As John Creedon's latest road trip hits our screens, he tells Marjorie Brennan how his inner child has led him to the life he always dreamed of.
John Creedon is roaming. Not unusual, given his grá for travel, or as he puts it in his inimitable way: “I’m just mad for road”. But this time it’s his mind that is taking a detour.
The broadcaster is perched on a stool across from me in the Imperial Hotel bar in Cork sipping a cappuccino but in his imagination, he’s back in 1922.
“Sometimes when I’m walking around Cork, I’m doing imaginary street tours in my head, I was the same when I was a kid.
"Like sitting here, I’d be thinking of how Michael Collins spent his last night in this hotel. Did he stand at the bar there, did he have his hands on his hips, was he laughing…did he walk out that door there?
"He definitely skipped down those stairs the morning before he got into his touring car outside.…”.
Creedon is a versatile and popular broadcaster, doing everything from reality TV shows like Fáilte Towers to programmes such as the All-Ireland Talent Show and even a stint on Winning Streak.
But it is in his continuing strand of RTÉ series travelling around Ireland that he has really found his true métier. He is our own Michael Palin, gaining a dedicated following for shows such as Creedon’s Retro Road Trip and Creedon’s Epic East, which are an entertaining blend of travelogue, history, geography, folklore and whatever you’re having yourself.
He is an amiable and genial guide, making it all look so easy, which of course is a talent in itself.
However, he sees himself as something of an accidental tourist, saying he has never followed a design or plan for his career.
“I’m an enthusiastic amateur,” says the 60-year-old.
“What has happened, and maybe it happens to most people as they get older, is that you drift more and more towards who you really are. Over the years, I’ve done everything and anything, because I was a gun for hire and I had a family to feed.
"If someone is passionate about something, you can pick up on that energy. If that comes across from me, it is not really by design, it is because I really mean it, because I really love every blade of grass in this country.”
His latest adventure, Creedon's Atlas of Ireland, sees him delving into Ireland's most unusual, iconic and famous place names. Again, it’s a subject inspired by his extra-curricular interests.
“There is an old Buddhist maxim that if you take positive steps in your own life, that the creation will come to meet you halfway.
"I have seen that happen in my own life on a few occasions. I don’t know whether it is positive thinking, the law of attraction or what. I had decent Irish, honours leaving cert Irish and my father was a good Irish speaker but I wouldn’t be an Irish scholar or anything like it. When I discovered the joys of girls, drink and all that, it fell by the wayside.
"But I did a regional studies diploma in UCC, and that really sparked my interest in the Gaeilge, the logainmeacha and all of that and I ended up doing a course in conversational Irish.
"Then I was asked last October ‘what would you like to do?’ That is the golden ticket in my trade. I said I would love to do something on place names, as it’s something that fascinates me.”
In the programme, Creedon follows in the footsteps of John O’Donovan, an Irish topographer who in the 1830s was dispatched by the British to document place names for the Ordnance Survey, which made Ireland one of the most thoroughly mapped locations in the world.
As his guide, Creedon uses O’Donovan’s original notes.
“It was really thorough. When you think of the national archive and how so much was burned out in the shelling of the Four Courts, to think that this entire block of information survived… there are other countries in the world far more sophisticated than us that don’t have it,” he says.
He found O’Donovan a fascinating character, whose meticulously logged notes provide a valuable insight into the regions he visited, and their people.
“He didn’t make any bones about observing the nature of the people. He had a tough time in the Midlands and he let it be known — the lodgings were tough, the innkeepers were crooked.
"He was relieved to arrive in Roscommon, that is the way he put it. He said the people there were quite upstanding which was a pleasant change, or something like that. Those little notes in the margins are the valuable things.
There is an abundance of fascinating nuggets throughout the three episodes of Creedon’s Atlas.
“There’s a place called Field of the Biscuits. I came across a place in Donegal called Blanket Nook. Another place I came across in the OSI was Passifyoucan, near Mullingar. Obviously, it was a wide stretch on the road where one stagecoach could pass another,” he says.
It’s all meat and drink to Creedon, who says the fact that he has never lost his childlike curiosity has proved to be a big asset.
“I wouldn’t have been hugely academic. I started school very young and I was a year or two younger than everyone else in the class. I wouldn’t have seen myself as being brainy or anything like it.
"There are some areas I am totally useless at.… but I am curious, and curious about the human condition.
"While I’m not a great reader of big books, I do mop stuff up. Particularly on a series like this, it’s making those connections that I love, it’s a kid’s mind really.”
And while he has been living the dream, traversing the highways and byways of Ireland, and beyond, for many years, his anchor has been his popular Cork-based evening show on RTÉ Radio One.
“The radio programme is the one great constant in my life and I love it, it is like being in my man shed,” he laughs.
Creedon’s pride in his home city, and his family roots in west Cork, are no secret. But he says it only enhances his affection for the rest of the country.
“I’m a Corkman and an Irishman, I’m male and I’m feminist. One hat fits all. I fully subscribe to the Ulsterman who feels like an Ulsterman, an Irishman and a Brit, that’s all fine by me. If you have a real love of your own place, it’s easy to appreciate why somebody else loves their place.
"It is because I love Cork so deeply that I can fully understand when somebody else loves their home place. When I go out there and meet people, whatever they do, I find they are not hugely different to the people I remember from my childhood.
"They are ‘daycent’ people. I know we have our problems, but they are all the same since Ancient Rome and before — greed, ambition, all the things that plague us as humans haven’t changed at all. I still love meeting people and I am rarely disappointed.”
Creedon says he is so busy, he rarely has time to stop and reflect on the position he finds himself in but he knows it is a privileged one.
“You can absorb too much cynicism from the media, and social media. I do feel very lucky that I do this for a living.
"If someone had said to me when I was that kid doing those mini-tours around the South Mall or wherever in my head that ‘when you grow up, you are going to have a job on Raidió Éireann, and you will do it from Cork and you will also be on television talking about your mam and dad, Miah Dennehy, Jimmy Barry Murphy and all your heroes, that you will get to meet them’…. my inner child is doing somersaults as I tell him that, that it actually happened.”
We’ve been chatting for almost an hour now and I feel I should remind him that he probably needs to head back across the road to the RTÉ studios in Fr Mathew Street to prepare for his radio show.
“Yes, I have to scarper,” he says.
Ten minutes later and we are still chatting. He tells me about how he finds it difficult to switch off, that his brain is always bubbling away.
“I could be out for a walk and I find for the first 20 minutes, I can’t settle, I’d be thinking, I should give Martha a ring in Oz or text Katie back about Saturday week. I’d be naming the trees or the birds in my head.
"I just keep walking and eventually, it subsides….Thomas Aquinas called the mind the great troublemaker. I keep saying I should do some meditation or something but I can’t get around to it.”
Go on, you need to leg it, I tell him.
“Yes, yes,” he laughs. “Tomorrow, I’ll meditate.”
And off he goes, through the door of the Imperial. And I wonder, is that the same one that Michael Collins went through.