Heading to Northern Ireland to see Game of Thrones
Scenes where the world-renowned series is shot are now open to tourists
By Jamie Kimmel
The massive hit HBO series “Game of Thrones” has spawned a boom of travelers flocking to Northern Ireland to see where their favorite show is filmed.
Although I am not a Game of Thrones fan myself (nothing personal, I just can not absorb all of that medievalry and stay committed to it), my boyfriend is a new convert thanks to his best friend. This inspired me to take a multi faceted look at why this series has become so popular that international fans are making pilgrimages to the very place where all the action happens.
I am sure the funding the show receives from the Northern Ireland Screen certainly helps keep them filming there. The Northern Ireland Screen is a government agency financially backed in part by the Dept. of Culture, Arts and Leisure. Translation:
Shooting the series there caused loads of fans to trek to the location and all that tourism was really good for Northern Ireland’s economy. Like £65 million good! Another benefit for the region is that people now know of Belfast for something other than its political turmoil of the past decades.
Discovering Northern Ireland
Discover Northern Ireland (a business dedicated to promoting tourism of the region) is largely responsible for marketing these tours which feature 10 filming locations over the course of a three day itinerary. Some highlights are Dragonstone, the Stormlands, Winterfell and Robb Stark’s Camp.
Downhill Beach marks the spot known to Game of Thrones fans as “Dragonstone”. As some of you viewers and readers already know, Dragonstone gets its name because the old gods are burned there as a form of worship to the Lord of Light by the house of Baratheon. Downhill Beach is home to the Mussenden Temple which is the perfect backdrop to this ominous story setting.
Another dramatic location is Larrybane. This is where the Stormlands are depicted which is known for some pivotal scenes. A turning point in the Game of Thrones story happens here when Catelyn agrees to a shaky treaty with Renly on behalf of her son, Robb Stark. The other part of the Stormlands is filmed at Cushenden Caves where Melisandre gives birth to a shadow baby.
A crowd favorite is Castle Ward, or Winterfell as it is known in the series. Besides a foreboding castle, the area also has a sunken garden and “haunting” woodland. Guests can choose to stay overnight in the castle grounds in pods (do not worry, they come with heaters installed).
Clear Sky Adventures
Winterfell is portrayed at the very beginning of the series and shows the House of Stark. Aside from Discover Northern Ireland, another tour group has expanded on this tour of the castle. Clear Sky Adventures is located adjacent to Castle Ward and offers special archery tours that fans may recognize as the exact training grounds where Bran Stark is guided by his brother Jon Snow to become a better archer.
When buying the “Bran package” customers can expect to dress up in full medieval regalia and receive archery lessons from Jon Snow himself. Staying in character the whole time Snow gives guests inside information about the show and all the back stage happenings during filming. Also customers get a guided tour of the sets used in Castle Ward.
Clear Sky also offers a cycling tour of Audley’s Field–otherwise known as “Robb’s Trail” in the Westeros universe. This is a self guided bicycling tour through the courtyard of the Castle Ward Demesne. The other option for the cycling tour is Tywin’s Trail. Visitors of both tours receive a “Stark Sack” complete with a medieval scroll as their map (and later on serves as a nifty souvenir) as well as supporting texts and images for each location and Stark family capes and Live Action Role Playing swords (no joke).
“We are called to set by raven.”–Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister
Both the book and the show start off with two noble families vying for control of the Iron Throne of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. This fictional region along with its castles, characters, events and plot elements largely derive from Medieval European history.
My boyfriend coming from a fan’s perspective, was curious to why Northern Ireland of all places was chosen for the primary filming location. My guess (since I actually have been to Ireland) is for the aesthetic value. All I have to go on is Game of Thrones is about royal wizard-like people from a long time ago in a land far away…and stuff.
Ireland is largely rural and classic in its landscape. The country is littered with structures hundreds-to-thousands-of-years-old. Farm houses, tombs, castles, churches, you name it, Ireland probably has some sort of ruins for any type of man made abode. Most of the land is undeveloped and very green but relatively close to modern civilization so filming can be quite authentic without inconveniences.
Upon further investigation it turns out I was half right about why the creators chose Belfast. The many genuine medieval castles and untouched landscape partially contributed to the decision but the producers ultimately went with Northern Ireland because of the availability of studio space. The director’s first choice was Scotland.
From history books to cinema
To re-emphasize the importance of authentic European medieval imagery for the show, I should take the time to encompass not only the plot, but the inspiration of this grand work of fiction. The Game of Thrones series started with George R. R. Martin (no relation to fellow epic medieval writer J. R. R. Tolkien despite the similar initials). Martin is an American Sci fi author and screen writer and has been writing for a number of decades. He wrote a series of novels (still in the works as we speak) titled A Song of Ice and Fire, the first installment was labeled A Game of Thrones. He was inspired by the War of the Roses, Ivanhoe and The Accursed Kings.
For those of you unfamiliar with these subjects, the War of the Roses was a period in English history (mid to late 1400s) where two families under the royal House of Plantagenet, the Red Roses of Lancaster and the White Roses of York, frequently battled each other for the throne of England.
Ivanhoe is a historical novel of twelfth century England exploring two old tribes of descent (Saxons and Normans) continuously battling for the throne of the English kingdom. Martin compares his characters to those in the Accursed Kings and War of the Roses by saying “Believe me, the Starks and Lannisters have nothing on the Capets and the Plantaganets. It is the original game of thrones.”
The book series itself has received praise for its diverse portrayal of women and religion as well as leaning towards realism over magic. On the other hand the work is also known for violence, blatant sexuality and moral ambiguity that frequents among the (at least) a thousand named characters.
The television show staying faithful to these conflicts, continues to explore those themes through the characters as well as social hierarchy, loyalty, corruption, civil war, crime and punishment. Due to the liberal nudity, sexual violence and regular violence it has been the subject of much criticism but also attainted numerous awards and nominations.
As mentioned earlier, I am not a Game of Thrones fan per se so maybe this would not mean as much to me as someone like my boyfriend but I will take any excuse to go back to Ireland!…Or shoot some more arrows! I can appreciate when something is important to a passionate fan and getting into the spirit of trying new things, even if I am not keeping up with the show or reading the books.
The tours do not seem terribly expensive, themselves. If you want a truncated version of the tour for whatever reason, there are a number of selected locations clustered together and marketed as separate tours by companies independent of Discover Northern Ireland. Since Europe is ridiculously cold during a good portion of the year the tours are available pretty much any month it is not likely to snow in Ireland. “For the night is dark and full of terrors.”
All of these tours are carrying on during Irish Heritage Week from August 23-31 which features more than 1600 events celebrating Irish history and culture.
Jamie Kimmel is currently an anthropology major at UMass Amherst. As a very active member of the belly dance club and SPIRALS, she loves all things magickal and artistic. She writes about both of these things in more detail on her blog IamWiccanHearMeRoar