The Europa Hotel in Belfast was once known as the most bombed hotel in Europe, but on a Friday morning in April, it was bustling with tourists and weekenders enjoying a hearty breakfast buffet.
Almost no one recognized Conleth Hill, the actor who plays Lord Varys, the bald eunuch and royal adviser whose cunning enabled him to survive nearly eight seasons on one of TV’s bloodiest shows, Game of Thrones, without ever lifting a sword.
The anonymity (aided by the reappearance of his thick, silver hair) didn’t appear to faze him. He was just another local who lives an hour away in Ballycastle, the seaside town where he grew up, another customer indulging in a gut-busting breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausage, potato bread, and white pudding.
(In a minor act of heresy, he opted to skip the traditional black pudding, a concoction whose ingredients include pork blood and oats.)
“Don’t be judging!” said the actor, who enjoys the comforts of home — or most of them.
He had ample opportunity to do so on Game of Thrones, which concluded its run on HBO a few weeks ago. Roughly 75 percent of the series was filmed on sound stages and in otherworldly locations around Northern Ireland.
The most ambitious and most honored show of the decade has pumped more than $250 million into the local economy since 2009, provided jobs and training for hundreds of crew members, and spawned a thriving tourism trade. It helped transform Belfast into one of Europe’s most vital entertainment industry hubs and remade Northern Ireland’s image across the world.
It’s a dramatic lift for a country that was once synonymous with intractable sectarian violence. Tensions between Irish nationalists, who are predominantly Catholic and favor a united Ireland, and British loyalists, who are mostly Protestant and want to remain part of the United Kingdom, have existed for hundreds of years — the Europa, as a high-profile economic target, was bombed more than 30 times by the Irish Republican Army — but the country has been mostly free of that violence since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
Game of Thrones has helped the 1.8 million residents of Northern Ireland contemplate a future beyond grim headlines. The show, says Hill, has been “life-changing,” a sentiment many share.
Helen Sloan, who grew up in the village of Ahoghill and who spent eight seasons as the show’s stills photographer, recalls how people used to ask whether she was a member of the IRA when she traveled abroad; now they ask her about Game of Thrones.
“We’ve come so far as a people, and now we have this jewel in the crown to be so proud of,” she says.
"You can’t really overstate the difference between the screen industry in Northern Ireland before Game of Thrones and the screen industry after Game of Thrones," says Richard Williams, chief executive of Northern Ireland Screen, an agency that promotes the local film and television industry.
Ten years ago, there were no full-time studio facilities in the country. The former site of the Harland & Wolff shipyard was a derelict patch of land on the Belfast waterfront distinguished only by the pair of towering yellow cranes called Samson and Goliath.
But nearby was a cavernous building known as the Paint Hall, once used to put the finishing touches on huge ocean liners, including the doomed Titanic. It was “scruffy and unpleasant,” Williams recalls, but it was big, with 90-foot ceilings that comfortably fit six Game of Thrones sound stages. (Nearby, at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Game of Thrones: The Touring Exhibition runs through Sept. 1.)
In addition to that space, Northern Ireland offered relatively inexpensive labor and housing, and a wide array of natural scenery and centuries-old ruins within a 90-minute drive of central Belfast. (The show also filmed in Iceland, Croatia, Spain, and Morocco, among other countries.)
A project of this magnitude in a country with less than 2 million people means that seemingly every taxi driver has a story to share about someone who was involved in a pivotal way.
About 13,000 people were cast as extras, and, for many, the role of background actor offered entry to a lifestyle they could never have imagined before the start of the series. Extras planned vacations from work so they could come back to the series each season. They were known to be fiercely loyal to their fictional roles; some background actors who were cast as members of the Night’s Watch have been around since the pilot.
Game of Thrones tourism is booming — 350,000 visitors contributed at least $64 million to the local economy in 2018 — in sometimes unexpected ways. The Dark Hedges, a lane of undulating beech trees in County Antrim that appeared once, fleetingly, in the Season Two premiere, has become so popular with the Instagramming hordes that local authorities had to close the road to traffic.
The fantasy canines of the series — known as direwolves — have inspired entrepreneurial efforts. The Mulhall family owns a pair of 110-pound Northern Inuit dogs named Odin and Thor who appeared as direwolf puppies adopted by the Stark children in the series pilot. For about $65, tourists can trek to the lush Tollymore Forest to meet them.
“Every time a plane flies overhead, my dad says, 'Look, more tourists!’” says Caelan Mulhall, 23, who appeared as a Stark soldier in the show.
Both of his brothers signed on as extras (they played Wildlings) and so did his father (a Dothraki slave master). When they’re not running direwolf tours, the Mulhalls operate a "wee confectionery shop" frequented by fishermen in County Down.
Fans can go glamping — glamorous camping — at “Winterfell” (aka Castle Ward in County Down), wear medieval costumes on a group tour of filming locations, or opt for a DIY tour via iPhone app. As of next spring, pilgrims will be able to visit the Game of Thrones Studio Tour, a permanent attraction 40 minutes from Belfast featuring sets, costumes, and props from the series.
At the Ulster Museum, an institution dedicated to the culture and history of Northern Ireland, a 250-foot linen tapestry tells the story of the first seven seasons of Game of Thrones. It is hand-embroidered in a style inspired by the 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry that contrasts amusingly with the show’s story lines. One tableau in particular, depicting a bare-bottomed Jon Snow in bed with Daenerys Targaryen, caught Helen Sloan’s eye.
"You can’t see Kit’s abs," she says, referring to actor Kit Harington, who plays the King in the North. "I’m sure he’s not happy about that."
Given free rein with her camera throughout its entire run, Sloan, 37, was one of the few crew members who interacted with virtually everyone involved, from actors and producers to painters and plasterers. Her mom worked as a seamstress on the show, and her daughter appeared as Daenerys and Khal Drogo’s baby in a vision in Season Two. So every time one of her photos pops up online, it conjures a backstory. “Never mind the story line in the show, the crew have been through marriages, divorces, deaths, illness, having babies, losing babies,” she says.
The long, intense hours on the set inevitably led to a lot of discussions between people who grew up on different sides of the political struggles, she says.