Dressed in a black polyester cloak, leather lace-up jerkin and faux fur collar, William Van der Kells’ hand rests perilously on the 4ft replica sword attached to his waist. Today – and every day – Van der Kells is Ned Stark, everyone’s favourite ill-fated Game of Thrones hero (played by Sean Bean). This is Van der Kells’ day-job, as a guide with Winterfell Tours in Northern Ireland, and he is welcoming The Big Issue to Inch Abbey in County Down – the physical and spiritual heartland of HBO’s blockbusting TV fantasy epic.
Less than an hour’s drive from Belfast, across the River Quoile, is Downpatrick Cathedral, burial place of Ireland’s patron saint. Amid the crumbling 12th century Cistercian Abbey is where Robb Stark (played by Richard Madden) was crowned ‘King in the North’ after learning of his father Ned’s execution.
“For 30 years, we had real violence,” says Van der Kells. “It cost lives, destroyed families. It decimated this country. Now it’s fantasy violence, and it’s bringing us money and jobs. It’s bringing people together.”
A couple of hours later I am resplendent in my own Stark regalia inside Castle Ward, a stunning 900-acre National Trust site that doubles as the Stark home, Winterfell. Outside are imposing towers and a striking façade. Inside, a map of the world invites guests to pinpoint where they have travelled from.
A few years ago a map of Northern Ireland and Britain would have been enough. Now countless pins are spread across China, the United States, Australia, Japan, all over Europe and South America. This is a truly global game, and the yen, dollars, yuan and euros that have already filled Northern Ireland’s pockets will pour in for decades to come.
It is a huge, and lucrative, opportunity. Northern Ireland’s tourism board predicts more than two million people will visit the country by the end of this year – more than its entire 1.8 million population – and with GoT only airing for the first time in China in 2015, that market is only just opening up.
For 30 years, we had real violence that decimated this country. Now it’s fantasy violence, and it’s bringing us money and jobs
“People are really on-board because they know what it’s doing for tourism, and can now see how much money has been pumped back into the economy,” explains Naomi Liston, Game of Thrones locations manager.
Founded a year before the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, Northern Ireland Screen was a driving force in bringing Wildlings and White Walkers to the country, injecting £3.2m of public money to help create the pilot and first series – “more than a considerable chunk of our limited budget at the time”, one Northern Ireland Screen member of staff tells me – Thrones has in turn ploughed £166m into the Northern Irish economy.
Since Thrones filming in 2009, it has created around 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs in Northern Ireland
HBO had considered Scotland – with its similar landscapes and ancient castles – but in 2008 Northern Ireland made a last-gasp offer that HBO couldn’t refuse: exclusivity of the giant Paint Hall studio in the Titanic Quarter (below), the sweetener of a few million quid of government support, and the promise of a future tax break (which followed in 2013).
It’s no secret that tourism bosses and officials at Stormont – Northern Ireland’s parliament – hope to follow the New Zealand model, where tourism became the country’s second largest industry (only behind dairy exports), in the wake of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. Fifteen years after the first LotR chapter was released, the screen industry is now worth around NZ$3bn (around £1bn) every year, while the country’s best-known attraction, the Hobbiton movie set, has grown from 17 staff and 33,000 visitors to 468,000 visitors and 200 staff since it opened in 2011.
Despite the odd raised eyebrow over its unsubtle lashings of nudity and sex, Thrones has arguably achieved what, for so long, seemed impossible: to unite a nation littered with stories of historical division and conflict.
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“Landowners, neighbours, councils, environmental agencies – they used to be afraid of Game of Thrones,” Liston explains. “Now they love it. I mean that. You come across the odd person who can’t walk his dog somewhere and thinks we’re trying to take over the world but on the whole everybody you’ll find here is getting with it.”
Landowners, councils, environmental agencies – they used to be afraid of Game of Thrones. Now they love it
Perhaps most crucially, the series has instilled a public relations rebrand for a nation still healing from its turbulent past. Where the Troubles once arguably defined Northern Ireland, Thrones shows an entirely different Ulster – one of sprawling countryside and spectacular coastline – to hundreds of millions of fans across the world.
GoT films in various locations, including Iceland, Croatia and Spain – but Northern Ireland is unequivocally home. For several months a year it commandeers the vast Titanic Studios in Belfast, and pops up in secretive spots across the province, from Castlerock and the caves of Cushendun down to Ballintoy Harbour and Strangford Lough – all now instantly familiar fan hot-spots.
Since the series began filming in the country in 2009, Thrones has created around 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs in Northern Ireland, funding and developing a brand new, multi-award winning skilled workforce – from carpenters and armourers to hair stylists and makeup artists – who could work in any major Hollywood studio.
In season six, we auditioned for 75 parts and 45 were cast with Northern Irish or Irish actors
Last October, Jamie Mackrell, a regular Thrones extra and tour guide alongside Van der Kells, was one of 500 men recruited for the Battle of the Bastards. “It’s like a pilgrimage for us now,” he laughs, after agreeing to chop my head off. “We got bussed up there day after day, and I’m bumping into all these guys I used to go to school with. We’re all dressed up, makeup on, muddy-faced, swords in hand, and then you meet boys you’ve not seen in a decade.” He gleefully points to a still from the Battle of the Bastards carnage. “If you look closely, I’m in that pile, killed by an arrow to the arse! Hopefully that’s not my final farewell.”
Two years prior to Thrones’ arrival in 2009, Carla Stronge, “a Belfast girl, born and raised”, set up Northern Ireland’s first dedicated extras agency, Extras NI. Now a double-Emmy winner, she has recruited hundreds of locals.
“In season six, we auditioned for 75 parts and 45 were cast with Northern Irish or Irish actors,” Stronge says. “That’s fairly good innings when you’ve got people like Richard E Grant and Jim Broadbent in the mix too. It’s been an incredible opportunity for actors and talent from Ireland and Northern Ireland, and a real game-changer for me.”
However, all good things – even Game of Thrones – must come to an end. Bowing out after its eighth series in 2018, how will this dragon-shaped crater affect Northern Ireland?
“When it leaves, it leaves all of the knowledge, all of the support companies,” Northern Ireland Screen CEO Richard Williams says. “Every significant buyer in Los Angeles knows that capacity is going to come to the market, and will be interested.”
“We’ve developed such great studios and we will have more major feature films and TV shows coming in,” predicts Liston. “Northern Ireland is flourishing and there’s a very exciting future here for us all.”
As the end credits loom and characters fret over whether they’ll still have heads on their shoulders to witness the grand finale, one thing remains clear: Game of Thrones is Northern Ireland’s gift that keeps on giving.
Game of Thrones series six is out on DVD and Blu-ray
1. THE DARK HEDGES
One of the most picturesque landmarks in Northern Ireland, the stunning stretch of 300-year-old beech trees are said to be haunted by the Grey Lady who comes out at dusk. Ever since this otherworldly stretch became the ‘King’s Road’ in series two, where Arya Stark fled King’s Landing with Yoren, Gendry and Hot Pie, the country road is now littered with visitors all day, every day – and it’s little surprise that the tourism board is pushing to restrict, or close, access to traffic.
2. CASTLE WARD
This 18th-century, 332-hectare National Trust property is found in the stunning County Down countryside, and is a stone’s throw from the burial place of the Irish patron saint. Beyond the castle walls, you can easily take in the scenic surroundings and tour Robb’s Trail – where Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister squared off in season two – or Tywin’s Trail, which features the Lannister camp location and the Baelor Battlefield. Hire a bike and go forth.
3. TOLLYMORE FOREST
A common filming spot, Tollymore is best known from the opening scene in the pilot episode, when a terrified Wildling catches a rare glimpse of the White Walkers, and when the Stark family comes across the dire wolf pups. The beautiful 1,600-acre Tollymore was the first state forest park in Northern Ireland, and has a myriad of walking and cycling routes. Tip: beware of otherworldly humanoid creatures.
Known primarily for its golfing heritage, the sweeping sands and dunes of Portstewart Strand were used in season five, when ‘Kingslayer’ Jaime Lannister and Ser Bronn of the Blackwater arrive on the golden beaches of Dorne, where they are discovered by Dornish soldiers. The drive to and from the seaside town along the North Atlantic coast will take your breath away.
5. BALLINTOY HARBOUR
A short jaunt from the spectacular Giant’s Causeway coast, Ballintoy Harbour – from the Irish “Baile an Tuaigh” meaning “the northern townland” – has become synonymous with Pyke and the Iron Islands. First used in season two, it has appeared throughout the series countless times since, most notably where Theon Greyjoy (Aflie Allen) was baptised.
6. CUSHENDUN CAVES
Situated at the end of a long, winding roads, surrounded by green hills and thunderous waves on the Antrim Coast, these secluded, eerie caves are best known as the place where Red Priestess, Melisandre, births the shadow creature which ultimately kills Renly Baratheon. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Pop into the quaint little Mary McBride’s pub after, where you can lift different kind of spirits.
Photos: Andrew Burns / HBO / Northern Ireland Screen / Carla Stronge / NI Tourism