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Cinematic Ireland

By Dawn Rainbolt
More by Dawn

How Ireland has influenced the fantasy giants of the 20th & 21st century

Clearly, Ireland holds an allure for storytellers. It has long been home to a rich collection of mythology and folklore – oral histories and stories passed down the generations. For such a small island, it has produced some of the greatest writers – Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, CS Lewis, Bram Stoker, Seamus Heaney, WB Yeats or even Jonathan Swift.

Authors, poets, scriptwriters and other creative geniuses have been bringing readers to new and fascinating worlds since the dawn of time. But even the most creative writer must get their inspiration and muse from somewhere – which for many is Ireland’s sweeping landscapes, unique geology and rugged coastlines.

Through the Wardrobe to Narnia

Dunluce Castle

Cair Paravel or as it’s known in the real world, Dunluce Castle.

Fantasy author CS Lewis was born and raised near Belfast and spent much of his childhood exploring the wilds of Counties Down and Antrim. When writing the Chronicles of Narnia, the few parts of the book series set in the real world are clearly influenced by Oxford (and England in general) where he was living at the time of writing his famous fantasy series, but the fantastical worlds of Narnia where most of the book series takes place were vastly influenced by the romantic landscapes of counties Antrim and Down.

The dramatic ruins of Dunluce Castle along the Causeway coast are said to have inspired his depiction of the royal castle in the books, Cair Paravel. While many visitors comment on the feeling of magic in the air of the remote yet beautiful Mourne Mountains south of Belfast, Lewis captured this feeling of magic and used it to create the various realms of the fantastical Narnia, where the four Pevensie children and friends have their adventures. 

In fact, in his essay On Stories, Lewis is quoted, “I have seen landscapes…notably in the Mourne Mountains and southwards which under a particular light made me feel that at any moment a giant might raise his head over the next ridge,” later adding, “one almost expects to see a march of dwarfs dashing past. How I long to break into a world where such things were true”!

One Ring to Rule Them All

Burren National Park

The lunar-like landscapes of the Burren National Park feel like a place straight out of Middle Earth. 

Further south, Ireland’s west coast is full of diverse and wild landscapes. One such place is County Clare’s the Burren National Park, renowned for its lunar-esque exposed limestone landscape. Despite being a stone’s throw from the famous Cliffs of Moher, far fewer visitors venture into this wild and unusual landscape.

One person who did visit this sparsely-populated land is the original fantasy giant, J.R.R. Tolkien. A contemporary, acquaintance and even Oxford colleague of CS Lewis, Tolkien is best known for writing The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, later published in the early 50s.

While Tolkien was writing the Lord of the Rings, he visited Ireland – in particular, he travelled to the Burren region of western Ireland. Its unusal exposed limestone landscape is like something one might expect to find on the moon…on Middle Earth, perhaps? The Lord of the Rings saga features some strange and memorable landscapes, each one distinct from the others (the quaint Shire, the windswept fields of Rohan, the fiery Mt Doom, the creepy Fangorn Forest, the grand Gondor, the dark Mines of Moria and so many others). It’s easy to imagine the lunar-esque panoramas of the Burren appearing amongst these other fantastic Middle Earth landscapes.

There’s even a cave in the Burren (and another one in Fermanagh) called Pol na Gollum – is this where the iconic Lord of the Rings character of Gollum came from? Though Tolkien never came out and said that the Burren inspired his descriptions of Middle Earth, it’s not hard to see how this unique karst landscape may have impacted his writings while creating The Lord of the Rings.

May the Force be With You

Skellig Islands - Skellig Michael

The Skelligs are iconic backdrops in the Star Wars films as a secret Jedi hideout.

Science fiction giants have also been inspired by Ireland’s remote corners. Long-standing sci-fi classic Star Wars have chosen to use some of the world’s most exotic locations as stand-ins for alien planets – and Ireland is no exception!

The 2015 and 2017 Star Wars films (The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, respectively) chose to use the iconic rock pinnacle islands, Skellig Michael and the Little Skellig, as Luke Skywalker’s secret hideout. Today a recognised UNESCO site, the Skelligs are two small rocky islands over 11 km off the coast of Kerry. Once home to monks looking to hide away from the world, the Star Wars films use the islands in much the same way, except they become a hiding place for Jedi!

The small size, unpredictable weather and protected status of the Skellig Islands led Star Wars location scouts to search elsewhere for a place to film the up-close scenes of the Jedi hideout. What they found was the similarly rugged headland (and also Ireland’s northernmost point), Malin Head in Co Donegal – rugged, isolated, and rocky, and perfect to serve as an extension to Skellig Michael. 

Another challenge-turned-opportunity befitting Star Wars filmmakers were the island’s puffins which kept wandering into the scenes! Since they were protected, filmmakers weren’t allowed to move them, so instead, they replaced them with an adorable alien of their own creation – the Porgs.

Dracula: From Transylvania to Ireland

Abbey in Sligo

Ireland’s remote corners are full of ruined abbeys and manors… perfect for crafting creepy backdrops for horror novels!

Dracula is the source of all modern vampire stories. Despite setting his famous vampire story in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania (modern-day Romania), Irish author Bram Stoker never once stepped foot there.

Instead, most of his Dracula inspirations are said to have come from England (the eerie Highgate Cemetery stands out), and Ireland. Stoker was born during the terrible Great Famine, an event that would have dramatically shaped his childhood and world views. His childhood would have been full of spooky tales that told of creatures returning from the grave, feasting on human blood, and terrorising innocent villagers such as one that told of an evil dwarf who came back to life until finally killed with a stake to the heart – sound familiar, Dracula?

Stories of people buried accidentally – or even forcibly – alive during the horrible Famine years would have resonated with him, particularly tales told him by his mother, who was from the remote Sligo region on the West Coast. For those wealthy enough, they could install a bell and pulley system – just in case they woke up buried alive but for the vast majority of people, this was simply a fear one had to live with.

The west coast of Ireland is still full of eerie crumbling sites that make for a perfect horror novel backdrop – crumbling abbeys and manors, abandoned Famine-era villages, famine roads and walls, hidden Neolithic-era tombs and more.

The Vikings come to Ireland

Hiking in Wicklow, one almost expects to go back in time and spot Viking longboats offshore!

Leaving fantasy behind to delve into a (slightly hidden) history, the hit History Channel saga, Vikings, chose to use the lush, heather-covered hills and quiet harbours of the Wicklow Mountains as the filming backdrop for the Vikings show.

In the show, beautiful Wicklow stands in for both the dramatic wilds of Norway as well as the unknown coastal regions of England and later France – just a few of the places that the Vikings explored and raided! 

A reconstruction of a Viking boat in Waterford.

Ireland has a lot to thank the real-life Vikings for. These sea-faring raiders of the Dark Ages may get a bad rep but in truth, the Vikings brought the concept of cities and ports, maritime trade, boat-making technology and knowledge of a wider world. They founded many of Ireland’s most important cities – Dublin, Limerick, Cork, Waterford and Wexford, to name a few. The Vikings also lent their names to places like Wexford and Waterford (‘ford’ came from ‘fjord’), and to Dublin (to the Vikings it was known as Dyflin, from the Irish Duiblinn or “Black Pool”, referring to a dark tidal pool).

Viking enthusiasts should visit the southwest, in particular, Waterford’s Viking Triangle, where the Viking history is told through stand-ins in museums, reconstructions of boats and longhouses and even a Vikings 3D experience. Fans of the show Vikings should head to Wicklow to bask in the beauty of its hills, coasts and inlets!

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Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

“American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture, intriguing history, ancient castles, cheery locals and sweeping landscapes of Ireland.”

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