Like the original Stars Wars trilogy, Episode VII was shot in some spectacular locations in a galaxy not so very far away. The Isle of Skye, Forest of Dean, Lake District, Iceland and Abu Dhabi all make appearances – and the star turn is by an uninhabited Irish island known as Skellig Michael.
The cameras only linger on this otherworldly outcrop for a few minutes but it’s set to play a central part in the rest of the trilogy. Nor is there any computer-generated jiggery-pokery at play; Skellig Michael and it’s even tinier sister, Little Skellig, are just as breathtaking in real life.
The Skelligs – Na Scealga in Irish – rise majestically from the Atlantic Ocean eight miles off the coast of Portmagee, a fishing village on the verdant Iveragh Peninsula in County Kerry.
Skellig Michael (also known as Great Skellig) wasn’t always uninhabited; it’s a Unesco world heritage site because a remarkably well-preserved sixth century monastic settlement clings to its summit. Three ancient stairways of over 500 hand-carved stone steps climb to the remains of St Fionan’s monastery: six stone beehive-shaped huts, two boat-shaped oratories, holy wells, cemetery, church and stone terraces for crops.
Little Skellig seen from the summit of Skellig Michael
It was the handiwork of a group of Catholic monks who found refuge here after fleeing the mainland’s repressive laws around 600 AD. Monks lived there until the 13th century, surviving several Viking raids.
These days the Skelligs are a haven for seabirds and one of the most important breeding sites in Ireland. Birdwatchers might spy manx shearwaters, storm petrel, fulmars, kittiwakes, guillemots and puffins. In late spring, Little Skellig is home to the world’s second largest gannet population – 27,000 pairs of gannets nest on every available ledge.
At low tide, a colony of grey seals can sometimes be seen sunning themselves. And if you’re very lucky, you might even spot a Bottlenose dolphin, Minke whale or a Basking shark in the depths.
The bad news is that you can’t visit in winter. Weather-permitting, small ferries go from Portmagee, Valentia, Renard Point, Baile an Sceilg and Doire Fhionain to Skellig Michael between April and mid- to late September. Be sure to book in advance because it’s a popular spot and visitor numbers are limited to 180 per day, and bound to be even more so when it becomes famous as Star Wars Ireland. Boats aren’t allowed to land on Little Skellig.
Even on fair days, it can be a wet and bumpy ride so pack a cagoule and travel sickness pills if you’re a landlubber. When you’ve scaled those ancient stone steps, you’ll find a registered guide at the summit who can answer all your questions. Visitors are allowed two to three hours to explore (and try out their best Luke Skywalker impression).
If you’d rather stay on dry land, the grass-roofed Skellig Experience Visitor Centre on Valentia Island has exhibitions about their monastic history, sealife and the local lighthouses. It also puts on daily cruises that circle the islands but don’t land.
Puffin Island and the spectacular Skelligs seen from Ring of Kerry
For more information on ferry timetables and County Kerry, go to Discover Ireland.
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