, but Skellig Michael isn’t just a rock, it is a living vibrant ecosystem that only exists now because it is so protected. The reason that puffins and storm petrels and manx shearwaters inhabit it is just because it is remote and protected.

Visitors aren’t allowed to disturb them or impact the monastic remains. A sensitive balance needs to be maintained which allows a small amount of human activity and the wildlife sufficient isolation to safely live, breed and thrive. To someone who has been seduced by Hollywood magic — the protections in place for Skellig Michael are at best a delay and worst a barrier. Hollywood, and our politicians, don’t do delays when there are schedules to meet or votes to be chased.

There is such inertia in a film project that it is almost impossible to do anything other than keep it on track. It is virtually impossible for any one person to slow down or stop it. Making a film is not the same as allowing a few tourists on the island. Films require lots of equipment and people, and they require support, food and toilets and a generator, lights and helicopters.

Directors and producers are used to getting their own way. Cameras and lights require space and if there isn’t space available or if a shot is blocked, the request to ‘temporarily’ dismantle a wall or structure or impact something will be made.

When you have 180 people, including international superstars on the island, light is fading and the weather is changing, it takes a very strong person to say “no” to what seems like a simple request. I pity the ecologist tasked with protecting Skellig Michael during the filming.

A film set, it is very different from behind the camera. There are miles and miles of cables, scaffolding, rigs and a bewildering array of seemingly essential people. There has to be tents for the make-up and wardrobe, shelter for the equipment, changing rooms, somewhere for the actors to wait in, catering and toilets for the army of people.

It is no simple act to evaluate if all of this might have an effect on the island and its ecology and the fragile steps, walls and cells and eroded precipices. I have little faith in politician’s assurances or film-makers assurances that it will be alright on the night. It rarely is.

The next Star Wars film is already in production and Hollywood will quickly move on to another location but will we be left with a pile of movie dust for Skellig Michael?

Justin Byrne is a council member of An Taisce, The National Trust for Ireland

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