Tuesday February 23, 2016

Star Wars puts 'extremely fragile' Irish island at risk

Conservationists are concerned Skellig Michael, a small Irish island, is at risk of becoming overwhelmed by tourists after the success of Star Wars, putting the location's fragile ecosystem at risk.

Conservationists are concerned Skellig Michael, a small Irish island, is at risk of becoming overwhelmed by tourists after the success of Star Wars, putting the location's fragile ecosystem at risk. (Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikicommons)

Listen 6:40

If you've seen the most recent Star Wars film, you probably remember the dramatic setting of the final scene -- a small, but majestic, rocky island with hundreds of steps that lead up to the island's peak.

In reality, the island is called Skellig Michael. Located off Ireland's west coast, the historically-rich UNESCO world heritage site is also a conservation area for various bird populations. The island is undeniably picturesque but equally fragile and now faces increased tourism, following the popularity of Star Wars.

"Of course, it is spectacular but what's not understood is that it's also extremely fragile," Claire O'Halloran tells As It Happens host Carol Off.

"[It's] unfortunately not compatible, really, with this kind of activity or indeed with the kind of exposure or marketing that would be related to it afterward."

Clarie O'Halloran

Claire O'Halloran is a Skellig tour guide. (Claire O'Halloran)

O'Halloran has been a tour guide on Skellig Michael for nearly three decades. She thinks Star Wars' filmmakers should have never been given approval to film on the vulnerable island she calls "a little jewel."

"Nobody really was thinking straight and there may have been a lot of external pressure," O'Halloran says. "Those of us working on the island for a long time would have concerns that it was rushed and that it was inappropriate and it may even have broken European environmental law."

According to O'Halloran, the process was rushed and "inappropriate enthusiasm" from the government prompted a premature compromise on permits. She is concerned that the Star Wars shoot has set a dangerous precedent for future film projects. But she is determined to advocate for the island's preservation and help quell the tourism boom the film appears to have set in motion.

"I think conservation issues, the importance of conservation and environment, are not fully appreciated yet in Ireland, " O'Halloran says, "and the government is very slow to understand its importance."

Skellig Michael

Tour guide Claire O'Halloran says the delicate structures and steps that weave through the island are home to different species of nesting birds. (Tourism Ireland)

"A more stable, long term, option for tourism is to preserve these things which we have in Ireland — I guess they're taken for granted a little bit." - Claire O'Halloran

Fragile ruins weave through the island, evidence of the early Christian monks that once lived on the land. But O'Halloran says the added pressures on the island's wildlife are particularly worrisome.  

"This is an enormous concern," O'Halloran says. "For quite a few months of the year, really almost every square inch of the island is inhabited by different species of birds who are nesting there."