So last year (actually almost 18 months ago!) my boyfriend at the time was telling me that he was going over to his ex-girlfriends to watch Game of Thrones with a group of friends – GoT was a tradition of theirs – and he invited me along. I had watched only one episode of GoT, with my dad (I would not recommend watching it with your dad!) and wasn’t a huge fan, but being the strong, confident, and independent woman that I am, I immediately decided to watch the entire series so that I could keep up at the weekly showings with the ex and his crew. Flash forward to now – I’ve since lost the boyfriend but have kept the love affair with Game of Thrones, so when I decided to go to Ireland, I knew I had to spend some time in Northern Ireland, checking out some of the historical sites but also making sure I saw the GoT sites! My whirlwind day in Northern Ireland did not disappoint.
The first stop was the iconic Dark Hedges in Ballymoney. The Dark Hedges is a beech tree lined avenue planted almost 250 years ago to line the road up to James Stuarts Gracehill Home. It is named such because legend holds that a ghost named the Grey Lady haunts this darkened hedge. It is open to the public and free to visit. It takes about 20 minutes to walk and is just a beautiful space. Also, on the walk to the Dark Hedges from the car park, there’s some cute little fairy gardens. The hedge appears in GoT as The Kingsroad.
Our next stop was the Giants Causeway which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site comprised of a peninsula of towers of hexagonal stones. No one is quite sure how the stones came to exist in this unusual shape, and as such, legend of course steps in to fill the gap.
Legend has it that there was an Irish giant named Finn McCool who was feuding with a Scottish giant (now I learned this story in Ireland so no one there cared what the Scottish giant’s name was). Finn McCool decided to take on the Scottish giant, building the Giant’s Causeway to travel to Scotland for a duel. However, upon arriving in Scotland, he learned that the Scottish giant was in fact much larger than himself, so he returned home. The Scottish giant, hearing of his visit, followed after in hot pursuit, so there was no time to destroy the causeway. Instead, Finn McCool’s wife dressed him as a child and put him in a bassinet. When the Scottish giant arrived, Finn McCool’s wife said “Finn isn’t here, it’s just our son and I.” The Scottish giant took one look at Finn McCool dressed as a baby and thought “Wow! If this is Finn McCool’s son, then Finn McCool must be huge!” and then he left, destroying the causeway as he crossed to prevent Finn McCool from pursuing him back to Scotland. Once again, the ladies brains over the men’s brawn saved the day *wink wink*
There are two ways to get to Giant’s Causeway. One is a more direct way through a tunnel, and one is a more involved scenic route over the cliff. If you are capable, I cannot recommend the cliff walk enough. It was so beautiful to walk along the cliffs, dotted with wild flowers, looking over the water. It wasn’t too too difficult as there was a young woman with a baby strapped to her back doing it, but definitely wear appropriate footwear! If you’re not able to do the hike (maybe only a 40 minute hike) – I believe there is a tram that will take you through the tunnel and deposit you at the site.
Just 15 minutes away is the town of Ballintoy and the famous Ballintoy Harbour. This is another part of the coastal causeway and thus, the walk down to the harbour from the town (population 165 people), is incredibly picturesque, featuring seaside views, wild flowers, sheep, pastures, and in contrast to all the colors, whitewashed churches and homes. Ballintoy Harbour is still an active harbour and one of the most popular harbours in Northern Ireland. In GoT it is used as part of the setting of the Iron Islands, but I promise it is much warmer and more welcoming in person! Plus you may get to see some dolphins here!
Cushendun is another seaside town in Northern Ireland. It boasts the cave where the Red Woman does much of her dark magic in Game of Thrones, but to be honest, other than a renowned neighborhood goat, Cushendun didn’t offer as much as Ballintoy and I would recommend spending the extra time doing the hike along the coastal causeway. (There is a hike between Giants Causeway and Ballintoy, which I’m sure would have been incredibly beautiful. I’m adding it to my list for my next visit!)
Northern Ireland is a really beautiful area with dramatic cliffs and wild pastures. It’s not wonder it was chosen to be part of the backdrop for the fantasy land of Westeros in Game of Thrones. Final takeaway: dress in layers and be prepared for wind and rain and everything in between!