On Ireland’s windswept west coast, the rare day of fine weather finds a few dozen intrepid tourists descending on this tiny fishing village. There, they board boats to one of the country’s most mystical places – Skellig Michael, an uninhabited pinnacle of rock some 50 minutes west through the rough swells of the Atlantic.
Its remote location has kept the island, a UNESCO site, under the radar – luring far fewer (and far more adventurous) souls than other Irish wonders with a high-wattage wow factor, such as the Cliffs of Moher. But now, its relative obscurity seems about to end in a blaze of silver-screen glory.
That became apparent in mid-September, when a man appeared in Portmagee who was no ordinary visitor. Villagers who knew their Jedi from their Sith recognized him as Mark Hamill, forever famous for playing Luke Skywalker in the original “Star Wars” film trilogy. He and a battalion of Hollywood directors, cameramen and crew launched a space invasion, of sorts, on Portmagee last summer and the summer of 2014 – filling bed-and-breakfasts to the brim, turning sheep pastures into helipads and hiring fishing boats to ferry props to Skellig Michael.
The island appears in the cliffhanger ending of the just-opened “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – and looks to have a more significant presence in the next “Star Wars” film, scheduled for 2017 release.
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The smart money has the island standing in as an exile or refuge for Skywalker, just as it did some 1,500 years ago, when a band of early Christian monks retreated from civilization to worship God from the island’s precipitous peaks.
After braving the 11-mile passage across choppy seas, the monks carved hundreds of steps into Skellig Michael’s cliff face and, at the top, built a walled monastery complex – still marvelously intact – on a terraced shelf 600 feet above the churning sea.
Entranced by Skellig Michael since my first visit as a tourist in 1997, I returned to Portmagee in the summer, nabbing the last seat on the Myra Michelle, one of 13 boats licensed to ferry passengers to the island. After the boat cleared the harbor and we hit the open Atlantic, I ducked into the wheelhouse to talk to the boatman, Declan O’Driscoll.
Like many in Portmagee, he had signed a nondisclosure agreement, giving up the right to dish details of the filming. But you’d sooner keep a Wookiee from roaring than an Irishman from regaling a willing audience, and soon O’Driscoll was dishing away.
“A bunch of us boatmen were standing around, and Mark Hamill came over,” he recalled. “He said, ‘Any advice for climbing the stairs?’ We told him, ‘Just pace yourself, and don’t ever, ever look down.’ ”
Before long, I was facing that same, fearsome stairway – 618 steep, uneven stone steps winding heavenward, the only route to the monastery. At the top, I exhaled with relief, then ducked my head under a massive stone lintel and stepped into the monastery site itself.
There was something mournful and beautiful about it all: the six beehive-shaped monastic cells huddled together, two boat-shaped oratories, as well as crude stone crosses, serving as grave markers, and the ruins of a medieval church. The views over the Atlantic were endless, and gulls and gannets soared and dived. No wonder George Bernard Shaw, following a visit in 1910, described Skellig Michael this way: “I hardly feel real again … I tell you, the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: It is part of our dream world.”
I imagined Luke Skywalker in one of the dank beehive cells, crouching as the monks had centuries before, marooned on the island with his demons.