Game of Thrones: The Irish actors, ranked
Irish actors play some of the best characters: earthy Ser Davos, tough Catelyn Stark, vile Joffrey
Game of Thrones is the world’s most popular television series and irrefutable proof that an epic tale of dragons, ice-zombies and people who like to shed their clothes on the breeziest of pretexts can command a global following.
Along with all that, it has served as a bright, shining showcase for Ireland. Belfast’s Titanic Studios was headquarters for the sprawling HBO production across its eight years of filming. And many locations in the North saw active duty as Westeros landmarks.
With the eighth and (sob) final season arriving at the weekend it is the perfect moment, then, to rank the Game of Thrones characters portrayed by Irish performers.
This, needless to say, is an incomplete list. More than 100 Irish actors have donned their House Sigils and gone forth into Westeros – often without speaking roles and in many cases never to be seen again.
Thus the following countdown is by no means definitive. We haven’t even included Ed Sheeran, despite his family links to Gorey Co Wexford and the fact that, as a series seven Lannister soldier with an enormous red and potato-proportioned head, he cut the most stereotypically Irish figure yet on GoT.
So please understand that what follows is an overview and nothing more and resist the temptation to follow me to the bus-stop chanting “Shame…Shame…” over and over (seriously stop it right now).
And if we have ignored someone tremendously important kindly send us a raven – or failing that, make a comment below.
10: Bernadette (Sara Dylan)
There are enough Irish actors on Game of Thrones to fill an entire volume of High Septon Maynard’s diary. But because the days are short, winter is coming etc, we are going to gloss over the excellent Ian Beattie (despicable Ser Meryn Trant of the removable eyeballs), Kristian Nairn (of Hodor “holding the door” fame) and Aimee Richardson, who played Myrcella Baratheon in season one and two before the part was recast.
Instead, let us hail Sara Dylan for her recurring and criminally unsung portrayal of Cersei Lannister’s handmaiden, Bernadette. It is she who spies on Tyrion in seasons two through four, eventually unmasking Shae as his lover.
And in season seven, she mimics Cersei’s gothic new dress style while blundering upon the regent and Ser Jaime in bed together. She will no doubt be back in season eight, once again at Cersei’s side as the Mad Queen plans to rain down terror on the Seven Kingdoms.
9: Ser Barristan Selmy (Ian McElhinney)
As with Mance Rayder, Benioff and Weiss have rather blundered with the former Lord Commander of the Kings Guard. Having allied with Daenerys Targaryen in Essos he was then mystifyingly sacrificed on the alter of the unsatisfying Meereen plot in season five.
A pity, as McElhinney, just as impressive albeit in a completely different way as a grumpy granddad in Derry Girls, was a blue streak of charisma on screen. And then he was cut down by the Sons of the Harpy – an ignoble end for a character (and actor) who deserved better.
8: Beric Dondarrion (Richard Dormer)
It’s hard to go wrong with a warrior wielding a flaming sword and missing an eye. Dormer, from Lisburn, Co Antrim, has clearly had tremendous fun as Dondarrion (he inherited the role in season three after a different actor played the character in series one).
Dondarrion has been chosen by the Lord of Light for a special destiny. This is why his mysterious benefactor has brought him back from the dead repeatedly. He’s still somehow alive going into season eight, having survived the Night King’s assault on the Wall. So expect at least one last dramatic twist before his tale is told in full.
7: Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds)
Game of Thrones book readers are unanimous the TV series didn’t know what to do with the Wildling King Beyond the Wall. In the end, Rayder was bumped off prematurely after refusing to bend the knee to Stannis Baratheon (a notorious stickler for protocol and also a religious maniac).
Yet even with his limited time Hinds got under the skin of Rayder – a former “Crow” from the Seven Kingdoms who had come to prefer the often violent freedom of life north of the Wall. It was a subtle portrayal of a brutal warlord – and Thrones was the poorer for Rayder being burned at the stake (he remains very much alive in the books).
6: Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish (Aidan Gillen)
For the rest of time it will be impossible to clap eyes on the Dublin actor without hearing in your head the words “Lady Saaaaaansa”. As Littlefinger, Gillen gave a masterclass in top-level amorality. Littlefinger was ultimately responsible for many of the bad things that happened in Game of Thrones. For instance, it was he who started a war between the Lannisters and the Starks by killing Hand of the King Jon Arryn and subsequently betraying noble Ned. Chaos, as he famously observed, is not a pit – but a ladder.
And let’s not forget the creepy uncle vibes he radiated towards Sansa, daughter of Littlefinger’s one true love, Catelyn Stark. Gillen perfectly understood what was expected of him playing Littlefinger. The character was more than straightforwardly evil. He was wicked in many, often contradictory ways.
And after a fashion he did truly love Sansa (before she played her part in cutting his throat). Gillen captured all of that swirling ambiguity with a shape-shifting performance.
5: Lord Varys (Conleth Hill)
Jaws dropped when Co Antrim actor Hill turned up at the recent Game of Thrones premiere in New York with flowing silver locks. He’d finally had the opportunity to grow back his curls after eight seasons as King’s Landing’s enigmatic and cue-ball headed Master of Whispers.
Varys is a quintessential Game of Thrones creation in that his soul is a deepest shade of grey. He’s neither good nor bad – and while he ultimately wants the best for the Seven Kingdoms is prepared to both reach high and stoop low in order to achieve his aims.
4: Catelyn Stark (Michelle Fairley)
When showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss scrapped their original Game of Thrones pilot and started over, one of the first things they did was re-cast Catelyn Stark. The role had originally gone to English actress Jennifer Ehle.
But now she was out with Coleraine actress Fairley instead taking on the challenging role as matriarch of Winterfell. Catelyn is portrayed as rather dispassionate in the original novels – never regretting, for instance, her cruelty towards Ned Stark’s “Bastard” son Jon Snow.
But Fairley humanised Catelyn. Her season three speech, in which she expressed her belief that all of the misfortune that had come down on the Starks flowed from her coldness towards Jon Snow, remains one of the most moving in the entire series.
“Everything that’s happened,” she told Robb Stark’s bride Talisa, “All this horror that’s come to my family . . . it’s all because I couldn’t love a motherless child.”
3: Roose Bolton (Michael McElhatton)
“The Lannisters send their regards,” is perhaps the most immortal line of dialogue in the entirety of Game of Thrones – and it was delivered by Terenure-born McElhatton. Roose was himself later stabbed in the back – technically the front – by his son Ramsay, robbing us of one of GoT’s greatest villains far too soon.
What was especially commendable about McElhatton’s performance was how he brought to life a character who, as written, felt rather B-list. George RR Martin’s Roose Bolton is a ghostly figure, his voice never rising or falling. Benioff and Weiss’s version by contrast was a shallow nasty who lived up to House Bolton’s reputation as ardent sadists (not by coincidence is their House Sigil a flayed man). So it was to McElhatton’s immense credit that he breathed nuance into Roose, playing him as a preening Shakespearean creep with a baritone delivery and black granite for eyes.
2: Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham)
He’s had wildfire rain down on him, was accused of treachery by Stannis Baratheon and earned the enmity of Red Witch Melisandre. Yet somehow steadfast Ser Davos has survived every season of Game of Thrones since he was introduced in series two – making veteran Dublin actor Liam Cunningham an unlikely international star in the process.
Obviously it has been a long strange journey from East Wall in Dublin to the great wall of Westeros. Yet Cunningham has clearly enjoyed the trek.
Viewers meanwhile took immediately to Ser Davos. Loyal, thoughtful and honest, he might just be the most decent person in the Seven Kingdoms. The question is whether, as Jon Snow’s closest adviser, he’ll make it all the way through the final run of episodes. All of Ireland is rooting for you, Ser Davos.
1: Prince Joffrey (Jack Gleeson)
Number one with a sadistic crossbow bolt to the privates is of course vile Prince Joffrey. A coward, a bully, a sadist and a sociopath – and those are his better qualities – Joffrey was so heinous he made the Night King look like an affable chap out for an evening stroll. Indeed, when he was poisoned at his own wedding in season four, the question wasn’t so much who would want Joffrey dead as who didn’t stand to gain from his elimination.
The character was plenty villainous in the original George RR Martin novels. But enormous credit must nonetheless go to the previously unknown Cork-born, Ranelagh-raised Jack Gleeson for putting flesh and bone on Martin’s loathsome creation.
His Joffrey was from the outset a shudder-inducing twerp for the annals. It is no coincidence that one of the most beloved scenes in the first season of of GoT was when Tyrion slapped him repeatedly across the face.
Even more impressive, arguably, was the manner in which Gleeson drew a line between his onscreen persona and his real self. Somehow he found a way to remain completely obscure in his day-to-day existence while playing the principal villain in the world’s biggest TV series. He quietly attended Trinity College until 2012 and has since retired from screen acting though remaining involved in theatre through the Collapsing Horse Theatre Company.
After Joffrey, he may have concluded, there was nowhere go to but down.