Wednesday 13 December 2017

Diving into the wild, wild west

Darragh McManus talks to Ireland's answer to David Attenborough about his new TG4 nature documentary and the staggering wealth of amazing wildlife to be found right on our doorstep

Wild about the Wild Atlantic Way: A grey seal underwater
Wild about the Wild Atlantic Way: A grey seal underwater
A basking shark
A common lizard
A golden eagle in Glenveagh National Park, Co Donegal
A humpback whale breaching the wate
Presenter Eoin Warner
A silhouette of a puffin on the Skelligs
A puffin

Maybe it's because modern life is becoming increasingly urbanised, mechanised and sanitised, but nature documentaries are more popular than ever. Each new release by the legendary David Attenborough, for instance, is now as much cultural phenomenon as mere TV show. The more disconnected we become from the natural world, it seems, the more we love to watch it.

Eoin Warner did more than just watch when making Éire Fhiáin: An Cósta Thiar (Wild Ireland: The Western Coast), a new two-parter for TG4. During a year spent travelling that Wild Atlantic Way, he got up close and personal - particularly when piloting a kayak along the coastline.

"The programme follows the western coastline," the presenter tells Review, "roughly from the Skelligs up to Malin Head. It's all about the animals, and my journey along that route, revealing those animals: everything from huge mammals such as humpbacked whales, grey seals and red deer, right down to little red squirrels, various birds, species of bat.

"For part of it we explored the coast in a kayak. You get a more intimate view of the animals, in comparison with a motorised boat - the kayak doesn't make any noise, so they don't see you as being as much of a threat. And travelling by kayak, you really get the sense that this is the border between two worlds: the land, which we have managed and in some cases wrecked, and the wild sea, which we can't control."

The show's genesis was in January of last year, when Warner was contacted by Wicklow-based Crossing the Line Films (their other credits include Ireland's Wild River, Treasure of the Bogs, A Tiger's Last Journey and many more).

As a lifelong lover of nature, and an Irish-speaker who'd previously appeared on TG4's grow-your-own-food show Garraí Glas, Eoin was a natural fit as presenter.

Working on-and-off for the next 12 months, they followed an "informal itinerary", visiting places depending on the weather or the seasons. In some instances, the crew returned to the same area months later "because what you'd see in spring is very different to what you'd see in autumn".

The end result, Eoin insists, "looks fantastic". "Crossing the Line are internationally recognised as a top wildlife filmmaker, and their cinematography here is just amazing," he says.

They use all the tricks of the trade - night cameras, slow-mo - and Eoin, unsurprisingly, is in awe of the commitment and patience these camera operators possess. One standout sequence, involving a red deer rut in Killarney, took three years to film in sections. "It's amazing to see these big herbivores roaring," Warner says, "the tension in the air, the threatening behaviour. And one cameraman captured an unbelievable fight scene in the lakes of Killarney: animals running through the shallows, water going everywhere."

In its two episodes, Éire Fhiáin will introduce us to a veritable menagerie of fauna: golden eagles and pine martens, puffins and shearwaters, barn owls and basking sharks… even the odd lizard. The host is hard-pressed to pick personal favourites from what he describes as "an amazing experience", but a few do stick out in the memory.

"Sea lampreys were incredible," he says. "They're such a unique-looking animal. They're prehistoric, they've been around for 250 million years. They're fish but look like eels. Nature can be mind-blowing when you think about it, and seeing lampreys was a great experience.

"Another standout memory was watching humpback whales in Kerry. We went out at six in the morning, it was dark, the weather was rough - we weren't necessarily expecting too much. But as we came around the back of the last Blasket island, the sea was just alive with common dolphins, they were everywhere. And the next minute, the first humpback came up. It was gobsmacking. I've travelled to the Antarctic and British Columbia to watch whales, but to see this on our doorstep, within sight of land… It's great to know that they're right here. And that's something a lot of people aren't aware of."

Eoin grew up in Bantry, West Cork, and from as far back as he can remember was "mesmerised by nature, in wonder at it". Unlike most boys, he was never much into videogames or sports, preferring to spend time outdoors exploring. As he got older, that evolved into birdwatching, foraging, fishing, and a lifelong love of food: he now grows his own veg, keeps bees, forages for wild mushrooms and seaweed. And the day-job continues the theme: now based in Galway, Warner works as a food and beverage retail development consultant.

Éire Fhiáin's production began with an offer he couldn't resist: the chance to camp overnight on Skellig Michael. "I was sold straight away," he recalls. "There's an energy about Skellig Michael; it's a special place. When you're looking from the clifftop out across the Atlantic…when the monks were there, it was the edge of the known world, and it's still a unique place.

"During the daytime there are thousands and thousands of seabirds, making noise around you. Then night comes and all of a sudden there's this new group coming in: storm petrels, Manx shearwaters. It's surreal to be at the beehive huts, where people would have lived hundreds of years ago, and then have all this noise around you. You get a sense of what the monks experienced back then."

He's travelled quite extensively, both in Ireland and abroad - South Georgia, the Falklands, Canada, Indonesia - and always incorporates a nature part to any trip. But this one, you sense, was special: not just in and of itself, but for what it can achieve, both for the Irish language and the creatures with whom we share this planet.

"Programmes like this are so important," he says, "in revealing our animals and their behaviour. We see these great nature documentaries from Africa and elsewhere, but we have all this on our own doorstep too. And so many nature films are in English, it's nice to see one as gaeilge.

"Using our own language gives us a better understanding of nature; it gives people, especially children, a greater ownership of both the environment and the language. Irish was very rural-based; people lived side-by-side with animals and nature, and they influenced the language. There are some really nice terms in Irish: for instance, a kestrel is 'pocaire gaoithe', which literally translates as 'wind frolicker'.

"I want people to enjoy the show, but also want to reveal the richness of what we have. I remember nature programmes from when I was a child, and hope to similarly inspire today's kids to have empathy, compassion and concern for nature. We'll need that generation to look after it."

Éire Fhiáin airs on TG4 on Wednesday, March 1 and 8 at 9.30pm

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