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Treat yourself to a big screen experience – discover Ireland’s most Hollywood-worthy locations

Jo Kerrigan retraces the footsteps of giants on a trip through the Irish locations for globally respected artistic creations

There is always a movie you really loved, a book you devoured, a TV show you couldn’t miss, poetry you recite to yourself, a song you sing whenever you get the chance. Why not make this the autumn you trace their footsteps and discover the actual places where a story was filmed, or that inspired the special song, story, poetry? Wander from one to another, staying in wonderful hostelries and enjoying the best food and drink Ireland has to offer. Now isn’t that tempting?

So many movies have been shot in Ireland that it’s almost easier to list those that weren’t! Even films dealing with faraway locations and topics were made here because directors knew they could find unspoiled countryside, superb scenery, empty beaches, and – of course – plenty of willing ‘extras’! Saving Private Ryan is set in Normandy during the appalling battle of Omaha Beach, but was filmed on Ballinesker strand in Wexford. That old classic The Blue Max, with George Peppard as a German WWI fighter pilot, was shot at the Ardmore Studios in Bray, but that spectacular scene when Peppard flies a plane under a bridge was filmed just outside Fermoy in Co Cork. If you’re driving past on the toll road, you can look to your right and see the high arched railway bridge just as it was then.

Yes, the Star Wars movies are legendary, but the publicity given to Skellig Michael in the most recent trilogy bore no relation to its actual appearance, to be truthful. A few moments at the very end of a film, of the ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ variety, doesn’t do credit to that spectacularly eerie and wonderful place. If you go (and you’d better have a head for heights) go for itself, not for a movie that made brief use of it. Skellig is one of life’s experiences, far bigger than any Hollywood creation. Boats go from Portmagee but you’d need to book in advance as numbers are limited.

Ryan’s Daughter: now that’s another Kerry legend, and small surprise that David Lean chose the wild Slea Head location for this tale of forbidden love and heartbreak. If you ever sighed over its spectacular scenery on screen, then you will recognise every turn in the road along this route. You won’t see the village that they built specially for the film, though, alas. Lean did offer it to the nation, but his offer wasn’t taken up. Plenty of memorabilia to be found in the shops and cafes of Dingle and Dunquin, though, as well as delicious local delicacies.


Still watch The Quiet Man when it comes up on television? You’re not alone. It’s one of the world’s favourite movies and it was made in Mayo and Galway. The very bridge where returned emigrant Sean Thornton sees once again the home of his childhood is at Leam, near Oughterard, and much visited, but not everybody knows that the station where John Wayne drags Maureen O’Hara from the train and hauls her back to throw down in front of her brother, is actually Ballyglunin, and looks very much as it did then (even if there are no trains passing through today). And the marvellous horse race was filmed on Lettergesh beach in Co. Galway. You can sit on the beach and imagine John Wayne galloping past on that raking black horse of his, to seize defiantly the hat of the minister’s wife rather than O’Hara’s.

While you’re at it, if enjoying the pleasures of the City of Tribes one evening, wander out to the shoreline and sing the old lament of emigrants:

If you ever go across the sea to Ireland

Then maybe at the closing of your day,

You can sit and watch the moon rise over Claddagh,

And see the sun go down on Galway Bay.

Dancing at Lughnasa is set in Donegal, but the movie, starring Meryl Streep, was actually filmed in Wicklow, on the Luggala estate, around Lough Dan, and in the little village of Hollywood. If you love the song, The Homes of Donegal, though, then get yourself up to the spectacular scenery of the north west and stand on one of its magnificent headlands to sing every verse to the wind and the birds. You’ll feel great after doing that! Or head to West Cork which has welcomed many a film crew in its time, from I Thank a Fool back in the 50s, starring Susan Hayward, to The Wind that Shakes the Barley, filmed around Ballyvourney, Bandon, and Timoleague.

Song for a Raggy Boy, Patrick Galvin’s moving tale of his childhood, was filmed at the old Irish college in Ballyvourney too. It is now being renovated and repurposed, but still looks much as it did in the movie starring Aidan Quinn. Some of the Michael Collins movie was filmed in Co. Cork but most of it in Dublin. Moby Dick, filmed long ago in 1950s Youghal, still comes up on TV from time to time.

Great houses have played their part too. Powerscourt in Wicklow and Carton House in Maynooth have both featured in top movies. Powerscourt, indeed, was the setting for over 50 films, ranging from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V through Black Beauty, Barry Lyndon, The Count of Monte Cristo, Ella Enchanted, King Arthur, Far and Away, Into the West, and so many more. Its spectacular waterfall starred in many of those productions too, and it’s a must-see when you are visiting.

Carton House and demesne were also used for Barry Lyndon, as they were for The Big Red One, Leap Year and, believe it or not, some scenes of the hit Irish TV drama Love/Hate. Julie Andrews and director/husband Blake Edwards stayed at Carton while filming Darling Lili, while co-star Rock Hudson made do with a cottage in the grounds!

Yes, all those TV dramas which featured Irish settings can be revisited. Most of Love/Hate was filmed in Dublin 7′s O’Devaney Gardens, but those have now been demolished to make way for redevelopment. You can still, though, enjoy spotting all the famous locations within our capital city, principally of course Leopold Bloom’s legendary stroll through its thoroughfares as immortalised in Ulysses. Or head down to 15 Usher’s Island where that iconic short story The Dead is set. Do we hear a note or two of Noel Purcell’s Dublin Saunter?

Dublin can be heaven, with coffee at eleven,

And a stroll on Stephen’s Green…

Deirdre Purcell’s novel Falling for a Dancer was turned into a TV film (Purcell herself doing the screenwriting) and shot down in the furthest reaches of the Beara Peninsula where the cameramen had fewer telegraph poles (the bane of directors) to deal with, and the scenery was just about as rugged as you could want. That film featured Dermot Crowley, who honed his craft in Cork, and went on to RTE before making it in London, and also a very young Colin Farrell. Beara is a beautiful region with the most breathtaking sunsets. It’s a great place to stay while exploring all the locations used in the film.

When it comes to TV series and location-spotting, though, the two that top the list are Game of Thrones and Vikings, both of which made full use of the many opportunities our wonderful countryside offers. Game of Thrones used a lot of locations in Northern Ireland: Tollymore Forest Park, Inch Abbey, Castle Ward, Toome Canal, Slemish Mountain, the Glens of Antrim, Cushendun Caves, Murlough Bay, Ballintoy Harbour and of course The Dark Hedges near Ballymoney. Check out www.theirishroadtrip.com/game-of-thrones-filming-locations-northern-ireland for more details.

Vikings, although set in different places all over Europe, has actually been filmed principally here in Ireland, mostly in Wicklow which offers just the right lush Nordic landscapes with no shortage of mountains, glacial lakes, and forests. Many scenes featuring Ragnar and the other Viking Norsemen exploring the vast seas on longships were shot on the Blessington Lakes. Nuns Beach near Ballybunion in Kerry, however, was used to film scenes set in medieval Northumbria. It gets its name from the nuns who used to bathe there from their convent on the cliffs above. Beautiful place, but be aware that the beach is only accessible by boat or by a very steep path.

Just around the corner is an area called the Nine Daughters, which is associated with a fascinating legend. The story goes that the nine daughters of the local village chief fell in love with Viking invaders and planned to run away with them. Their father caught them, and threw both his daughters and the Vikings into the sea, where they drowned. It must have happened sometimes, surely, that local girls, bored with the resident talent, saw something to admire in these hulking blond raiders and wondered if life in the far North would be that bad after all?

Visit the Wicklow mountains or secret beaches in Kerry, and remember your favourite moments from Vikings. Or look at one of the many websites devoted to the series: https://travel.earth/vikings-filming-locations-in-ireland or www.atlasofwonders.com/2016/02/vikings-filming-locations.html

Wicklow is, in fact, an excellent place for discovering many actual places used in films and TV series. How about Ballykissangel, filmed in Avoca? It’s a bustling little village, very popular with tourists, offering all the accommodation, food, drink, and shopping you could want on holiday. And, though you might not think it, much of Angela’s Ashes, that Limerick story par excellence, was filmed in Wicklow too, and in some older parts of Dublin, since the original places mentioned in Frank McCourt’s book no longer existed, having been swept away by progress. You can find where exactly different sections were shot on http://movie-locations.com/movies/a/Angelas-Ashes.php.

So many more films, TV series, and books, we can’t list them all. You know your own favourites, it’s up to you to find out more about them.

How about poetry? The landscapes of Sligo which so inspired WB Yeats. The “stony grey soil of Monaghan” or the peaceful bank of the Grand Canal in Dublin which moved Patrick Kavanagh. The rural landscape and simple things of a Derry childhood which entered into the soul of Seamus Heaney’s writing. If you love a poem and it speaks of a place, then go and search out that place. Who knows, it might inspire you too? Anyone who has felt lost and alone in a huge industrial city will empathise with Yeats in London seeing a little fountain of water bubbling in a shop window and immediately thinking of a longed-for quiet place, far to the west:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

And live alone in the bee-loud glade…

Do you know that on the west Clare coast you can still follow the line of the legendary railway, more famed for its delays and stoppages than its punctuality, immortalised by Percy French?

Are ye right there, Michael, are ye right?

D’you think that we’ll get there before the night?

Sure it’s all depending whether

The ould engine houlds together,

And it might now, Michael, so it might!

Or is there a painting that you especially love, that speaks to you? One of Paul Henry’s exquisite watercolours of a Connemara cottage and turf bog? An exciting fairground scene painted by Jack Yeats (equally as inspired by his brother WB but in a different medium)? Go and find these places yourself. And if the spirit moves you, then look for courses in writing, filmmaking, poetry, painting, and become the next voice of Irish artistry. This country of ours has produced so many gifted exponents of their chosen fields. You might be the next one. No, age most certainly does not matter. Experience in life is a definite advantage.

So this autumn, head out on the road with your favourite movie, TV series, book, poem, painting, song, whatever, firmly noted down (along with anything you have researched on it), settle into the perfect hotel or B&B, enjoy the best of food and drink, and follow your own dream. If not now, when?