Game of Thrones inspires new Ulster medieval history trail

Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) pictured in O'Cahan territory at Binevenagh in County Derry during a scene from Season 5 of Game of Thrones.
Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) pictured in O'Cahan territory at Binevenagh in County Derry during a scene from Season 5 of Game of Thrones.

A new Game of Thrones-inspired medieval heritage trail is being developed across Northern Ireland, it has been announced, as fans gear up for final season of HBO’s adaptation of George R R Martin’s epic fantasy.

Archaeologists from Queen’s University Belfast are playing a key role in a new project ‘Journeying Beyond Westeros’, which will introduce visitors to the largely hidden Medieval history of Ulster, through Northern Ireland’s connection to Game of Thrones as the main filming location.

Television audiences across the world have been enthralled by the exploits of the Starks, Lannisters, and Targaryens in HBO’s hugely successful TV series – which returns on Monday April 15 its final season – and ancient monuments across Northern Ireland have been used as filming locations for places in the seven kingdoms of Westeros, the main setting for the series.

These monuments, however, have their own remarkable stories to tell and the project will help to create a new Medieval heritage trail across Northern Ireland.

The new trail will centre around the 12 Lordships of Medieval Ulster, which include the O’Neills of Tyrone & Armagh and the O’Cahans of County Derry and the North Coast,the O’Doherty’s of Inishowen and the O’Donnells of Tirconnell.

The project will be led by archaeologists from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s University, working with the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership, and is being supported and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Tourism NI, and the Historic Environment Division of the Department for Communities. It has been developed as part of their European Year of Cultural Heritage programme.

Dr Colm Donnelly from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s, who has previously published a body of works including research on Derry’s City Walls, the Plantation of Ulster and the borderlands of the North West, will lead the team.

He said: “Using historic sources such as the Annals of the Four Masters, the object is to work towards the development of a heritage trail across Northern Ireland where visitors will learn the stories of our powerful past rulers and their families – their wars and rivalries, their alliances and marriages, and their betrayals and assassinations – in and around the year AD 1500.”

Professor Eileen Murphy, from the School of Natural and Built Environment at Queen’s, added: “The background research on the monuments across Northern Ireland and the people who built them will be undertaken at Queen’s. We will set out the matrix of lordships; place the monuments into that matrix; organise the lineages who ruled each lordship, including origins, notable leaders and notable events; and set out how this all played out on the monuments.

“Westeros has its Seven Kingdoms, but we have our Twelve Lordships.”

Team member Caroline Nolan added: “Many of the incidents incorporated into Game of Thrones come from the Medieval world. We have our own events and tales that can be told about our Medieval lordships and this project will allow us to present them to the tourists who come to NI because of their Game of Thrones interest, and who evidently have a curiosity about Medieval intrigue and power struggles.”

Jim McGreevy, Member of NI Committee of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, commented: “The European Year of Cultural Heritage was an opportunity to showcase our unique cultural heritage, to fully realise its potential as a lever to attract investment, boost tourism and aid regeneration. We and the other funders were delighted to be working in partnership to invest in projects that help to unlock innovative ways to use our heritage.

“This project was one of nine that was funded across NI and we were excited to see how the global reach of Game of Thrones could be utilised to explore the real heritage and stories behind some of the iconic landscapes and sites featured in the show. We wish the team well as they embark on this fascinating new project.”

Iain Greenway, Director of Historic Environment Division in the Department for Communities, added: “Historic Environment Division is delighted to support this project. It provides an innovative way to bring people closer to the monuments included as part of the heritage trail through their connection to Game of Thrones. The experience will enable the hidden and authentic stories of many of our State Care monuments and the families connected to them, to be brought to life and shared with new audiences.

“These intriguing stories should be heard and valued, as they remind us of how our world is shaped by history and people, giving us a sense of our roots, our place in the world and the importance of our culture. We wish the team and the project every success and look forward to playing a part in helping visitors to treasure their past.”

In 2016 Game of Thrones tourism was estimated to be worth £30 million to the local economy, while Northern Ireland Screen estimates that £210 million has been spent on goods and services during its production since 2009, and it is hoped that the development of a heritage trail will become a legacy to Northern Ireland’s involvement with the TV series.

The project team also intend to engage with local people, tour operators and tour guides in the development of a network of Medieval cultural hubs.

This project will also integrate with the activities being undertaken by Historic Environment Division as they work to improve visitor access and community engagement at sites such as Portaferry Castle and Kirkistown Castle.