Star Wars: The Force Awakens ends with what quickly became one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the franchise. Rey, who was introduced to us as a humble scavenger living on the impoverished planet of Jakku, has managed to snag herself a one-on-one meeting with Luke Skywalker, the last Jedi. Ashamed of the role he played in enabling the rise of Kylo Ren, Darth Vader’s successor, Luke has been hiding on the ocean planet Ahch-To for over a decade. This is the lost planet where the Jedi Order was first founded, and the location of the first Jedi Temple. In the franchise, this may literally be one of the most historically significant places in the universe, and while that may be a bit of an exaggeration for its real-life counterpart, the true story behind this location is just as fascinating.
Skellig Michael is a small island off the southwest coast of Ireland that serves as the primary filming location for Ahch-To. At 715 feet tall and less than one square-mile, the island is notoriously steep, a feature that has come to define it in almost every way. This dramatic incline means that the island is only accessible during the summer months, when weather conditions are calm. Otherwise, the rough seas mean that any boat attempting to land there would be pulverised against the rocky shores. For this reason, Skellig Michael has become a safe-haven for the hundreds of thousands of birds that nest there every year, as humans are the only predators ever to set foot there, and even we can barely manage that. Although many different birds have made the island their home, its most famous residents are its puffins, who served as the inspiration for the porgs in The Last Jedi.
The earliest records of the island date back to 600AD, at a time when Roman Catholics were being persecuted in Ireland. Knowing that the island was off-limits to anyone without a death-wish, a group of daredevil monks set sail and established a monastery there, much of which still stands today. The monastery was continuously occupied for about 600 years, before being abandoned when the situation for Catholics in Ireland improved. One of its most iconic features are the beehive huts. Round on the outside and rectangular on the inside, these dome-shaped homes were constructed using the dry stone technique, whereby carefully selected stones are placed in such a way that no mortar is necessary to hold the structure together. Not only have many of these huts managed to make it through over a thousand years of Atlantic storms unscathed, they are also completely waterproof.
The monastery is located 600 feet above sea level, meaning visitors must climb a daunting 670 steps along the steep slopes. The lowers steps are carved directly into the island, and the stairs are so precarious that visitors are not allowed when it is too wet or windy, as there has been a small number of fatalities through the years. If you do make it up, you will find the beehive huts, chapels, a graveyard, the remains of a small vegetable garden, and several cisterns for collecting rainwater. There is no natural source of freshwater on the island, and very little arable land, meaning the monks had to put a lot of work into making this hostile environment livable.
It’s clear to see why both the monks and Luke Skywalker chose this location as their hideout. Even with modern technology, access to the island is severely limited, with 16,000 visitors in one year being the all-time record, despite it being considered one of Ireland’s top attractions. Only 180 people a day are allowed onto the island between May and September, and if your tour is cancelled, that’s just tough luck, as there are too many applicants to allow you to reschedule. When planning a trip to Skellig Michael, there are no guarantees that you will ever set foot there. But if you are lucky enough, the experience can be astounding.
Bear in mind that there are no toilets on the island, you will be gone for about 6 hours, and it can be a very physically exerting experience, so not everyone is up to the challenge. Only a small number of companies are licensed to take visitors to Skellig Michael, so if you would like to book a tour, you can visit the Sea Quest, Skellig Walker, Skellig Experience, or Casey’s Tours to find a time that suits you.