Game of Thrones is arguably the biggest TV series ever, and is definitely the most popular show to hit the silver screen in the last 15 years. And guess what – a significant part of it is filmed in Ireland, with Irish actors.
Game of Thrones locations tours have become immensely popular in recent years and prominent cast members are often spotted out and about in Belfast, where both cast and crew are based when filming in this neck of the woods. With anticipation building for Season 5 of the show which airs next week, it seemed like the perfect time for a Thrones themed post all about the show’s Irish connections.
Game of Thrones (briefly) Explained
For the unfamiliar, Game of Thrones is a series of fantasy books by George R.R Martin that has been turned into a hugely successful TV show. The books are known as the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ series, although the TV series chose the title of the first book for its show. The first book, A Game of Thrones, was published almost twenty years ago in 1996, and there have been four subsequent tomes published since then. There are two more planned novels in the series, neither of which have been given release dates yet. Martin is well known for refusing to rush his writing process, so there is often a long gap between novels. He is also infamous for killing off the most popular characters in his books in increasingly gory and tragic ways, something which his fans both love and hate him for in equal measure! The books are set in the fictional fantasy world of Westeros (which in footage of the TV show is in fact Northern Ireland) and its neighbouring continent Essos, and the several kingdoms, cities and lands contained within the two. The time period is medieval, so naturally the plot revolves around the struggles between the dominant families of each kingdom and their quest for the greatest accolade of all; the iron throne of Westeros. However, there are several otherworldly threats in play too including dragons, old forgotten gods, and most importantly, a mystical, supernatural world beyond the protective border of ‘The Wall’ filled with old, menacing creatures and sinister magic resurfacing after centuries.
In the first book things remain largely uncomplicated with just nine major characters and a few different storylines. However, as they continue things get increasingly confusing (and violent!) when more and more characters, places and plots appear – not to mention some characters changing names completely! An explanation of each of the main characters would take more than one blog post to explain, but in a nutshell, some of the most significant families in the novels are:
The books and TV show both start off with the righteous Stark family who rule Winterfell in the North. They are one of the few ‘good’ families who strive for peace and unity rather than clawing for more power. In typical George R.R Martin style, they don’t last very long in the treacherous wars of Westeros and are soon separated, seemingly forever, although their legacy and beliefs live on.
The Lannisters are the richest and most powerful family in Westeros. Cersei Lannister is married to the king, Robert Baratheon, while her twin brother Jaime has been a member of the Kingsguard (the elite guards who protect the king) since age fifteen, even slaying the previous ‘mad’ king to save Westeros. Although the family has a long, noble history and strong allies, there are plenty of people who dislike them and the hold they have on the land.
The Baratheons are the ruling family at the beginning of the series. Robert Baratheon is king of Westeros, and when he dies two of his brothers, Renly and Stannis, both lay claim to the throne. Stannis plans his strategy carefully with the help of a mysterious red priestess, who (unknown to him) kills Renly with her witchcraft to help him claim the throne.
The Targaryens were the founders of Westeros and the longest ruling family, peacefully controlling the land for several hundred years until King Aerys Targaryen turned insane and was overthrown by the Baratheons. The surviving members of the family were exiled, and one of them, Danaerys, is now hatching a plan to reclaim the throne for herself – with the help of some dragons and a vast army from Essos.
For the TV series, the producers needed locations that were unspoiled by human activity and modern constructions, easily accessible, and of course, similar to the descriptions given in the book. Westeros is described as a land of green hills, winding rivers, thick woodlands and dramatic cliffs – so Ireland was the natural choice! Almost all of the outdoor scenes that take place in Westeros were filmed in various locations around Northern Ireland, and many of the interior scenes were also filmed in Titanic Studios in Belfast. Just some of the more memorable locations include;
Castle Ward (Winterfell):
The older structures of Castle Ward (near Downpatrick) were used in the pilot episode of Game of Thrones, when the Lannisters arrive at Winterfell. The crew spent 8 weeks building the set and four days filming on the grounds of this 18th century mansion, mostly in the old farmyard, and out in the grounds. The whispering wood, scenes with Robb Stark’s battle camp, the Baelor battle and the scene where Brienne confronts the Stark men were all filmed in various spots of the estate.
The Dark Hedges (King's Road):
The name itself seems to come straight from a fantasy novel, but believe it or not, the brooding, never ending laneway with spooky curving trees that Arya travels through on the King’s Road after escaping King’s Landing is real, and located in Ballymoney. The trees were planted in the 18th century by the Stuart family as a landscape feature to impress visitors on their way their manor house at the end of the lane.
Ballintoy Harbour (Iron Islands)
The small village of Ballintoy with its picturesque harbour is the real location for Pyke, and the surrounding area was used for exterior shots of the Iron Islands. Here is where Theon (Ned Stark’s squire) first arrives back on his home turf and meets his sister Yara before they travel along the islands to meet their father. The village is now a regular stop off for Thrones fans thanks to its proximity to the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
Cushendun Caves (Storm’s End):
The stunning but spooky Cushendun Caves was chosen as the spot where Stannis’ red priestess Melisandre is brought to a secret location by Davos Seaworth, gives birth to a shadow, and sends it to kill Renly Baratheon, in a nightmarish scene that reveals her true powers. The caves were formed over 400 million years and are what remains of a mountain range that suffered heavy erosion due to prolonged extreme weather.
Downhill Strand (Dragonstone):
The 11km long stretch of normally beautiful golden sand and sea was used for one especially menacing scene in season 2 of the show; when Melisandre performs her ritualistic ceremony honouring her god of light, and Stannis pulls the flaming sword to chants of ‘the night is dark and full of terror’. The strand sits below a popular Northern Ireland landmark, Mussenden Temple.
Irish cast members
As well as a host of Irish extras, small parts, and of course, a few hundred crew members, there are a handful of high-profile Irish actors that have played significant characters in Game of Thrones. Some have already met a grisly end and some have so far survived everything that has been thrown at them; but who knows what will happen next season!
Aidan Gillen (Petyr Baelish):
Dublin born Aidan Gillen is a regular in most Irish films or TV shows (as well as plenty of US hits too) and is practically a household name around the country. Two of his most famous roles include The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti, the ambitious politician who makes his way up the ranks from the city council to Governor of Maryland, and John Boy, the original leader of the criminal gang in another insanely popular Irish TV series of recent years, Love/Hate. In Game of Thrones, he plays the conniving Lord Petyr Baelish (better known as ‘Littlefinger’), a character with often underestimated charisma and intelligence who, after forming alliances with all the right people, sets his sights on the throne with his own agenda. In the most recent TV season, he has taken Sansa Stark to the Eeyrie, where her aunt Lysa rules, before promptly marrying Lysa and throwing her off the top of the building so he could claim her land for himself!
Jack Gleeson (Joffrey Baratheon):
Jack Gleeson is a young Irish actor born in Cork. At the tender age of 22 he has already achieved worldwide fame for his part in Game of Thrones, before he has even had a chance to graduate from university! Unfortunately for Jack, he played the most vilified character in both the TV series and the books; Joffrey Baratheon, the pampered and insolent son of Queen Cersei and King Robert Baratheon (although his real father is in fact his uncle, Jaime). Joffrey becomes the teenage King of Westeros after his father’s death and meets a horrifying end at his own wedding, where he chokes to death on wine that has been poisoned by a mysterious and unidentified killer. Joffrey was Gleeson’s first major role and could be his only one, as he decided to temporarily retire from acting once his part in Game of Thrones was over.
Liam Cunningham (Davos Seaworth):
Liam Cunningham is another Dublin born actor who has appeared in more than a few critically acclaimed films and television shows. Among many other things, he has appeared in Doctor Who, The Guard, Hunger and Into the West as well as a number of stage plays. In Game of Thrones he plays Davos Seaworth, also known as the Onion Knight, the right hand man of Stannis Baratheon. Davos wears a glove on one hand to disguise the fact that the top joints of some fingers are missing – they were chopped off by Stannis as punishment for his previous career as an onion (and other foods) smuggler. He has spent most of the last season attempting to lobby support from Stannis from just about everywhere.
Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark):
Born in Coleraine in Northern Ireland, Michelle Fairley is highly proud of her Irish roots and often speaks of the special memories she has of growing up on the northern coastline. Another prolific actor, some of her most popular roles apart from Game of Thrones include Hermione's mother in the final Harry Potter movies and a recurring role as Ava Hessington in US comedy series Suits. Fairley plays Catelyn Stark, wife of Ned and mother to the Stark children, who constantly puts her family’s life before her own in an attempt to save them from the increasing danger they find themselves in. Her final scene in the series, now dubbed the ‘Red Wedding’ by fans, is regarded by many as the most chilling not just in this series, but in any TV series ever.
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