COMEDIAN and actor Ardal O’Hanlon explores Irish life as he goes off the beaten track around Ireland in a new series airing on More 4 tomorrow night.
Using a series of Victorian guidebooks written by Mr & Mrs S C Hall to tempt the English over to Ireland, Ardal meets the people who make the country the great nation it is.
He roams from small towns to idiosyncratic attractions, detours from pulpit to pub, and rejoices in the unique festivities and characters you can only find in Ireland.
Ireland with Ardal O’Hanlon unearths and reveals an Ireland you could only know by having grown up there.
The series opens with an exploration of faith and superstition as Ardal delves into fairies, leprechauns, ghost hunting and the Catholic Church.
In the episodes that follow he joins a group of Irish Travellers; looks at the sport of hurling; and visits some of the locations used in Game of Thrones as he investigates how the Irish became such great storytellers.
Making the programmes seems to have been both a literal and a figurative journey for Ardal, in that he confesses it has helped him to rediscover his homeland.
Ireland with Ardal O’Hanlon starts Wednesday, December 14 at 9pm on More4.
Your new series is called Ireland with Ardal O’Hanlon - What can you tell us about it?
“Well, it’s a travelogue about Ireland, I suppose, and Irish people. I suppose it’s what makes us slightly different to British people. We kind of root out unusual places, and unusual people to talk to, and hopefully people will get a little sense of what makes Irish people tick at the end of it all.”
You’re using a Victorian era guidebook as you travel around. Why is that?
“That’s a sort of jumping off point, really. I suppose British people generally, probably have very stereotypical notions about the Irish that go back to Victorian times.
“I think the Halls [who wrote the guidebook] had the very best of intentions. Having grown up in Ireland, they loved Ireland, and they wanted to promote Ireland as a tourist destination. But the book is quite patronising.
“I suppose we were using it as a bit of fun. It’s a light-hearted romp through Ireland, so we’re just using it to see if there was any merit in their observations.”
Michael Portillo has done something similar with a Victorian guidebook on his show – do you see yourself very much as the Irish Portillo?
“[Laughs] I’ve never been accused of anything like that in my life! I’m not overly familiar with the Portillo programmes, but I believe they’re very good.”
Each programme is on a specific theme to do with the Irish identity. In a world of global media and travel, do you think there’s still a very strong Irish identity? How would you define it?
“I think there is a very strong sense of Irish identity, and I think partly that’s to do with the fact that we have evolved differently from Britain and other countries in Europe.
"And I’d say it’s also to do with the fact that at the time of the Independence movement in the late 19th century/early 20th century, we very definitely tried to forge a very distinctive identity.
"Which has succeeded to a huge extent. I think the Irish have a very strong sense of shared identity. “
Ireland has changed a lot in recent decades, and again in recent years, hasn’t it?
“Yeah, I think it has. I think we’ve been very forward thinking since the 50s. We were very keen to jump on the EU bandwagon, we modernised quite rapidly. We pride ourselves on our education system. Socially, we had the same sex referendum last year that surprised a huge amount of people in Britain, that Irish people were so progressive on that kind of issue.
“We’re very rational, very forward-thinking people, but at the same time, there’s still this one foot that we leave in that other camp, the traditional camp. The church is still quite strong here, there’s still a respect for unexplained or the irrational. And there’s always been a healthy anti-materialism in this country.
“There’s a great respect for literature and music and the arts – we have tax breaks for writers in this country. We like to keep a foot in both camps.”
There certainly is one foot in the traditional camp in Ireland. Instead of using Tinder, you have a white-bearded matchmaker getting lonely singletons together…
“I was very sceptical about a lot of the items we were covering for the programme, including the matchmaker, but I loved meeting him, he was so charming and so funny, and such a chancer! At the end of it all, I did feel that there was a place for people like him.”
You act, you present, you’ve written books, and you do stand-up. Which of those most defines you?
“I would say, over the last couple of decades, I’ve been a stand-up comedian first and foremost. It’s what consumes me. It’s a lifelong project you can’t really escape from. Even though I’m lucky enough to make a series like this, or to go and do a drama, I always end up coming back to stand-up.”
Why has Ireland produced so many good comedians over the years?
“I dunno, that’s a very hard question to answer. I think it goes back to that thing that we’re not as materialistic as other societies.
"People are very interested in conversations, in chewing the fat, having the craic, all of these things. It’s a huge part of daily life, even in business or politics or finance.
"There’s a natural curiosity about people and things and why we’re here. That’s a big part of everyday life.”
Your journey encompassed the Republic and Northern Ireland. Is there a different character in the North?
“Well, first of all, I should stress, we’re not that different to the British. And within Northern Ireland, they’re not that different from each other.
"People have more in common than divides them; I think that goes without saying. But you know when you’ve crossed the border. I think the fact that the Unionist culture is so strong in Northern Ireland does lend a slightly different culture.
"I spoke to a bookie in Belfast who said that his business did so much better in Catholic areas than in Protestant areas. And he put it down to a Presbyterian, thrifty, god-fearing culture that frowned upon gambling.
"Catholics didn’t have that problem – Priests would often be the first people in line at the bookies. Whether there’s any merit in that, I don’t know.”
Will you be looking into the Game of Thrones phenomenon in Northern Ireland?
“We did touch on that slightly. It’s so interesting how Belfast has evolved from a heavy industry, ship-building city, to providing services for the TV and film industry. We met a lot of extras from Game of Thrones, and the extras in Northern Ireland formed a type of union.
"They’ve set up a headquarters, where they go and they learn sword-fighting and martial arts and lots of other skills.
"So when companies come to Northern Ireland they’re absolutely blown away by the fact that these people can already sword fight. I don’t know what that tells you, maybe about Irish people being self-reliant, able to improvise, and being forward thinking.”
Did you enjoy getting to rediscover your homeland a bit more making the series?
“Yeah, I really, really did. I absolutely loved it. I thought I knew Ireland better than I did. But I live in a little bubble in my home in Dublin, with my family and my friends and my routines.
"It was great getting out and about, and to really engage with people. Irish people are great fun and very chatty, and there’s a great sense of pride in place, and a sense of community. I think all of that is to be celebrated. It was brilliant.”
What was your favourite place or experience?
“That’s tough, because I loved every day on the road. I was probably most out of my comfort zone with a family of Travellers, in their little community down in Co. Clare.
"I don’t really know a lot about the Travelling community. So spending some extended quality time with a Travelling family was a real eye-opener for me.
"It was interesting to hear, from their own mouths, their concerns, their history, their culture. It was a fascinating experience.”