War of words over Star Wars filming on Skellig Michael
Opinion: Filming will attract mass tourism – but that isn’t what the World Heritage site needs
Independent film and video company Bold Puppy stole a neat march on director JJ Abrams this week, with its YouTube take on X-Wing fighter flypasts off the Co Kerry coastline.
“Visit Star Wars newest universe! Portmagee, Co Kerry, Ireland” proclaims the one-and-a-half minute video, complete with cameo shots of C-3PO and Chewbacca, and AT-AT fighters stalking through the Skellig Michael monastery to that familiar John Williams musical score.
“It took us about three hours,”say the Bold Puppy team, a group of very creative but very homesick Kerry people based up in the capital, who are safely able to say that no archaeology or wildlife was harmed in the making of their virtual reality film.
About 35 years ago, a remote Norwegian mountain village of Finse had a taste of the international attention focused on Portmagee and Valentia island this week when George Lucas’s team chose it as a location for Star Wars V: the Empire Strikes Back.
Situated close to the Hardanger Jokulen glacier, it was training ground for the unsuccessful Scott expedition to the South Pole, it can only be reached by rail and is the highest station on the Norwegian railway system.
Since it was transformed into ice planet Hoth for Princess Leia and her crew, its winter sports tourism business has been boosted by visitors who like to imagine Skywalker’s encounter with the spectre of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and come armed with tourist guide longitude and latitude information on where various scenes were filmed.
Exploding asteroids and laser light beams and heroes hiding in monastic beehive huts will look similarly spectacular on Skellig Michael — even it only appears for a few minutes. And though the plot of the new Disney/Lucasfilm blockbuster is a “tight secret”, Mark Hamill’s sporting of a “contractually-obligated beard”, as he put it, on BBC television last week has fuelled speculation that the original Luke Skywalker has based a Jedi academy on the 400-million-year-old sandstone rock.
It takes a brave voice — or three — then to question authorisation for activity which is said to have Portmagee “buzzing”, which has the Naval Service patrol ship LE Samuel Beckett policing a two-mile exclusion zone at sea, and which will ensure that Skellig Michael becomes another “cinema classic” location, like the Dingle peninsula (Ryan’s Daughter ) and Mayo’s Cong (The Quiet Man). The difference is that one of the most fragile and significant early medieval archaeological sites in Western Europe, holding UNESCO world heritage status, doesn’t need mass tourism – the opposite, in fact. Hence, strictly controlled visitor access by the Office of Public Works (OPW) over many years.
Not everyone has been happy with the OPW’s approach, including ferrymen - who are now reportedly very content with both work and compensation. Archaeologist Michael Gibbons has criticised the over-embellished approach of some of the restoration, and damage sustained during this work on several key features. His concerns prompted a UNESCO report in 2007 which found that conservation on the South Peak had “dramatically” transformed the appearance of monastic remains. The report did state that the work was “justifiable”, and it retained its “outstanding universal values” but advised that conservation work should be documented and management be tightened up.