Exploring the Skelligs: Irish islands feel the Force

Skellig Michael, Ireland CNN  — 

A rocky pyramid emerges out of a dark blue sea. It is cinematic even before you add the Millennium Falcon.

You can see why “Star Wars” producers chose Skellig Michael as a location in a galaxy far, far away.

The small rocky island sits about 8 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland. It hosts a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an ancient Christian monastery famous for its architecture consisting of stone “beehive” huts built without mortar.

The otherworldly appearance of the island as well as its secure, hard-to-get-to location may have been among the reasons monks were drawn to the island as well.

The Skelligs – Skellig Michael and its sister island Little Skellig (an even more sheer rock, home only to thousands of seabirds) – have always been attractive to visitors interested in Irish history and natural beauty.

But the relative difficulty of seeing them – an hourlong boat ride and a serious stair climb on Skellig Micheal – has kept the Skelligs on the periphery of mass tourism in Ireland even though the jumping off point, Portmagee, is close to the heavily trafficked Ring of Kerry tourist route.

The Skelligs’ position on Ireland’s travel charts is changing, though, thanks to the giant advertisement that is “Star Wars Episode 7,” one of the most viewed films of all time.

In the film, Rey goes to an island on an unnamed planet to meet Luke Skywalker. It’s only featured during the last five minutes or so of the movie, but the footage includes the island itself as well as the stone staircases and beehive huts built by the monks.

It appears from trailers that Skellig Michael will be featured heavily in “Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi,” meaning the island is about to get another giant visibility boost.

Great for business

Gerard Kennedy, who owns the Moorings restaurant and guesthouse in Portmagee, says “Star Wars” has been a good thing. “For the local area, it’s meant there’s people moving back into the area. There is work for people now; it’s great for the local businesses.”

And there’s more for visitors to discover than “Star Wars,” he says. “The fear was in the village that, ‘oh this will change our little happy small little village.’

“Well … these boys went out to the Skelligs … and they came back in. And it was all ‘Star Wars’ when they went out, and when they came back in, there wasn’t one word about ‘Star Wars,’” Kennedy says. “It was all about the monastery and the monks and ‘how did they survive there?’”

Kennedy believes a government-imposed limit on the number of yearly visitors allowed on Skellig Michael (14,000) coupled with the small capacity of the boats that are able to land there (12 passengers each) will spare Portmagee rampant development.

It’s recommended that visitors plan to stay in the area for several days or build some flexibility into their overall itinerary in case the weather prevents boat tours. If the seas aren’t calm, and the Atlantic here often is not, the small boats that take visitors to the Skelligs don’t go.

Visitors should also consider the rigorous climb up hundreds of steep stone stairs on a sheer cliff. Climbers are rewarded with the beguiling monastery and panoramic sea views with Ireland’s mainland in the distance. Skellig Michael also hosts seabirds, including adorable puffins.

There are two kinds of boat tours: one that lands and one that circles the islands without landing.

Expeditions can be arranged through bed and breakfasts in Portmagee and Valentia Island or can be booked online. Prices are typically about €75 for landing and half that for trips that navigate around the islands without landing.

Beyond ‘Star Wars’

Since the number of available Skellig Michael visitor slots is fixed, locals don’t foresee an impetus to develop large-scale accommodations.

As it stands, there are several guesthouses in Portmagee and a few more B&B options in adjacent Valentia Island.

Kennedy says the area hopes to avoid the fate of some of the more built-up towns nearby.

“What we don’t want is thousands of hundreds of people coming in every day into this area and leaving again straightaway,” he says. “Just coming in for a fast look and leaving and going out of here without experiencing what is here.”

For now there seems to be balance in the Force.

Yes, if you land on Skellig Michael there will probably be at least one or two people dressed in “Star Wars” garb or carrying lightsabers. There are boats named after the movies and there are photos in bars.

But Portmagee retains its character, and Skellig Michael is striking in its own right.

As Kennedy puts it, “I think the ‘Star Wars’ hype is bringing people, but they leave with something more.”