The north coast of Ireland is a wild, windswept place. Malin Head is no exception: it’s famous for its beauty, rock climbing and bird watching, but also as the stand-in for Luke Skywalker’s hideaway in Star Wars Episode VIII.
This article was the first of four I wrote about Ireland in 2018 that will be published in the Sunday Telegraph’s Escape section.
This is the vader go
The Force is strong, drawing STar wars’ fans to the Wild atlantic way, by Megan Holbeck.
International Star Wars Day usually slips by without me noticing, but not this year: I spent the morning of May the fourth (be with you – get it?) exploring the cliffs and crashing waves of Planet Ahch-To, inspecting the Millennium Falcon’s parking spot and the site of the famous Jedi tree. Although there were lightsabers, I drew the line at robes: that special five-hour tour is best saved for real fans, or at least those who have seen Episode VIII: the Last Jedi.
For many people this might make as much sense as a porg’s twitter, so I’ll explain: a good chunk of the last Stars Wars was filmed on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, a touring route stretching all the way down the country’s rugged west coast. Which is why, on a brisk morning in May, I was admiring the bracing view from Malin Head, a stand-in for Luke Skywalker’s hideaway in the film. This wild, windswept, wave-lashed peninsula is not only stunning and Hollywood famous, it’s historically interesting, with links to wars, the Titanicand a Nobel Prize.
Malin Head is the most northerly point in Ireland but it is not in Northern Ireland; it’s just across the border in the Republic (of Ireland, not the fictional Galactic one) in remote Donegal. It’s a county of beaches, bogs and sheep, of space and wild walks, weather and water. I saw all of these on the short walk from the car park to the top of the peninsula at ‘Banba’s Crown’ (named after the patron goddess of Ireland), from where the spectacular views are a taste of those to come. The Napoleonic lookout tower on top was built by the British in 1805 to defend against a French invasion. Wartime connections don’t end there: the ‘Eire 80’ spelt out in white rocks on the green grass nearby served to alert pilots that they were flying over neutral Ireland in World War II. Another small building has connections with both the winning of a Nobel Prize and the Titanic. It is from here that the Marconi Company sent the first commercial wireless from land to sea in 1902, opening the way for trans-Atlantic communications and earning Guglielmo Marconi a Nobel Prize. The Titanicalso tested its systems by sending a transmission to Malin Head just two weeks before it sank.
After absorbing the real-world significance of the area, it was time to explore it from the Hollywood side. From Banba’s Crown, it’s a 25 minute walk along the coastal path to the Star Wars site, or a short drive if you’re with guide Bren Whelan. Bren is a local rock climbing and mountaineering guide, employed on The Last Jedias a safety instructor. His involvement began during the early days of location scouting (although it was for ‘Space Bears’, not Star Wars – a cunning disguise!) and continued throughout most of the 12 weeks of production. During these three months, April–July 2016, only three days were actually spent filming: the rest of the time was spent setting up and packing down.
The filming locations are on a peninsula jutting into the ocean. Lush green grass dotted with bright pink flowers drops away into steep, dark cliffs pounded by the crashing sea. It’s as spectacular as it sounds, and Bren says this combination of ocean and dark rock is the reason Malin Head was chosen. ‘The production team had a particular image in mind: the Millennium Falcon parked looking out over wild ocean spaces.’ To complicate things, there were actually two Irish locations used as ‘Luke’s island’: the logistically difficult Skellig Michael, a UNESCO-listed rocky island 50 minutes by boat from the southwest coast of Ireland; and the easier Malin Head. The features of the two had to match.
Even at this ‘easier’ site, the preparation involved was immense. Temporary tracks were used to cover the area, allowing vehicles to drive on the sensitive bogland. Then safety lines (mind those cliffs!) and installations were put in, including a life-size section of the Millennium Falcon. They even used water cannons to make it rain on command, causing great mirth in one of the wettest areas in Ireland.
Filming was a great success, with 32 scenes making it into the final cut. Locals benefitted from the injection of employment and money during production: all accommodation at the fantastic McGrory’s Hotel was booked for two months solid, local tradesmen were used when possible (including the unusual carpentry job of building the Falcon), and the local coffee shop earned a mention in the credits. Out of the film’s $US 200 million budget, Bren estimates Malin Head’s slice at $10 million: a huge amount, but not when you consider that by April 2018 the film had grossed more than $US 1.3 billion.
Secrecy was paramount during filming, but there’s been a huge boost in tourism since. Recently released figures show that Malin Head attracted more than 170,000 people in 2017, making it one of the top three attractions in the county. According to Bren, ‘It’s the first time we’ve ever seen numbers like that. Donegal Climbing has taken around 4000 people through the site in the last six months, and we expect this to continue to grow.’ (To put this in context, Winterfell Tours took 5000 people to Game of Thrones sites in County Down in its first year. Three years later this has grown to more than 22,000 annually.)
There are bits of Star Wars everywhere in the area: murals, Stormtrooper helmets and photos galore in Farren’s Bar; bits of the Millennium Falcon and photos of the wrap party in McGrory’s Hotel. Donegal was even named ‘the coolest place on the planet’ by National Geographic Travellerin 2017, with Star Wars featuring prominently.
Walking around the cliffs, the scenery just kept getting better, from the stone arch of Devil’s Bridge – sea surging in the gap below – to the rocky offshore sea stacks that contrast with the white foam and moody blue water. Despite the hype, it’s the landscape that is the star here. On the plane home I watched The Last Jediand saw it shine again, this time in miniature. (And the story with the twittery porgs? These little bird-like creatures in Episode VIII were added as cover for the protected puffins nesting everywhere on Skellig Michael!)
Escape Route Ireland
Malin Head also has fantastic bird watching, rock climbing and other adventure activities. www.donegalclimbing.ie
Culdaff is a cute village nearby with a great beach and the wonderful McGrory’s Hotel, offering good accommodation, delicious food and a fantastic reputation for live music: www.mcgrorys.ie
The great food, drink and craic at Farren’s Bar just earned it the accolade of ‘best bar in Ireland’.
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Ireland and Failte Ireland.