By Brendan Clay
For those of you who saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last month, you might have noticed that Ireland made two big contributions to the latest entry in America’s most culturally important space opera. The first came in the form of the talented Irish character actor Domhnall Gleeson in the role of the evil General Hux. The second major bit of Irishness was a piece of Ireland itself, and a quite rare and precious piece at that.
Skellig Michael, a small island off the west coast of Ireland, served as the shooting location for a major scene at the end of the movie. Skellig Michael is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is home to a unique set of beehive-like stone huts built as part of a monastery by medieval Christian monks, and it also contains a vibrant and delicate ecosystem that is essential to the breeding of Irish seabirds.
Since this is a Star Wars movie, the island was of course standing in for an alien planet. Just as the Mayan ruins of Tikal in Guatemala played the pre-modern, low-tech military base of the scrappy Rebel underdogs in the original Star Wars, Skellig Michael was chosen by the filmmakers for its ability to instantly communicate specific emotions and themes.
The Force Awakens uses the island to convey the heaviness of an ancient legacy combined with a vaguely druidic connection to nature, and nothing says authentic earthy spirituality to a global audience like the green grasses and ancient stones of an Irish religious site. Ireland looks just as majestic in an old and distant galaxy as it does here on Earth.
However, the very things that make the site a perfect filming location are also what upset some naturalists and preservationists, according to reports from Irish Times. Ian Lumley of An Taisce, the non-governmental organization that aims to protect Ireland’s archeological and natural resources, says that filming on the island might have upset the life cycle of the seabird population as well as posed a danger to the stone structures.
Others were angered by the lack of transparency in the decision by Ireland’s Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht to allow the American media conglomerate Disney an unprecedented level of access to the site. The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, for his part, praised the island’s beauty and said they were “as respectful as possible because [they] knew it was a sacred place” according to Irish Examiner.
Photo (above) by Jerzy Strzelecki from Wikimedia Commons