The wait is finally over: HBO’s Game of Thrones (GOT) is back to ignite our screens with A Storm of Swords…let the fantasy commence!
For diehard GOT fans around the globe, the series is the ultimate in fantasy escapism: an epic, rollercoaster ride that thrills with dark themes and incredible plot lines.
But in Northern Ireland, Game of Thrones is more than just entertainment. It’s the very place where Ned, Tyrion, Catelyn, Lord Tywin and King Robert cross the toughest paths, scale the highest mountains and create drama in a fantasy world with a very real backdrop. It’s the very place that gives the scenes what USA Today has described as their “lived-in feel”.
Right now, Northern Ireland feels like the epicentre of all things Game of Thrones. There’s a self-drive tour through scene-stealing locations along the Causeway Coast and Glens, one of Europe’s most breathtaking areas; Paint Hall Studios in Belfast is the main studio for indoor scenes; and in June this year, an interactive GOT exhibition comes to Belfast, with dozens of artefacts and costumes from seasons 1 and 2 and a full-scale replica of the Iron Throne that you can actually sit on.
Castles, castles, everywhere…
Of course, aside from the fantasy landscapes, there’s a good reason that Ireland was picked by GOT location scouts. There are castles everywhere; incredible structures that catapult you right to the heart of the mythical land of Westeros.
Take Shane’s Castle in County Antrim for starters. Built in the 14th century on the edge of Lough Neagh, the ruined castle created an evocative backdrop for the famous tournament scene from season 1. Just south of Belfast, 18th-century Castle Ward was converted to create the frostbitten town of Winterfell. In real life, it’s a 332-hectare demesne with walking trails, an exotic garden and lovely little farmyard.
One look at the “filming map” on Game of Thrones-related website Winter is Coming shows you exactly where you can step from rural idyll to the clash or kings and the civil war. No matter where you are, it seems, a GOT location is never far away.
Tollymore Forest Park was where we were given our first glimpse of the dreaded White-Walkers. And the sleepy port of Ballintoy Harbour on the famous County Antrim coastline depicted the rugged Iron Islands.
But one location, in particular, seems to resonate more than most. The foot of the haunting Mourne Mountains in County Down portrayed the swaying grasslands of the entrance to Vaes Dothrak. And they are mountains that are no stranger to fantasy novels – in fact, this is the very landscape that inspired The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe author CS Lewis to create Narnia.
Epic fantasy in a nutshell? Looks like Northern Ireland has it nailed.