BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Brendan Shannon, 53, a former IRA soldier who spent 10 years in the notorious H-blocks at the city’s infamous Maze prison, was once at the center of what passed for tourism here.
Shannon drove one of Belfast’s so-called “black taxis” on tours of the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods, giving a history of the Troubles, the bloody conflict that gripped Northern Ireland for almost 30 years, to the few intrepid travelers who braved a city long perceived as a war zone.
Today Shannon is still one of the most sought-after black taxi guides but he and his fellow drivers have been eclipsed by a booming new Belfast—one that’s become, improbably, a hub of Hollywood-driven tourism and the center of Europe’s fastest-growing film and TV industry, with Game of Thrones at its apex.
Fans of the show from all over the world board buses that take them around coast and countryside visiting locations made famous because much of the HBO show is shot here.
Since 2007, when Tom Hanks’s production company decided to shoot City of Ember with Bill Murray in Belfast, an increasing number of movies (Dracula Untold, Philomena, Killing Bono, and the upcoming High Rise among them) as well as TV shows are being shot in Northern Ireland.
Some tour operators have as many as two buses of “Thronies” (President Obama hasn’t yet made the trek over but is a confirmed superfan) running seven days a week to see the places that make up “Westeros,” the fictional continent on which much of the show is based.
They’re often decked out in costumes they hope resemble Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister, Hodor, Arya Stark, and other characters in the sprawling cast.
Brandishing swords and stopping along the way to practice a little archery, they visit places like the famed Dark Hedges in County Antrim (the Kingsroad on the show), Ballintoy (Pyke) Harbor, Ballycastle (home to Michelle Fairley—who plays Catelyn Stark—and Conleth Hill—who plays Varys), the centuries-old redstone rock caves at Cushendun where the character Melisandre gave birth on the beach to the “shadow baby,” and Audley’s Castle & Castle Ward in County Down, a 15th-century tower on a rocky perch high above Strangford Lough used for King Robert Baratheon’s arrival at Winterfell.
Some tour guides are equipped with iPads, and they replay key Game of Thrones scenes from each of the 11 locations they visit.
One guide, when showing an explicit scene involving Melisandre, the Red Priestess of R’hllor, was taken aback when the mother of the real-life actress suddenly identified herself as one of the tour group members.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, an admitted fan, recently visited the Belfast TV studios where Game of Thrones interiors are shot at the vast Paint Hall, part of the former Harland & Wolff shipyards, and was snapped handling some of the swords and medieval weapons.
It was a savvy photo op that deflected attention from thornier political issues still to be dealt with in Northern Ireland in the run-up to the next U.K. election.
But you don't have to be a Game of Thrones fanboy to take advantage of what’s become a hard-edged Hollywood-on-the-Irish-Sea.
The massive, $140 million Titanic Belfast interactive museum and galleries, which opened in 2012 on top of the old shipyards where the ship was built in 1912, attracted more than 600,000 visitors last year.
“It’s all because of the movie,” said Ally Hill, a marketing director for Titanic Belfast. “Thanks to James Cameron, Titanic became a global brand. People fly in here from all over the world to come here because it was such a blockbuster. Belfast never had anything iconic before this, but thanks to the movie we do. It’s still kind of hard to believe.”
Titanic Belfast recently beat out the Eiffel Tower as Europe’s best attraction at the European Group Travel Awards in Berlin.
“That I would live to see this day,” said Shannon on a recent gray day in Belfast as he drove down Falls Road. “It’s surreal. We never even thought we’d get a peace process around here, never mind this huge TV show and the Titanic of all things. But we welcome it. I can’t forget the past but I don’t want to shut the door on the future either.”
Game of Thrones, in particular, is such a precious and unexpected commodity in Northern Ireland after years of violence and misery that pretty much everyone associated with the show in Belfast—even the local agency handling extras—is so fiercely protective, wary of outsiders, and apparently scared of secrecy-obsessed HBO executives in New York, that it can feel like combat just trying to talk to some of them.
“HBO rules from its own Iron Throne,” says a veteran TV industry insider. “Their PR tactics have gotten more heavy-handed the more successful their shows get, and Game of Thrones is one of the most successful of them all.”
Even actors who have had bit parts on the show, or extras without lines, responded to requests for interviews from The Daily Beast by using fake names and untraceable email addresses, some with Hushmail accounts more commonly associated with former Scientologists.
“I signed a very tight confidentiality agreement,” read one totally anonymous email from an extra in Season 4, adding almost gingerly, “but all I can say is it was the greatest experience of my life and now I can die happy!”
“You have to understand it’s such a big deal to us,” says Caroline McComb, who runs the McCombs Travel’s Game of Thrones coach tour that attracted 10,000 visitors last year, a figure she says will probably double in 2015.
“People may seem tough around here, but it’s because we can’t even believe our good fortune and we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it.”
Kristian Nairn, 39, the 6'10" actor who plays Hodor, the brawny, slow-witted stableboy who only ever utters his own name “Hodor” in the show, grew up in Belfast, and has come to tears in interviews when talking about what it was like to grow up during the Troubles and how shocked he is that Game of Thrones has now become what’s put Belfast on the map.
Nairn also tells interviewers that he can’t tell them anything about new storylines (except he’ll be on hiatus for Season 5) or he’ll “be shot.”
Since its launch, Game of Thrones has netted the local economy more than $120 million, according to Belfast city officials, and created more than 900 full-time and 5,700 part-time jobs.
Moyra Lock, a marketing director with Northern Ireland Screen, which lobbied HBO to film the series here with the help of government funds, told The Daily Beast that the region is “like the world’s most compact and convenient backlot, about the size if not smaller of the greater Los Angeles area.”
Buoyed by the success of Thrones, Northern Ireland Screen has built two new studios near Paint Hall in the historic Titanic Quarter to accommodate upcoming TV series like The Frankenstein Chronicles and a new zombie movie called Deadlocked.
One unexpected downside of a revamped, modernized, downtown Belfast is one new movie that should have been shot here, the Troubles-era thriller ’71, starring Jack McConnell of Unbroken, had to be shot in Blackburn, England, where the rougher exteriors there better match Belfast of yore.
“It’s too pretty here now,” said Brendan Shannon.