Kerry tourism feels the force of the Star Wars effect
Success of Star Wars Episode 7 sparks plan to promote the area as destination for fans
Skellig Michael has come to prominence as a setting for the new Star Wars movies, boosting local tourism. Photograph: iStock
Sourcing contacts for permits for fake guns, finding a lost lake, locating a pier deep enough to berth a yacht and getting permission to throw stones at a bus are all in a day’s work for Kate Kennelly, arts officer with Kerry County Council.
As one of the co-ordinators of the Kerry Screen Commission, Kennelly is the go-to person for film and television crews when they want permission to close down a road, bring fake guns through Shannon airport or bring Luke Skywalker and The Force to Skellig Micheal.
Although Kerry has featured in many feature films over the years, from Ryan’s Daughter to Far and Away to scenes in Harry Potter, it was the release of two films in particular in recent years that have really put the Kingdom on the movie map - The Lobster and Star Wars Episode 7 - The Force Awakens.
The response to both films has meant that Kerry County Council and Fáilte Ireland both have exciting plans to promote the area as a tourist destination for movie fans and filmmakers alike.
Last year a group of tourism interests from the county attended a Star Wars convention in London to highlight the iconic film’s Kerry connection. Episode 8 had already been filmed with much of the action taking place in Ireland in Kerry and Donegal.
The film tourism initiative comes at a time when figures show that the number of overseas visitors to Kerry has increased by 27 per cent since 2011 when 829,000 overseas visitors made a trip to Kerry. In 2015 that figure had increased to over a million (1,050,000).
At a meeting of Kerry County Council last year a motion was brought by Cllr Patrick Connor-Scarten asking what the council was doing to continue to shine a spotlight on the county following the making of a number of films.
Apart from the two episodes of the Star Wars series which were made in Dingle and on Skellig Michael, the acclaimed independent film The Lobster, starring Colin Farrell, utilised many locations throughout the county.
The Lobster featured in a list of the Top 10 films of 2016 by the international magazine Entertainment Weekly.
Kate and her team in the Arts Office run the Kerry Screen Commission which assists film and television productions with logistics and the locating of sources while the South-West action plan for jobs also contains within it a commitment to seek further film-making opportunities.
The tourism unit of Kerry County Council is currently working with Fáilte Ireland on the ‘Skelligs Experience’- a marketing initiative which will further promote the Skellig area, the amenities and services.
Kate explains that they are more reactionary than proactive “but we’d really like to be in a position to be more proactive.”
She has been involved with the county’s efforts to entice film production since 2001 when the Irish Film Board appealed to all counties to set up film commissions to assist in co-ordinating local services.
“Wicklow led the way, obviously with Ardmore Studios being located there. We just followed their example. I worked with our IT section and started the ball rolling, there was a new county manager at the time who was very encouraging so we set up www.kerryfilm.ie
The website was redesigned in 2012. “We were advised that it should be snappy, as location mangers tend to be very specific.
“The queries we receive are very varied, from television companies, people making advertisements, to full scale movies. At this stage we have built up a great network of useful contacts.
“When The Lobster was being filmed we were invited to go on set, it was very exciting. The crew had been looking for a permit to bring imitation guns through customs at the airport, it had to be signed by a senior garda. We assisted with contacts at short notice to get it sorted.
“Portable toilets on a difficult location had to be emptied every two days, so we spoke to a nearby sewerage treatment plant, and got them to collect out of hours. Knowledge at local level is invaluable.
“At one stage they wanted permission to throws rocks at a bus passing through Moll’s Gap, we asked the roads department, they said it was fine so long as they put them back!
“They wanted to film at a lake, and approached the National Parks & Wildlife Service, who said they didn’t own it. We got on to the maps office and discovered that NPWS did in fact own it, the person in the office that day was new and just didn’t know that. We got them permission to film there.
“We also loaned them a pier deep enough for a yacht to berth. We pave the way where we can.”
Although it was the film Ryan’s Daughter in 1969 that really put Kerry on the international film map, it is Star Wars that has brought the area to the attention of a whole new generation.
The impact on Kerry tourism is already being felt according to Kate.
“It has had a big impact, boats (to Skellig Michael) are booked out until September. There is a great level of business and interest.
“There is strong recognition for Kerry in Hollywood, we are on their radar. We need to work on that and keep Kerry on the film map.
“It would be great for public interest to continue outside high season because there are lots of facilities in the area. We would hope in the future to have someone working full time to actively source more incoming productions,” added Kate.
Mark Hamill’s pub stool
A spokesperson for Fáilte Ireland said that major efforts are being made to promote Kerry as a destination in the wake of international interest following the Star Wars film.
“The success of the film has taken Kerry, especially south Kerry and the Portmagee area, by storm. Since Christmas there has been big interest.
“We helped the area get ready to be able to deal with the influx. The number of licensed boats has increased, they now offer tours around the island.
“We also try to bring the Star Wars story to life on the mainland, there has been a lot of progress, there are a lot of very proactive operators.
“There is a Star Wars Visitor Experience - you can even pull a pint where Mark Hamill did, sit in the pub on the same stool where he did.”
Last year Fáilte Ireland hosted an international media trip to the area, bringing journalists to the Skellig Michael Rock, and taking them on a helicopter tour.
While the impact of Star Wars cannot be underestimated, Fáilte Ireland maintains that film tourism in general is important for putting places on the map.
“We believe the next Star Wars movie will have even more of Ireland in it. A Star Wars Trail will be developed in the areas where it filmed - from Malin to Mizen,” added the spokesperson. Episode 8 will be released on 15 December, 2017.
She added that bookings this season in Kerry have been great, thanks to the favourable exchange rate especially for the dollar.
“That part of south Kerry is very busy. We are organising long term plans, we give practical help on the ground too so they can make sure to have everything ready in a way that American tourists in particular would expect.”
Among the plans in the pipeline are off-season film evenings, where people will be invited see all seven Star Wars episodes. Other plans include the Dark Skies initiative (for star gazers).
“The bottom line is we can get Kerry on the international map. We have exciting plans. We are putting together a complete visitor experience that would make people want to come. We want to take all things Star Wars and make an appealing package.”
May the Force be with them.
Films made in Kerry include:
Far and Away
The Winds That Shakes the Barley
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (Lemon Rock super imposed on Cliffs of Moher)
The Playboy of the Western World
Run and Jump
Man About Dog