Everyone has at least heard of the biggest TV show in history, Game of Thrones. Most people also know that one of its primary filming locations is Northern Ireland – not least because the series is now a significant driver of tourism for the region as fans flock to see where certain scenes were filmed. Game of Thrones is not the first big budget Hollywood production to grace Irish shores however; film crews have been flying in and out for several decades now. Some films made here aren't specifically set in Ireland either (although there have been plenty of those too). In fact, many of them were huge, Oscar-winning movies with A-list film stars in the cast, and plenty of them have gone on to join the ranks of classic movies in their respective genres. Here are some that may surprise you.
Even if you're from a galaxy far far away, you'll no doubt have heard that the upcoming film in the Star Wars franchise, Episode VIII, was filmed in part on Skellig Michael in county Kerry. The whereabouts of the film crew was reported in the media on a daily basis, and Mark Hamill himself was spotted pouring pints of Guinness for some locals! The island off the coast is known for its dramatic, jagged landscape and ancient monastic site, which appeared in the closing scenes of Episode VII. The details are still strictly under wraps, but we'll find out just which part of the Star Wars universe Skellig Micheal portrays when the next film hits cinema screens in December. Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson made it onto the cast list, while his fellow Irish actors Jack Reynor, Micheal Fassbender and Saoirse Ronan were all said to be in the running at one stage.
Mel Gibson's first major blockbuster film in which he acted, directed and produced was Braveheart, the historical epic which tells the story of legendary Scottish hero William Wallace and his rebellion against the English army. Initially planned to be filmed around Scotland, Gibson and his team decided at the last minute to switch to Ireland instead, and all of the exterior scenes (i.e. most of the film) were shot in locations such as the Curragh in Kildare, Trim Castle and Bective Abbey in County Meath. 1500 men from the Irish Defence Forces were recruited as extras for Braveheart's army, and their typically Irish sense of humour and love of poking fun at people allegedly left him with no comeback once or twice! He seemed to take it all in his stride however, saying 'like any group of young men they're 75% smart asses, but they're having fun'. Allegedly he wasn't going to participate in the famous mooning scene, but after relentless goading from the extras he gave in!
Saving Private Ryan
Another major film in which the Irish Defence Forces were called on to be extras was Saving Private Ryan. This time 2500 people were used, all on Ballinesker Beach in county Wexford. This usually beautiful stretch of sand in the sunny south east was transformed into a hellish war zone scene for the 20 minute long opening of the film, which depicts the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach. Cast and crew filmed there for two whole months in 1997 and the entire production cost over £40 million pounds. Funnily enough, the stretch of land on which they filmed was once owned by a German, but was sold to Denis Cloney in 1960. The film went on to win five Oscars, including a Best Director award for the one and only Steven Spielberg. Initially the scene was due to be shot in August on another nearby beach, but when Spielberg insisted on changing the date to June, they moved to Ballinesker instead.
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
If you're a fan of the boy wizard, you'll definitely remember a certain scene in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, film number six of eight. Harry and Dumbledore are battling with evil on a dramatic cliff face – and those cliffs are one of the most visited places in all of Ireland; the Cliffs of Moher in county Clare. Shortly after that swooping shot, the pair are standing on a rock. This rock is not in fact anywhere close to the Cliffs of Moher – it's called Lemon Rock and it's in county Kerry, which is part of the Skelligs. So you never know, we may even see it make an appearance in Star Wars too!
A childhood favourite for many has been the story of Lassie, the runaway dog. Having had many incarnations since the original novel was published in 1938, in 2005 it was announced that a 21st century remake starring Peter O'Toole and Samantha Morton. There was a huge push at the time to attract film studios to shoot in Ireland by offering tax incentives, which in turn would provide a boost for the tourism industry, and the Lassie team took up the offer. Filming took place over 7 weeks in Ireland and the Isle of Man. With the plot calling for mountainous scenery the Magillycuddy Reeks, the highest mountain range in Ireland, was the obvious choice – yet another win for Kerry! The Lassie franchise has 10 feature films and an impressive 675 television episodes under its belt, so the 2005 incarnation often gets overlooked in favour of the more well known versions – but if you're looking for a child friendly movie with an Irish twist, it's worth a look.
Another film with many incarnations over the years, but it's the 2004 feature starring Kiera Knightley and Clive Owen that has strong Irish links. In fact the entire film was shot over here; interior scenes were filmed in county Wicklow's Ardmore Studios; Ballymore Eustace in county Kildare served as Hadrian's Wall; and other scenes were filmed in nearby estates like Powerscourt and Luggala. A replica of Hadrian's Wall was built because director Antoine Fuqua refused to use special effects if at all possible. The replica was 1 kilometre long, 40 feet high and had a 10 foot wide walkway on top. It took 300 crew members four months to build. He also wanted the actors to use real weapons and get real training for battle scenes, which allegedly resulted in Kiera Knightley accidentally killing a horse while practicing for archery. In total, 300 swords, 700 spears and 350 axes were used over the course of the film's production.
The Italian Job
The classic 1969 British caper film starring Michael Caine, Noel Coward and Benny Hill, despite being quintissentially British, was filmed in part on Irish (and, of course, Italilan) shores. The scenes when Michael Caine's character has landed himself in jail were all filmed in Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Kilmainham is hugely historic and a very important location for the Irish people as it's where many of the rebel leaders who lead the 1916 Easter Rising were first imprisoned and later brutally executed by firing squad. It's not often they open their doors to film crews, but they made an exception in this case. Unfortunately, none of the spectacular driving stunts took place over here, but still... we made it into one scene, so that's enough for most fans of the film!
The Princess Bride
The Cliffs of Moher didn't just make it into one childhood favourite; they feature in the 1897 cult fantasy classic The Princess Bride too. In fact, it was the first major film to introduce the landmark to the world and, although it wasn't all that successful on its initial release, when its iconic status eventually did grow it was a significant factor in making the Cliffs the popular tourist destination it is today. In the film however the Cliffs are called the 'Cliffs of Insanity', and the main characters race across the cliff face in a key climactic scene. In reality it was all the work of a single stuntman who was suspended 200 feet in the air in a wince. If you've ever been to the cliffs, you'll know just how terrifying that would have been!
Most people argue that the breathtaking landscapes of New Zealand are the only place in the world that could have done justice to JRR Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. However, before Peter Jackson's adaptation came along, John Boorman had wanted to film one in Ireland all the way back in the 1980s. Funding ran dry, so instead he turned his hand to the legend of King Arthur and made Excalibur. It was shot in various locations around the country; one epic battle scene took place at Cahir Castle in Tipperary, and Powerscourt Waterfall and the surrounding woodlands in county Wicklow made several appearances. A love scene between Lancelot and Guinevere was filmed deep in a freezing forest, which probably didn't make the actors too fond of the beautiful garden of Ireland. The film was another success for Irish tourism, and visitors can still follow the 'Excalibur Drive' around Wicklow today to spot the various filming locations.
Okay, so this one isn't a film, but we couldn't let an article like this end without mentioning some of the many TV shows that are also filmed in Ireland. That's right, there's plenty more than just Game of Thrones! The next most popular show (although it has now run its course) is The Tudors, which was filmed entirely in Ardmore Studios for its four season run. It told the story of the reign of Henry VIII, played impeccably by Irishman Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and starring much more Irish talent including Maria Doyle Kennedy, Peter O'Toole and Sarah Bolger. Another TV show that's gaining popularity is Vikings, currently in its third season and filmed all over Ireland, particularly in the midlands. If you're a fan of Game of Thrones, history or Vikings, you should definitely check it out.