As shooting for the eighth episode of the ‘Star Wars’ film saga begins on Skellig Michael, 12 writers and a photographer associated with the Kerry island have expressed concern.
Poets and writers Derek Mahon, Marie Heaney, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill and Paddy Bushe are among signatories to a letter that criticises Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Ms Humphreys for negotiating the Star Wars project without consulting the Office of Public Works (OPW), manager of the Unesco world heritage site.
The letter, published in today's Irish Times is also signed by John F Deane, Theo Dorgan Biddy Jenkinson, Seán Lysaght, Eilean Ní Chuilleanáin, Bernard O'Donoghue, Cathal Ó Searcaigh, Macdara Woods and photographer John Minihan.
All 13 were contributors to Voices at the World’s Edge: Irish Poets on Skellig Michael, an anthology sponsored by the OPW to mark the completion of its conservation work on the monastic site.
Calmer wind and sea conditions on Tuesday allowed for film equipment to be delivered by boat to the island, following Monday’s postponement due to bad weather.
A limited number of helicopter flights have been permitted to transport actors, including Mark Hamill, playing Luke Skywalker, between Skellig Michael and Valentia island.
The writers’ letter says: “now that filming for Star Wars is for a second time underway, what concerns us most is the future safety of Skellig Michael and other sites in the light of how the permission was granted”.
The letter says that the producers of Star Wars “should not have been approached with an offer of Skellig Michael as a location without all the relevant bodies being consulted”.
In confirming Disney Lucasfilm's return to Skellig Michael last week, Ms Humphreys made no reference to the OPW.
She said that strict environmental and ecological conditions were being put in place to ensure there is no negative impact on the site and its birdlife and described it as "another win for Ireland and the Irish film industry, which is a growing and dynamic sector of our economy".
The letter states that neither the State’s Skellig Expert Advisory Group nor the Irish section of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, were “informed about, much less consulted about, these plans”.
“We are aware that Star Wars works in a culture of secrecy, but we do not think it is appropriate that the government of this independent State buys into the marketing strategy of a Hollywood company at the expense of the proper safeguarding of our heritage,” the letter states.
“The fact that the defence forces of the State were deployed in support of that marketing strategy is demeaning to a modern European country,” the letter adds, referring to last year’s deployment of a Naval Service patrol ship to police an exclusion zone around the island during filming last year.
No maritime exclusion zone has been implemented to date this week, but the Department of Transport has issued a marine notice requesting vessels to give the island a “wide berth” during filming from 5am on September 14th to 7pm on September 18th. An air exclusion zone is in place.
The writers’ letter calls on the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts to guarantee that heritage sites will, in future, be managed in an “open, transparent and accountable” manner, with “respect and responsibility”.
A separate group of archaeological and cultural experts on Skellig Michael and the Iveragh peninsula received a two-sentence reply from Minister of Arts Heather Humphreys to a letter they sent to her on September 7th outlining their concerns.
The group - including University College Cork archaeologist John Sheehan, along with Mr Bushe, Dr John Crowley, Dr Tomás Ó Carragáin and Dr Colin Rynne - pointed out they had "no objection in principle" to the use of Skellig Michael as a film location as long as conditions were agreed, "following discussions and relevant consultation, in a transparent manner".
Urging that no further permission be given for any filming on Skellig Michael or other heritage sites without such full, open and transparent consultation, the group warned of a “precedent” having been set that may be “very difficult to reverse”.
The group said it wondered if “the apparent lack of knowledge displayed by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht” about world heritage site responsibilities would “now adversely affect its ambition to achieve Unesco inscription for properties such as the Burren, the historic city of Dublin and Clonmacnoise”.
The brief response from Ms Humphreys’s office thanked the academics and said: “your concerns have been noted”.