Return of the Jedi: Star Wars goes back to the Skellig
Unimpressed locals say Ireland has again rolled out the red carpet for Hollywood film-makers, ignoring the threat to the heritage site’s delicate archaeology and bird life
LÉ Samuel Beckett patrols Skellig Michael during filming last year for the new Star Wars film (overlay). Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty
Samuel Beckett would find the absurd in it and Charles J Haughey would turn in his grave. That’s the view of several Kerry-based artists concerned about the Government’s metaphorical red carpet for Star Wars’s return to Skellig Michael.
“It’s the secrecy, the lack of any open discussion about the fact that this has been allowed on a Unesco world heritage site,” the poet and Aosdána member Paddy Bushe, who edited Voices at the World’s Edge: Irish Poets on Skellig Michael, says.
“The idea that the Naval Service patrol ship LÉ Samuel Beckett could be deployed by the State, ostensibly to protect wildlife, during the first Star Wars filming, last summer, made us an international laughing stock,” Bushe says.
For Maria Simonds-Gooding, who can see the rock from her Dún Chaoin studio, and spent two nights there in a storm, Skellig Michael is “a most sacred place in world history, and yet it is not getting the protection it deserves from our Government or Unesco if the filming goes ahead”.
Plans for further filming of Star Wars on Skellig Michael, 12km off the coast of southwest Kerry, are at an advanced stage.
Boatmen who were contracted for a three-day shoot for Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens last summer have been asked to provide transport for another four days, from September 13th to 16th, with a possibility of further “contingency days”. Although this falls outside the main nesting season, there are fears that seabirds will still be present.
Given that filming has officially concluded on the movie, it is unclear how this new footage would be used. It may be bonus footage, or relate to a separate production.
Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys holds responsibility for the film board and for two key stakeholders in maintaining the cultural heritage and protecting wildlife on the rock: the National Monuments Service and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Her department has confirmed that “a survey of breeding birds is being carried out” with the approval of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The study is understood to have been sponsored by the film’s producers, in return for access to the rock and use of Skellig Michael.
The Office of Public Works, which manages and maintains guides on the site, is also directing all queries to the Irish Film Board. Disney Lucasfilm has not responded to queries from this newspaper.
Puffins, shearwaters and petrels
With its 670 steps leading to its sixth-century monastery, 230m or so above sea level, Skellig Michael has an international reputation for its archaeology and for its colonies of puffins, Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.
Last year’s decision to permit Disney Lucasfilm to use the rock as a set for Star Wars VII during the nesting season was criticised by Birdwatch Ireland and by experts in heritage and archaeology.
The Government did not charge Disney Lucasfilm for use of a Naval Service ship and Air Corps helicopter, and, as documents obtained under Freedom of Information legislation revealed, Frank Shalvey of the National Monuments Service came under pressure to sign a location agreement despite expressing concerns.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service had only latterly become aware of filming plans then; it then required an environmental-impact statement, which resulted in restrictions to protect nesting birds and a smaller film crew.
Plans for helicopter transport for the Star Wars cast and crew, including Mark Hamill, were abandoned after kittiwake chicks were swept into the sea from the downdraught caused by an Air Corps flight associated with the project.
Previously, filming on Skellig Michael had been restricted to teams of up to eight people, using only battery-operated hand-held equipment. Several years ago the Office of Public Works turned down an Irish international film-maker who wanted to use Skellig Michael.
Unesco sought a report in 2014 on Star Wars from the National Monuments Service. Under world heritage site guidelines, governments are only obliged to inform it about such projects if there is a potential risk to the “outstanding universal value” of the location. This interpretation is left to governments to decide.
It was not the first time that Unesco had cast its eye on the rock. A Unesco report published in 2007 criticised aspects of State management and found that conservation works had “dramatically altered” the appearance of surviving ruins on the island’s South Peak, although it ruled that the archaeological site would retain its “outstanding universal values”.
The Skellig ferry operators, who have had their season cut back over successive years, are delighted to have the Disney Lucasfilm contract, particularly given this year’s fickle weather, which has resulted in a number of cancelled sailings. Participating boatmen, who have had to sign confidentiality clauses, were compensated by the State for the loss of business during filming in 2014 with an allowance of several extra days for visitor trips.
Sources close to the boatmen deny that the production company paid large sums then, and they say that the film-crew runs earned about €100 per trip more than a visitor boatload.
“I recognise there is a valid argument that Skellig Michael is an asset to tourism, but it is vital it is looked after in the long term,” Bushe says. “Charles Haughey wouldn’t have allowed this, and the way the decision was taken, in sidelining the OPW and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, shows a contempt for those bodies by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
“It is appalling that media queries are being handled by the Irish Film Board, which has no responsibility for the long-term management of Skellig Michael. It’s akin to allowing a martial-arts epic to be filmed inside Newgrange during the winter solstice.”
Maria Simonds-Gooding says that Skellig is a “tribute to the monks who lived there, a fragile monument of endurance”.
“It is a full-time job for the small group of dedicated workmen employed by the OPW to maintain the hundreds of drystone steps leading up to the monks’ cells,” she says; the carers of the monument and its seabirds should not be “ignored in their difficult task”.
“Why does Heather Humphreys not put a stop to Star Wars, and what if the island’s integrity does not survive, as it has through all these centuries?”
Chris O’Dell, a cinematographer who lives in Ballydehob, Co Cork, says that permission should be refused. “I’ve been in the film industry for over 40 years, and, though no one intends damage, budgets and time pressures dictate schedules,” he says. “A contract for location use usually includes clauses about damage and reparations, but damaged historical artefacts, wildlife and archaeology can never be adequately compensated for by insurance. I’ve seen serious harm done to major archaeological sites – drilling holes in a temple in Egypt to feed cables through, for instance.
“Location managers frequently take great pains to ensure that the owners of the chosen locations are removed far away from the filming area – even sent to a nice hotel for the day – knowing that the owners would have heart attacks if they were to witness what goes on during a typical shoot.,” he says.
“It’s not enough to say this has tourism benefit,” O’Dell says. “ It seems to me extraordinary that something of this scale has been allowed, twice, without any advantage to the guardians of the site. And commissioning an ecological assessment as a form of compensation has no value at all if the film company is paying for it.”