Twenty percent of the tourists who visit Ireland have been influenced to do so by a film. Whether it’s "Brooklyn," "The Quiet Man" or even "The Commitments," international perceptions of the Emerald Isle are often shaped by images on the silver screen.
But that number could be set to explode exponentially this week when the world gets its eyes on the otherworldly grandeur of Skellig Michael in Co. Kerry in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."
It turns out that Luke Skywalker, the young man at the center of the original "Star Wars" trilogy (let’s agree with Liam Neeson and forget the disappointing prequels) has been living on this spectacular island off the coast of Ireland for the past 32 years between the films.
It makes perfect sense. In the 6th century Irish monks sought the island out as a place of perfect refuge. They stayed in the monastery they built there for 600 years until the 12th century, so it’s easy to understand why the remote and forbidding island would also have a strong allure for Skywalker, the mythical Jedi master of the "Star Wars" trilogy.
In the film they won’t call it Skellig Michael or County Kerry, of course. "Star Wars" is its own universe with its own rules.
But if you’d lived through three huge galactic wars, saw entire planets destroyed and discovered along the way that you had supernatural gifts you might not be able to control, wouldn’t the prospect of a Netflix and chill session on a planet that looked like Kerry sound pretty attractive?
Disney and Lucasfilm, the two studios behind the most eagerly awaited new film of the year (if not the decade), certainly think so. Writers Lawrence Kasdan and J. J. Abrams (who also directs) immediately agreed when Skellig Michael was suggested as the perfect hideout for Skywalker, their reclusive central character.
But getting to the island and getting about on the island are a formidable tasks themselves. For a start, it’s a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, which means it’s protected from exactly the kind of large-scale environmental invasion of a 100-person film crew.
Concerns about the island’s delicate ecological balance meant that a special permit to film there had to be granted by Ireland’s Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, who is now Heather Humphries.
In fact each year just 13 boat licenses are granted to the local tour operators to visit Skellig Michael during the summer season. For safety reasons, because the rocky steps that lead up to the monastery are steep and perilous, climbs are not permitted during very wet or windy weather.
If it’s a challenge just to get around the island without falling to your death (quite a few actually have) imagine what it’s like to bring a 100 person film crew?
After filming on "The Force Awakens" wrapped with Mark Hamill, who reprises his role as Luke Skywalker in the latest installment, news broke that Rian Johnson, the next director in the planned trilogy, would arrive with a new crew to film the second installment on the island (also to be conducted in total secrecy).
Ecologists once again created a furor about the danger to the island’s birds, but the locals who live on the Kerry coastline in Skellig Michael’s shadow were more obviously supportive.
Portmagee, a village on the mainland overlooking the island, became the "Star Wars" crew’s home base during filming. Hamill was seen pulling pints at the local pub the Bridge, and a report in September also said that Hamill had a near death experience on Skellig Michael while filming.
Hamill, though, denied any such incident. “Fabricated stories usually contain a seed of truth. Didn't so much as stub a toe on Skellig Michael,” he tweeted.
In the local shops you could buy t-shirts that read May the Craic Be With You or ones that depicted seagulls wearing Darth Vader masks. That playfulness suggests a level of indulgence and support that faraway ecologists don’t share.
One thing that both the "Star Wars" crew and Tourism Ireland know for certain is that Skellig Michael is one of the loveliest and most dramatic islands on Earth. On film it looks spectacular, and it will be the first image millions of people will ever see of the Emerald Isle.
That’s why Tourism Ireland is predicting that 2016 will see a record tourism boost with eight million visitors expected, which would represent the best year for Ireland since records began.
Chief executive officer at Tourism Ireland Niall Gibbons says anticipation and opportunity are off the charts. “It’s the most anticipated movie in history as you know, (and) some of it has been filmed in Skellig Micheal. The opportunity to associate the Ireland brand with the 'Star Wars' brand is something that’s going to be good for all of us.
“We’ve seen previous successes with 'Game of Thrones' in Northern Ireland where we achieved over 30 million of estimated advertising value on a very small investment so we’re particularly excited to be associated with one of the biggest brands,” Gibbons said.
Meanwhile Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson, 32, is relieved that the epic burden of secrecy about the new "Star Wars" film is finally lifting now that it’s set to debut this week.
Gleeson plays General Hux, a Nazi-like villain alongside Adam Driver (who plays the dangerously unhinged Kylo Ren), and Andy Serkis, who plays the as yet deeply mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. But asked if he is he definitely a villain, Gleeson nods his head.
“If a good guy is wearing that overcoat, we’re all in trouble,” he laughs.
Son of the equally famous actor Brendan Gleeson, Domhnall freely admits he won the lucky by birth lottery.
“I'm one of those lucky people whose parents have been nothing but positive in my life. They’ve always been supportive, they've always been loving and stimulating,” he told the Sunday Independent last weekend.
“Of course any relationship worth having has arguments, but it’s always just been about happiness and finding it. They are all brilliant, really interesting people and growing up Gleeson as a result was just very fortunate. There's no point in pretending it was anything other. It was brilliant. I was gifted a very happy childhood and we should all be so lucky.”
Now the whole world is waiting to see if "The Force Awakens" can dispel the gloom of the universally panned "Star Wars" prequels this week. But whether the force is strong or weak in the new film, Ireland and Skellig Michael will profit from its prime time exposure.
After a visit to the island in 1910 the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote: “I hardly feel real again… 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.”
That dream world is going to be seen on every IMAX 3D screen in the world this week, and there’s no doubt that millions seeing it will want to be a part of it.