John Creedon is back on our screens on Sunday, and this time he’s getting to grips with the East. Series producer Marie Toft reveals the highlights of their summer road-trip.
"IT’S a bit like the reverse of the Wedding at Cana. I’m worried we’ve given them the best wine first,” said John Creedon to me at the wrap party for Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way last year.
The series had surpassed all our expectations.
Now we had a new challenge – Ireland’s Ancient East – and I must admit, John’s comment came back to me as we began our research last February.
But I needn’t have worried. We have found some extraordinary stories, people and places and this journey is epic.
“It’s been a wonderful trip,” says John, “and it surprised me so much. There are some real hidden treasures here and the welcome is just as warm as any we received on the west coast.”
Ireland’s Ancient East is Failte Ireland’s new tourist route. It takes in 17 counties including the East coast (but not Dublin), the border counties, the Midlands, the Limerick Tipperary border and right down to Cork.
There are big hitting tourist counties such as Wexford, Waterford and Wicklow on the route. But the border counties and parts of the Midlands have not traditionally been in tourists’ sights.
“After the success of the Wild Atlantic Way concept, we knew big concepts grab tourists’ imagination,” explains the Head of Ireland’s Ancient East Jenny de Saulles.
“We believe the Wild Atlantic Way will increase overseas visitors by an extra 20% by 2020.
“A lot of the Ancient East counties are seen as a transit zone, “ she continues.
“So tourists have been stopping at Kilkenny Castle and the Rock of Cashel, but most of them weren’t staying the night in the area. Ireland’s Ancient East is a way of encouraging visitors to stay longer and explore.”
And even though the new concept has just been launched, Jenny says Failte Ireland is already seeing results.
“Businesses in Kilkenny, Cork, Wicklow, Waterford and Westmeath are seeing significant growth in their international business for 2017 because of Ireland’s Ancient East, “ says Jenny.
Our task in RTE was to make a fun, family friendly series which, using John’s great insights, tells us something about ourselves.
The good news is John is back in his Sean Bhean Bhocht – the gorgeous 1967 VW camper van that became a personality in its own right on Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way.
And he is on a proper road trip, meandering through all the counties the way any tourist would.
The next big decision we took was not to make a conventional history series. So Ireland’s Ancient East became Creedon’s Epic East.
The series features epic legends such as The Táin march and Cuchlainn but we also go right up to the present day.
So John goes on a sing-a-long road trip with singer Declan Nernery to find out just why Longford loves Country & Western music so much.
He also joins forces with satirist Oliver Callan in Monaghan to revisit an old RTÉ documentary on Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh.
It turns out Oliver is a serious Kavanagh fan, even owning a signed first edition of his poetry. The trip they take is funny and poignant in turn.
Where the series does feature history – and there’s no escaping it on Ireland’s Ancient East – we endeavour to make it come alive.
So we discover a star of a Celtic Charioteer who recreates Cuchlainn’s ride across a Midlands Bog road.
John puts an ancient myth to the test when he reconstructs Saint Patrick’s infamous snub to the High King of Tara after he lit his Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane in contradiction of the King’s order. But was it actually seen from Tara?
For what’s suspected to be the first time ever, John and a wonderful Slane team light that fire and discover if Patrick actually succeeded in snubbing the Ancient Order.
In Kildare, John is on hand to recreate Ireland’s first boxing superstar Dan Donnelly’s famous 1815 bout with British Champion George Cooper in Donnelly’s Hollow on the Curragh. And he also goes on the hunt for Donnelly’s infamous mummified arm.
In Wicklow he explores our Viking ancestry (complete with Viking transformation) and there’s an exclusive guided tour of the Vikings TV set in Ashford studios.
On Wexford’s Vinegar Hill, he journeys back to the 1798 rebellion and the terrible massacre there.
John gets up close and personal with gunpowder as we compare Irish pikes with English muskets and he witnesses first-hand the damage muskets would have inflicted on the Irish revolutionaries.
After Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way, I was struck by the amount of people who had experienced an emotional reaction to the series and we were determined to try and repeat that.
Therefore we decided to make this more than just a road trip.
The East echoes to the voices of our ancestors – Ancient High Kings at the Hill of Tara, Vikings on our East Coast and Norman castles dotted around the landscape.
So John is on a mission – to discover what makes us truly Irish.
True to form, he steps up to the plate and genealogists start investigating his ancestry and family tree to find out where his roots lie.
Not only that, he also gets his DNA tested and all these results are revealed at the end of the four-part series.
John wants to discover is there such a thing as an Irish gene, or something that makes us who we are. The results inform his whole road trip.
Every story John discovers along the way reveals something about who we are as a nation. So in tomorrow night’s episode which features Meath, Louth and Monaghan, it’s revealed our love of beer and brewing go back thousands of years.
In fact, it’s claimed that during the Bronze Age, Ireland operated the largest micro-brewing industry on the planet.
John explores Cavan, Longford, Offaly and Westmeath in episode two and discovers that our whole county system was actually handed down by the Normans and the English.
At the sacred Hill of Uisneach, John becomes King of Munster for the ancient festival of Bealtaine. He joins Bressie – who is King of the ancient fifth province of Mide – in an extraordinary fire festival as they both walk in the footsteps of our ancestors.
Episode three features Carlow, Laois, Wicklow and Kildare. John spends a night in Kildare’s exclusive Ballyfin, an old Anglo-Irish mansion, and ponders our relationship with the Big House and its inhabitants.
Finally, episode four includes Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford and Tipperary, where John discovers the remarkable Annacarthy barracks.
Originally constructed as an RIC barracks in the 19th century, he witnesses the small local community and its school children commemorate the 1916 Rising at what used to be an edifice to British rule.
Finally, he journeys back to his home county of Cork where his family tree and DNA results are all revealed to discover how Irish he truly is.
“It’s been very appropriate that we got an opportunity to explore what being Irish really means in 2016, the year of the 1916 centenary,” maintains John.
“Stories that stand out for me include Cavan Museum where the juxtaposition of the replica GPO and the World War I trench really inform us of that fractured past that we all share.
“Other highlights include following in the footsteps of Saint Patrick who lit the Slane fire and celebrating the Bealtaine festival with Bressie on the remarkable Hill of Uisneach in Co. Westmeath. For me, the Hill of Uisneach illustrates the Ancient East’s landscape,” he continues.
“You can see 22 counties from that hill and that’s the one of the lovely delights of this route. Driving around, you can actually see for miles and miles. I’ve enjoyed every minute and I really hope the viewers do too.”
RTÉ One’s 4 part series Creedon’s Epic East starts on Sunday July 24 at 6.30pm
Creedon’s Epic East highlights
Just up the road from the iconic Newgrange, lies the smaller megalithic tomb of Loughcrew. This is actually 800 years older than Newgrange and was built to honour the Spring Equinox which happens towards the end of March.
It’s a great way to avoid the mass tourism of Newgrange and reach out and touch our ancient ancestors.
Follow in the footsteps of Queen Maeve and one of our greatest legends, An Táin Bó Cualinge — The Cattle Raid of Cooley. According to legend, Queen Maeve of Connaught led her army to the Cooley Mountains in Ulster to take the prized Brown Bull of Cooley from local Chieftan Daire.
Take the Táin Trail across Louth’s magnificent Cooley peninsula . And every June you can actually watch Maeve and her army on the march while legendary hero Cúchulainn of Ulster waits for her in the sunny Louth seaside town of Omeath.
Cavan Museum boasts the largest replica World War I trench in Britain and Ireland. It’s a sobering experience to walk around and imagine the hell soldiers endured during the war. But last April, it opened an extraordinary replica GPO.
For curator Savina Donohue and museum historian Michael Finnegan, these two remarkable exhibits are a way of exploring the fractured identity Ireland endured for years.
Back in 1984 a remarkable Iron Age road was discovered in the Corlea bog in Co Longford. Built of solid oak, it was subsequently revealed to be the biggest Iron Age road ever discovered in Europe.
Despite our ancestors’ best efforts, the road sank into the bog just a few years after it was built and lay there untouched for over two thousand years. Today it’s been restored to its former glory in a great visitor centre run by the OPW.
Epic, cruel and tragic, Wicklow Gaol’s history is interwoven with the history of Ireland itself. Today it’s been reinvented as a great tourist day out where visitors can explore the cruel daily life endured by prisoners and witness the Gaol come to life by meeting some of its most famous characters. It’s also possible to trace your roots at the Gaol’s Genealogy Centre.
Discover an abandoned medieval town in Co Kilkenny which is now open to the public for the first time in 300 years. But this town houses an incredible secret — the grave of Saint Nicholas aka Santa Claus.
Local historians believe the remains of Saint Nicholas, the 4th century philanthropist and Greek Bishop of Myra were moved from modern day Turkey to Jerpoint 800 years ago!
Family fun on Ireland’s Ancient East
Transport yourself back in time to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The Battle of the Boyne Visitor Centre is located in the recently restored 18th century Oldbridge House, which is on the battle site.
You can learn all about the Baroque horses and the training of a Cavalry trooper. Their Living History programme means you can witness the skills of a trained Musketeer and hear about the regiments who fought on the famous site.
Leinster’s largest hedge maze is located just outside Prosperous in the North Kildare countryside. The maze was established in the late 1900s and opened to the public in 2000. Since then a major redevelopment programme has been undertaken.
This ghost tour takes you through Kilkenny, the medieval capital of Ireland. Visitors experience the curse of Sir Richard Shee along with the first ever witch trial of the notorious Dame Alice Ketyler. The hour-long tour is guided by one of several characters including The Witch, Dr Death and The Banshee.
Blackrock Castle Observatory, the Space for Science, is the place to learn about the universe. This centre of science is home to Cosmos At The Castle, an award winning interactive astronomy exhibition which highlights recent scientific discoveries and their implications for life in outer space.
Lough Boora Discovery Park which is open all year round is a haven of nature and biodiversity. It offers great outdoor activities such as cycling, angling, walking tours and bird watching.
Experience the beauty of the Suir Valley from a period carriage and take in the wonderful panoramic views of the River Suir. This family friendly railway runs along the banks of the River Suir and offers views of the world famous Mount Congreve Gardens.
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