Fairies, she-wolves and fertility stones: Strange tales from a hidden Ireland
Why is an RTÉ producer making videos of oddities and weird goings-on around Ireland?
Ronan Kelly interviews Galway farmer Pat Noone on his farm in Woodlawn, Co Galway.
Why is a distinguished and award-winning RTÉ Radio producer making YouTube videos in his spare time? Ronan Kelly’s Ireland is a series of short, idiosyncratic videos tracing the veteran producer’s trips around Ireland by bike, train and bus.
The episodes feature encounters with people he comes across randomly, such as an elderly female steeplejack returning to her greatest ascent, a rebel Dutch couple striving to generate electricity from their old mill on the Barrow river, a guardian of a fairy portal in East Galway and a woman making dúidín pipes in Roscommon.
The stories are charming and often genuinely moving. Ironically, they are precisely the sort of thing that many people believe RTÉ as a national public service broadcaster should be making more of.
After a career producing everything from The Gay Byrne Show to Today with Pat Kenny and Five Seven Live, how did Kelly end up making videos that often only get a few hundred views on YouTube, though many thousands more watch in a crudely reformatted fashion on Facebook?
“My children are grown up now and I was interested in developing a hobby,” says Kelly. “It’s really just an excuse to get out and wander around the country. Otherwise I’d be sitting in and staring out at the rain. It’s a mental health thing as much as anything.”
The allure of Ronan Kelly’s Ireland certainly isn’t its production values. What is so captivating is that it manages to reflect tiny facets of Ireland back at itself in a potent and resonant way. This is something that RTÉ’s director-general Dee Forbes claims she is committed to doing more of, in tacit acknowledgment that the station’s shift towards formulaic television imports and gimmickry has led them off-course.
One of Kelly’s central tenets is that everyone has a story – not just celebrities. “Last week’s video is a good example. I’ve passed through Woodlawn on the train to Galway so often and never stopped, so I decided I would get off and when I got to the nearest Airbnb the owner said, ‘If you make videos my farm is fascinating,’ so I just did a piece with him.”
And certainly Kelly’s encounter with the farmer, Pat Noone, was remarkable. This burly, former heavy smoker led us through his farm of geese, sheep, horses and cattle to see two standing stones, one of which is a fertility stone that, says Noone, “people feel a horrid draw to. They come here under the disguise of looking at [something else], maybe, the railway wall, or different things.”
Noone leads Kelly to an entrance to the Otherworld between a blackthorn and a hawthorn tree, and talks of the healing that comes from the land and how he got “the stray” put on him by the fairies, which disorientated him for many hours, to such an extent that “you don’t know your own field, your own house, you won’t even know your own people”.
The allure of many of Kelly’s episodes is his ability to get people to reveal so much about themselves in a few short minutes. In Peavoy’s shop in Kinnity, Co Offaly, where Kelly goes to buy some bananas, he captures the fascinating life story of Iris Peavoy, who hasn’t had a holiday for 55 years and was only once abroad, to England for a funeral. She last drove 48 years ago, though still keeps an up-to-date driving licence, and likes to visit Lidl and Aldi (though they have hampered her business) to see what sort of “curnagarnees” they have in stock.
Of the 62 episodes Kelly has produced, his favourite is one sparked by a jar of second-hand dentures in a window in Limerick city. Its owner Anthony O’Halloran, a dental technician, placed the old teeth there after a customer asked him to sell them. He’s been offered money for them numerous times, but would never sell them because of the joy they bring to passers-by.
“I can’t make you happy, but I can make you smile,” he says, carving out a set of dentures, before somehow seamlessly shifting into reminiscing about how the joy was wiped from his own life by years of addiction before he was introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous.
In south Sligo Kelly finds limestone caves where a barmaid tells him a high king of Ireland was reared by a she-wolf. In west Cork he encounters a horsebox full of traditional musicians being dragged over the mountains to where police chief Francis O’Neill learned the 440 Irish tunes he brought to Chicago with him. In Waterford he finds a Pole named Bart who has reinvented himself as Sitric the Viking, complete with tunic, leg wrappings, a raven knife and a cow horn for drinking the blood of his enemies.
Kelly’s day job is as producer of RTÉ Radio’s Documentary on One, the phenomenally successful series that, as he admits, was lingering on the fringes of FM radio until it was repackaged as a digital downloadable offering and now attracts 500,000 downloads per month.
“I’ve seen such major changes in broadcasting over 30 years and yet somehow this really old form of radio from the 1950s, documentary, has managed to hang on. We developed an app for Doc-on-One and we’re now one of the most successful podcasts in the country. We’ve huge numbers of downloads. Several million a year.”
His past work has won the most reputable international awards from the likes of New York Festivals, PPI awards and the Third Coast Festival, but his YouTube series is far from the slick professionalism of such work.
“I certainly don’t meet the production and editorial standards of RTÉ in my online work. The sound isn’t as good as it should be and the pictures definitely aren’t. I am a middle-aged man with not-great eyesight and a shaky hand, but the technology now allows me get away with stuff that I couldn’t have 20 years ago. An awful lot of my shots are ‘treated’ because I wasn’t paying attention or I was holding the camera lopsidedly. Thankfully, you can now slow things down, freeze an image, adjust almost anything.”
This episode with Pat Noone got a few hundred view in its first few months on YouTube, but attracted over a quarter of a million hits on Facebook. Last week, Kelly re-posted it in a mobile-friendly format of square video with subtitles, and in five days he got 330,000 views.
“What’s fascinating is the interplay between technology and storytelling,” says Kelly. “People prefer long audio podcasts, but shorter video. They prefer it on Facebook than YouTube, on smartphones rather than PCs, and with subtitles instead of sound. Each transition involves assessing what you might lose, but you have to adapt to survive.”
The oddness, spontaneity and multifariousness of Ronan Kelly’s Ireland is so refreshing in a media landscape of predictable formats and uniformity. Each four- to eight-minute episode is a labour of love which takes over 20 hours to edit. Kelly stresses that for him it’s refreshing “to be doing something just because I want to. I have absolutely no responsibility, whereas with my broadcasting work I obviously do, to the license player and management. But no one is paying for this. I am funding it myself. It’s just a hobby.”
Perhaps it is, but it would be wonderful if RTÉ took it as an inspiration, as a model for the sort of programming they once made and could potentially make again.