The force awakens along the wild Atlantic Way
A long long time ago…
Pursued and persecuted by the empire, a small band of surviving warrior monks finds refuge on a rocky outpost on the very edge of the galaxy. There, in solitary isolation, they train and pray awaiting the day when the Empire will fall and balance is restored to the force.
Thus begins the story about that time I flew the Millenium Falcon to the first Jedi temple… well sort of.
A part of me suspects that it was no coincidence that the latest installments of the StarWars saga would use the 8th Century monastery of Skellig Michael off the coast of Co.Kerry on Ireland’s wild atlantic way as a backdrop. There is a certain synchronicity (to use a Jungian expression) to events in Ireland one comes to learn with time.
It had long been rumoured that the small monastic settlement perched 700 odd feet atop the towering rock would be the refuge of Luke Skywalker in the movie.
These enigmatic rocks, immortalized in a phrase by Shaw “I tell you the thing does not belong to any world that you and I have lived and worked in: it is part of our dream world”. oft quoted by guides such as myself, the paragraph taken from a letter penned by the playwright while staying in Sneem on the ring of Kerry in September of 1910 goes on to vividly describe the experience of western boat-people since time immemorial.
“Then back in the dark, without compass, and the moon invisible in the mist, 49 strokes to the minute striking patines of white fire from the Atlantic, spurting across threatening currents, and furious tideraces, pursued by terrors, ghosts from Michael, possibilities of the sea rising making every fresh breeze a fresh fright, impossibilities of being quite sure whither we were heading, two hours and a half before us at best, all the rowers wildly imaginative, superstitious, excitable, and apparently super-human in energy and endurance, two women sitting with the impenetrable dignity and quiet comeliness of Italian saints and Irish peasant women silent in their shawls with their hands on the quietest part of the oars (next to the gunwale) like spirit rappers, keeping the pride of the men at the utmost tension, so that every interval of dogged exhaustion and drooping into sleep (the stroke never slackening, though) would be broken by an explosion of “up-up-upkeep her up!” “Up Kerry!”; and the captain of the stroke oar — a stranger imported by ourselves, and possessed by ten devils each with a formidable second wind, would respond with a spurt in which he would, with short yelps of “Double it — double it — double it” almost succeed in doubling it, and send the boat charging through the swell”.
These enigmatic, majestic rocks. Some of the oldest geological land-forms in Europe, laid down between 360 and 374 million years ago during the Devonian period. Known as the age of fish, this was when our early ancestors waddled out of the ocean to check out the beaches of South county Kerry with a 99 (soft ice-cream) in hand. Presumed to be the first case of sunburn in Ireland, the footprints of this 300 million year old, four-legged Irish person are preserved to this day in a rock shelf on the the island of Valentia, within sight of the Skelligs on a good day.
Little is known of the rocks in the intervening period but by the 8th century A.D. at least we know that the larger of the rocks became home to a commnity of about a dozen eremetic Christian monks. These ascetic monks made the oft times treacherous 7 mile crossing from the mainland during the Celtic Christian golden age as it is known. there they lived in communion with the almighty at the very outer rim of this realm as close to the veil as one can come in this world. This wasn’t merely superstition on their part, this is as much the reality of the Skelligs today as ever it was, they are special, one of those liminal places you encounter every now and again if your lucky enough.
In open boats made from cow-hide stretched over a wooden frame they rowed back and forth to this threshold of the worlds.
Today similar craft called naomhóg or young saint in the english language, still ply these waters. Myth and legend say that the sons of Míl, Eremon and Ir, their sails filled with the dark wind of a magical storm were killed when their ship was wrecked on the island. The brothers were the first of the Gael to die in Ireland and their children are said to be our ancestors.
These stories were collated in the Lebor Gabála Éirenn or the book of the taking of Ireland in the later medieveal period. Medieval literature would also later attest that the same boat made the crossing of the wide Atlantic with Saint Brendan at the helm in the mid 6th century b.c. and it only took 7 years, wait… what!?!
A more modern documentary attests to Tim Severin and his brave crew having made the same crossing in the summer of 1976, the book the Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin is a modern classic at this stage and one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Over the years I have had the privilege of visiting these enigmatic, majestic and for all their ancientness, almost ephemeral rocks.
Over a dozen times I’ve been to the Skelligs and each time I get to go I’m more excited than the last. The last time I was there it was in early November 2016. The first squalls of what would be Storm Angus were on the horizon and I was on tour with a family who has since become friends (a hazard of the job, meeting wonderful people).
The slow whine of the engine and whump, whump of the blades could be heard as we made our way out to the helipad. Beyond the tarmac extending south and west were the wood covered crags and hidden glens of the Beara peninsula. West of us stretched the Kenmare river broadening into the bay beyond the un-seasonally colorful little town. We took off from the Helipad of sheen falls resort.
George Lucas in writing the original StarWars was undoubtedly inspired by Irish as well as classical mythology. Maybe a return to Ireland was written in the stars – if you’ll excuse the pun.
For me the parallels between the central theme of the film and the historical reality are striking. The flight of the Jedi from the Emperor preserving their faith and training in hidden corners of the galaxy. The early desert fathers as they were known did the same, finding refuge in the Nitrian desert west of the Nile delta. The hermetic movement was massively influential in the forming of early Christianity, ‘turning the desert into a city’. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the late 3rd century, persecution of Christians in the near east came to a head, further west the persecution was less severe and so began the hermetic movement to the farthest fringes of the known world seeking isolation and finding Communion with… The mighty Atlantic.
I’ve been to Skellig Michael a number of times over the years as a tour guide and feel honored to have had the opportunity, it really is a sacred place. A feeling of peace pervades the site, reluctant patience is required to negotiate each individual step. Slowly, mindfully ascending the near vertical flights it is impossible not to feel the raw power of the vast Atlantic, each step a tentative prayer from crashing waves hundreds of feet below.
Ironically for a place of peace the rock is dedicated to Saint Michael the warrior archangel who led an angel alliance against the fallen angel Lucifer in the war for heaven. Not so ironic given the weapons wielded by the monks, not unlike the Jedi in Lucas’ epic, are weapons of light and peace. Or to quote Yoda, ‘Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the force. Anger, fear, aggression, the dark side of the force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny’
I sometimes wonder amidst the Starwars fever if something else hasn’t awoken in us. In the camping out of devoted fans outside cinemas worldwide, in the pilgrimage to desert film sets and now as Star Wars pilgrims flock to a holy rock in the southwest. Something powerful, ancient, something mysterious, something eternal.