A spectacular ‘Game of Thrones’ experience

The Tollymore Forest Park in Northern Ireland.

By Wendell Gaa

I cannot think of any other TV fantasy drama which has so captivated the imagination of global pop culture the way “Game of Thrones” has throughout its entire eight-season run (2011-2019). 

“Game of Thrones” is a complex drama which deals with themes of political power struggles for survival and dominance. The themes still ring true today in many regions around the world, in much of the same way back in Medieval Europe when there were constant — and often bloody — conflicts between royal families and kingdoms. 

In spite of the current coronavirus scare which has negatively affected the travel industry, I decided to pay my personal homage to “Game of Thrones” by visiting the filming sites in Northern Ireland where many of its scenes were shot. 

Being based in Galway along Ireland’s western coast where I have been attending a master’s scholarship program, I traveled by bus to Belfast in Northern Ireland, which is the perfect gateway city to explore GOT’s filming sites.  I registered online (www.silverscreen.tours) to join this organized tour group.  The rendezvous point near Belfast’s City Hall building was where our Winterfell tour would begin.   

The author with Thor, a Northern Inuit dog actor who played Grey Wind, the direwolf, on ‘Game of Thrones.’

As we traveled outside of Belfast into the countryside to an area known as Downpatrick, our first stop was Inch Abbey, a monastic site ruin which archaeologists believe dates all the way back to 1177.  Historians also point out how a group of monks settled at this abbey and within the area by 1180 and is an example of the thriving early Christian community in medieval Ireland. 

As we got off our tour shuttle to explore the abbey ruins and take photos, our tour guide Madelyn and our gracious driver Ian handed us “winter cloaks” worn by the Winterfell residents on the show, along with one of the many prop swords used as weapons.  After our guide showed to us the particular “scene” on the show filmed at this site through the technological wonders of her portable iPad, she then happily took our photos wearing our “winter cloaks” and wielding the sword.

All costumed up in winter cloak.

We then proceeded to the Tollymore Forest Park, which is another natural area in Northern Ireland. Although technically it was late winter at this time of the year, I still couldn’t help but notice how relatively green the tall trees, shrubs and bushes were as we walked through the park along a hiking trail which ran parallel to a small running river.  The first discovery of direwolves, large and supremely intelligent wolves which are the loyal pets and sidekicks in GOT’s the House of Starks, was shot here in Tollymore.  I’ve heard intriguing stories of how real-life grey wolves were once abundant in Irish forests until they were tragically hunted to extinction in the late 1700s, and, according to Madelyn, the main indigenous wildlife which can be found here at Tollymore now are the red squirrels. 

We then had the chance to meet one of the dog actors who had portrayed one of the show’s direwolves.  We arrived at this small-town public enclosure where we got to meet a Northern Inuit dog by the name of Thor, whose owner also happened to be an extra on GOT.  His father and brother were also show extras. Getting to pet the very warm and affectionate dog actor was a personal highlight of the day for me.

We then ended the day by touring the Castle Ward estate, a historic site which dates to the 16th century right near the village of Strangford.  We walked through to the site’s tower house where I could clearly see how the imposing medieval-look of this structure made it ideal for filming pivotal scenes of the Winterfell kingdom.  We were all truly grateful and appreciative to Madelyn, Ian and the rest of the organizers for our very rewarding tour. I would highly recommend to anyone, a fan of the show or not, to visit this part of the world.

© The FilAm 2020

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