Game of Thrones: Westeros began 'as upside-down Ireland'

The North and Westeros are tied together by more than just cartography, writes Mark O’Connell.

The first time I saw a map of Westeros, I was struck by how much it looked like an inverted map of Ireland.

There were some differences, of course. Westeros is a sprawling continent, whereas Ireland could fit snugly inside the state of Indiana.

And the northern part of Westeros looked as if Britain had been clumsily grafted onto it. There was also the fact that Westeros emerged fully formed in the mid-1990s out of the volcanic imagination of the American fantasy writer George R R Martin.

I soon learned my observation was not an original one: “Westeros began,” Martin said in a 2014 interview, “as upside-down Ireland.”

Before I ever watched an episode of Game of Thrones, I became fascinated by the relationship between my country and Westeros. This fascination had its origins in a trip I made to Northern Ireland in 2017.

My first book had just been published, and I was invited to a small literary festival in Enniskillen, a town about 12 miles north of the border with the Republic. Although the border is less than 90 minutes from where I live in Dublin, this trip to Enniskillen involved crossing it for only the second time in my life.

My ambivalence toward the region was hardly unique: It is extremely common to hear Dubliners say that they have never been to Belfast, the next-largest city on this tiny island, and that they have no special sense of urgency about ever going.

French ‘Game of Thrones’ fans, Claire Pottier (L) and Hugo Chivard (R), from Normandy, take part in archery at the Castle Ward Estate in Strangford, Northern Ireland, the location of Winterfell in ‘Game of Thrones’. Picture: Paul Faith / AFP

Since the removal of border controls after the Good Friday Agreement, crossing between the Republic and Northern Ireland has been a frictionless experience.

Something about the nature of that transition forced me to consider the sense in which a nation is an ongoing project of collective imagination. I found myself thinking often of the political scientist Benedict Anderson’s description of nations as “imagined communities.”

And then, as I was waiting in the hotel lobby for a car to pick me up, I noticed among the flyers promoting bus tours to various sites of natural beauty and historical interest one advertising a company called Game of Thrones Tours.

The show films all over Europe, from Iceland to Croatia, but a majority is shot in Northern Ireland, either on location or on soundstages in Belfast. This company offered guided bus trips to the real-world filming locations of the show, which were dotted all over the pamphlet’s little map.

Scrutinising the map, I was struck by how Westeros had been superimposed over this troubled and ambiguous region of the island. It was an uncanny reflection of the process by which colonialism had redrawn the map of Ireland, and at the same time it seemed to offer a way of seeing the North that had nothing to do with its own dark and violent history.

It was a way of being there while also being somewhere else entirely: of proceeding from one level of collective imagination to another, more fantastical and abstract.

Less than half an hour after the tour bus left the pickup point, I realised we were no longer in Northern Ireland, but had entered the realm of Westeros. We were passing Stormont Castle, on the outskirts of Belfast.

This was theoretically the seat of Northern Ireland’s government, but for over two years now this executive office — jointly controlled by the right-wing loyalist (and largely Protestant) Democratic Unionist Party and the left-wing republican (and largely Catholic) Sinn Féin — had languished in a state of indefinite suspension thanks to a densely complex sequence of disagreements.

The tour guide made no mention of this notable landmark, because it had nothing to do with Game of Thrones. The guide, a man named Robbie had appeared some years back as an extra on the show. This was one way in which Game of Thrones Tours distinguished itself: Just about all the company’s guides had some connection with the production.

The region’s status as “the home of Game of Thrones” was, according to the Tourism Northern Ireland agency, worth about €65m a year in tourism alone.

There were bus tours, walking tours, cycling tours, helicopter tours, boat tours, private luxury-car tours. You could even visit a 17th century castle on the Antrim coast for a “Thrones” themed afternoon tea.

As we passed Stormont, Robbie was deep into a long and polished monologue about his experiences on set.

“They taught hundreds of us extras how to sword-fight and how to die,” he was saying.

“I reckon I was one of the best at how to die, because I died seven times in one episode.”

Master of Arms Will van der Kells poses with a replica Longclaw sword, the sword of ‘Game of Thrones’ character Jon Snow, at the Castle Ward Estate.

Like some restless spirit, he cheerfully enumerated his many violent deaths and resurrections. Then the road began to run alongside a large body of water. 

In real life, he said, this was known as Strangford Lough, but for our purposes it was the Narrow Sea, and from here we would be crossing to Winterfell Castle, principal noble house of the North and ancestral seat of House Stark.

When it wasn’t starring as Winterfell on the show — with the aid of CGI enhancement — this estate was known as Castle Ward. I looked it up on my phone and learned that dating back to the 18th century it had been the home of the Ward family, local aristocrats; because of its symbolic connection to British rule, it was the site of a botched IRA bombing attempt in 1973, in which two people, one of them a teenage girl, were killed when an explosive device they were priming detonated prematurely.

I felt I was somehow transgressing an unspoken agreement to forget, for the duration of the tour, the actual cartography of conquest and violence that lay beneath the superimposed map of Westeros. That was the thing about Northern Ireland: Knowingly or otherwise, you were always grazing against the ghost of some horror.

This is not a particularly sophisticated view to take of the historical and cultural complexities of the region, but whenever I am there I can’t help thinking of Northern Ireland as a place that has been no less imagined into existence than Westeros, only more thoroughly and concretely.

Even before the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that ended Ireland’s War of Independence with Britain and divided the island into two distinct political entities, the province of Ulster — comprising nine counties, six of which now make up Northern Ireland — was different, at least in a demographic sense.

It was the only one of Ireland’s four provinces with a majority-Protestant population, most of whom were descendants of 17th-century colonial settlers and committed to the country’s union with Britain. 

That distinction was a major reason for the partition, and for the decades of ethnonationalist violence referred to, with rueful Irish stoicism, as the Troubles.

I experience the North as a realm of deep cognitive dissonance, beginning with the uncanniness of crossing a largely invisible border.

I’ll see the Union Jack flying from a lamppost, or pay for something using pounds rather than euros, and I’ll find myself wondering why everyone is just going around acting as if they were in Britain.

The invisibility of the partition as an infrastructural phenomenon reinforces this niggling sense that some kind of collective fantasy is being enacted.

It was Ireland’s and Britain’s membership in the European Union that allowed for the dismantling of the hard border in the first place. And then came the Brexit vote in 2016, leaving us with an apparently insoluble problem.

If Britain is to leave the EU, it will, in all likelihood, have to enforce its border with Europe — a border that now lies, inconveniently and intractably, between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

There seems to be no way of honouring the Brexit vote without reinstating its hard infrastructure (customs checks, guards) and thereby reopening that imperfectly healed wound running athwart the Irish landscape. The fear is that such a regression could plunge the entire island back into the nightmare of history from which it has only recently begun to awaken.

Two weeks later, we were in the cave where Melisandre had given birth to a shadow creature, and our guide, Brian, a wiry man with fervent eyes and a volatile wit, was talking about the varied quality of some of the other “Thrones” tour operators that were out there in the early days of the boom.

Like his colleague Robbie, Brian took great pride in his stint as an extra on the show, and the repertoire of anecdotes he had thereby accrued.

British Game of Thrones fan Katherine Hibberd poses for a photograph with an axe at the Castle Ward Estate. Picture : Paul Faith/AFP

Since the peace process, Belfast had developed a cottage industry in so-called black-cab tours of loyalist and nationalist neighbourhoods, and of the elaborate murals variously honouring terrorists, hunger strikers, political prisoners, colonial conquerors and so on.

Many of the guides on these tours, Brian noted, were themselves former paramilitary members. It was his contention that a lot of them had sensed the change in the prevailing market winds and pivoted away from Troubles tourism to “Thrones” tourism.

“I’m very glad Game of Thrones came here,” he said. The bus was slaloming along a narrow road, the glistening expanse of the Irish Sea to our starboard side. “Before Game of Thrones my country was known for two things: the Titanic and the Troubles. The international perception was riots, bombs going off, blood in the streets. None of this was great for tourism.”

Brian made a joke then about how the paramilitaries on both sides had handed in their weapons, and the “Game of Thrones” tour operators had swords now, and it struck me that there was something strange, and even wonderful, about the way in which real violence had been replaced by fantasy violence. 

This new dispensation was fragile, though, and contingent on wider political events.

The relationship between Westeros and our own reality goes deeper than mere cartography. In plotting his story, Martin draws heavily on the intrigue of the Wars of the Roses, a series of 15th-century civil wars, lasting 30 years, between rival claimants to the English crown.

His invented world gets much of its texture from the real history of medieval Europe as well, though its dragons and assorted monsters are real, and its politics vividly legible in our current time.

When Game of Thrones first aired in 2011, Barack Obama was midway through his first term, and despite the recent global financial crisis it seemed as if the technocratic international order would persist.

The show, by contrast, imagined a world of Machiavellian scheming set against the darkening backdrop of climate change — a world in which power and legitimacy were radically untethered, and cohesion and strength had given way to decadence and endless crisis.

If the show’s success could be accounted for by a latent cultural desire for a return to a politics of violence and treachery, then the world had since received in abundance what it didn’t quite realise it wanted.

The campaign for Britain to leave the EU also traded on a regressive and fantastical vision of the country’s past: that of an indomitable island nation that had conquered the world, that had faced down fascism and that would never bend the knee to the petty bureaucratic tyranny of Brussels.

The Leave campaign, for all its transparent fraudulence, demonstrated the potency of this ahistoric fantasy — and the extent to which nations are works of imagination.

In March, my wife and I decided to take a trip up to Belfast with our son and our baby daughter, thinking it might be the last time we’d be able to do it without having to reckon with a border.

My wife had never even been to Belfast. To our son, who had just turned 6, we pitched it as a trip to the Ulster Museum, where there were dinosaur bones and ancient weapons.

The EU’s most recent deal with Britain has secured an extension to Brexit until October 31. But things seemed to be deteriorating at alarming speed. A no-deal Brexit, until recently an unthinkable prospect, had become all of a sudden feverishly, luridly thinkable.

That morning, a document arrived in the mail from our motor insurance company — a “green card” we would need to keep with us while driving across the border, which in the event of a no-deal Brexit would validate our insurance in the North.

A couple of weeks before my first Game of Thrones tour, a dissident republican group exploded a car bomb outside a courthouse in Derry. Shortly thereafter, package bombs were found in London airports and a train station, mailed from locations in Ireland.

It was hard not to consider a grim cascade of possibilities: a no-deal Brexit, a return to a hard border and an armed republican response to same.

On the museum’s top we came to a large and dimly lit room, more crowded than any other section of the museum. Its sole exhibit was a handwoven tapestry, 263 feet in length, mounted along the curves of a display wall.

In the style of the Bayeux Tapestry, which related the history of the 11th century Norman Conquest of Britain, it consisted of a seamless series of panels illustrating scenes of a violent history.

A child pushed from a tower by a man with golden hair. A hooded figure savaged by a gigantic wolf as a woman with bleeding hands looked on. A knight beheading a horse with his sword. A woman in a cave, naked, giving birth to a creature made of shadows. These neatly delineated horrors went on and on, becoming more vivid as the tapestry progressed.

It was a clever marketing device and was made real by a group of highly skilled Belfast linen weavers. For every episode, a new panel was added, so that shortly after the series finale aired in May, the Game of Thrones tapestry would be longer than the Bayeux Tapestry itself.

I didn’t know whether I found it ingenious or horrendous or some volatile combination of both. But mostly I just couldn’t discount the sense that what I was looking at was in fact some form of historical artifact, further evidence of the encroachment of the realm of Westeros upon our own.

Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine. c 2019 The New YorkTimes

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