Fintan O’Toole: Beyond belief – why grant Disney’s Skelligs wish for Star Wars?
When monks founded their settlement on Skellig Michael they were literally going to extremes
Production crew and sets on Skellig Michael to film Star Wars Episode VII, last year. Photograph Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away there was a culture that had a strong sense of boundaries and limitations. Fifteen hundred years ago, when monks founded their settlement on the stark sea crag of Skellig Michael, 12km out into the wild Atlantic from the Kerry coast, they were literally going to extremes. They were choosing to live at the end of the world, at the last possible border between the human sphere and everything that lies outside it. And even if we cannot really share their understanding of the world, they did leave us with something truly important: an idea of “beyond”.
They created for us in Ireland a powerful physical image of a notion that might otherwise be abstract, the sense that there are limitations to the rational, pragmatic, everyday way of living. They planted a flag in sacred space and in doing so left us with one of human culture’s great images of the existence of edges beyond which we cannot go.
But we don’t have boundaries in Ireland any more. The Disney corporation was allowed to use Skellig Michael as a movie location last year and it’s being allowed back for even more extensive filming this month. There is, in our culture now, no limit to that mechanical, pragmatic way of seeing the world that we call the market. A giant global corporation, Disney, wants Skellig Michael. It decided that this fragment of an ancient imagination has a power that it can use in its Star Wars franchise. And it’s easy to see why it does want it. Corporate culture has an insatiable desire to own everything it does not already have, to monetise all wonders, to reduce everything that is genuinely, heart-stoppingly strange to the merely exotic. Its own blandness creates a deep boredom that can only be assuaged by ransacking everything that is not boring because it is genuinely different. John Boorman famously described the process of film-making as turning “money into light”, but corporate blockbusters must also reverse the process, turning all the strange lights of other times, other visions, other ways of seeing the world, back into money.
Once Skellig Michael becomes (as film gossip suggests) Luke Skywalker’s refuge, it ceases to be our refuge from the endless, voracious insistence on knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. It ceases to be the edge of the world and becomes one of the world’s quotidian commodities. It ceases to be “beyond”. And in collaborating with this process, the Government is making it clear that, for contemporary Ireland, there is no “beyond” at all. There’s nothing we won’t sell, no line we won’t cross, no aspect of our heritage that is not available for exploitation. If a giant global corporation wants anything, whatever it might be, the word “no” is simply not in the official vocabulary. If Donald Trump wants to be hailed as a god, Michael Noonan will be out on the tarmac with dancing girls, abasing himself, and us. And if Disney wants Skellig Michael, we won’t even pretend to be a proud national democracy.
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Two aspects of this are especially nauseating. One is the willingness to bend our own laws. Last year, when Disney was filming on Skellig, the Government sent the naval vessel the LÉ Samuel Beckett (gloriously, of course, named after one of the greatest enemies corporate culture has ever had) to scare off anyone who might want to gawk. The sole purpose of this mission, for which Disney was not even asked to pay, was to protect Disney’s commercial secrets. But there is no legal basis for deploying the defence forces to protect the interests of a private corporation.
So how was this done? First, by declaring an exclusion zone under the Marine Safety Act, even though marine safety had nothing to do with it. And second, by having the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht request the aid of the Naval Service “in order to mitigate against the potential risk to the island habitat from unauthorised coastal activity, landings and/or intrusions”. We protected the island habitat from unauthorised intrusion by using the Naval Service to guard an authorised intrusion. Presumably this cynical and craven twisting of the law will be repeated this month.
Equally abject is that, because Disney wants to protect its secrets, we are not allowed to know what is happening on this Unesco world heritage site. Staff at the Office of Public Works are known to be extremely concerned about Disney’s return to the extremely fragile Skellig Michael but they’ve been forced to sign confidentiality agreements to protect Disney’s intellectual property. The department refuses to answer questions, telling The Irish Times last week that “All queries relating to film projects should be directed to the Irish Film Board”. And the Irish Film Board? “The producers expect that any of our dealings with them are kept confidential until they are ready to make the announcements they want to make in relation to their projects.”
The public, in other words, will know whatever and whenever Disney decides. When it comes to abasing ourselves, nothing is truly beyond the beyonds.