In search of Luke Skywalker on the Inishowen Peninsula

This past week the Winds of Fortune cast me ashore along Ireland's North coast, in the town of Moville on the Inishowen Peninsula. A tiny seaside community of some 1,500 souls, Moville nestles on the shores of Lough Foyle eighteen miles north-east of Derry, and roughly two-hundred miles north of Dublin, which is where I had traveled from.

I've visited Dublin on business twice a year since 2013, but this was the first time I'd managed to venture outside the bounds of that blessed city. Drawn north by the excuse of a business trip, I was driven to Donegal as much by my desire to finally start exploring Ireland as I was by professional necessity.

My journey to the island's northern-most reaches was a dreary, cloud-shrouded, solitary one, with no pause to take in the sights along the way. The one highlight was driving past the walls of Derry, a historical city I will have to explore another time. However, three and a half hours after leaving Dublin I was not in the least disappointed by what I found at the end of my road in Moville. The community itself is as typically Irish as I could have hoped for, picturesque, peaceful, and populated by warm and welcoming folk. Even on a dull, rainy day such as this the town itself exuded a kind of rural charm that was instantly noticeable.

It was/is also, as I was informed soon after my arrival, the place where the Irish Horror Comedy "Grabbers"¹ was shot back in 2012. And, since "Grabbers" is a bit a personal favorite in the Horror-Comedy department, this snippet of information led me to inquire if any other movies had been filmed in the area.

"Well we had the Star Wars people just up the road from here a few weeks back." came the response.

The Martello Fort at Greencastle, seen from the Norman Keep

The Greencastle Martello Fort

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Northburg Castle at Greencastle

The Northburg seen from the Inn's Parking Lot

Now it is a fact well known to those who know it well that I am a bit of a Star Wars fan on the quiet, despite not rating Episode VII very highly at all. So this comment did arouse my interest considerably,

The crew and cast had indeed spent some time up at Malin Head, Ireland's most northerly point, shooting for Episode VIII. As it turns out, Luke Skywalker hadn't been hiding on some distant planet for the past three decades after all. He'd been in Ireland the whole time.

With this piece of information "in my pocket", so to speak, I resolved to go and check out Malin Head the following day if the weather was in the least bit cooperative. After all, it's not every day you get a chance to snoop around Luke Skywalker's hideout.

The next morning dawned hung over with dark and dreary clouds, though possibly not quite as hung over as I was. The Irish really know how to party, and the previous night's entertainment had included an excellent Country and Western Performance and ample amounts of beer.

Nevertheless, I was determined to check out the area, so once the morning's proceedings had concluded I hit the road northward.

Skirting the coast I headed for Greencastle, where I passed the ruins of a Medieval Keep. Since the weather at that point was still miserable and rainy, I decided against pausing my journey to investigate, and continued on my way north to Shrove. Here I made my first stop, taking in a tiny beach just past the local lighthouse. Leaving Shrove I plotted a Google Maps Course for Kinnagoe Bay, some four miles northward across the peninsula. From there I would follow the coast westward to Malin Head.

It was a solid enough theory on paper...

In practice, however, things worked out a little differently.

For starters, I never realized there's a thousand foot climb² involved in crossing the four miles between Greencastle and Kinnagoe Bay. I've driven some fairly hair-raising mountain roads in my life. Normally they snake their way up one slope and then down the other. Irish road builders apparently consider this traditional Alpine approach to be a complete waste of tarmac, since the road I traveled led straight up one side and then down the other, much like Blackpool's legendary Pepsi Max roller coaster.

Steep doesn't begin to describe it.

I'm happy to report that Enterprise Rent-a-Car at Dublin Airport takes great pride in the maintenance of its vehicles...

With brake-checks complete, I found Kinnagoe Bay to be a pleasant place, sheltered from the Wild Atlantic by the mass of Malin Head. With its Emerald cliffs I'm sure this beach is utterly spectacular on a sunny day. When I took my stroll, however, the weather was only just beginning to contemplate an improvement.

Shrove Beach

Shrove Beach

Kinnagoe Bay

Kinnagoe Bay, with the weather clearing slightly

Back at my car I discovered two fatal flaws in my scheme to follow the coast up to Malin Head:

  1. There is no actual Coast Road between the two places.
  2. Kinnagoe Bay is a cell phone dead-zone.

Point of note: Unless you download the area you're driving in for offline use, Google Maps is a Piece of Geometric Abstraction with a Blue Dot in the middle if you happen to lose your data signal.

Malin Head Coastline in the Rain

Rain Squall east of Banba's Crown

Caffe Banba

Caffe Banba - Ireland's most northerly bakery

This part of Ireland is basically a rabbit warren where roads are concerned, and with steely-grey clouds scudding overhead there's no real way of gauging your direction. Leaving the beach I was, however, fairly confident of one fact. Continuing up the steep slope must lead back to civilization eventually.

Eventually, in this instance, turned out to be forty minutes later, when I hit the main Moville → Culdaff Road somewhere around Gleneely... five miles from Kinnagoe Bay and without a hint of a cell phone signal.

By now it was 1:30 PM and Malin Head was still fifteen miles away.

Following the main road I arrived at Banba's Crown about half an hour later, to be confronted by a sudden downpour and gale-force winds as soon as I unpacked my cameras.

Fleeing the elements I sought shelter at Caffe Banba, Ireland's most northerly bakery. As you can see by the image to the left, Caffe Banba is basically a food truck sitting in the Malin Head parking lot. Here I waited out the storm behind the counter with a brownie and a cappuccino, thanks to the resident baker-lady's kindness.

Pro-Tip: If you're heading this way, take the time to grab a cake and coffee from Caffe Banba. The quality truly is excellent. These are also the people who provided caffeine and donuts to the Star Wars crew, so there are a few tales to be heard while you're enjoying your snack.

When the storm had blown itself out ten minutes later I knew exactly which property the crew had commandeered as a set, where the Millennium Falcon had been erected, and what kind of pastry Mark Hamill favored. I did not as yet know about "Skywalker's Armchair", but more of that shortly.

At this point the weather also finally decided to break, with the clouds receding eastward leaving behind blue skies and sunshine.

Malin Head Coastline from Banba's Crown

Looking east from Banba's Crown ten minutes after the image above.

Wandering around the back of Caffe Banba, I took a few shotz of the main set where the Millennium Falcon had been erected³. Unfortunately the picture was taken basically straight into the sun and with a long zoom, so it's not the greatest photo I've ever taken.

Coastal Location used for Star Wars Episode VIII

The Millennium Falcon set was built on this headland.

I did of course try to get closer to the actual headland itself, but the whole area is a mess of barbed wire and "No Trespassing" signs. Nevertheless, I managed to a few shots of the location from various angles before starting my journey back toward Moville and my fateful encounter with Ireland's only Thatched Conservatory and with "Skywalker's Armchair".

On the way back from Malin Head to Malin Town you pass through the tiny hamlet of Ballyhillin, about half a mile or so from Banba's Crown. It's a featureless sort of place, except for a single, stunningly picturesque thatched cottage. Since the weather had turned out fine I decided to stop and take a couple of photos of this charming home. As I was blundering up and down the road, trying to find the best angle, its door opened and out came a tall gentleman, walking toward me.

Half expecting him to berate me for photographing his home without permission, I lowered my camera and prepared to be lectured. However, instead of the expected chastisement I was met with a friendly greeting and the question "So you like my cottage, do you?"

"It's absolutely gorgeous." I responded and, with the ice broken in this way, was given the 101 introduction to the building and its history by its owner, Dermot.

Looking along the Malin Head Coastline

Furthest headland was Episode VIII location

Thatched Cottage near Malin Head

Skywalker Cottage

During the course of the conversation I found out that this particular cottage features the only thatched conservatory in Ireland, so I asked if I could go round back to take a photo of it. Dermot assented happily, and we moved our conversation into the back garden where I took a number of photos from various angles.

"I've a guest book indoors. Would you mind signing it please?" inquired Dermot once I'd finished with my camera. I was of course more than happy to do so, and we wandered into the house through the aforementioned conservatory. Settling myself into an armchair I made my entry into the guestbook and continued my conversation with my host.

"I had that actor fellow in here a few weeks back. Felt terrible... Should have known who he was, but didn't. He was sitting right where you're sitting too." he stated as an aside.

"Actor fellow? What? From Star Wars?"

"Yes, that's the one. Mark Somethingorother."

"Mark Hamill?"

"Yes, that's him. I made him a cup of tea."

At this stage I must admit to being somewhat dumbfounded, but sure enough, Mark Hamill had indeed visited this beautiful cottage a few weeks before I did, as the guestbook cheerfully attested to. Apparently he'd also enjoyed a fresh cup of tea while taking in the interior of this beautiful period property... sitting on the very upholstery I currently occupied. I was sitting in Luke Skywalker's Armchair! At that moment in time this place forevermore became "Skywalker Cottage" to me.

I don't have that many "special moments", but this instant, sitting in an old armchair and talking to Dermot about a guest he never recognized, is up there among the most memorable.

Since Dermot was just on his way out when I started taking pictures of his cottage our meeting broke up soon after, and I made my way back to Moville without further incident. The following day I took to the long road back to Dublin, somewhat regretful at not having time to explore the Inishowen Peninsula for an extra couple of days.

As I said previously, I've yearned for an opportunity to start exploring the Emerald Isle ever since my first visit to Dublin back in the Spring of 2013. This taste of rural Ireland, fleeting though it may have been, has turned my yearning into an outright urge. I now know that I must return and explore this beautiful part of the world more thoroughly.

¹ As typically and outrageously Irish as the cult TV Series Father Ted, Grabbers immediately became one of my favorite Horror Comedies when I first watched it a couple of years back. If you're into the genre, I would suggest you give it a try. 🙂

² There's obviously also a thousand foot drop on the other side. And for all you Metric folks out there, that's about three hundred meters.

³ The Wild Atlantic Crafts gift stall on Banba's Crown sells imagery taken by a local photographer, showing the Falcon sitting among the coastal rocks.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh, wgah'nagl.