Interview: Ardal O'Hanlon

Note: Interview supplied by Channel 4. But it is still worth a read!

Using a series of Victorian guidebooks written by Mr & Mrs S C Hall to tempt the English over to Ireland, Ardal meets the people who make the country the great nation it is. He roams from small towns to idiosyncratic attractions, detours from pulpit to pub and rejoices in the unique festivities and characters you can only find in Ireland.

Ireland with Ardal O’Hanlon starts Wednesday 14th December at 9pm on More4.

Your new series is called Ireland with Ardal O’Hanlon, is a three part series for More4. What can you tell us about it?

Well, it’s a travelogue about Ireland, I suppose, and Irish people. I suppose it’s what makes us slightly different to British people. We kind of root out unusual places, and unusual people to talk to, and hopefully people will get a little sense of what makes Irish people tick at the end of it all.

You’re using a Victorian era guidebook as you travel round. Why is that?
That’s a sort of jumping off point, really. I suppose British people generally, probably have very stereotypical notions about the Irish that go back to Victorian times. It’s guidebooks like the one that we use that promoted those sorts of images of Ireland to the British public for the first time. That the Irish were a feckless, kind of backward race, very prone to drink, and very charming and funny with great stories and great mythology. I think the Halls [who wrote the guidebook] had the very best of intentions. Having grown up in Ireland, they loved Ireland, and they wanted to promote Ireland as a tourist destination. But the book is quite patronising, and does support those stereotypical notions of Ireland. I suppose we were using it as a bit of fun. This is a fun show, it’s a light-hearted romp through Ireland, so we’re just using it to see if there was any merit in their observations, and to see if any of the things they observed still linger today.

Michael Portillo has done something similar with a Victorian guidebook on his show – do you see yourself very much as the Irish Portillo?
[Laughs] I’ve never been accused of anything like that in my life! I’m not overly familiar with the Portillo programmes, but I believe they’re very good. I think the book is more of a jumping off point for us, we don’t rely on it that much, it’s just fun to resort to from time to time, because it is so pompous in its way, and so patronising.

Each programme is on a specific theme to do with the Irish identity. In a world of global media and travel, do you think there’s still a very strong Irish identity? How would you define it?
I think there is a very strong sense of Irish identity, and I think partly that’s to do with the fact that we have evolved differently from Britain and other countries in Europe. And I’d say it’s also to do with the fact that at the time of the Independence movement in the late 19th century/early 20th century, we very definitely tried to forge a very distinctive identity. Which has succeeded to a huge extent. I think the Irish have a very strong sense of shared identity. When the Irish state was founded, there was a specific move to revive the Irish language, which has taken root to some extent. And when football and rugby were becoming big organised sports in Victorian Britain, the Irish consciously decided to revive old Gaelic sports, Gaelic football and hurling. Also things like Irish dancing and Irish music were promoted. There was even an attempt to make an Irish costume, which thankfully didn’t take off. We don’t really go into too much detail on this – we talk more about how overnight the postboxes were all painted green. They were red one morning, and then the next morning they were all green. This was a very effective and visible way of showing we were different. But I think the character has always been different. Again, we don’t labour these points, but we’re a Celtic country. We didn’t have Roman occupation – that’s hugely different to what happened in Britain. We didn’t have the reformation, and we didn’t have anything approximating a significant industrial revolution. So we remained a Celtic, Catholic, agrarian society right up until the middle of the 20th century. So the old ways and customs have definitely lingered to a greater extent than they did in other European countries.

Ireland has changed a lot in recent decades, and again in recent years, hasn’t it?
Yeah, I think it has. I think we’ve been very forward thinking since the 50s. We were very keen to jump on the EU bandwagon, we modernised quite rapidly, in terms of economics and industry. I think Irish people pride themselves on being at the forefront of technological industries, things like the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, all those hi-tech industries, we’re always there or thereabouts. We pride ourselves on our education system. Socially, we had the same sex referendum last year that surprised a huge amount of people in Britain, that Irish people were so progressive on that kind of issue. We voted overwhelmingly in favour of same sex marriage, and it was no bother to anyone. There was a debate, and it was quite heated, but most people took the attitude that everyone should be able to live the way they want. We’re very rational, very forward-thinking people, but at the same time, there’s still this one foot that we leave in that other camp, the traditional camp. The church is still quite strong here, there’s still a respect for unexplained or the irrational. And there’s always been a healthy anti-materialism in this country, which I think is healthy. There’s a certain suspicion of all the mercantile activities, and an idea that we leave that sort of thing to the British. There’s a great respect for literature and music and the arts – we have tax breaks for writers in this country. We like to keep a foot in both camps.

There certainly is one foot in the traditional camp in Ireland. Instead of using Tinder, you have a white-bearded matchmaker getting lonely singletons together…
[Laughs] I was very sceptical about a lot of the items we were covering for the programme, including the matchmaker, but I loved meeting him, he was so charming and so funny, and such a chancer! At the end of it all, I did feel that there was a place for people like him. Most people these days are meeting strangers online. Why not go to a man who provides a personal touch, and provides a fantastic life experience along with it. Absolutely, I could see people like him making a comeback.

You act, you present, you’ve written books, and you do stand-up. Which of those most defines you?
I would say, over the last couple of decades, I’ve been a stand-up comedian first and foremost. It’s always been the regular day job – night job, really. It’s sort of what I do, in between projects. It’s what consumes me. It’s a lifelong project you can’t really escape from. Even though I’m lucky enough to make a series like this, or to go and do a drama, I always end up coming back to stand-up. I wouldn’t say I enjoy that more than any of the others, it’s just the thing that probably gives me most meaning. But I love doing dramas, and I love doing these documentaries. I think making a documentary gets you out and about more, with people. With stand-up, you’re talking at people. With documentaries you’re talking with people, and you’re listening a lot more.

Why has Ireland produced so many good comedians over the years?
I dunno, that’s a very hard question to answer. I think it goes back to that thing that we’re not as materialistic as other societies. People are very interested in conversations, in chewing the fat, having the craic, all of these things. It’s a huge part of daily life, even in business or politics or finance. There’s a natural curiosity about people and things and why we’re here. That’s a big part of everyday life.

Your journey encompassed the Republic and Northern Ireland. Is there a different character in the North?
Well, first of all, I should stress, we’re not that different to the British. And within Northern Ireland, they’re not that different from each other. People have more in common than divides them; I think that goes without saying. But you know when you’ve crossed the border. The road signs are different; you use miles in the north and kilometres in the south. But I think the fact that the Unionist culture is so strong in Northern Ireland does lend a slightly different culture. I spoke to a bookie in Belfast who said that his business did so much better in Catholic areas than in Protestant areas. And he put it down to a Presbyterian, thrifty, god-fearing culture that frowned upon gambling. Catholics didn’t have that problem – Priests would often be the first people in line at the bookies. Whether there’s any merit in that, I don’t know. The murals in the Bogside tell a very different version of Irish history from the murals on the walls of the terraced houses in East Belfast. Although the fact that the people feel the need to tell their history in pictorial form on the walls of the houses appears to be universal.

Will you be looking into the Game of Thrones phenomenon in Northern Ireland?
We did touch on that slightly. It’s so interesting how Belfast has evolved from a heavy industry, ship-building city, to a city that’s now providing services for the TV and film industry. We met a lot of extras from Game of Thrones, and the extras in Northern Ireland have got together and formed a type of union, almost. There’s about 10,000 of them, and they’ve decided they want to be the best extras in the world, to encourage the film industry to come to Northern Ireland. So they’ve set up a headquarters, where they go and they learn sword-fighting and martial arts and how to disarm people and lots of other skills. So when companies come to Northern Ireland to make Game of Thrones or whatever, they’re absolutely blown away by the fact that these people can already sword fight and they don’t need to be choreographed. I don’t know what that tells you, maybe about Irish people being self-reliant, being able to improvise, and being forward thinking.

Did you enjoy getting to rediscover your homeland a bit more making the series?
Yeah, I really, really did. I absolutely loved it. I thought I knew Ireland better than I did. But I live in a little bubble in my home in Dublin, with my family and my friends and my routines. “Ardal’s Ireland” is really me sitting in front of the TV screen watching box sets, but that wouldn’t make for a very interesting documentary. It was great getting out and about, and to really engage with people. Irish people are great fun and very chatty, and there’s a great sense of pride in place, and a sense of community. I think all of that is to be celebrated. It was brilliant. My job as presenter was to listen to people, and I loved that side of it – I absolutely relished it.

What was your favourite place or experience?
That’s tough, because I loved every day on the road. I was probably most out of my comfort zone with a family of travellers, in their little community down in County Clare. I don’t really know a lot about the travelling community, I would share a lot of preconceptions about the travelling community – I would always have thought of them as very anti-social, or would have been slightly afraid of them. And so spending some extended quality time with a travelling family was a real eye-opener for me. It was interesting to hear from their own mouths their concerns, their history, their culture. It was a fascinating experience.

The programme airs at 9pm on Wednesday 14 December on More 4.

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