Grannies on safari in Ireland
Regina Fraser and Pat Johnson, known in the US for their TV show ‘Grannies on Safari’, have just completed their first shoot in Ireland. PETER LYNCHfinds out what two sexagenarian African Americans made of it
REGINA FRASER and Pat Johnson are both grandmothers in their late 60s who remain wide-eyed and enthusiastic about everything they do. They are from Chicago and are better known in many parts of the world for their travel show, Grannies on Safari.
“We’ve been best friends for 30 years, ever since meeting when our children were at the same school,” says Fraser.
She has worked in marketing, media and communications and spent much of her life in management with AmericanAirlines; Johnson was an arts executive and worked in India, Ghana, Brazil, South Africa, China and Indonesia.
Their shared interest in culture and travel helped them answer the question: “What are we going to do now we’re retired?” They decided to make a travel show.
That was in 2005. They have since travelled to 114 countries between them, and are working on their fourth series (which will be broadcast in the US and 120 other countries).
The duo have a spontaneous presenting style, making fun of each other and disagreeing on camera. “Our first major travel show was in South Africa,” says Fraser. “One of our guides said, ‘Hey, you’re really like a pair of grannies on safari.’ We liked that, and the name just stuck.”
Do their age and African American heritage play a part in where they decide to go? “Not really. We like to get off the general tourist trail and get inside communities, but basically we’re interested in people and places,” says Fraser.
So what made them decide to come to Ireland to film? “I was born on St Patrick’s Day and delivered by an Irish midwife,” says Johnson. “If I had been a boy I would have been called Patrick. My son also lives here in Ireland, so it’s great that I’ll get a chance to see him.
“Our first shoot was Ardara, in Donegal. We had heard how it won an [Irish Times] award for the best village to live in, so it was a natural,” she says.
“We stayed in a castle because Americans are suckers for castles, but it was the people we met in the village that really blew us away. We nearly lost one of our cameramen, who said, ‘I want to stay: I’m coming back to buy a house here.’
“We spent hours with Eddie Doherty, one of the last independent handloom weavers in the area. What was fascinating were his traditional skills and craft that are, sadly, being lost in so many places. The tweed from his antique loom is prized around the world and was so beautiful we had to stop ourselves buying more than we could carry,” says Johnson.
“We had tea and cake with Jack Maguire and his wife, Carmel. What intrigued us most was how the Irish have such an attachment to place. Jack was born in the house, and, after 40 years working in London, he’s back there in his retirement, with enough stories to fill a programme of his own.
“We often do a cooking spot on our shows. I was taught how to smoke Donegal salmon – and, even though I say it myself, it tasted amazing,” Johnson says.
The pair also went to New Ross, in Co Wexford, and were captivated by the local skills there too. “I loved the monumental Ros Tapestry and the Norman story it has to tell,” says Johnson. “Talking with the women working on the last of 15 panels was a wonderful insight into local history, community collaboration and the rediscovery of traditional skills.”
The grannies, says Johnson, have a special interest in women who work. “We like to help struggling communities that are economically dependent on women’s work. We like to see if we can help women support their families and become economically independent.”
Fraser was keen to get behind the reins of the horse-drawn caravan that Neasa Clissmann brought to their film shoot at Glendalough. “It’s only tourists that are keeping this tradition alive,” she says. “It’s a green way to travel, and the slow pace is the best way to appreciate the landscape – and everyone you meet smiles and wants to talk to you.
“I thought the recession would be more apparent, but, to a visitor, the country still looks prosperous, and we travelled from the northwest to the southeast. But whenever the subject came up, the economic woes were not far beneath the surface.”
However, “Irish optimism always put on a brave face. ‘We just have to get on with it,’ was the usual response.
“Of course, Dublin and Belfast were great cities, and we enjoyed them immensely, but it was the people we met that made our trip so memorable, and it’s them that will make great television.
“Ireland’s friendly welcome may be a bit of a cliche, but, in all honesty, it seems like the whole country has been on hospitality training.
“Everywhere we went we found more places to see and people to meet – so I’m pretty sure that this is not the last that Ireland will see of the grannies on safari.”