‘I’m happiest with my hands and feet in the soil’

TV presenter Joe Mahon chats to JOANNE SAVAGE ahead of the beginning of his new UTV series that explores less considered beauty spots across Ulster and their surprising back histories

Saturday, 3rd July 2021, 8:00 am
Two horses almost get the better of Joe Mahon in his new TV series

Joe Mahon has been visiting all manner of beauteous peninsulas, townlands and hillscapes for over 30 years, educating his devoted audience about the history, topology, geography and lesser known stories about innumerable Ulster locales with a level of wit, craic and insight that has made him an expert on the subterranean secrets of a land he clearly adores with passionate, academic commitment.

Born outside Derry’s Walls right next to its Memorial Hall and St Augustine’s Church, he then grew up in Creggan, in a house at the very end of last row of houses to be built in the Maiden City, next door to miles and miles of hillside and fields extending towards the scenic Donegal hinterlands, where he could be found riding his bicycle with friends or spending hours fishing for elusive brown trout.

Originally an English teacher, he quickly segued into radio and then television, ultimately producing nature programmes with the late Olly McGilloway at the helm, before he stepped into his shoes, somewhat reluctantly (he had no wish to be in front of the camera until he was strong-armed into it, and the result has been decades of engaging exposition about the beauty of his native land).

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Mahon, married to Phil, father of five and grandfather of seven, will again be rambling across Ulster for his new show Mahon’s Way, that will see him complete something of a herculean odyssey from Glendun in Co Antrim to Lough Beg, Bellaghy, Irvinestown, the Mournes, which are unquestionably the jewel of Co Down as they sweep down in their majesty to the sea as Percy French sang of, Killeter in Co Tyrone and beyond, bringing his novel approach to unfold the historical mysteries, quirks and tales of each location, bringing far-flung townlands to life in his fertile imagination with the easy storytelling gift he inherited from his late mother, a “born entertainer, a great wit, and a failed film star” who clearly did bestow the bard of Lesser Spotted Ulster with the gift of the gab. To listen to Joe talk about nature is to be lulled into a soothing, kindly lecture about places very much off grid that we perhaps overlook in our zeal to visit well-established beauty spots.

How does a man so knowledgeable about the land, a man never happier than when his “hands and feet are touching the soil or some other part of the physical universe”, a man never happier than when in his wilderness of a garden planting wildflowers, a man in love with the land in a manner reminiscent of the great Seamus Heaney whose poetry made much of bogs, turf, green expanses meeting the horizon of blue skies, choose from the manifold spectacular landscapes Ulster has to offer, if he were to name his favourite?

“To do what I do you have to develop a love of the next place you are discovering, and a passion to understand its history and geography. So my favourite place tends to be some of the last places I discovered on my journey. Places like Colin Glen and Slievenacloy near the Belfast Hills stand out at the moment. In Colin Glen we found fossils in the stream and at Slievenacloy it feels like you could be in the middle of the Donegal wilderness and you find Moyle’s cattle and lizards, butterflies, and fields full of all kinds of wildflowers.

“Another place of great beauty I came upon recently was the Killard Peninsula in South Down. It’s a stunning beach with all these weird and strange rock formations because they were actually formed on the bottom of the sea around 450 million years ago.”

Another place close to his heart is his beloved Ardara, where he is soon to head on a family holiday - a rare hiatus from his ritual seven-day-week workload, visiting, filming, scripting, editing and presenting his new show with his company Westway Films.

“We go there every year for our annual family holiday and it’s glorious, the village, Slieve League, all that southern coastline, Rossbeg and Donegal Town. We usually end up in a pub in the evenings, but during the day if the weather is good you are definitely headed to the beach, of which there are many.

“My grandchildren couldn’t care less about my expositions on the surrounding countryside or my career as a TV presenter, they are generally looking at their phones or tablets, and they see far too much of me on the TV really. I have a son who is a chef, and another who is a mechanic, and if I started on and on about nature they would simply be bored.”

Does he see nature as a manifestation of the divine? Does he find God in nature?

“I’m uncomfortable with the use of the word God because it implies this kind of fatherly figure in the sky with a big long white beard. I am a firm believer in evolution and I think we evolve sufficiently to have empathy, once you have empathy you are on the path to being able to see the world from another person’s point of view.

“But nature as a manifestation of the divine, just as Wordsworth and the Romantics thought of it as their moral guide and muse? Well no, because nature will readily destroy and is “red in tooth and claw” as Tennyson put it. Nature can be your friend or foe depending on how you behave in its presence.”

It’s clear that Joe has a profound reverence for nature and a humble sense of its potency and power, but more than any other Ulster presenter he imbues lesser spotted shores and towns with true magic and wonder. It’s Mahon’s Way.

‘I love setting places in the context of their wider history’

One of Joe’s heroes is a man named John O’Donovan who worked for the ordinance survey across Ulster and the rest of Ireland in the 1830s, recording over 60,000 names of townlands as he went, attempting to map them out and understand their formation and heritage.

Joe explains: “I’ve always made programmes about places. We have towns and settlements that began as blacksmith’s forges with maybe a few shops and now they are modern towns and I ask a lot of philosophical questions about how places came to be. John O’Donovan kept an enormous kind of doomsday book about people and how and where they lived. They would descend on a parish and ask about the topography, geography of a place and its natural environment as part of the kind of ordinance surveys they were undertaking in the 1800s. They noted the heritage and history of a place and how people were earning their livelihoods whether through farming or working the land or whatever else. I do a modern version of this. We go to places and ask similar questions. I try to situate a place within its local and wider history. And then I try to set it in the context of how it relates to the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. I love making connections.”

How ‘white witch’ Mary Poppins actually originated in Lurgan Park

Mahon, even after 30 years roaming across Ulster to unearth wonders and novel historical facts about innumerable places we may not have hitherto considered significant, finds much to talk about in his new series about one unusual location not generally associated with literary or filmic fame - Lurgan Park. No, it’s not a joke.

“It’s background is astonishing,” he confides. “This was the demesne of the Brownlow family and the house is now owned by the Orange Order. Brownlow House and the Park, it turns out, were actually the inspiration for PL Travers’ book Mary Poppins, which was then made into a huge Hollywood film starring Julie Andrews as we all know.

“George William Russell, better known as AE, the mystic, poet and painter who was good friends with WB Yeats and was part of the Irish Literary Revival at the turn of the 20th Century spent much time there before the age of 11 living in the gate lodge and enjoying free rein of the park as a child before he later moved to Dublin. But his Lurgan background remained important to him, he still had family there and would return to the area frequently throughout his life.

“He knew the park and Brownlow House which sits in its grounds very well. It was in this park that he had some of the mystical experiences he would later come to paint and write poetry about.

“Later when he was a publisher of the Irish Statesman Magazine, among the first to publish writers like James Joyce, he received correspondence from a young Australian writer in the 1920s called Pamela L Travers - that was her pen name and, incidentally, she was also an actress.

“Russell became her mentor and close friend who published her work.

“Mary Poppins was a kind of white witch character that they both came up with. And you know the character of Bert, the chimney sweep in the film? He was also a one man band and together they jumped into the paintings on the pavement, an idea inspired by Russell. That ‘chim-chimney’ scene was actually inspired by the rooftops of Brownlow house which has 52 chimney stacks on it. 

“When he would visit Donegal and its surrounds with PL Travers they would often stop off at Lurgan and this beautiful park. Saving Mr Banks, another book and film, is really all about the relationship between AE and PL Travers. It was a platonic, mystical relationship and Travers actually held Russell’s hand when he was dying.”

Who knew that Lurgan Park and Brownlow House could have such a magical back history?

Q&A: ‘My friends and I set the world to rights and iron out the world’s problems over pints’

School days - the happiest of your life and what subjects did you excel at?

I went to St Columb’s School, but it was very strict, with a very disciplinarian atmosphere in the 1960s when I was there. I was always good at English and I was brilliant at Latin and Ancient Greek. I got detention plenty of times, but that was the soft option -  the real bad boys got a belt of the strap in those days.

Who in your life makes you laugh the most?

I think my late mother Patsy did. She was a brilliant storyteller, a real wit, a singer and a dancer and really a failed film star, because that is always what she dreamt of becoming. She was a born entertainer.

Who is your best friend?

I can’t pick out one individual, but there are a group of us older men, most of them older than me, and we head out to the pub. I used to call our group ‘The City Fathers’ because we always debate the great questions of the day and iron out the problems of the world and we would generally talk about all kinds of strange academic subjects because we’re nerdy people.

If you could have an ideal dinner party at which you could have anyone from history, who would you bring?

The first would be John O’Donovan. He was a man who worked for the ordinance survey way back in the 1830s, he traipsed around the whole of Ireland rescuing the townland names that we have on our maps today. There were 66,000 names in Ireland and he listed them all. He was a great scholar, linguist and a great storyteller. Next would be Flann’O’Brien who famously wrote as Myles Na Gopaleen. Then, Marilyn Monroe.

What would you serve them to eat and drink?

I would do a mean stir fry with chicken, prawns, beansprouts, all that kind of veg with some sort of chow mein-style sauce with plenty of chilli and bottles of chardonnay.

Your favourite book?

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller was a real source of fascination as a teenager. And Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is hard to beat.

Your favourite film?

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter starring Alan Arkin based on the book by Carson McCullers. 

Love is..Seeing the world from somebody else’s point of view.

The meaning of life is...I spent three years at UCD studying philosophy trying to figure that one out. I haven’t come up with an answer yet. But, I’d say the meaning of life is what you can make of it. I think that that question is for everyone to work out for themselves.

Are you sustained by any kind of faith in God?

Not in any traditional sense, I’m not so interested in institutional religion at all. But I think I do have faith in the goodness of people, and that keeps me optimistic.

Mahon’s Way starts on UTV on July 5 at 8pm.