A lot of Blarney

by John Boland

Irish Independent, April 20, 2013

Who needs RTE to talk up The Gathering when our friends in the North are even more fervent in promoting the wonders of our enchanted isle?

As it happens, Our Friends in the North is the title of Kevin McAleer’s new series about the Scots Irish, but I’ll get to that after paying due tribute to UTV for their services to Irish tourism – not just through the efforts of actor James Nesbitt in James Nesbitt’s Ireland but also those of Sarah Travers in The Magazine.

This latter series began last week with Sarah introducing us to her home town of Portstewart – which, the way Sarah told it, was not just God’s little acre but the essence of paradise itself. This week she was in “the beautiful city” of Armagh, which she confessed she “didn’t know at all” even though it’s only a bus ride away from her native place. Some people have no get up and go.

So what was there to see in Armagh? Well, one local woman told her not to miss the two cathedrals, which apparently were “absolutely brilliant”, while no fewer than three other passers by in the street assured her that the museum was the city’s greatest glory. So Sarah stood in front of its grey pillars and exclaimed “Wow! A touch of ancient Greece in the middle of Armagh!” Steady on there, Sarah.

She calmed down with a sip of cider in a nearby bar, then went to the orchard where the cider was conceived and sat on a tractor, and after that she marvelled at a thatched cottage that was deemed to be the longest in Ireland.

By this stage, the excitement was getting too much for me, so I left Sarah at it, despite her promise that after the ad break she’d be visiting Armagh planetarium and would also be showing me the very playing field on which the penalty kick had been invented.

Instead, I dropped in on that twinkling Northern chappie James Nesbitt, who was continuing as he’d begun four weeks ago – puffing Ireland and its myriad enchantments like there was no tomorrow and not much left of today. This week he assured us that the country’s biggest draw – bigger even than our “stunning” landscapes – was the “craic”, which he helpfully defined for the benefit of a visitor from outer space as “a great time”. Oh, and it was also “mighty”.

I certainly derived great craic from his chat with a man who grows parsnips as long as an elephant’s langer (I’m presuming elephants have long langers), and if you ask me what this or indeed any of the foregoing has to do with the Ireland in which most of us struggle to stay solvent and sane, shure, who cares and isn’t it great craic anyway?

The four-part Our Friends in the North (RTE1) features Tyrone comedian Kevin McAleer travelling the Six Counties on a journey to find out something about the 600,000 Ulster Scots who live there. Was there, he wondered, more to them than the “dour, hard-working Presbyterian types” of received cliche?

Well, there was their language for starters, with McAleer being asked on an Ulster Scots radio station if he knew the meaning of such words as fadge, thrapple and gatlins. He didn’t. Then there were their social occasions, including a musical shindig he attended where everyone sat with great formality on rows of chairs while players on stage gave renderings of ‘Dirty Old Town’ and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. Looking around the room of mainly very elderly people, McAleer detected “not much sign of the 21st century or even the latter half of the 20th”.

That’s exactly what I feel when driving through so many towns and villages in the North, but McAleer elsewhere eschewed such pithy summarisings, or indeed any jokiness, even though his trademark lugubriously deadpan expression remained intact throughout the somewhat earnest proceedings.

BBC reporter John Sweeney, who famously lost the head and started screaming at Scientologists on a Panorama probe a few years back, was in much quieter form during this week’s North Korea Undercover – a film that had attracted advance controversy when it was revealed that Sweeney and his crew had gained access to the country by pretending to belong to a group of students, all of whom might have suffered unpleasant consequences if the ruse had been discovered.

In the event, he emerged from this frightening place with not an awful lot to show for it. “Life is bleak here”, Sweeney intoned, “and the more we see, the worse it gets”. The viewer, however, didn’t get to see much beyond eerie footage of a supposedly functioning hospital that seemed to have no patients.

Endeavour (UTV), a four-week series of stand-alone crime dramas, concerns the early career of Inspector Morse, and from the outset of the first film the soundtrack was awash weith opera, thereby establishing its dour hero as an aspirational young man deeply interested in high culture. Ho hum.

Anton Lesser was amusing as his martinet of a boss and Roger Allam had some good scenes as his immediate superior, but Shaun Evans was charmless as the young Morse. Of course, I always felt the same about the older Morse.


John Sheahan: A Dubliner (RTE1) was a lovely profile of the last surviving member of the great traditional group. Indeed, there was distinctly elegiac feel to Maurice Sweeney’s film as Sheahan recalled the various passings on – indeed, when Ronnie Drew died, “it was like losing a brother and a father”.

He spoke with eloquence of belonging to a group in which they were all “on this adventure together”. The other four, he said, were the “bricks” of the group, while he – the last to join up – was “the mortar” holding them all together.

He read some affecting poems he’s written and he played with Charlie McGettigan, Damien Dempsey and others. And then there was all that evocative footage of the band of brothers in their heyday. Very moving.

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