John Creedon heads down the Shannon in his latest summer travel show for RTE. The leisurely cruise allowed him to reminisce on his long career on radio and TV. He talks to Ailin Quinlan about three decades at RTE.
It’s hard to imagine that John Creedon was once so stony-broke he had to hitch to an audition for a job in RTÉ.
But he did. That was 30 years ago, way back in the summer of 1987, when Ireland was in the death-grip of the eighties recession; unemployment was at a peak and like many at the time, Creedon, now a multi-award-winning broadcaster, was in dire need of a break.
The Cork city native answered the call to an RTÉ national talent search for a presenter; the advertisement, he recalls now, had a picture of Gay Byrne on it.
Applicants had to undergo a series of interviews and auditions, not to mention a gruelling six-week training-and- assessment programme.
Creedon eventually landed the RTÉ Radio One job from an initial pool of thousands of applicants and within two years had been presented with a prestigious Jacobs Award for Risin’ Time, Radio 1’s Breakfast Show - the first of many accolades he was to receive throughout his career.
Summer 2017, then, not only marks the launch of the latest in his series of Ireland travelogues, Creedon’s Shannon, which begins next month — it also marks his 30th year in broadcasting.
Those three decades, his smile tells you, have essentially constituted a massively enjoyable rollercoaster ride:
“In that time I’ve rocked around the clock for RTÉ Radio One, filling various slots from early morning through to late at night.
“I’ve done everything from filling in for Gay Byrne, to presenting concerts and doing a lot of documentaries,” he recalls.
Those years included a very successful spell on 2fm where he worked with the late Gerry Ryan under his hilarious alter ego, Terence, the Cork Hairdresser To the Stars, a role which earned him two hit singles and won him Entertainer of the Year award.
These days Creedon produces and presents the popular The John Creedon Show, RTÉ Radio 1 every weekday between 8.30pm and 9.50pm weekdays.
The show consistently gains listenership - “up another 9,000 in the latest JNLRs” he observes, adding that he believes its success lies in the programme’s simplicity:
“For me the show is like being in my den with my mates.
“I’m shopkeeper’s son; I come from a place where the door is open and anyone can walk in, so to me, presenting radio is a bit like the old days behind the counter of the shop in Coburg street.
“I’ve been very lucky,” he says of his 30-year career, as the conversation turns to the latest project, Creedon’s Shannon, his exploration of this mighty 360 kilometre river which flows through 12 counties.
“The voyage, he recalls, took the guts of three months to complete.
Just as in his other travelogues over the years - Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way or Creedon’s Epic East are some examples - there are some great anecdotes from this trip.
Creedon sailed everything from a traditional Limerick gandelow to a retired Guinness barge - which by the way, he crashed into a river-bank; no major injuries reported - ventured underground into limestone souterrains to discover the real source of the Shannon and met a 91-year-old retired boat-builder who rowed his mother to mass every Sunday for decades and is currently teaching Olympic medallist Annalise Murphy’s mum to build a boat.
“He has a turf fire and a dog, and he made his living on a small farm with a few cows, and from fishing for eels which he sold to a dealer for the French market.” The Corkman ended up being brought to a secret island on Lough Derg and shown how to make poteen (under special licence) by moonshiners, one of whom was a blacksmith who had even made his own still.
Presenting programme like Live @3 Three and Winning Streak were for decades part and parcel of his working life and he did them gladly, but, he says, this stuff is his soul-food:
“As a young father and provider every time the phone rang I said yes, and in the early years I took on work for the sake of making a living.
“Now however the stuff that seems to come to me is a really good fit.
“It’s where I am at because I’m interested in folklore, wildlife and the human condition.
“Essentially, I’m fascinated by people and by everything from psychology to spirituality, so for me when I am in a turf smoke-filled kitchen with a 91-year-old, I feel I am at the knee of the master.
“These travelogues that I have been doing every summer for the past seven years or so are a perfect fit for me — they are my soul food. They reinforce my sense of place.
“I love being Irish; I love the open road and the people. There are times of course that I get tired but these travelogues are a complete labour of love.
“I know the country from travelling all around it over the years, but when you go by boat you see things in an entirely different way.”
The biggest thing he takes away from roving the Shannon, he recalls, is the people he met. “If you watched only the news all the time you wouldn’t trust anyone, whereas I have found that the generosity of people is incredible and in many places we visited the welcome was fantastic.
“If you were having a bit of trouble with your fishing tackle there was always someone on the river bank who would stroll up and sort you out and I found there was always someone on the jetty or the quay wall willing to hold a rope for you. There’s a real meitheal na habhainn!”
At one point Creedon crashed the barge into what was fortunately a soft bank while navigating a tight corner in the canal somewhere near Lecarrow in Roscommon:
“There were some really beautiful spots along that river that you’d never hear about. We all head for the sea but there are these incredible places like Lecarrow in Roscommon and Terryglass on Lough Derg - I came away from Terryglass like a young fella leaving his girlfriend!
“I’m used to the roads but for me, when we were coming down the Shannon it seemed that every time we went around a bend there was a big surprise - a ruined castle or some old church; sometimes it was like a mangrove swamp because you had forestry growing out into the water, and the river was full of wildfowl - egrets, coots, swans.
“When we go on a day out and we see a pair of swans it is a lovely thing, but every few 100 yards on the Shannon, there’s a pair of swans nesting, so you see hundreds of them.
“You’re sailing through the wilderness, not driving to it and getting out to look at. I’m very surprised at how quiet the river is in terms of traffic. Commercial traffic is a thing of the past and it seems to me that apart from a number of towns like Carrick-on-Suir or Athlone, where there was lots of recreational craft, the river was very quiet.
“Everything was very mellow. It’s a different universe.” They started out, he recalls, at the official source of the river Shannon, which is allegedly the Shannon Pot near Dumshambo in Co Leitrim, not far from the border with Northern Ireland - there is a school of thought which holds the Shannon actually rises north of the border.
“We went north into Co Fermanagh to see if we could find a trace of it on the Northern Ireland side of the border.” Alas, Creedon refuses to reveal exactly what they discovered, but says they conducted “a fairly dramatic investigation into where the Shannon really rises.”
After the best part of three months on and off the water, he says, he and his crew ended up in North Kerry, “where the majestic Shannon sweeps out to sea between North Kerry and South Clare.”
“One of the many things that stuck with me from the trip is the number of wonderful inland islands we have, some of them with mighty ruined castles and monastic settlements.”
He loves to think that, down the road he might one day take his travelogues off the shelf.
“When I’m elderly man I’d love to think that I might take these travelogues off the shelf and look at them again.
“I loved them all and I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and see again the material we’ve documented.
“I spent a fabulous day seven or eight years ago with a man on a Co Roscommon bog - he has since passed on.
“He left school at sixth class and went on to become a TD for Clann na nGael in one of the first Dáils. He lived on his own with a dog and a shotgun. One day we were having a particularly long day on the Wild Atlantic Way series. We are all tired, but I said to the crew that as tough as it gets, we’re documenting a snapshot of our times and a century from now an RTÉ announcer will say: ‘And now, to celebrate the centenary of the opening of the Wild Atlantic Way, we bring you a programme made in 2015 - but unfortunately this programme is only available in high definition!’”
Creedon’s Shannon - starts Sunday, July 23 and runs for three weeks.
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