You don’t have to be a Star Wars fan to fall in love with Skellig Michael, a real world magical place which doubles as the mythical planet AHCH-TO, the supposed birthplace of the Jedi-order. It was the filming location for the final scene in the Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”. The force is strong in this place….you can feel it when you are there!
The island of Greater Skellig, where Skellig Michael is located, is a hauntingly beautiful unique landform off of the Southwest coast of Ireland. I was lucky enough to visit there, more than a decade before the movie was shot there. Today, you would have to book months in advance to visit this special place.
The mythical planet AHCH-TO was a world of deep blue oceans and rocky archipelagos. Several islands on planet earth could fit that bill, but no others had 1,500 year old rugged stone monasteries on them. Perhaps the Augustinian monks who built those structures were the precursors of the Jedi order who constructed the first Jedi Temple an AHCH-TO. Skellig Michael is certainly an “Out of this World” type of location!
The word “Skellig” means “rough place” in the Old Irish tongue. Lying nearly 10 miles out into the rough Atlantic Ocean from the coast of Kerry, it is one of the most Westerly points of land in Europe, leading to its otherworldly feeling. Only the rugged Blasket Islands to the north are farther out to sea. The steep cliffs of Old Red Sandstone series, formed some 360 million years ago, have been carved and shaped by the pummeling of waves from ocean storms. It is a hospitable place for puffins and gannets, but not so much for human kind. There are no beaches on which to land. It is not an easy place to get to…not even now, and especially when the monks arrived back in the 7th century.
I first found out about Skellig Michael from an advertisement at a bed and breakfast we were staying at in Cahersiveen, a town on the Ring of Kerry. We booked ahead and drove to Portmagee on the Iveragh Peninsula, where the boats departed from. All trips the previous three days had been cancelled due to high winds and dangerous seas. Our captain, Eown, was eager to make up for lost wages, and we had a full boat headed out to the rocks. The seas had not quite calmed down, and the swells were about 9-10 feet. The boat was pitching side to side as well as bobbing up and down with the swells. The deck was open, and Beth and I stood on the open deck and let our feet move under us with each swell, as we kept our eyes fixed on the horizon. All of the other passengers sat on benches on the side of the boat and rocked back and forth violently with each passing wave. About 1/2 way through the journey, many of the passengers were grabbing onto the gunwales and vomiting into the ocean. By letting our bodies move and keeping our heads level with the horizon, Beth and I were the only ones besides Eown who didn’t lose their lunches.
Before we landed on Skellig Michael, we stopped by Skellig Rock, and even more rugged island close by. It was home to about 90,000 gannets. The rocks were white with guano and there were so many birds crowded on the rock that it was hard to distinguish the birds from the guano. It was the equivalent of a Bangladesh of bird life, or an avian Calcutta, so to speak. The Rock sheltered us from the wind, so the captain gave us a few more minutes of calm seas before we headed over to nearby Skellig Michael.
There is only one place to “land” passengers on the island, a small slit sandwiched between two rock walls. The swells move the boat several feet up and down, and to disembark one must stand on the gunwales and time your jump just right to safely land ashore. Once I was safely ashore, I helped others as they leaped from the boat. One elderly, corpulent woman mistimed her jump and it took all of my strength to grab her and pull her up before she got pinned in and crushed between the boat and the rock wall. I wondered how the early monks managed in their 7th century curraghs, the type of boats used in Ireland at that time. Curraghs, or Currachs as it is also spelled, were Irish boats with wooden frames over which hides were stretched, which were propelled by oar and sail. Those monks were hardy folk, and the force must have been strong with them!
In the early years, the monks had to live on puffin eggs and whatever plant life grew on the Greater Skellig island, while they constructed their crude monastery. Their discomfort must have been intense, but in the eyes of early Irish Christians, remoteness from the world equaled closeness to the Almighty. In essence, they were searching for a “Nowhere” place to escape to. In a way, they would pave the way for the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century in the United States. Emerson and Thoreau would have the “Wilderness” of New England; Muir would have the Wildernesses of the Sierras and Alaska; while the Augustinian Monks would have Greater Skellig. The rawness of Physical Nature can lead one into the metaphysical and the spiritual. I’ve heard that someone characterized the meaning of Skellig Michael to the monks as a “Wet Golgotha”. Such is the power of places at the edge of the universe!
After visiting the remains of the monastery, we climbed the 600 steps to the top of the mountain, which were worn by centuries of pilgrims and more recently by tourists. It is a steep climb to Nowhere, with views to all points of the compass. As I climbed up the steps, I played back the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven” in my mind.
I imagine that the monks stood here and saw Vikings raiding the Irish coast back in 823 A.D. and again during subsequent years. The Vikings represented the Dark Side of the Force, a powerful culture wreaking havoc on the rest of the civilized world. I can also imagine that the Monks used the force to telepathically send a message to the Vikings who might have been eyeing the rock huts on Greater Skellig….”These aren’t the monks you’re looking for!” …..”Move Along!”
Since Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are limits on how many visitors can land on the island. Luckily, I was there before Luke Skywalker was during the filming of “The Force Awakens”. Since that movie came out, demand to see the Skelligs is understandably high. Former Foreign Minister Micheal Martin Aine Doyle stated that marketing of the film locations is “Instrumental in Getting Americans to Visit Ireland.” (On Irish Tourism and Foreign Policy, in Brown Journal of World Affairs, Vol. 22, #1, 2015, pp. 83-94).
While you may have to book far in advance if you want a chance to visit the Skelligs (only 180 people per day may visit between May and September), there are many other places where filming of Star Wars movies took place in Ireland, such as the Rock of Cashel. Even if you were to take a boat trip out around the islands without being able to land on them, you will feel the force being “Awakened” within you. The same force that shaped the birthplace of the Jedi Order on AHCH-TO, and the same force experienced by Augustinian Monks of Ancient times.
But, what would you do if it still was too difficult to book your trip to the Skelligs? Well, you would have to find another remote edge of the earth which is also magical. For a round sphere, the Earth surprisingly has a lot of ragged edges to it. Go find one of them. Since the force is EVERYWHERE, and all around us, work on channeling it. Feel it move through you. Use it for good, for the good of all of us. And please, stay away from the dark side!
In the year 2021, it seems like the forces of Darkness are gaining strength. Many fear the Empire may be jeopardizing our ability to live our lives joyfully. But I encourage all of you, dear readers, to find a special magical place, whether it be near or far. And in that magical place, if it be Skellig Michael or some other out of this world place, get in touch with yourself and the force around you. If enough of us do, we will indeed have “A New Hope”.