As Game of Thrones reaches its finale, it marks a season where women finally took centre stage – right down to the extras. Keelin Riley meets three Irish women who took part in the epic battle of Winterfell G
Game of Thrones’ ‘The Battle of the Winterfell’ — episode three — slayed viewing records, surpassing 38 million viewers and counting, according to HBO.
Fifty-five gruelling nights of freezing mud, rain and snow left the cast and crew of Game of Thrones broken and exhausted, after filming the record-breaking battle.
With a budget of $15 million, it took 750 people and 11 weeks to film this one episode, the bulk of the forces being made up of extras. ‘The Battle of Winterfell’ saw for the first time, both men and women clashing swords against the endless army of the undead.
Three Irish women who were fighting females on set of the Battle of Winterfell – Alice Boland, Lisa Keogh and Christine Cavanaugh – are all members of a group called Winterfell Fighting Women, a name officially given to the group by Game of Thrones staging directors.
Extras are divided into groups on the set of Game of Thrones, where they train as a unit and stay together throughout filming, in order to develop a sense of comradery as if on a real battlefield.
Alice, who holds a black belt in Bujinkan Taijutsu from Namiryu Dojo, is trained in weapons like the sword, staff and spear, said her martial arts gave her an edge in the casting of extras.
“Since I knew how to handle a sword and have weapons training I was put with the Winterfell Fighting Women,” explained Dublin fighter Alice. “Everyone took part in sword fighting training, and we also did military marching exercises with a real military commander.
“We were given dragon glass axes and swords and had the full costume of armour on. Once the cameras were rolling every single extra was in character, smacking and crashing into each other.
“To get in the mindset, it helped to think of who your character was, who she was fighting for and who she loved. It was a great experience but it was exhausting.”
Christine Cavanaugh, originally from Seattle, now living in Ireland, is a veteran in the extra business, having starred in Vikings for four years before joining the Game of Thrones clan.
“I tried to get into Game of Thrones previously as an extra,” said Christine. “But there wasn’t a huge need for female extras in the earlier seasons as no women were needed for battle scenes. Most of the women extras were just required to wear dresses and that’s just not my style.
“I much prefer to be out on the field with mud up to my ankles and snow cutting the face, so it was refreshing to see the women get a chance to be in the thick of it just like the men.”
Conditions on set were often punishing with winter winds and rain howling from every direction.
“It was bitterly cold. Some of the first-timers thought there would be trailers and heaters to keep warm, but it’s almost like a real army camp,” said Christine.
“I was on set on a particularly freezing cold day and I was chatting to the man next to be about being too hot in our costumes from all the running. When I looked up I realised the man I was talking to was Jaime Lannister.
“We were all in it together, extras and the main cast. I wish I could have gotten a picture of the Whitewalkers all huddled together under a fire lamp trying to keep warm, it was hilarious.”
There wasn’t much chit-chat between extras and the stars of the show however, as both are ordered not to speak to each other.
These aren’t the only rules on set. Due to the huge anticipation surrounding episode three of season eight, secrecy was of top priority.
No information could leave the set in case spoilers were leaked. Security is militant and absolutely no phones or cameras were allowed.
“Special stickers were placed over cameras on phones, which changed colour if they were tampered with. This made it easy to identify if anyone used their phone for photos while on set,” said black belt Alice.
The historical significance of this piece of TV drama was not lost on the Winterfell Fighting Women. The Battle of Winterfell is seen as a huge shift in the right direction for women on the silver screen, with female characters given just as much screen time as men.
In earlier episodes, the show was criticised for its objectification and brutality of women — Sansa Stark’s rape scene caused an uproar in series five.
“Things have really progressed in Game of Thrones in terms of where women stand,” said Lisa of Winterfell Fighting Women.
“Take a look back to season one where Arya is being scolded for her unlady-like behaviour, and now look at season eight, where we have women being trained to protect Winterfell.”
Lisa is no stranger to a Game of Thrones set, having previously played a Wildling extra in past episodes. An English teacher by day, Lisa donned her army gear for the Long Night in season eight.
“Being a fighting woman in the thick of it was a great atmosphere,” continued Lisa.
“Conditions were awful but we all stood together through it all and friends were made for life while filming.”
To commemorate such a monumental episode, the Winterfell Fighting Women were gifted with special jackets, designed by Ben Boyd. The jackets are embroidered with a picture of a Northern Woman alongside a wolf.
The Battle of Winterfell is the first battle in the entire show to feature women fighting alongside men on the battlefield.
Granted, this is not the first time Game of Thrones has explored the feminist undertones. Previously, GRR Martin has used strong female leads like the Sand sisters of House Martell, Lady Olenna Tyrell and wildling fighter Ygritte. However, all these women met their untimely deaths and men continued to rule.
The final season explores the whole spectrum of female strength. Two women are now vying for the Iron Throne. Young Arya slays the Night King, instead of the predicted Jon Snow. Melisandre, having previously pulled the puppet strings of kings, was tasked with the mighty job of setting the trenches alight.
Yara Greyjoy now rules the Iron Islands, while tiny Lyanna Mormont took out the fierce giant as her final act as Lady of Bear Island. Her defiant words in season seven set the tone for what
was to come: “I may be a girl, but I won’t be knitting by the fire while I have men fight for me.”
And of course, who can forget the heart-wrenching scene of Brienne of Tarth being knighted while surrounded by cheering armour-clad men. The “Big Woman” goes on to lead a flank of soldiers, with Ser Jaime under her command.
The women in Game of Thrones are now the narrative of the story. They are driving the plot and determining the outcome, with a set of fighting Irish women at their command.
The final episode of Game of Thrones airs Monday night on Sky Atlantic