Could "Star Wars" fans overshadow history of "magical" Irish island?

Skellig Michael is an island in the Atlantic, virtually stuck in time for more than 1,000 years. But now, it is being stormed by fans of the Jedi.

It looks like something only a Hollywood set designer could come up with, yet when Rey and Chewbacca flew the Millennium Falcon to a dramatic shard of rock in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," they weren't flying to a fictional place.

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Millennium Falcon flying toward Skellig Michael

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens"

Skellig Michael is the real thing. If you don't have a spaceship, you need a boat to cross the lumpy, seven miles of open ocean off the southwest tip of Ireland.

Also, you get Hugh and Joe, instead of Rey and the Wookiee. When you land, you're greeted by Bob Harris, the tourist guide.

Harris knows all about a place so special it's been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site -- not just for its spectacular natural beauty and its enchanting wildlife, but also because somewhere around the 6th century A.D. a small group of adventurous, devout Christian monks established a monastery here. Generations of monks stayed for at least the next 600 years. The monks' beehive huts, chapel, and graveyard have remained essentially as they were.

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Monastery at Skellig Michael

CBS News

"The magical thing to me is the fact that you can look in these dark doorways even today and you look at exactly what 6th century men looked at," Harris said.

But to visit these wonders, you have to climb and climb and climb -- more than 600 steps that the monks carved into the cliff face. By step 400, you can hear your heart beat.

When Rey came, she wasn't interested in the sites. She came on a mission. We came because Rey came and to see what "Star Wars" has done to this place.

Rey came to find Luke Skywalker. It was a make-believe encounter that has had real consequences.

Skywalker may have thought Skellig Michael was a good place to come and hide. But he brought the new force with him and others here think that may not be very good for the place. Because where Skywalker has come, others have followed.

No spaceship, but lots of little ships, have brought an ever increasing stream of tourists to the island, a bargain at around $67 a pop. They've been drawn, certainly, by its enduring charms, but also by its new Hollywood notoriety.

Janet Moore came all the way from Tampa.

"We were planning to come to Ireland before even before the 'Star Wars' movie came out, and then that clinched it," Moore said, smiling.

That also clinched it for Brian and Ellie Summerfield from Michigan.

"We thought it would be fun to come out here and pretend that I was Luke Skywalker and she was -- what was the name again?" Brian said.

"Rey," Ellie said.

There's a limit on the number of tourists allowed on the island -- just 180 a day. The operators are already more or less sold out for this short May-to-September season, even if the visit can be a challenge for some. Two people, both American, have fallen off these steps and died here.

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Tourists on Skellig Michael

CBS News

But it's not just the numbers that are worrying. It's the fear that Skellig Michael -- a special place for its history -- is now being confused with something else.

"Well the monks were here 1,300 years ago and people still know about them. I don't know how long people will know about 'Star Wars' but they may know about it for a very long time," Harris said.

Especially since scenes they've already filmed on the island feature in the next Star Wars movie, too.

Those who brave the trip here, like Fran Politi from San Francisco, hope all this fame doesn't change the place.

"Not too many railings, nowhere to buy ice cream, no bathrooms, that's good," Politi said.

"If it's good enough for Luke, it's good enough for you," Phillips said.

"Well, if it's good enough for the monks, it's good enough for me," Politi responded.

So is the force still on Skellig Michael?

"I think the force has been here for a very long time," Harris said.

  • Mark Phillips

    Mark Phillips is CBS News senior foreign correspondent, based in London.