I’ve played a hell of a lot of Nintendo in these parts. Why, you ask? Well, it rains here. Often. As a child, I spent many an afternoon lying on Grandma Mac’s couch playing Super Mario on my Nes. As a teenager, a dearth of attention from the local girls (and more rain) had me N64-ing with gusto, while the heavens poured onto the grassy plains outside. They don’t call this the Emerald Isle for nothing.
It comes as a surprise, therefore, to find myself in County Kerry on a gloriously sunny Friday afternoon. Weather aside, the sights and smells are certainly familiar. Miles of golden sand sit at the foot of rugged cliffs, the scent of turf fires fills the air. All of it reminds me of my childhood visits to Cahersiveen, my father’s hometown, Waterville, where my aunt lives, and Portmagee, birthplace of my grandparents and more recently home to the production crew of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The scenery is idyllic: mountains tower above the villages, pockmarked with grazing cattle and sheep. The houses in the towns are painted in various lightly coloured hues, and traditional Irish pubs mingle with cafés and pottery stores. The fields are lush, and while the fuschia and montbretia are yet to flower, they soon will, making the county even more beautiful. But beauty doesn’t pay the rent, and Cahersiveen is indicative of much of rural Ireland. Young people have left in droves in search of work. There are limited opportunities for manual workers, and graduates who have studied in the cities rarely choose to follow the farming life of their parents’ generation. Ireland’s young, as always, have been on the move of late. But things are changing.
Those who’ve seen The Force Awakens will recall its final scenes, as Daisy Ridley veers the Millennium Falcon towards two remote, rocky islands, in search of Señor Skywalker. Those islands are the Skelligs. Eight miles out to sea, I’ve seen them from afar many times, but this is my first visit.
the cliffs on the mainland jut out into the Atlantic sea, provoking it with their sharp edges. It feels like the ends of the earth
Even on a good day, the waters here can be choppy, but our boat journey is a relatively calm one. The old, flat-cap wearing skipper is relaxed, letting a pretty Dutch journalist steer the ship while he plays with her high-end camera. The boat is steady, only veering slightly leftwards when the group heads portside to watch a pod of dolphins. Seals bob their heads out of the water from time to time before disappearing beneath it in search of elevenses.
We sail around Skellig Beag, the smaller of the two islands. With a population of 60,000, no running water and limited room, it’s a crowded place but, thankfully, the entire population are gannets. They float around the air like angel dust, or perch on the rocks, their collective din oddly calming.
From there we head to Skellig Michael, where a group of monks set sail in 650 AD (give or take a century) in search of religious solitude. Here they built St Fionan monastery, where they lived in stone, beehive-shaped huts, surviving on fish, veggies, and the odd puffin or seal. I think back to the days when I tired of having only three video games in my grandma’s house, and feel somewhat spoiled.
As a Unesco site, the Skelligs are heavily protected, but JJ Abrams and company managed to negotiate their way into filming on them. Since then, interest in the islands has soared, providing a much-needed boost to the local economy.
Disembarking the boat, I climb the first of 650 steps towards the monastery, as puffins whizz past my ears, their wings chopping the air like helicopter blades. Witnessing the sheer drop to my right, the phrase ‘don’t look down’ comes to mind, but I continue upwards. It’s worth it.
The views are stunning. The water gleams, the cliffs on the mainland jut out into the Atlantic sea, provoking it with their sharp edges. It feels like the ends of the earth.
We stay on the island for a couple of hours, and my fear of heights evaporates as I take close-ups of the tame puffins. It reappears when I see them slip off the rocks – they can fly, I can’t. I’ve seen much of this Ireland, from Giant’s Causeway to the Wicklow Mountains, but the Skelligs top the lot.
Locals in the nearby fishing village of Portmagee, home to fewer than 200 people, worried tourism might ruin the town’s identity. But according to hotelier Gerard Kennedy – who admits he thought Star Wars was a cartoon until two years ago – this hasn’t happened. Visitors come because of the franchise, but they leave talking about the landscape, the monks and the history. Yes, there are T-shirts saying ‘May the craic be with you’, but ultimately guests appreciate what the area has always had to offer: fantastic food, great live music and beautiful scenery.
That said, some of the area’s most spectacular views come to life at night. Kerry is one of the best places in the world to stargaze, and the following evening we make a late-night jaunt to Ballinskelligs, where Mars, Saturn and the Big Dipper come out to play. My advice, however, would be to do as the locals do: stroll home after closing time with your neck craned to the skies, and you’ll be greeted by a blanket of black and white splendour. Just be careful not to fall into a ditch, and watch out for the – occasional – oncoming car.
The mountains are breathtaking, the wild Atlantic sea endless, the cliffs humbling with their scale and reach
The following day we head back to Portmagee, and over to the Spanish-sounding Valentia Island. A number of exotic plants thrive here due to the Gulf Stream, which comes all the way from Mexico. However, it’s the more typically Irish views up on Geokaun Mountain we’ve come for. I hold my breath as our driver grinds gears, willing the coach up the steep incline, and feel like I’m on a pirate ship ride, stuck mid-swing. Thankfully, we make it to the top, and the 360° views of the surrounding region are impressive. The fields and mountains are verdant. My father’s hometown is visible in the distance, the spire on the old barracks poking up above the houses.
Only when I step on a large rock to take a picture do I realise I was here a year ago. Back then, the rain came down in sheets, and the mountains were hidden behind the clouds. When my father met my mother at Christmas in the seventies, he came up here to have his photo taken. A sailor, he was heading out to sea shortly after and – deeming himself the catch of the day – wanted her to have a picture to take home. When I stood here last year, I failed to see why he chose this place. But now, it’s clear. The mountains are breathtaking, the wild Atlantic sea endless, the cliffs humbling with their scale and reach. It may have taken a Jedi and some droids to put this place on the map, but these scenes have captivated people for thousands of years, and the world at large is finally taking note.
Super Mario can take a hike. You know what, I might even join him.
The Butler’s Arms in Waterville is a good launch pad for visits to the Skelligs. Standard Atlantic view rooms start at €120 and executive Atlantic rooms start at €170 B&B.
Killarney National Park and the Ring of Kerry road are both stunning. Take a jaunting (horse and cart) ride around the park. Aer Lingus offers daily flights to Kerry Airport, aerlingus.com
For more information about visiting Ireland, head to discoverireland.com