Staying closer to home than his usual adventures, BBC TV presenter Simon Reeve travels around the Emerald Isle by land, sea and air. This is an interesting exploration of the history, landscape and society of the island. There’s an emphasis on the Irish identity and the issues that unite and divide communities. Here are some of the highlights from both episodes:
- After taking the ferry from Fishguard (Wales) to Rosslare on the south coast of Ireland, Simon is treated to a fantastic aerial view of the landscape via a paramotor (like paragliding but more powerful). They touch down in Bannow Bay, where in 1169 the Anglo-Normans arrived – invited in, actually, but it would later become an occupation.
- The potato is essential to Irish history. After learning about the 1840s Potato Famine and seeing a famine village (where people literally died while in the sight of food which the landlords were growing for export), Simon goes to a potato festival in Dingle, County Kerry. He’s on the judging panel for a tasting competition and also wins 2nd prize in a peeling contest. The prize? A bag of spuds.
- Heading to Limerick, we meet impressively-bearded folklore specialist Eddie Lenihan (and his two puppies). Eddie has known people say they have actually met the fairies, or little people. In 1999, Eddie campaigned to save a bush in which fairies were living. He said there would be deaths, otherwise (because you shouldn’t interfere with the fairies). The motorway was diverted slightly.
- Joining the pilgrimage up Croagh Patrick, the holy mountain where Saint Patrick fasted for 40 days. Despite the awful weather, 10,000 people climb the mountain that day (at least one of them barefoot). There are climbing sticks for sale or rent. Simon reaches the peak after two hours. ‘Look at the view!’ he enthuses. The camera pans to the opaque wall of white cloud. Oh well, the view isn’t really the point of this pilgrimage.
- Crossing the border into Northern Ireland (which isn’t evident except that the road signs are in miles), Simon goes to Crom Castle, where he meets Lord Erne, a descendent of the Protestants from Scotland who originally came over as part of the Plantation of Ulster. That turbulent period of Irish history ultimately paved the way for the Troubles.
- In Derry, we see the famous People’s Gallery in the Bogside area. These are murals painted on the sides of buildings, commemorating the Catholic losses in what was the epicentre of the Troubles. Although in many respects Derry seems to have recovered, Simon is shocked to find that schools are mainly segregated in Northern Ireland, meaning that Catholic and Protestant young people don’t mix.
- After admiring the stunning view at Malin Head, the most northerly point, we carry on to the Giant’s Causeway with some fantastic aerial views. The next stop is Rathlin Island, unusual for its mixed faith community which was not affected by the Troubles like the rest of Northern Island. Simon dons orange wellies to harvest kelp. Seaweed is a superfood and has exciting prospects, because it’s organic, naturally produced and sustainable.
- The picturesque Dark Hedges are popular with Game of Thrones fans. International tourists are wandering around. They’ve boosted the region’s popularity.
- In Belfast on 12th July, the tension is evident. The loyalists celebrate the Battle of the Boyne (where William of Orange defeated James II). The night before, Simon feels uneasy at seeing a huge pyre of pallets, tyres and a Republic flag. At the Orangemen’s parade, there is a lot of pride in their identity and culture. However, violence breaks out and Simon moves behind the police line, where officers are in riot gear. The crowd is prevented from marching through a Catholic neighbourhood.
- Irish society has changed in recent years, partly because of the Church’s waning influence. Simon goes to Dublin where, at an LGBT film festival, the first screening takes place of a film celebrating equal marriage (Ireland having recently voted ‘yes’). He’s also a guest on Spirit Radio, where he asks why church attendance is declining and whether it is worrying (he doesn’t really get an answer).
- Ireland’s first and only monkey sanctuary is owned by a man called Willie, who says it’s funded by his pension. He takes in rescued laboratory monkeys and they have a wonderful existence on man-made little islands.
If you have access to BBC iPlayer, this programme is available for several months.