Wednesday 18 October 2017

Broad and majestic... the secret is out

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

The Secret Life of the Shannon (RTE1)

In Good Hands (RTE1)

The first thing that struck me about The Secret Life of the Shannon is that Colin Stafford-Johnson is doing a fine piece of work there, but actually my uncle Joe got there before him. My uncle Joe, and his dog Spot.

Joe worked in the P&T in Athlone – quite possibly Spot worked there too – but the river was his life. I now realise, thanks to the fantastically exotic scenes brought to us by Stafford-Johnson, that it was a great life.

But I had guessed that anyway. When Joe brought me up the river for the first time, with Spot standing on the prow of the boat, it was perhaps my first truly mind-altering experience. And that was before we left Athlone at all, just moving out onto the water and seeing the bridge and the town from this strange new perspective.

Stafford-Johnson nailed this, too, the idea that you are moving into a completely different reality, that in every sense you are drifting away.

The Germans knew this a long time ago. Apart from my uncle Joe, you would find many Germans up there on Lough Ree in their cabin cruisers, seeming to appreciate the wonders of the broad, majestic Shannon far more than the majority of the native Irish did. Thus a strange spiritual alliance could be discerned between the working-class men of Athlone and the ruling class of West Germany.

And now Stafford-Johnson has brought it to a new dimension, with these programmes which were so well-made and generally enjoyable, they might even persuade the rest of the human race, and not just the Irish version, to have a look.

Crucially, The Secret Life ... didn't feel like a homework assignment. It didn't have any obligatory mentions of the towns along the Shannon and the industries you will find there and all that geography lesson crack. It was not so much a documentary in the usual style, but what our friends in the hippie kingdom used to call a vibe.

Stafford-Johnson wasn't trying to do everything, just the stuff that he felt like doing, that meant something to him personally.

Which, by a happy coincidence, is usually the only stuff that is any good. "Quirky" and "off-beat", they might call it, but the right word is "good".

From Colin Stafford-Johnson to David Shaw-Smith, we are fortunate in having men with three names who can show us these extraordinary things about Ireland, which might otherwise have escaped our attention – things like the biggest river in these islands running right through the middle of the country, and the ancient arts and crafts which were filmed by Shaw-Smith in the seminal series, Hands.

A lifetime later, with In Good Hands, we see excerpts from that series made by the young Shaw-Smith, and then we catch up with him today as he revisits the places and some of the people.

Again, these are personal stories, even obsessions. When we see a person creating some marvellous object, we are not just looking at an arts and crafts display. There are many other resonances.

Most of these people, for example, seemed to live in circumstances which were modest to an almost absurd degree, given the scale of their abilities. Though they maintained a culture of excellence – in many cases they were truly brilliant at what they did – they seemed to have no egotism of any unpleasant kind, or indeed of any kind at all.

It was as if all their energies were poured into the work, leaving little at the end for any manifestations of eejitry.

And yet despite that absence of ego-tripping, clearly they were people who had a very healthy sense of self-respect, derived from the knowledge that they were gifted. They seemed to be inspired not by money, or by any form of "recognition", but by the gift itself.

And then along came Shaw-Smith who understood this deeply, a man himself devoid of eejitry, as talented in his own way as the people he was filming, a kindred spirit.

I think of the great Cork musician Chris Twomey who died recently, who would have made a perfect subject for Shaw-Smith.

Chris, or 'Handsome' Chris as some knew him, was remembered by Philip King on last Sunday's episode of The South Wind Blows, as a man who himself understood excellence, and who achieved it.

Just listen to that show.

Irish Independent

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