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Star Wars and 7th Century Monks

If you start a conversation about the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you are likely going to get some conflicting opinions on whether or not it was a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. Or maybe you won’t. Does anyone think it was? Heh. I digress.

I will admit that I was less than impressed by the movie. Could they not show some originality in the screenplay? How many times must we see the same battle scenarios over and over again? And don’t get me started on Kylo Ren. Ugh.

But there was one part of the movie that had me absolutely giddy with delight. That was when Rey and Luke are together on the ancient Jedi temple on Ahch-To. We saw a glimpse of this at the end of the previous movie, The Force Awakens, but in The Last Jedi we are treated to more of the scenery and buildings that make up the old temple as Rey tries to convince Luke to join her in the fight against the First Order.

Trust me, it wasn’t because of the plot or acting that made me so happy at this part of the film, although both actors handed their scenes well enough. No, it was the setting that gave me such delight.

That is because this part of the movie was not made up of CGI enhanced buildings or scenery. This was filmed in a real place, the beautiful little island of Skellig Michael situated off the south-west tip of Ireland, and it has a place in the story of seventh century Ireland.

In real life, this wasn’t a temple, but it was a religious site, a monastery built in the Early Medieval period. The little “beehive” building that Luke lives in and the stone steps that Rey climbs are all real features, built by the monks themselves.

Skellig Michael is a small island (54 acres), consisting of two rugged vertical peaks, with a couple of flatter spots in-between peaks where the structures are located. There are three bays on the island where the monks could land, depending on the time of year and the weather, and there are stone stairs leading up to the buildings from each of them. Today only one of them is safe (ish) for use. The island is named after the archangel Michael. The word skellig comes from the Old Irish Gaelic word sceillec which means small or steep area of rock.

This is a daunting place to live. Howling, near-hurricane force winds are common, and the seas around the island are often rough. Modern visitors are only allowed on this World Heritage Site in the summer. No children are allowed, as the stairs are too steep and dangerous for them. Visits are limited to six hours, and only 180 people are allowed at one time, to protect the structures.

The monastery itself consists of two oratories (places where the monks could pray) a cemetery, crosses, cross-slabs and six domed beehive cells, given that name because of their resemblance to beehives. There is also the remains of a later medieval church.The cells and oratories are all of dry-built construction and the church is of mortared stone. There is also a hermitage on another part of the island, possibly built in the 9th century. This would have been a  place for visitors to stay who might have come there for retreat, or for the abbot or another monk to withdraw even more from the world.

It is thought that there would have been maximum twelve monks and one abbot on the island at one time. The monks would likely have shared their beehive cells. The cells  vary in size, and some may have had an upper loft. It’s hard to know exactly when the first monks came there to establish the monastery, called St. Michael’s. The monastery could have been founded in the 5th century, as I mentioned earlier, but the first historically reliable reference to it comes from the 8th century, in the recording of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig”. I imagine he was likely a monk or an abbot of the monastery.

One wonders how the monks survived in this remote, wild, harsh environment. There is some evidence of gardens on the small areas that allowed for growing. Of course fish, birds, and eggs were plentiful. Making their way up and down those steps would have been a challenge, but it was a journey the monks would have to make any time they went on/off island or down to the spots where they could fish.

The cleverly constructed dry-stone cells are good shelter against the harsh winds and rain, but it must have been a cold, miserable place when the freezing winds howled and the sleety rain lashed against their walls. The monks were made of sterner stuff than I, but this place suited the aesthetic bent of these Celtic Christians very well. It was isolated, harsh, and difficult. A perfect place to stretch one’s dependence on God.

It’s not an easy place to visit, even now, but I sure would like to try. Another place to add to my places of pilgrimage for the next time I get to Great Britain.

I’ll leave you with a bonus clip of Mark Hamill discussing the filming of Star Wars on Skellig Michael.

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  1. I was super excited to read this post, and then let down with a thump by the introduction. Does it really seem so unlikely that other people who care about good storytelling in general and STAR WARS in particular could possibly think it was a decent film?

    I really am sorry that you were disappointed in the movie not living up to your hopes and expectations, because I’ve been through similar frustrating experiences with films I was initially excited about (see: the LotR movies and the last two Narnia ones). But I not only loved TLJ, I’ve seen it seven times now. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the story and characters, and why the film’s overall message about the fallibility of human heroes and the need for all of us to learn from and grow beyond our failures resonates so powerfully with me as a lifelong SW fan and even as a Christian. I just wish all the people who disliked it would stop talking as though their view is the only reasonable one, because it isn’t.

    That being said, though, great post about Skellig Michael (which I would love to visit, too!) and its fascinating history. So thanks for that.

    1. L.A. Smith says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’m sorry my opening comments let you down. You’re right, just because I disliked it doesn’t mean that everyone does, although I have to say that you are the first one I’ve come across who really, really likes it! I would love to hear your perspectives on it. I was very disappointed in the storytelling, I felt like it was a complete rehash of so many things the Star Wars films have already given us. The recycling of the Empire into the First Order, the Rebellion into the Resistance, a deserted planet where the Resistance hides out only to face an all-out assault from the enemy (Hoth all over again)….

      I actually really liked The Force Awakens. Even though many would have said the same thing about it as I’m saying about TLJ. But I was okay with going on that ride for the first film. I liked the nods to the First Trilogy. But to have them continue going over the same ground for TLJ was just too much for me.

      One of the main reasons I was so disappointed, other than the above, was that I really loved the direction that all the post-First Trilogy books and novels went with the story of Luke, Han, and Leia, the Jedis, the continued threat of the Empire, etc. I was sad when they said they weren’t going to draw on any of that. So in comparison to how the novels expanded the story and how the films are not giving anywhere near the depths of innovation was a real let down.

      At any rate, this was a post more about Skellig Michael rather than Star Wars, so I didn’t want to go into all of that in it. But I do apologize for my dismissal of those who liked the films! And I would really love to hear your thoughts on it. I’m open to changing my mind!

      1. Wow, it really surprises me that you felt TLJ was retreading old ground, as most of the criticisms I’ve heard are from fans who felt that it violated too many of their expectations for a Star Wars movie and was radically different in tone and style from TFA. Most of the complaints I’ve seen made about the writer/director Rian Johnson were that he wasn’t properly “respectful” of the established “lore” about the characters and universe and took too many risks with the story that weren’t (in their opinion) necessary or desirable, so you’re actually the first person I’ve come across who felt the movie wasn’t original or groundbreaking enough!

        Anyway, I don’t want to bog down your comments section with a lengthy defence, so I’ll try to keep it brief or at least relevant to your question about why I, personally, loved TLJ so much.

        I’ve been a SW fan since 1977 and was obsessed with the Original Trilogy for years, and like you I also eagerly read the Thrawn trilogy and several of the subsequent EU novels as they came out. Unlike you, however, I eventually lost interest in the direction the supplemental novels were taking and felt that the quality of the writing and storytelling was going downhill. So I stopped reading around the time Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade got together — which was really the ending I wanted anyway. (I loved Mara. Was VERY glad I stopped reading before the EU killed her off, because I no way would I want to see that.)

        I saw all the prequel movies in the theatre as well, but I didn’t enjoy them and had no desire to watch any of them again, or explore the associated stories and lore. I’d pretty much lost interest in Star Wars generally until I saw the early teasers for TFA and started to get my hopes up — it looked promisingly different from the glossy CGI-laden prequels, and much more like the grimy lived-in Star Wars I’d fallen in love with as a kid.

        And to my delight, it really was. I spent the entirety of TFA in the theatre with a big silly grin on my face, so happy to be in this galaxy again and meeting new characters that I found as loveable and compelling as the old ones. Especially Rey (whom I adored the minute I saw her wearing a too-big Resistance helmet and licking her plate like a four-year-old child) with her longing for love and family, Finn with his kindness, humility and very relatable self-doubt, and Kylo Ren, who made me frustrated and furious with his choices (especially the choice he made on the bridge with Han, which broke my heart) but whose internal struggle and “pull to the Light” compelled me far more than any of Anakin Skywalker’s fall into darkness ever had.

        I didn’t know what to expect walking into TLJ, except that I hoped to find out more about Rey and Kylo Ren in particular — and the mystery of what had happened to Luke Skywalker, of course. I had a lot of theories about where the story might go based on several repeat viewings of TFA and a lot of discussion with other fans, and I was thrilled to find that the movie not only pleasantly surprised me in a number of ways, but actually exceeded my hopes and expectations in others. It was visually stunning, beautifully acted, pushed all the characters into challenging situations that forced them to grow and change, had some thoughtful things to say about failure and learning from it, subverted a number of Hollywood cliches in ways that I found extremely pleasing, and set up some intriguing possibilities for the next movie. I wouldn’t say TLJ is flawless, but to me it’s no more flawed than any of the earlier movies, and a lot less flawed than any of the prequels or RotJ. In fact, it’s become my favorite of all the SW movies to date, pushing ESB to a close second place.

        If I’d been hoping and waiting for another story that was focused on Luke, Han and Leia having heroic adventures with characters like Rey and Finn just tagging along for the ride, I’m sure I wouldn’t find the Sequel Trilogy nearly as fulfilling as I do. But I never expected that, because I knew the OT trio were far too old to be the central characters of a trilogy meant to capture a much younger audience and pull in a whole new generation of fans. So instead of lamenting that Luke Skywalker didn’t single-handedly bring down the First Order with his phenomenal Jedi powers, the way many older fans are still doing, I’m enjoying the ST just the way it is. And because I refuse to believe (and I really don’t think the filmmakers want me to believe) that Han died in vain, I’ve developed a strong emotional investment in the unfolding story of Ben Organa-Solo’s redemption and return to the Light, and look forward eagerly to his Damascus Road experience and reconciliation with Leia (and Rey) in IX.

        Phew! That was way longer than I would have liked, but hopefully it was at least somewhat interesting to read even if you don’t agree. Thanks for giving me the chance to share my thoughts!

  2. Lesley Ferguson says:

    Loved this post! Found the history of Skeiiig Michael fascinating. I really enjoyed the pictures of the island, and the clip of Mark Hamill that you included in your post!

    1. L.A. Smith says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s a mysterious and beautiful place.

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