Ireland's coolest job? Meet Game of Thrones' Wicklow weapons master
He's the Wicklow man who has the coolest job in television - and he almost turned it down! Here, Tommy Dunne tells our film critic how he went from being a welder to the Game of Thrones weapons master, and reveals which cast members would win in a real duel…
There are cool jobs, and then there's Tommy Dunne's job. Announcing that you're the weapons master on Game of Thrones must make everyone else in the room feel inadequate, but Wicklow man Tommy has no airs or graces, and is well used to the ups and downs of life on the world's biggest TV show.
He's been working on Thrones from the very start, and he and his team have designed and made every sword, scabbard, axe and bow you've seen on the epic drama. "It's hard work," he tells me, "but it's been an absolute joy from the creative point of view, and you're allowed have such an input in the designing and making." But it's a job he came across by accident - and almost said no to.
A welder by trade, Tommy was drawn into the entertainment industry in the mid-1990s, when the Mel Gibson show came to Ireland. "I sort of drifted into it in a way," he says. "My first real job was on Braveheart. I got in through friends who I'd worked with at an engineering company in Wicklow, and they needed people to put in braziers and pipes up in Trim Castle, where they were shooting.
"Then I got involved in armoury for the film - I spent six years in the army reserves so the weaponry aspect of things was very familiar to me. I met Mel and dealt with all the actors, but it was a real baptism of fire - I learnt so much on that job."
Braveheart kick-started Tommy's career as a weapons master, and he went on to work on everything from Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan to Gladiator and Black Hawk Down. He works with a team of artisans and blacksmiths who handle everything from the design and manufacture of weapons to their correct - and safe - use. He's often been required to travel to far-flung locations, but on Game of Thrones that wouldn't be necessary.
"I was up in Belfast working on a film called Your Highness, and one of the producers, Mark Huffam, passed me a script one day. I was so busy on the movie I didn't get around to looking at it till three days later, and I sort of glanced through it quickly thinking 'God that sounds all right'. It was like 50/50 whether I'd take it or turn it down, because I was very busy at that point, and I thought I had enough on my plate. But thank God I copped on to myself and said yeah I'll do it. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for."
The weapons on Game of Thrones are remarkable, intricate artefacts with hand-moulded hilts, cross guards and pommels, beautiful objects that do terrible things. A lot of them - the Oathkeeper, Widow's Wail - have names, and all were made from scratch by Tommy and his team. "When we started doing the pilot," he recalls, "we hadn't got a clue who was who, we just knew that this was going to be a big weapon for a big man, for instance, so above 6ft. With a new actor I'd always ask were they left-handed, right-handed, how tall, man, woman, child. A lot of the iconic weapons were actually made for the pilot, before we'd met any of the cast."
In designing the weapons, Tommy looked more to history than George R.R. Martin's books. "I've only read the first book," he admits. "I look at the scripts to figure out who's who and what they need, and we do an awful lot of research. I try to get as much of a Celtic feel in there as I can, a lot of embroideries and embossed patterns on the belts and so on, and some of the swords are Irish ring swords. I get as much Irish into it as possible, but it's subliminal - a lot of people wouldn't notice it."
The gorgeous, heavy steel blades are not used in combat scenes, and are replaced by lighter, rubber or bamboo versions. "There's always a few versions of the same weapon, depending on the shot required and whether they're supposed to look good or be put to use.
" We deal with every imaginable scenario the weapon will be needed for, so I try to think worst case scenario and then work my way back from that - are they on horseback, are they falling, are they fighting, or is it just a visualisation where it has to look pretty and shiny."
Not damaging the actors is Tommy's top priority. "From my end of it," he says, "it's safety, safety and then safety. For instance when we're dealing with archery, we have to make sure the whole area is sealed off and the archery nets are up. It's the same with the actors, we have to make sure that if they're on horseback they only have rubber scabbards, leather belts, that the sword will be a lightweight rubber so it will flex with the actor if they do come off . You really have to think worst case scenario if you want to cover all angles and make sure everyone is safe, and that the animals are safe.
"We're always on set to deal with issues, there's not one person that just stays in the workshop - every one of us will be on set with the actors and the extras all the time during shooting." His team, he says, were "a little bit starry-eyed at first, pointing at actors going by and all that, but they soon got used to it. It becomes a job when you deal with the actor 12 times in a day and they ignore you, and you know you won't be getting a card at Christmas!"
Tommy and his team work with the individual actors whenever a new weapon appears. "I have to show them my interpretation of what's been designed," he says, "and then a lot of it is handed over to stunts. But I give the initial interpretation of what the weapon does, and what it doesn't do, and with the archery and the crossbows, it's basically all down to me and my team, we do all of that, semi-crossbows, giant crossbows…"
All of the warriors look pretty handy on the screen, but are any of the actors actually any use with a sword? "In fairness they're all quite good, and they really make the effort, but there are a few that really stand out. Nicolaj Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime, he is phenomenal - though obviously he's had to go on to his left hand now, because he's lost the other one! He's a phenomenal fighter. Young Maisie [Williams] is excellent, and Kit [Harrington] has improved hugely over the years, he's got better and better, he's very agile, and a force to be reckoned with. They'd be the top three." Does he have a favourite Game of Thrones weapon? "Not really. I get asked that a lot, but because I've done so many movies and made so many weapons that I just take a look at it and go, 'yeah, I'm very happy with that', and then it's on to the next one. There's so many of them that you just keep moving on."
He did, though, greatly enjoy the challenge presented by Gendry's Hammer during this season. "It took me a while to get that one figured out because we had a couple of different variants, it was a hard one to get your head around, especially with him being a blacksmith - there was a real satisfaction in getting it right."
Valyrian steel is an even bigger challenge. "We always try and do as much of the work as possible in-house, on the forge, but it takes a long time for the Valyrian steel and part of you would be thinking 'oh God' whenever you're asked to do some. But from the pilot to now we've only had to make about four, so it's not too bad."
I tell Tommy that, when I interviewed some of the show's stars a few months back, a good number of them mentioned how much they'd love to keep their weapons as souvenirs. He laughs. "Every year I hear sob stories from actors looking for weapons, and if it was up to me I'd give everybody their weapons, but it's out of my control, there are HBO directives. But I do think HBO should be giving all the main cast members a weapon as a souvenir, given what they've done over the years on this fantastic show."
He's a fan himself. "I think it's great, the feel of it, and the effort that everyone puts in is remarkable, because I'm dealing with wardrobe, costumes, stunts, props, construction, I've known them all for the last eight or nine years, and I've seen the effort they've put into it. Everybody gives 110pc, and cinematically, there's nothing to touch it at the moment."
As fans know only too well, Game of Thrones is facing into its final season. Is he, like the actors, dreading the final curtain? "People are saying 'oh it's great, we'll be able to get a life again at the end of it,' but I will miss really it. And I mean in terms of work it's been great for a lot of people - it's been consistent, nine months on the job every year so you don't have to look for other jobs within that time. But now it's going to be back to normal, chasing producers, getting your CV out there."
Meanwhile, Tommy's forge is heating up again. "We're starting to prep for season eight, which is quite a big one." That doesn't screen till next summer. It's going to be a long winter.
The finale of 'Game of Thrones' series seven airs this Monday at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV