It took the Resistance the entire duration of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to piece together a fragmented map and find Luke Skywalker, who isolated himself on the elusive Ahch-To island in some mysterious part of the galaxy. It took us about a week.
“Star Wars” fans make the pilgrimage to various locations around the world to be closer to the movie magic behind one of the most recognized film franchises of all time. Starting with Tunisia, fans can now add Ireland to their list of geeky tourist spots.
Armed with two bags and
A five-hour drive away from Dublin is Waterville. This small nook on the southwest tip of Ireland features unparalleled Instagram opportunities along the oceanic Ring of Kerry County, clearly marked shops (e.g. the place marked “Coffee” is where you get coffee), and believe it or not, an affinity for Charlie Chaplin.
Waterville, a favorite locale of the comedian of the silent film era, hosts an annual comedy film festival in August where people flock dressed in their finest Chaplin cosplay.
Here is also where the cast and crew crashed while filming the Ahch-To scenes for “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi.” An autographed black-and-white photo of Luke Skywalker rescuing Princess Leia from Jabba the Hutt in “Return of the Jedi” sits on the front desk of, a memento from Mark Hamill’s visit.
The hotel has played host to Walt Disney, JP Morgan, and, yes, Chaplin. But in 2015, Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and director J.J. Abrams crashed there while shooting scenes for Ahch-To. Hamill returned again in 2015 for filming on “The Last Jedi,” this time with filmmaker Rian Johnson.
Note to prospective travelers: Hamill stayed in the room with the balcony, the one overlooking the water.
Portmagee, on Valentia Island, may seem like a charming fishing village, but it’s your portal to the “Star Wars” universe. It’s where passengers doped up on Dramamine can risk sea sickness by charting a boat out onto the choppy Atlantic Ocean and visit Skellig Michael, the remote island that served as the real-world location for Ahch-To.
On land, there are other treasures to behold. The Skellig Michael Experience is a small exhibit that briefs you on the history of Skellig Michael — how monks sought isolation and enlightenment there, hand carved walking stairs into the rock, and built temples at the top of the island.
Then there’s the Bridge Bar at the Moorings. Photos of Hamill pouring a pint glass of Guinness adorn the wall as you enter this hotel-eatery, which were taken during the film crew’s wrap party. (Though, as we’ve gathered from this trip, there were multiple wrap parties.)
According to owner Gerard Kennedy, who’s owned the establishment for 30 years, they were taken “the night they had finished up filming and they all came in here for some food and drinks. The night had been going very well and I had some locals in here playing music and entertaining and eventually I saw this man behind the bar filling a pint and I said to the barman, ‘Who the hell is this?’ And he said, ‘That’s the actor, you can’t get him out of there.'”
Kennedy was initially approached by some folks from Disney looking for a place to stay while they filmed “a puffin documentary” — an appropriate lie, considering the porgs of Ahch-To were inspired by the puffins of Skellig.
When Kennedy heard they needed rooms for 180 people working on a project like that, it raised some eyebrows. He didn’t know until about four nights before they actually arrived that it was really for “Star Wars.”
Traveler’s tip: if you want to say you got an authentic porg from Ahch-To, head right next door to the Cois Cuain shop, where they sell porg plushies and seemingly unlicensed “Porgmagee” t-shirts.
3. Skellig Michael Island
Fans learned the name Skellig Michael early on in the making of the new “Star Wars” trilogy. Paparazzi snapped photos of Hamill touching down on the island, and reports leaked that the actor even suffered a near-death trip while climbing up the steep incline. Hamill came out to refute the rumors and Mike O’Shea, the safety supervisor on “The Last Jedi,” assured us it’s a bunch of B.S.
“I was with Mark every time he walked up and down those steps,” he said. “It’s absolute, complete rubbish.”
Johnson and his crew filmed on Skellig for three days for “The Last Jedi,” which itself required multiple flora and fauna, and animal studies to obtain the necessary clearance. We took a boat trip around the island, but couldn’t even step foot on the land. It was bird-mating season at the time, so we were happy to skip.
As O’Shea explained, “There’s a couple of issues with Skellig. One, it’s a World UNESCO Heritage site. It’s under the care of the Office of Public Works and our Heritage people here in Ireland. And there’s a huge amount of bird life on there. So trying to get access to Skellig to do any sort of filming is a really big deal, and part of the problem we had was we wanted to shut the island down from tourism for a few days, which, obviously, that has knock-on affects to the local community for boats. But, we were hiring all those people anyway and we were using those accommodations, so it kind of made up for it in a lot of ways.”
Much of the equipment used to film was transported to the island by boat, which is about a 45-minute trip from the shore, and then up the stone steps. Even a 350-pound generator that’s difficult to lift on standard terrain needed to be carried up.
“Most people go there and they walk up the island, and they walk back down the island, so you’re really focused and you’re being very careful,” O’Shea said. “If you’ve got somebody with a camera or lens or filming [equipment], and they’re on these steps, they’re like [wobbling]. And there’s parts of that where you’ve got 600 feet, so it’s for people not to become too lackadaisical and too comfortable in the environment.”
4. Foxy JohnsWhile some of these Ahch-To scenes were shot around the Dingle Peninsula, the town of Dingle has its own secret stop for any “Star Wars” fan that loves a good cantina. A recommendation of Johnson himself, Foxy Johns is a bar, hardware store, and bike shop all in one. This is where the official wrap party was had for Johnson and his crew.
Word to the wise: It’s cash only, but there’s an ATM just down the street on the left.
5. Fahan Beehive Huts
On the south side of Mount Eagle, on the Dingle Peninsula, are— old stone domes that used to house entire families. While the ones on location aren’t the same as those used for Skywalker’s hut on Ahch-To, they will give you an idea of what those set pieces were like.
For a few Euros, you can walk through these massive structures, sip freshly steeped coffee from the cafe, and maybe pet a baby lamb or two. Just watch out for animal droppings as you scale the hill.
6. Slea Head Beach
Because Johnson’s crew only had three days to shoot on Skellig Michael, they had to find additional locations that were visually similar to the island. Slea Head Beach, on the most western tip of Ireland (and the most western tip of all Europe), is popular for the stunning seafront vista housed in a small pocket of sand and surf. But if you take a hiking trip up the side of the cliff, hop over a stone wall on the way up, and reach the peak, you’ll overlook one such filming location.
“A lot of these sights were picked due to the rock being quite similar to Skellig,” O’Shea remarked. “Skellig is a very unique piece of rock and you can only really replicate Skellig in this area.”
Just below, amid the swell of waves hitting the rocks, is where Rey spotted Skywalker’s crashed X-Wing in the waters of Ahch-To. Farther beyond that, against the black rock of the connected formations, is where the nearly 900-pound sea cow puppet was airlifted in. You know, the one excreting that green milk the Jedi is so fond of.
Drones initially went out to scan the rocks so the crew could make a frame for the sea cow. A chopper then transported the puppet in between the grooves of the formation.
“We spent about five weeks working here for the setup of the shot and strip-out for about a three-hour shoot, which is all about the sea cow,” O’Shea laughed. “So I was amazed at how much work goes into a sometimes really short scene.”
7. Sybil Head
The scenes on Ahch-To involving the Millennium Falcon were handled in Malin Head, Donegal, while Brow Head served as the location for when Skywalker is leaping onto a pole to fish. Additional moments were shot in Loop Head. But, according to O’Shea, Sybil Head is probably the one place in Ireland that looks the most like Skellig.
“Sybil Head became the main focus for recreating the village [on Ahch-To] because the duration of filming that needed to be done, it wasn’t possible to replicate that on the island because you can’t really close the island, it’s a tourist attraction in itself,” he explained. “So, it was very important that we couldn’t disturb [the site] for two weeks. So the plan was that we recreated the village up here.”
Johnson had been looking all over the world for a location that could serve as an alternate shoot for Skellig, and he found it on Sybil Head. “It was a great privilege to walk up there with Rian Johnson the first time and he looked over the edge and went, ‘This is it,'” O’Shea recalled.
Standing at 700 feet, the cliffside rocks have the same drops and shape as the island, but that, too, was an SAC (Special Area of Conservation) requiring additional steps to assure the plant and bird life would not be disturbed.
“We had to put in over a half a mile of steel track just to get up there,” O’Shea said.
If you feel otherwise inclined to scale Sybil Head, you can lunch at the Tig Áine cafe instead and snap photos from a distance.
O’Shea hopes “Star Wars” will return to Ireland for the untitled “Episode IX,” to be directed by Abrams, but he doesn’t know if that’ll happen yet.
“I think it all depends where the story is going,” he said. “The problem is — you’ve had one director [Johnson] and there’s a different director now [Abrams], so I think it all depends where the story goes. So nobody knows.”
Johnson once said his “favorite spot” to shoot was Ireland, and now he’s in charge of spearheadingset in the “Star Wars” universe. So the chances of a return trip seem high.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is now available on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray.