Joe Mahon has made a career out of exploring the beauty of Northern Ireland – discovering hidden treasures off the beaten track and developing an easy rapport with local people, chatting with farmers, putting out nets with fishermen and holding forth about wildlife, townlands, shorelines, mountains, panoramic vistas - his deep love of the natural world always palpable.
Mahon’s gentle way of speaking and down-to-earth manner, his almost poetic descriptions of the landscape and extensive knowledge of local history have combined to make him a great success fronting Lesser Spotted Ulster, and the subsequent Lesser Spotted Journeys, TV favourites for over two decades. There’s a sincerity about Joe that makes it easy to understand why country folk across the province have been more than happy to stop and tell him stories about their lives and the land that is their livelihood.
The Londonderry man’s curiosity about people and places and his ability to spin a good yarn meant the programme regularly drew more viewers to UTV than popular soaps like EastEnders.
“We managed a kind of immediacy and a naturalness,” says Joe of the long-running series that was made by his own company, formed in 1996, Westway Film Productions. “I had to be enthused about things and I wanted to pass that on to other people. I think I’ve never lost that child-like sense of wonder and curiosity about the great outdoors and about wildlife. And I think I have always tried to have empathy for the people I meet, to want to see things from their point of view - I think that empathy is very important.
“We always wanted to deal with ordinary country people who share real stories.
“It’s never a matter of city folk coming out and patronising country people. There is an element of that in some of the newer natural history programmes, where you’ll get a particular metropolitan treatment of affairs. But my team are embedded in what is essentially a rural community.
“We’ve always been a celebratory programme which is about taking delight in our province.”
Joe, 65, was raised in Creggan. His childhood was a happy one although he confides that one vivid memory is of being kicked out of the school choir aged nine.
“My mother was a great singer you see. And as it also turns out she was a great liar because she told me I had a great voice and I would sing out lustily. One of the Christian Brothers asked me to sing the scales and after that I was sent home. I thought there must have been some mistake!
“I think I was a very well behaved child and I was reasonably good at football. I’d always thought I wanted to become a teacher, either that or a film star.”
Joe went on to pursue his teaching dream and taught History and English at St Peter’s Christian Brothers School at the height of the Troubles.
It was while participating in the Colmcille Debating Society that Joe distinguished himself and was soon being asked to record bits and pieces for the radio; when a producer job was advertised at the BBC he applied and got it. In his early days he also wrote a regular column for BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour.
“The first one I did was me talking about how I was convinced the woman I was married to was on the run, or was a spy, because she would insist on leaving no traces behind us anywhere in the house, so you couldn’t put your feet up, you couldn’t put that cup there, fingerprints were wiped off everything,” he laughs.
When Ollie McGilloway, the presenter of McGilloway’s Way, which Joe was producing at the time, died unexpectedly in 1994, it was decided to relaunch the programme as Lesser Spotted Ulster with him as the presenter.
Joe and his production team have proved that there continues to be a real appetite for a good story told alongside views of the most spectacular local scenery.
So what have been some of his favourite places to visit over the years – those beautiful hidden corners of Ulster?
Mahon lists Donegal, Fermanagh, the north coast; “Donegal would probably be my favourite county. Every year my family and I take a house down in Ardara, a cottage at the very foot of the Glengesh valley. It’s absolutely gorgeous and you have Glencolmcille, Killybegs, Portnoo, Rosbeg. I love somewhere I can go and just relax with my family. I love all of the west coast of Ireland.
“And I love Fermanagh, the north coast, the Carlingford Lough area – so many places that it’s impossible to name them all.”
Joe is married to Phil, a former nursing manager, and has five children, Sarah, Patrick, Brendan, Kevin and Emma. Three of them have followed their father into TV production and work for his company.
Joe says he has found some of the biggest consolations of his life in nature.
“No matter how bad things are if you immerse yourself in the natural world and your knowledge of it, it has always helped return me to a very optimistic outlook. If you focus on nature and learning new things and remaining curious about the world around you then I think that brings an awful lot of happiness to an awful lot of people.”
When he has some downtime, Joe enjoys a glass of wine, catching up with friends over dinner, and pottering in his garden. He also does a lot of babysitting grandchildren and devours local history books. “But mostly I’m very immersed in what I do because honestly, I love it.”