INTERVIEW: Joe Mahon

As Lesser Spotted Ulster starts its 12th series on UTV, Garbhan Downey talks to its creator about outtakes, local history and walking across the Lough Swilly  

I have lived virtually all my life within eight miles of Lough Swilly, yet within five minutes Joe Mahon has told me 20 things about the Donegal inlet I’d never heard before. Did you know, for example, that during the First World War, the Swilly was a huge British naval base under the control of Admiral Jellicoe and it was, allegedly, possible to walk across from shore to shore, hopping from boat to boat? Or that there was a mile-long boom across the mouth of the lough to keep out submarines? Or that the local retreat centre has its own labyrinth?

Mahon is a mine of information and has a talent for unearthing stories, histories, spectacular scenery and hidden locales. It’s what makes his show, Lesser Spotted Ulster so popular – that, and his engaging, and colourful way of disseminating what he’s learned.

You would think after spending more than a decade travelling from rural parish to rural parish his enthusiasm might be starting to wane. But it’s quite the opposite. Just get him started on Rathlin Island – another of the spots he’ll be visiting in this current series. Indeed, he was so taken by the island, that he’s making it the central focus of two separate shows.

'There was no way I could do it justice in one programme,' says the broadcaster. 'It’s a country unto itself. I produced a radio documentary from there maybe 20 years ago [Mahon was previously head of BBC Foyle] and fell in love with the place.'

The dual programmes will explore the island’s history, geography, human inhabitants, landscape and, of course, wildlife. And while Mahon protests he is no naturalist, he rhymes off the names of the various species with the zeal of a convert.

'There’s a huge RSPB colony on Rathlin – guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmers and puffins. In the past, the islanders used to climb up, or lower themselves down, the huge cliffs to take the eggs or to catch the birds. Conservation is a recent phenomenon. Through history the birds were regarded as food, like the fish of the sea. During the Second World War, the islanders supported the war effort by supplying wild bird eggs to bakeries. Fishing and harvesting birds were always major industries on the island, as was gathering kelp.'

For millennia, Rathlin has been at the centre of a jurisdictional dispute between Scotland and Ireland. (In the 1570s, Sir Francis Drake led an expedition to the island to massacre women and children from the McDonnell clan who had taken refuge there.) But Mahon may just have hit on the solution to this age-old problem. 'I can’t give away too much; otherwise you’ll not watch the programme. Let’s just say St Patrick is at the heart of it.'

This week’s programme on the Swilly also sees the presenter wrestling with a conundrum or two. Mahon finds himself contemplating the labyrinth at Linsfort House retreat centre, and trying to reactivate a 100-year-old searchlight.

'John McCarter a local historian gave us the idea. The searchlight, which was used during the First World War, was operated using carbon rods, a huge mirror and all sorts of other machinery. We eventually got it functioning and were able to use the beam to pick out cars across the lough on Fanad Head.

'We needed a boat out on water, to see if the searchlight could pick it up as well, so the Swilly Life Boat agreed to be our enemies. They told us afterwards they were followed by a school of dolphins during the manoeuvres.'

While in Inishowen, Mahon manages to squeeze in a visit to Dunree Fort, a Napoleonic fixture which now houses both military and natural history exhibitions. And he finds some time to do a little whale-watching and seal-spotting. All packed into an hour-long programme.

'This is the third series we’ve done with the hour-long format. And it’s made an enormous difference – it gives us time to let the programme breathe. Before, we used to have to work very hard to shoehorn everything into a half-hour, and still attempt to allow the show to move at a gentle pace.

'The longer format allows us to dig deeper. And there’s still so much out there we’ve yet to see. We’re doing this programme almost 15 years, but I’d never set foot before in more than half the places I visited in this new series. We break down each programme to focus on a single parish, which means it’ll be a long time before we exhaust what’s out there.

'In saying that, it takes a long time and great care to get our programmes right. The research has to be very meticulous. Thankfully, I have a very dedicated team in Liam Campbell, Orlagh Bann and Kevin Mahon.

'And another of the great features of Lesser Spotted Ulster is that we have worked with the same camera crew over the years – Vinny Cunningham and Billy Gallagher of Northland Broadcast. They are excellent at what they do: very, very good at being unobtrusive.'

Mahon founded Westway Productions, which makes Lesser Spotted Ulster, after careers as a secondary school teacher in Creggan and then as a BBC producer. Many of the current LSU production team have also worked with him on his various drama series for BBC, RTE and TG4 and on schools programmes for Channel 4.

It is clear that Mahon loves getting out on the road. 'I’ve a real interest in local history and in people. But my expertise lies in enjoying myself. I don’t mind making a fool of myself. The outtake shows are forever ringing us up looking for clips of our various disasters and are very disappointed to hear that we always include them in the programmes.

'In this series for example, I have to take part in a staged rescue on the Strangford Lough mudflats. And in one of the scenes, you will see the fire service, the police service and various other emergency services combining to wrestle me into a rubber safety suit, which I can’t get over the top of my big head.

'We also had a lovely, serene evening jaunt in a hot-air balloon over Ballinascreen, with the cows all staring up at us. Coming down, though, wasn’t quite so dignified: I got clouted by the camera as we landed!'

Mahon’s lack of pomp is a clear asset when it comes to interviewing contributors to the programme. 'It’s never a matter of city folk coming out and patronising country people. There is an element of that in some of the newer natural history programmes, where you’ll get a particular metropolitan treatment of affairs. But my team are embedded in what is essentially a rural community: Derry. Our families would all be from the country.

'Our approach has always been respectful – the interviewees know they’re going to be taken seriously. And that way people are more prepared to be themselves. And while the scenery we film provides us with wonderful backdrops, it’s the people themselves who are the real stars, with their warmth, wit and wisdom.'

Lesser Spotted Ulster begins its ten-part run on UTV on Sunday, September 19 at 6.45pm. The new series will also include visits to Bailieborough, Mullaghbane, Ardkeen, Ballygawley, Ballinascreen, and Crom Castle.


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