A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away - late 70s Dublin, to be precise - Ian Ward went to the first Star Wars movie with his father. Ward was seven and had never seen anything like it - he vividly remembers walking out of the Adelphi Cinema on O'Connell Street feeling he had briefly escaped his drab, dreary home town and journeyed to a parallel universe populated by dashing heroes and mesmerising villains.
Some 30 years later, he is counting down to the latest instalment in the inescapable science-fiction franchise, The Force Awakens. But, in addition to being considerably older, there will be another major difference: on this occasion, he will be dressed, helmet to boot-heel, as one of the characters from the films.
Ward is one of a growing community of Star Wars fans in Ireland who have lavished thousands on their hobby/obsession. The sums involved can be significant: a bespoke costume modelled on bounty hunter Boba Fett retails at around €5,000. Even a cheap 'n' cheerful Stormtrooper uniform - Ward owns several - will set you back €1,000-€1,500 (the outfits are generally manufactured by specialists in the UK). Yet die-hards do not baulk at these sums - though some will privately admit their families do not always share their enthusiasm.
"There was nothing else like Star Wars when I was a kid," says Jason Flood, another prominent Star Wars devotee, whose collection includes a life-size replica of Han Solo frozen in ice (sorry, carbonite) and a model Yoda that cost €600 to construct from scratch.
"He's about two-and-a-half-feet tall and fit in the back of my Nissan Micra when I got him, which was handy," says Flood (38), who has parlayed his passion for Star Wars into a career and now runs the Dublin City Comics and Collectibles store on Bolton Street. "He is made from silicone and fibreglass and has fake hair and eyeballs. The clothing is real. People love him - they always want to take photographs."
Speak to enough hardcore Star Wars fans and a certain pattern emerges. They are overwhelmingly men and tend to be of a certain age - old enough to have seen the original Star Wars trilogy in the late 70s and early 80s. They are also at a point in life where they have sufficient disposable income to splurge without guilt on fibreglass blasters or laser-printed lightsabres, created to the exact specifications of the weapon Luke Skywalker wielded on screen.
Aged 30, Matthew O'Brien is an exception as he was born after the release of Return of the Jedi, the final of the original movies, and was still in school when George Lucas's much-derided prequels trilogy arrived in the late 90s (none of the Star Wars fans I spoke to had much positive to say about Lucas's trumpeted return to the franchise).
"I stood looking at the television - I couldn't take my eyes off it," he says of his first experience of Star Wars.
This love eventually blossomed into a mild addiction, which has seen him construct from scratch three life-size "Speeder Bikes" (they don't fly - but you can sit on them, he says), and spent €3,000 on a second-hand Boba Fett costume, which he wears to conventions and other events (he brings Boba to Cineworld in Dublin for a fan display ahead of the midnight screening of The Force Awakens next Wednesday night/Thursday morning).
Still, he has limits and says that €3,000 represents the upper ceiling of what he is prepared to invest.
"There is a threshold for me," nods O'Brien, a County Meath-based actor, who has appeared in Penny Dreadful and the Colin Farrell comedy The Lobster. "Anything from the original movie will go for a huge amount, even the smallest thing, like a lightsabre hilt. You don't need everything - there's a balance to be struck between loving Star Wars and not being broke."
He's right - only the super rich can afford to splurge on memorabilia from the original movies. These have soared in value across the decades, with a hairy headpiece belonging to Han Solo sidekick Chewbacca recently going for over €180,000 at auction. The iconic lightsabre Luke Skywalker toted in the first Star Wars fetched €250,000 in 2008 - one shudders to imagine what it might be worth were it to go under the hammer today.
One reason this memorabilia is so expensive is that it is spectacularly rare. The special effects artists working on the movies never imagined Star Wars would leave an enduring cultural imprint and their creations were not built to last. When, for instance, I ask Flood how much it would cost to secure a monstrous Rancor model from Return Of The Jedi, he says the original may have long since corroded to nothing. "They used a lot of latex in the 80s and that would have disintegrated by now. The frame of the Rancor might still survive - but that's about all."
"One problem is that you can't always trace these items to guarantee they are what they are supposed to be," he continues. "You have people claiming to be selling parts of Luke's moisture evaporator. How do you confirm its originality?"
Also muddying the picture is the entry into the market of professional collectors, snapping up Star Wars toys in the hope their value inflates. There is some logic to this as the original Palitoy action figures of the late 70s occasionally go for thousands at auction. Several years ago, for instance, a miniature "Jawa" alien, with a rare vinyl cape, went for ¤16,500. That's quite a return for a lump of machine-injected plastic that originally cost circa ¤2.50.
Yet, these cases are rare and Star Wars toys purchased recently are unlikely to yield a huge payday. "I have people coming into my shop, asking 'how much will this be worth in a week's time?'" says Jason Flood. "The answer is that it will probably be worth about what it's worth now. You should get these toys because you value them for what they are - not because you think they're going to make you rich. They won't."
The majority of Irish Star Wars diehards are connected to the Emerald Garrison, a "legion" of home-grown Stormtroopers which performs at charity events and participates in the Invasion convention every year (the most recent, with guest appearances from original cast members, took place in Swords in October).
Spending thousands on Stormtrooper helmets and lightsabres may strike non-Star Wars fans as juvenile and unseemly - naturally, the aficionados do not see it that way at all. For them, Star Wars has an emotional value - connecting them to a time in their life gone and never to return. When they dress up they aren't just playing make-believe, they are staying true to the kids the used to be - and how can you put a price on that?
"I'm going to be at the Cineworld event in my outfit, but I'm not going to the screening that night," says Ward. "I'm taking my two sons the next day. I went with my father and I always said that, if another Star Wars movie was to come out, I wouldn't go and see it without them."