DUBLIN – Irish heritage conservationists fear that a rugged island off the country’s southwest coast could lose its prestigious Unesco listing because of a spike in visitor numbers, after scenes from Star Wars: The Last Jedi were shot there.
An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, is seeking government intervention over Skellig Michael, the site of an ancient monastic settlement described as “Ireland’s Machu Picchu” by National Geographic, but which the trust believes has undergone a “commercial re-branding” after being “swamped” by the Star Wars connection.
An Taisce also fears that a spike in film-buff visitors could result in the site being damaged and see Unesco, the UN’s cultural wing, remove Skellig Michael from its 1073-item World Heritage List, which includes Stonehenge, the Tower of London, the Grand Canyon, Jerusalem’s Old City, Auschwitz Birkenau and the Great Barrier Reef.
An Taisce heritage officer Ian Lumley said that the reason for the Unesco designation was because of the significance of the early Christian monastic site.
“[Star Wars] brought about a re-branding, a change in the image and perception of the site. Every time the word Skellig is mentioned… that branding of the Disney franchise is now inextricably entangled with it,” he told The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk.
He added: “The spiritual, the cultural, the historical significance of the island – the basis on which it was designated by Unesco as a World Heritage site – is being swamped by that commercial re-branding.
However, Emma Hynes, press officer for Ireland’s Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht said Unesco was informed of each episode of filmmaking and “has raised no correspondence whatsoever on the matter”
“The Unesco status of the island is not in question nor is it contingent on a certain visitor level,” she said.
Alex Connolly, head of communications at Fáilte Ireland, the national tourism development agency, said that “there is no danger that the island will be damaged or diminished” and that the Star Wars connection would “raise the profile of Ireland to a wider demographic.”
Skellig Michael, or Sceilg Mhicíl, juts 714 feet out of the Atlantic Ocean about eight miles off Ireland’s southwest. More than 600 steps carved out of rock take visitors up 200 metres around sheer cliffs to the remains of a church, graveyard and six stone beehive huts where monks fasted and prayed from the 6th to the 13th centuries.
Just as early Christian ascetics sought seclusion on the storm-lashed island, the rugged scenery caught not only Unesco’s eye, but also Disney Lucasfilm’s. The studio saw the Skellig Michael as ideal for filming the Ahch-To refuge where Luke Skywalker was found at the end of 2015’s The Force Awakens — before the location featured more prominently throughout The Last Jedi.
Tourism Ireland, another agency, recently featured Mark Hamill in a Star Wars pastiche promotion video for Ireland’s west coast, with the Luke Skywalker actor exhorting the viewer to “escape the dark side along Earth’s Wild Atlantic Way – the perfect place to get away from it all.”
Ireland’s tourism industry is hoping the island continues to catch the eye of Star Wars fans. The Central Statistics Office in Dublin recorded just over 9.5 million tourist visits to Ireland during 2016, up from 7.8 million in 2008, and there are hopes that the buzz around The Last Jedi will see those numbers grow again in 2018.
Preservation requirements mean that visitor numbers to Skellig Michael are usually limited to 11,100 people a year, but that jumped to 16,755 this year. Visits are weather-contingent and run between May and October when seas are calmest.
Indeed preservation needs meant that The Last Jedi’s special effects crew had to get creative when shooting on the island, which is home to thousands of nesting seabirds. With too many puffins to digitally-erase, the team remastered the birds into the newest additions to the Star Wars pantheon – the Porgs.
And Skellig Michael’s remoteness – it takes around six hours to get there from Dublin – means that visitor numbers should remain manageable.
“I don’t think there is much difference in people actually setting foot on the island, what you have are more people cruising around the island,” said Gerard Kennedy, owner of The Moorings & Bridge Bar in Portmagee, the Irish mainland departure point for Skellig Michael.