John Creedon hits the road with tales from Arlene Foster, and women of Beara 

The new run of Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland takes the presenter from Fermanagh to his own ancestral roots in West Cork, writes Richard Fitzpatrick 
John Creedon hits the road with tales from Arlene Foster, and women of Beara 

John Creedon returns with a new series of Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland on RTÉ One. 

John Creedon is back on the road for the third series of his popular travel show Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland. The concept for the programme, which will run for eight weeks, is simple and engaging, as he unravels the stories and hidden meanings behind Ireland’s placenames. It springs from Creedon’s infectious curiosity.

“Like a lot of products of a stern education, I assumed I was stupid most of my life,” says Creedon, “but I realise the older I get, the more curious I get about things, and the more connections I'm making in my head: ‘Ah, that's why they have bullfights in Spain. I get it now.’ ‘OK, that’s a Viking name.’ When you listen out for a Viking name it stands out like the sound of a twig snapping.

“Sometimes when you stop and examine a word, they’re like stickers — you pull them back and in behind them is a story. Even Cork beginning as ‘Corcach Mór na Mumhan’ — the great marsh of Munster, because the River Lee flowed gently into the wetlands of modern-day Cork city and harbour. The River Lee, not unlike the Mississippi, was flowing into a delta.

“Eventually, St Finbar got permission from local chieftains to build his school. When you build a school, you need dormitories. When you’ve dormitories, you need a bakery and a brewery. You need a church and a blacksmith. Because you’ve got gold there, it’s worth raiding for the Vikings. But they don’t only raid, they settle. So your population grows. It’s how Cork came out of the great marsh of Munster.”

One of the features that make Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland so appealing is the unexpected stories he uncovers. In the upcoming series, for example, he draws out some fascinating Donegal history and folklore from Moya Brennan and an explanation for where the haunting music of Clannad originated. He also visits the former First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster in her home village in Co Fermanagh.

“I asked her what the placename meant of the tiny village, Aghadrumsee, where she grew up,” says Creedon. “She didn’t know. I said, ‘Would you like to know?’ She shrugged. I said, ‘In that case, can I tell ya?’ She said, ‘Sure.’ 

“I explained the Irish name is not Adrumsee, which is an anglicised version that she used for it. I said, ‘It is Aghadrumsee. Three Gaelic words meaning ‘achadh’, an old term for field; ‘dhruim’, which is a hillock; and ‘see’, which comes from Saileach, meaning a sally tree. So really what Aghadrumsee means in its original form would be ‘the land with the hillock covered in sally’. She lit up. She said, ‘My father’s farm was always full of sally rods.’"

John Creedon with DUP politician Arlene Foster on Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland.
John Creedon with DUP politician Arlene Foster on Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland.

Creedon says Foster was a good guest. “A lot of people shoot to one end of the spectrum in their views and I can understand that. It’s interesting to consider how life is for other people and why their view is the way it is. Most northern Protestants would have been from planter stock. Their job was ‘to have and to hold’. ‘For King and country.’ If we wonder why there's a defensive mentality at times it has something to do with that I expect.”

One of Creedon’s more light-hearted encounters in the new series occurs when he catches up with the comedian Pat Shortt. The pair go back a long way — since the start of their careers in entertainment and media — so there’s a comfortable air of ribbing in their exchanges. They meet in Glengoole, 12 miles from Thurles, Co Tipperary, which provided inspiration for D’Unbelievables, Shortt’s comic two-hander with Jon Kenny.

Several elements from D’Unbelievables were based on real-life people and places, including the quintessential Tipperary saying “Das right”, Buddy Brennan, who did his drinking in Ó Braonáin’s pub in Glengoole, and Roundy Mooney.

“Roundy Mooney was a guy who used to fall asleep in the middle of the square in Thurles,” says Shortt in the series. “Outside the Horse & Jockey, you’d see the car parked with the door half open and him half out. It was like as if he was getting out of the car and he fell asleep.”

Creedon is in a sweet spot in his career. His weekday night radio show on RTÉ is a fixture for tens of thousands of listeners. His second book is due for publication in the autumn, following the success of his first book, That Place We Call Home.

In March, he was elected Cork Person of the Year. There’s a nice closure to the opening episode of the new season in which he visits the Beara Peninsula, the land of his mother’s people. It’s also the place where An Cailleach Béara, the Hag of Beara, an ancient Irish goddess, resides.

“We decided we'd go back to my ancestral homeland, Beara, where my mother and her nine sisters grew up,” says Creedon. “The women we met in the episode were not necessarily born in Beara but were drawn there. These are independent, older women. They remind me of the chatter in the kitchen from my own upbringing. Formidable women who know how to kill a hen. They're connected in a very deep primordial way to rock, sand, sea, plants and critters. I understand why people live there amidst its rugged beauty. They can find peace there.”

John Creedon with Pat Shortt.
John Creedon with Pat Shortt.

 Life of a Bard 

Ireland’s bardic tradition is known the world over. Ireland — along with Wales — has the earliest vernacular literature in Europe. In Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland, the presenter visits Brúree, Co Limerick, which was a hotbed of bardic activity during the Middle Ages. Brúree — or Brú Rí, abode of the kings — is littered with medieval royal sites. Each king had a bard by his side. The bards were learned men. To qualify as a bard, one had to learn 350 stories — basically medieval tales of Ireland — off by heart. As well as keeping him entertained, the bard had the king’s ear. He advised him on matters of state, politics and war.

Being a bard was nice work if you could get it. The job came with notable privileges, including the right to sit at the king’s side at feasts and the right to “share his pillow”. As John Creedon quips: “We’ll go upstairs for a hug and we’ll talk about it.” 

The bard was also rewarded monetarily for his counsel and his verse. If the king was miserly in his payment, a nasty satire could ensue, often so foul it “could raise blisters on the face of the king” or, apparently, if the words were cruel enough they could knock him dead.

  •  The first episode of Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland will broadcast 6.30pm, Sunday, 21 August on RTÉ One.

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