The force reawakens as Skellig Michael reopens to visitors

Monastic tourist attraction off Co Kerry coast hosts first daytripping visitors since 2019

The force has reawakened in Co Kerry as Skellig Michael, the rocky island off its coast, opened to visitors for the first time since the autumn of 2019.

The Covid-19 pandemic had closed the monastic visitor attraction to tourists but even the spread of a new variant could not keep visitors off this rugged outcrop 12km off the Kerry coast.

"It is great to get things going again and great for the community," said David Walsh, owner of the Force Awakens boat, before leaving with a local family of visitors, the first in 21 months.

The boat, named after the 2015 Stars Wars movie that used the island as the location for Luke Skywalker’s exile, is one of 15 boats permitted to land on the island during the tourist season.

Mr Walsh said this year’s absence of American and British tourists – frequent visitors to the island – due to pandemic restrictions means it will be easier for Irish “staycationers” to visit the island.

“There is a massive opportunity for the Irish to book this year, more than any other,” he said.

“The force is with them.”

Restricted

A new pontoon has been installed at Ballinskelligs pier, making it easier for people to board boats for the island. Other boats leave for the Skellig from Portmagee and Derrynane.

Landings on to the island are restricted to preserve the world heritage site, one of only two designated by Unesco in Ireland. The number of visitors is capped at about 180 a day.

Fergus McCormick, the senior architect at the Office of Public Works in charge of the conservation of the island, said there was a "huge spike" in bookings after it was used as a location for Star Wars but now Covid might allow more Irish to venture out to the island.

“This gives Irish people the chance to get out to the Skellig for the first time. Skellig might be on your bucket list,” he said.

Even though the island was closed to tourists, OPW staff have been working throughout the pandemic repairing and cleaning the 600 steps to the monastery, removing loose stones, clearing the landing pier of moss and carrying out works on the upper lighthouse road and the lighthouses.

Public toilet

“That is the maintenance part to make sure the site is safe for tourists,” he said.

For the first time in its history, Skellig Michael will have public toilets this year. A dry toilet system and tank with hand sanitiser dispensers has been installed with ministerial consent.

“It has been a difficult thing to do: everything has had to go out in boats,” he said.

Mr McCormick said that in bygone years the monks and lighthouse keepers would have “done it over the cliff or thrown it into the sea”, but ecological protections prevent that now.

“It was something we felt we had to do because of Covid,” he said.

“The boats have toilets but visitors are 2½ hours on the island and there is nowhere to go on the island; there is nowhere to go behind – there isn’t a tree on the island.”

He described his role as one of the stewards of the island as “a fantastic privilege”.