There are many places in Ireland where you can find some much needed peace and quiet, but few quite so authentic as Skellig Michael. Around the 6th century AD, a group of monks fled the mainland in search of a place where they could practice their religion in peace. On a clear day, the Skellig Islands can be seen from much of south west Kerry.
Kerry is famed for its stunning scenic drives (the Ring of Kerry has long been an established tourist route), Killarney National Park, which boasts some of the country’s best wildlife and Killarney itself, a small but bustling town where visitors can enjoy live music, a warm welcome and a healthy dose of craic –note the Spelling.
The bigger of the two islands is Skellig Michael, where the monks founded St Fionan’s monastery, and survived on bird meat and eggs, vegetables they tended themselves and, if they were truly lucky, the occasional seal. More recently, however, the Skellig Michael was used to shoot scenes from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, as well as the upcoming Star Wars VIII. Setting foot on the harsh, rocky terrain, it’s easy to see why.
If you want to go to Skellig Michael, plan ahead. Star Wars-related tourism has caused interest in the area to sky rocket. Less than 18 months ago, there were only two boats a day visiting the island. There are now up to fifteen, carrying 12 people a time, and tours are booked out up to three months in advance during the summer months.
I’ve visited this part of the world many times over the years. Three of my grandparents were born in the villages surrounding Portmagee, a sleepy fishing town which now acts as the launch pad for all boats visiting the Skelligs.
This, however, is my first visit to Skellig Michael, and as I set foot on it for the first time, I feel as if I have stepped back not into a time long ago, in a galaxy far away, but simply a time long forgotten, when life was lived at a slower pace. Yes, there are other people here, with all the camera phones and tripods that naturally entails, but making my way towards the steps which will lead me to the top, there is a serenity I have not experienced for a long time.
At this time of year (June), there are thousands of puffins. It’s hard to decide if they are incredibly tame or incredibly stupid, and I fear it may be the latter. They plod along mere feet from me, cooing as I snap photos and scratching their colourful beaks with their feet.
Occasionally, I hear a banshee-like lament, and look for the source. Looking down, I notice a number of small holes in the rock surface, where the birds (much smaller than I imagine) are hiding. Announcing their presence doesn’t seem like a smart idea. Fortunately for them, I’m not hungry, nor am I willing to challenge UNESCO rules which protect them, and the rest of the island’s wildlife, with fervour.
After a brief safety talk from one of the Skellig Michael few resident guides, I climb the first of the 650-odd steps to the top. The ascent is steep, making the fact that the monks placed each stone themselves all the more impressive.
Around halfway up, I find a familiar location, where people take snaps and relax before the final ascent. Those who’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens will recognize the small, grassy space where Rey finally meets Luke Sky walker. I might not have traveled the galaxy to get here, but my legs feel the pinch of the climb, and I hope the Force will carry me to the top.
I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but no number of Jedi knights can top the feeling of standing in St Fionan’s monastery itself, where the monks lived in small, beehive-shaped huts, built using a method known as corbelling, to keep out rain water. Having spent October in these parts, I can guarantee that this is a good idea.
I look out towards the mainland, the cliffs rising up from the sea, the grassy fields and hills hazy in the distance. It’s like the end of the earth. Hopefully Skywalker and Co will see to it that it isn’t, because I’d rather like to come back here again one day.