Ireland is no stranger to the film and tv industry. This little rock continues punches well above our weight in attracting foreign production companies. It might be our spectacular green terrain, Industry leading studios, incredible talent or maybe it’s the extremely inviting tax incentives. Braveheart, Reign Of Fire, Far and Away, The Quiet Man, Brooklyn, Penny Dreadful, Ripper Street, Vikings shot and of course Game of Thrones have all helped to create a booming TV and film industry in Ireland.
The bright lights of Hollywood don’t phase the Irish though, in fact, we’ve become quite accustomed to it all! We are a nation known for the ability to leave movie stars in peace when they arrive on Irish shore here. In fact we tend to remain quite reserved in the presence of the famous. It is our laid back attitude I suppose.
When it was announced that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was to shoot on the historical site of Skellig Michael, It caused a major media frenzy. People went crazy. Some were outraged that an area of conservation was to be used in the film, but for Star Wars fans in Ireland, It was a dream come true. We were ecstatic with the news. An excitement that would eventually culminate with Skellig Michael on Screen on December 17th 2015. The scene moved many of us to tears, including me.
It was then announced that Star Wars was to return to Ireland to shoot Episode VIII, not just in one location but six! As sets started going up they would eventually be revealed as Malinhead, Loophead, Bowhead, Ballyferriter (Ceann Sibeil), Dingle and Skellig Michael. Again excitement rushed through the Irish Star Wars fandom, it almost felt like we were being punked! Alas, this was not the case as director Rian Johnson returned to Ireland in May of 2016, along with Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley and Joonas Suotamo to begin shooting scenes for The Last Jedi.
While many just followed the news or radio and tv to see what was happening, I took a week off and packed up my car and headed to each of the locations from Malinhead down to Dingle in Co. Kerry (litterally the length of the country). Skellig Michael shoots began in late summer of 2015 nearly a year before the cast and crew returned. The atmosphere was electric with hundreds of people turning up in the locations to try and catch sight of them.
In Malinhead the usually quiet country roads were dotted with cars from all over the country all heading to various viewing points to see the greatest thing ever built on the end of a Donegal peninsula, the belly of Millenium Falcon.
while others flocked to Kerry to see the replica set of the Skellig Michael monastic village built high on a coastal head in Balliferriter just outside of Dingle. The locations of Bowhead in Cork and Loophead in Co.Clare had not received as much attention as Malinhead and Dingle. The security in all locations was very tight, with Gardai guarding roads that were normally accessed by sheep and farmers now being graced with the most famous Jedi in the galaxy, Luke Skywalker. Radio stations broadcast live from Malinhead and locals even placed welcome Star Wars signs outside their gates. Farrens bar was packed with people wielding lightsabers while downing a pint of Guinness. Everywhere you went people were talking about Star Wars, even those who didn’t know anything about the movies were caught up in the madness. Dingle, a place that already has a thriving tourist trade due to
while others flocked to Kerry to see the replica set of the Skellig Michael monastic village built high on a coastal head in Balliferriter just outside of Dingle. The locations of Bowhead in Cork and Loophead in Co.Clare had not received as much attention as Malinhead and Dingle. The security in all locations was very tight, with Gardai guarding roads that were normally accessed by sheep and farmers now being graced with the most famous Jedi in the galaxy, Luke Skywalker. Radio stations broadcast live from Malinhead and locals even placed welcome Star Wars signs outside their gates. Farrens bar was packed with people wielding lightsabers while downing a pint of Guinness. Everywhere you went people were talking about Star Wars, even those who didn’t know anything about the movies were caught up in the madness. Dingle, a place that already has a thriving tourist trade due to it’s very famous resident dolphin Fungie and the fact that is located in one of the most scenic places in Ireland, was packed with tourists, on top of that, the Star Wars fans flocked to the area when news was heard that Episode VIII cast and crew had arrived there a week or so after their time in Malinhead. Needless to say I was also there. Within hours of arriving I had spotted Carrie Fisher, Kathleen Kennedy, and I was lucky to meet Daisy Ridley and Joonas Suotamo in a local pub called Foxy Johns and had a chat with Rian Johnson who, it turned out, was staying in the same hotel as me. It was like I was living in a dream. The atmosphere was electric! Then the time came for the cast and crew to leave and I remember sitting in my car in the Dingle Skellig Hotel car park in the sun and just watched as each and every Pinewood trailer and black shining SUV traveled up the hill ahead of me and vanished over the horizon. My heart actually hurt, I didn’t want them to go but they did. The hype slowly died down the Star Wars location returned to normal.
But had they really returned to normal? One year on I packed up my car and made my way back to Malinhead in Donegal, to Dingle, Balliferriter and Portmagee (the town that serves Skellig Michael) in Co. Kerry and to Loophead in Co. Clare, a place I was very familiar with for freediving and dolphin watching.
My first port of call was Malinhead. We drove out of Malin village and headed along the coastline and up into the hills of Donegal. I noticed a very different atmosphere, it was quiet, very quiet. The little winding roads that led up the Peninsula were empty. We met only one camper van coming down the hill and another parked in the car park that hundreds of us had squashed into a year before to see the Falcon perched on the summit. This day, nothing. The ocean was flat calm, it was as if it was reflecting the mood of the land it lapped against. Some tourists, only a few, were walking out onto the end of the peninsula to see where the Falcon had sat, now it was baron. Still a stunning location, you could see it more clearly now without the fuss of Star Wars in it. You could see exactly why it was chosen for The Last Jedi. Sweeping jagged rock that draped with velvet green grass. The rock jutted through here and there as if it tore through the grass like a knife through fabric. A majestic coastline that would bring the planet of Ahch-To to life in December 2017. After gazing out over the coastline for a long time we decided to head back to Farrens Bar, the only bar in Malinhead, to see if anything had changed since Star Wars had filmed there. You could easily miss this bar when driving along the main road as there is nothing that stands out on it, which is very odd, as the side that is concealed from public view has the most epic mural of Yoda painted on it. Very worth stopping at to even get a selfie with. The bar itself is very Irish, cosy and friendly. It was busy enough when we arrived but mainly with locals. The bar shelves that once only had Irish vintage memorabilia and bottle after bottle of spirits lined along it, now had Star wars patches and pictures, a large BB8 (which I actually left with them when I visited during the shoot) and a Stormtrooper sneaker encased in a glass box, that had been signed by Mark Hamill, when he made a brief stop outside the bar during the shoot. The bar had made some changes in order to attract the Star Wars tourists. A very nice lunch menu was now being served unlike the year before when I ordered a pizza and got a microwaved frozen one. I spoke to one of the staff and asked if her if she had seen any real difference in business since The Last Jedi had filmed there and she said no. She was hoping that business would increase once The Last Jedi would hit cinemas. For now, the area was attracting more tourists to the beautiful setting, spectacular sunsets and from time to time, the flares of green northern lights that streak across the night sky.
From there we traveled along the stunning Wild Atlantic Way heading south. We made a quick stop at one of my favourite locations, Loophead Co. Clare. There was virtually no media attention around this shoot at all, simply because there is nothing there except a lighthouse. However, I do recommend a visit to it for the beautiful views and a very good chance to spot dolphins in the large rolling waves around it and of course to see the two rocky platforms used in The Last Jedi. They are not visible when you arrive there. You have to walk to the left of the lighthouse for about 15 minutes to see them. You won’t be able to stand on them as there is quite a steep rocky drop into them. Pinewood, of course, built steel ladders on the side of it in order to access it for filming. This rocky platform features in the Last Jedi Trailer.
From here we headed south towards Dingle in Co. Kerry, which we already knew was going to be a bustling vibrant location as always, but I wanted to know if the area had seen an increase in tourists visiting since the shoot. Of course they had, many tourists who had come to Ireland to visit Skellig Michael further south had learned of the shoots in Dingle and Ballyferriter (Ceann Sibeil) and included a visit to the area in their criteria. Kerry was clearly benefiting the most from the Star Wars filming there, after all, they had the mecca of locations, Skellig Michael. So spectacular that the whole island was the set. Lucasfilm knew it was so perfect that when they were not granted access to it for the Last Jedi shoot they spent millions building a replica of it further up the coast in Ballyferriter. We headed there after having lunch in Dingle to see how it was all looking now and to our utter disappointment, the set had been taken down at Ceann Sibeil. The road to the site was still there and security was guarding the headland. I had to find out why. We talked to the guys at the entrance and they informed us that they had to remain there until everything had been cleared including the soil road built along the hill. It was now their job to stop tourists from going up there until the land had been restored to its former state. They were able to tell us that a lot of tourists were trying to access it to see where the movie was shot and you couldn’t blame them every Star Wars fan just wanted to be a part of it all and this location on a good day could give you clear views of Skellig Michael. I was very lucky as I was leaving the entrance, I was given a single stone from on the huts built for the movie. I was ecstatic I had a piece of the set!! Ballyferriter is a beautiful landscape with lots of little Irish holiday homes and beautiful views everywhere you look. Golden sandy beaches are on both sides of its headland and not to mention the Blasket Islands very close to the coastline. The blaskets are much easier to access than the Skelligs, they are far larger than Skelligs and have green meadows with amazing ocean views. They are known for the thriving seal colony, dolphin and whale sightings. Much safer access for anyone who cannot go onto Skellig Michael.
Dingle had also been used as a location for the movie, but not because of its beauty, but because it had an indoor rock climbing wall there, called ‘the Wall At Height’ no one knows what they filmed there and visiting this business wouldn’t do much good unless you want to climb a rock wall! However, the town itself is a great place to visit for a Star Wars fan. If you want to know where to go, here it is, pay attention now. Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and his family stayed at a private 5-star holiday home called Shearwater just on the perimeters of Dingle, while Rian Johnson, Joonas Suotamo, Daisy Ridley and Kathleen Kennedy all stayed at the Dingle Skellig Hotel. Naturally, this meant dinner and shopping would be carried out in Dingle town and it was. It was at Foxy John’s bar that I mingled with Pinewood crew and was lucky enough to meet Rey and Chewbacca themselves. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher had dinner at Doyle’s seafood restaurant while Rian Johnson and Mark Hamill’s family, Chelsea, Nathan and Mary-Lou all had dinner at the Charter House restaurant on the harbour. The Pinewood crew took a tour along the coast with Sea Safari, so if you go to Dingle you will be in Star Wars cast and crew heaven. Of course, all of these businesses were packed to the rafters and that has always been the way long before Star Wars came along.
From there we headed for Portmagee, a small village tucked into an inlet. Portmagee is a little deceiving as there is no view of Skellig Michael from the village, however, they serve the island with many small tour boats heading out every day. This is the village that has benefited the most from the Star Wars shoot. When we arrived it took us an hour to try and find parking with thousands arriving there to head to the island. The moorings bar and guesthouse was packed full of tourists and every second person was wearing a Star Wars T-Shirt. Of course, everyone wants to visit the Moorings as a video went viral in 2015 of Mark Hamill behind the bar learning how to pull a pint of Guinness. The Moorings now offer a chance for Hamill fans to pull a pint just like Luke Skywalker and of we course did. I’m not a fan of Guinness, but anyone who knows me, knows I adore Mark Hamill. It was fun to do this and be part of the experience. We then had lunch there and boy was it worth it, delicious food all made from locally sourced produce in a lovely warm and inviting setting, The tourist industry here had taken a massive hit after the release of The Force Awakens, with thousands of people, a lot of Americans I believe, now jet-setting it there to walk up the Jedi steps. Portmagee and Skellig Michael already had quite a lot of tourists coming here to visit the Island but for a whole different reason, they wanted to see this historical site or they wanted to experience something spiritual as the island had been home to monks many hundreds of years before, or maybe they wanted to see the migration of Puffins to the island (now the inspiration for the cute Porgs of Ahch-To). The island had become the place that Luke Skywalker had taken exile on. Walking sticks were now replaced with lightsabers and outdoor clothing replaced with Jedi clokes as hundreds flock there to climb the same steps Rey had climbed and to stand where Luke had gracefully pulled down his hood as he turned to face her. Daisy Ridley made climbing the steps look easy but the reality is far different. With 600 ancient steps, beaten by the Atlantic sea salt and winds. They are quite exhausting to climb, rickety steps beneath your feet and 200-foot drop with no fences or walls to guard you. It is literally a thrilling experience to climb them and that’s even before you think about The Force Awakens. The cherry on top is, well, on top, and that is the Monastic stone huts that give you the most incredible views of the ocean and the Kerry Coastline. The Puffins have no fear of the thousands of tourists walking up and down the steps day in and day out like a line of ants. Little Skellig, the smaller island of the two is home to thousands of gannets and is included in your boat tour out. You cannot board this island as it is just a large jagged rock, but like Skellig Michael, as Darth Vader would say, It’s impressive most impressive.
I think it’s fair to say that out of all the locations we visited, Bowhead we plan to get to in the future, the one that was thriving the most as a result of Star Wars presence in Ireland, is Portmagee and Skellig Michael, however, this is because of The Force Awakens. I feel in my heart once The Last Jedi is released these other stunning locations will follow suit. I say to them keep the faith and the Force will be with you!