Skellig Michael is a giant, windswept rock, a few miles off the Irish coast, that was once home to medieval monks. But today, for fans of Star Wars, it's now a popular tourist destination. That's because the final two and a half minutes of the Star Wars movie, "The Force Awakens," is set there, along with much of the new movie, "The Last Jedi," which opens this weekend. The island is the hideaway of Luke Skywalker, and Ireland's tourism board hasn't wasted any time capitalizing on that.
But there's a problem. The island is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and only 150 people a day are allowed access to Skellig Michael. On top of that, access is only granted between May and October, and even then, bad weather can cancel many of those visits. Trips book up months in advance. My wife and I were fortunate to visit the island, only because someone else cancelled at the last minute.
It will cost you about $70 U.S. dollars per person to take the 45-minute boat ride out to the island. You'll have a couple of hours to explore, but make sure you you don't need a bathroom. Skellig Michael is toilet free. There are no amenities. Pack a lunch, and pray it doesn't rain (you won't find much shelter on the boats or the island itself). You'll have limited access to where you can and can't go; that's to help protect the wildlife, and protect you. Oh, and the climb to the top of the island is steep. Several times a week guides have to carry tourists back down to the boat, who are overcome with vertigo, or slipped and injured themselves.
Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker in the movie franchise told the Irish Central News he was deeply impacted during filming on the remote island once populated by monks.
“I remember, I had this feeling that rushed over me when I was at the top of Skellig Michael, because the first thing we did on the original Star Wars, before Carrie [Fisher] came over or Harrison [Ford] came over. I went with Sir Alec [Guinness] and Anthony [Daniels] and Kenny Baker – the two droids – and we went and we did the desert scenes in Tunisia.”
He told the news site it was hard to wrap his head around how difficult and lonely life must have been for the monks on Skellig Michael, and the stone beehive structures they lived in. "It was built in the 1100s, and you go 'How did they get these stones out the island in the first place?', y'know? These monks must have built canoes or who knows, but it is a really extraordinary place."
If you do manage to snag a ticket, make sure you book your Bed and Breakfast accommodations well in advance. Boats to Skellig Michael leave from nearby Portmagee. It's a beautiful little village on the southwestern tip of Ireland with only a handful of shops, a couple of pubs, but finding a place to stay during the summer months can be next to impossible.
But as you might imagine, business owners there are capitalizing on their newfound fame the best they can. You'll find movie souvenirs sold in shops, a Stormtrooper guarding the window of a B & B, and locals will tell you how Mark Hamill nearly fell and died while climbing up the 600 plus steps on Skellig Michael. "If he had died" one guide told me, "there wouldn't have been a next movie, would there? And that would have been bad for all of us."
While villagers might complain quietly about the crowds, they're also grateful for tourism dollars that come with them."The phone is ringing non stop" one Skellig tour operator told me. "But it's good for us, and it's good for the area."
For more information on Skellig Michael, you can visit their website.