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On The Edge Of A Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away



At 6am yesterday morning, myself and my good buddy Vince hit the road to Portmagee in South Kerry. While it involved taking in the sights of an absolutely stunning Valentia Island and it’s surrounding areas, it was far more galactic than touristy in nature, as Star Wars Episode VII was shooting on Skellig Michael for 3 days. Lying just under 12km off the Iveragh Peninsula, this enormous chunk of rock rising magnificently out of the Atlantic Ocean once housed a Christian monastery, founded somewhere between the 6th and 8th century, which was occupied until the late 12th century. History lesson aside, this is truly an incredible piece of land which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996.

Arriving in a sleepy and quiet Portmagee at around 815am, we took a wander around the town which would later turn into a packed tourist haunt, complete with gridlocked traffic that would fit right in at home in downtown Manhattan. Spotting one photographer and two other individuals I made polite conversation. The photog seemed nice enough, but the other two (who I quickly discovered were security) had all the manners of an angry Wookie. “You have to be here earlier than this” somebody grumbled. Mark Hamill, hours earlier around 530am had boarded one of the boats with the crew and was already on the Island. Looming above the town and across the river, a collage of blue tarps and sheets, trucks, cars and porta-cabins stood out like a sore thumb compared to the surrounding greenery. A five minute drive later from Portmagee onto Valentia Island and we were passing the base camp, where J.J. Abrams and his team would no doubt be reviewing footage as they pieced together the 7th episode of Star Wars. The base camp, located on a working farm belonging to the O’Shea family,  had two security guards manning the main entrance as well as other guards stationed in the surrounding fields. After seeing absolutely nothing, besides a plastic wall of blue, some lights, a tractor and some cow shit (it might have been Bantha poo, but I’m no expert) we turned around and took a spin to the other end of Valentia Island, only to spot a camera copter hastily making it’s way toward the base camp. A quick u-turn later, we were back beyond the base camp and I managed to get a good few photos of the two choppers. It takes around 10 minutes from the base camp to the island and the speed and efficiency of the choppers was rather impressive. Walking up the road toward the base camp, I met one of the security guards who was far more pleasant than the earlier encounter I had that morning. A five minute chat revealed not a lot, with the usual security guard response “They tell us nothing” being used at the same rate a politician uses “No comment”. Other than revealing that people come and go at all times, the conversation turned to the weather and soon after fizzled out, although not before I was informed that they now knew what car I was driving.


It was after chatting to the security, whilst walking back to the car, that it suddenly hit me. I was no different to the other photographers walking around, or the ones hiding in bushes the day previous. Granted, I wasn’t hiding in bushes and the absence of a gigantic telephoto lens signified that I was anything but a professional photographer. I grew up with Star Wars. It was one of my first loves and it’s something I hold very close to my heart. I wasn’t here to try and leak scripts, or sneak photographs of Mark Hamill swinging a lightsaber. And I certainly wasn’t here with the notion of selling any photographs to any stock agency or newspaper. I was a fan. I was documenting the whole thing, or at least what I could. Ultimately this was for myself. However, I still felt like a scumbag paparazzi at times. Which couldn’t have been further from the truth. I’m not a big fan of leaks from a set in any capacity and even If I took video or significant photos of something important to Star Wars Episode VII, I wouldn’t publish them. Regardless, the scumbag pap notion still hangs over me as I write this.

Not too far away from the base camp is a fantastic viewing point, which overlooks the Skelligs on one side, and overlooks the base camp in the distance. As Vince took a walk up through a hiking path and disappeared into the beautiful Kerry sunshine, I took a few photographs of Skellig Michael and got into conversation with the car park attendant, who spoke at length about people complaining that a Hollywood production was taking over and that shooting on the island wasn’t sanctioned until the very last minute, if at all. Rumours abounded amongst the locals, and while many were in favour of what was going on, others (even non-locals living hundreds of miles way) were far more vocal in their condemnation of what was happening off the Irish coast. “But sure it’s great for the area” said the car park attendant “but people are never happy” he continued. And you know, some people are never happy. Granted the boatmen who ferried the crew back and forth are happy with a €1000 per day by all accounts and if the other rumours are to be believed, the local bed and breakfasts who house the film crew are also smiling with a €1000 per night. Whoever was getting paid, wasn’t saying a thing. Everybody had signed non disclosure agreements, and at times it felt like the entire town of Portmagee and Valentia Island has signed an NDA, with locals and shop owners playing their cards incredibly close to their chests. At least to the outsiders anyway. But this is Ireland. This is small town Ireland. The locals know everything.


Looking back down at base camp, I spotted the copter cam’s blades starting to whir. Using my old faithful 250mm lens and a digital zoom, I got some of the footage that you see below. Holding a camera steady, whilst tracking a fast moving object is hard enough, but couple that with a digital zoom and it’s like tracking bigfoot..on a rollercoaster…at night. A nigh on impossibility. Thankfully though, the force was with me and you can the results. The copter cam, presumably with Abrams and a cinematographer on board flew to Skellig Michael and quickly disappeared into a thick haze. Within minutes, I could no longer see the chopper and it was this heat haze that provided difficulties for the crew in the early afternoon. It wasn’t until early evening, when the haze finally dissipated that the crew were able to get the “exterior” shots of the island that they needed. My phone rang, and it was Owen O Shea from Radio Kerry who asked if I’d be interested in speaking to one of the most successful independent radio stations in the country. “Sure” I replied, “But I’m halfway up a mountain right now”. I started to follow Vince, who at this stage was completely out of sight. “Call me when you get back down”  responded Owen. With a tripod and camera on my shoulder, I started a gruelling hike, which I thought would never end. My phone rang a second time. “Where are you?” said Vince. “I’m nearly dead, where are you?” I responded. Vince was at least a 40 minute hike away, and with the Kerry sunshine burning on all cylinders and a steep incline, I debated on following him all the way. “It’s the best view you’ll see in your life” he yelled down the phone. “Hurry the fuck up”. I struggled on, stopping only to remove the horse flies (or whatever the hell they were) from draining me dry of blood. Every few minutes, a sharp, needle like pain would scream out from my arms and hands. And while it may have well been the onset of a heart attack in another situation, it was just another bastard fly stopping by for lunch. They too, like the car park behind me, disappeared into the distance and I was quite thankful that the all you can eat buffet came to an end. After much more sweating, moaning and groaning I made it to the top and the view, to be fair, was worth the wait. Before me the Skellig Islands, now much closer than before. This really was the edge of not only Ireland, but the galaxy that lay not so far, far away. And while not close enough to see anything, it was a bizarre sensation knowing that one of the most famous of movie characters in history was on a gigantic chunk of rock a few kilometres in front of me. Vince showed up and we took a walk around. If the flies hadn’t killed me, then the sheer drops of death that lay either side of us would certainly be willing and more than capable of splattering me into a thousand bloody pieces hundreds of feet below. Maybe it was thousands of feet, I’m not sure. Either way the flies would have had a bloody banquet.


Cautiously shuffling closer to the edge of sheer death instilled nothing but fear and dread in me. I’m not too bothered with heights, but knowing that a wrong move or a strong gust of wind would have resulted in my demise, I started shuffling (or maybe it was moonwalking) in the opposite direction. There was no room for error on these gigantic cliff tops. It’s not like you’d fall off and be able to grab onto something or just tumble down a rocky outcrop. Oh hell no. If you fell off here, you were fucked, with a capital F. After sweating out that dose of adrenaline in the blistering heat (you should see my head) I got a few shots of Skellig Michael and it’s bird sanctuary neighbour. In between the two islands, the Irish Navy were on patrol. With a 2 mile exclusion zone that extended to sea AND air, nobody was getting anywhere close to Luke Skwalker. A hike back down, which was devoid of flies (who were obviously sleeping off their lunch I provided earlier) saw us head for some lunch of our own, late in the afternoon. But before we managed to shove an average an almost bland Ciabatta down our throats, a glamour model was doing a photoshoot on the edge of a cliff with the Skelligs behind her. The tourists were as bewildered as us. Granted, she probably provided ample dessert for the flies.

Post lunch, another few trips around the town of Portmagee and Valentia Island saw the crew coming back and as was pointed out by a helpful local, the tag system that the production company used (every member of the cast and crew got a key tag that they had to place on a board when they returned) was still missing 3 tags. One for the director and the other two were for two actors apparently. Who joined Mark Hamill out there, we don’t know. And while whispers of another cast member floated around throughout the day, nothing ever substantial came to the surface.However, Abrams, Hamill and whoever never showed up in port. That said, the passenger chopper was after landing back at base camp in the meantime. Maybe they were there, or back in their hotel, nearly a hundred odd miles away. With the last boat landed, the temperature dropping ever so slightly, the angry Wookies of security guards slowly disappeared and a Snapple and an ice-cream later we were back in the car and pointed in the direction for the long drive home. It was just a shame that my hyperdrive wasn’t working!

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The Movie Bit: On The Edge Of A Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away
On The Edge Of A Galaxy Not So Far, Far Away
The Movie Bit
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