‘Lough Foyle was a labour of love from start to finish’

Joe Mahon has spent the past year exploring the vast Foyle system from its headwaters in the hills of Londonderry, Donegal and Tyrone to the narrow strait between Magilligan and Greencastle where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.

The result is ‘Lough Foyle’ a new ten part series that starts on UTV later this month.

The ‘Lesser Spotted Ulster’ presenter describes the new programme as a ‘labour of love’ and possibly the best thing he and the team at Westway Film Productions has ever done. Filming started a year or so ago. Things ran smoothly at first but the rest, of course, is history.

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“For five or six months it was hammer and tongs but the last four were done under COVID-19 restrictions,” Joe explains.

“Normally Vinny Cunningham [cameraman] would frame me and whoever I’m talking with for the purpose of conversation but we had to social distance.

“It has been kind of tough with places being closed or various bodies we would have worked with not being able to participate due to lockdown,” he admits.

Despite these challenges the team have managed to produce a sumptuous new series that is both stunning to look at and packed with the kind of lore, history and natural beauty we’ve come to expect from Joe’s output.

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“Speaking from the heart this series is not the best we could do under the circumstances. This is the best we could do full stop. This is as good a series as we’ve ever done,” he says.

Though ostensibly titled ‘Lough Foyle’ the package of half hour films reaches far beyond the 16 mile estuarial basin between Culmore Point and Magilligan.

Over ten episodes that will air on Monday nights at 8pm from September 21, Joe ventures upstream along the major tributaries of the system including the Finn, Mourne, Derg, Strule, Roe and Faughan.

“People from Derry might hear the name of the series and think it’s about the lough but we are talking about the whole Foyle catchment.

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“I explain this in the first few minutes of the first programme. There was a time hundreds of years ago and maybe not that far back when Lough Foyle in common understanding meant the whole river right up to Strabane. It’s tidal right up beyond Strabane and Lifford and all of that water moves twice a day.

“It starts up in the mountains in the Sperrins and it starts up in the middle of Donegal at Lough Finn and Lough Derg.

“A lot of the programme spends time out in the countryside on the Donegal side, the Tyrone side and indeed up in Magilligan at the River Roe and all of the tributaries. It’s an amazing system when you think of the extent of it. Thousands of square kilomtres,” he says.

The ‘Journal’ has been fortunate enough to get a sneak peak at three episodes and can promise a treat for fans of Joe’s work as the evenings lengthen into the autumn.

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Historical, ecological, cultural, geological, mythological and archaeological gems are uncovered by way of the Creggan native’s laid back, inquisitive style. The ways of life of the riverine communities of the area are examined.

Turlough Luineach O’Neill, Manannán mac Lir, the Broharris canal, the Broighter Hoard, Éogan of Ardstraw, the Ulster Scots poetry of Sarah Leech, inward and outward migration, the native flax industry and the successful efforts to encourage sea trout back into the tributaries of the Foyle, are among the many topics, too many to mention, that are illuminated by a field of local experts in just the three episodes this paper has seen.

The series runs to ten instalments but the crew could easily have fulfilled thirty and it asks some big questions over its meandering course.

“All the people we have on this series are people who know something of substance. It can sound like idle chit chat at times, that’s our style, but you are actually picking up stuff of real substance, real information and I’ve learned an awful lot,” he explains.

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On top of the treasure trove of folk history and socio-cultural detail, ‘Lough Foyle’ features magnificent photography of the river system.

Though we don’t recommend the approach you could watch the series with the sound down, so gorgeous are the panoramic shots of the north west captured by the Westway crew of Vinny Cunningham, Billy Gallagher and Tony Carlin.

“One of the things that completely astonished me was how stunningly beautiful a lot of this area actually is.

“We made great use of aerial photography. Among the stars of the series are the landscapes and seascapes,” Joe observes.

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Indeed Tourism Ireland might want to get in touch. The series is a fabulous advertisement for the Londonderry area in the age of the ‘staycation.’

Funded through Northern Ireland Screen and the Ulster Scots Agency, ‘Lough Foyle’ kicks off in just under a fortnight and will be a tonic during these strange times.

As Joe says: “It gives you a brilliant opportunity to look at the natural environment of all of these rivers, where they come from and where they flow through.

“As Ken McCormack said, all of those tributaries carry with them their own stories, their own history, their own background and culture.

“They come together. It’s a lovely metaphor for different influences and different wee strands of culture and environment. Honest to God it was a labour of love for me from start to finish.”

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