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Ireland’s Fittest Family: Hanging from a log suspended over a filthy trench. Perfect metaphor for 2021

Patrick Freyne: Are we not all, in a very real way, clinging on for dear life during lockdown?

‘Why are you hitting yourself, Freyne?” says Ireland’s Fittest Family, as it propels my hand towards my face with its superior fitness.

“But you’re making me do it, Ireland’s Fittest Family!” I cry. “You’re literally taking my wrist and forcing me to slap my face.”

“Stop using big words, nerd,” says Ireland’s Fittest Family, repeating the action again and again until a teacher comes along and joins in.

“Which of those words was big?” I cry. “Was it ‘literally’? ‘Literally’ only has four syllables.”


“I warned you,” says Ireland’s Fittest Family, before swaggering down the school corridor with my school girlfriend, now Ireland’s Fittest Family’s girlfriend.

“You’re a ledgebag, Ireland’s Fittest Family!” shouts the teacher, still holding me in a headlock. “I love you so much!”

As a 'man of letters' I distrust anyone who runs without being chased, lifts things when they could just as easily stay on the floor, and says 'feel the burn' without actually being on fire

I might be projecting some of my own issues here, sitting in my bathrobe at noon, the curtains pulled to block the glaring rays of the winter sun, watching the RTÉ Player as I eat some nutritious butter with a spoon.

As a “man of letters” I distrust anyone who runs without being chased, lifts things when they could just as easily stay on the floor, and says “feel the burn” without actually being on fire. And yet Ireland’s Fittest Family (Sunday, RTÉ One) is strangely compelling.

Perhaps it’s because the first task the competing families undertake involves people clinging upside down to a log suspended across a mucky trench filled with filthy water. As metaphors for 2021 go, this isn’t the worst. Are we not all, in a very real way, hanging on for dear life from a log suspended over a filthy trench?

Mairead Ronan, the presenter, seems upbeat about it. "Tonight," she says, "our families will face Bog Bath!" And she says it in the same no-nonsense way that Tina Turner invites interlopers into her thunderdome or Leo Varadkar delivers his leaks. Of course, for Irish people "Bog Bath" is just the original name for Portlaoise.

Nobody has ever asked why Mairead Ronan is collecting all these supreme specimens of Irish fitness in the first place. We’re all scared, to be honest. She must have a whole warehouse of fittest families now, roiling restlessly like Saruman’s orcs, ready to be unleashed upon a nation rendered listless and enflabbened by lockdown.

“Fair enough,” we’ll say when that time comes. “We weren’t doing much anyway.”

'Hanging upside down from a log suspended over a trench of filthy water for a while before falling in' may be the programme for government

For now four families fight it out for supremacy much like in Game of Thrones, except you get to a conclusion in each episode rather than waiting for years, which frankly makes it better than Game of Thrones.

Each family is coached by an Irish sporting legend, each one famous for one of the main four sports – falconry, darts, egg-and-spoon and Buckaroo. (Full disclosure: I don't know much about sport.) These include Derval O'Rourke, who has smugly mentored more fit families than all the rest; Davy Fitzgerald, who screams instructions much like my inner critic; and Donncha O'Callaghan, who speaks calmly but with edge, like a newly sentient mindfulness app moments before crunching the data and deciding to destroy all mankind.

My favourite contestant this week is Sabien, scion of a fit family named Kulcynski. He hangs upside down from a log suspended over a trench of filthy water for almost 40 minutes before he falls in. This is 20 minutes or so longer than anyone else and probably makes him the best at clinging upside down from a log over a trench of filthy water before falling in in all of Ireland.

I’m not sure if this is something you’d typically put into the skills section on a CV, but it has to qualify him for something cool. Probably politics. In fact, “hanging upside down from a log suspended over a trench of filthy water for a while before falling in” may be the programme for government. All I know for sure is that surprisingly few people remember voting for it.

The next event involves the families racing over hay bales, then across a balance beam and around a smoking barrel. I think this is called “golf”. This event is nerve-racking to watch, as, possibly still suffering from PTSD after their experience in Bog Bath, various bodies and spirits are broken on the field of play.

The final round features just two contesting families and involves the surviving family members carting logs around and clambering over still more obstacles and up a steep slope. I think this is called “the Leaving Cert”.

It’s all surprisingly exciting and exhausting. Enfeebled by simply watching, I yell for a cup of tea. The kitchen is miles away.

Next I watch Dancing on Ice (Virgin Media One), which was originally pitched as Celebrities Falling Over. I have a new-found appreciation of light entertainment shows now that most newsreaders are openly swigging gin as they’re delivering the news and Prime Time has been renamed For F**k’s Sake.

Sunday’s episode opens with a big ice dancing extravaganza featuring the professional ice folk. It takes us back to an era when women typically travelled by ice-skating hunk. I believe you could once hail them like taxis. The hunks hoist, fling and swing young women, all of whom are dressed like glitter balls. But, finally, we get on to the bit that we’re all waiting for – the celebrity maiming – when unwitting “famous” people are dispatched on to the ice to be propelled by graceful ice bullies.

This is all ably overseen by Holly Willoughby in a flowing white dress like a Disney ice queen and snow-haired Phillip Schofield, dressed in a double-breasted navy suit and a polo neck much like a drawing of a sexy admiral in a Tintin comic.

Given that I can't judge any of the actual skating beyond its practicality as a mode of transport, I'm pleased to see there's also a judging panel. This features the Doctor Who star John Barrowman, there to spot Daleks – "Seven out of 10. You are not a Dalek!" he says mostly, or "Zero out of 10. Definitely a Dalek!" when the dancer is a Dalek. There's also Ashley Banjo, inventor of the banjo, and the olden-days vaudeville stars Torvill and Dean, who have, in fairness, some experience with this ice-skating racket and are happy to give it the ole razzle-dazzle.

“I can’t believe that’s the real-life Torvill and Dean,” says the professional former-pop star Myleene Klass, before instantly falling over. That’s why we’re here after all. Myleene Klass falls over so often I suspect inner-ear problems until I get up to get that cup of tea I mentioned a few paragraphs back and feel dizzy myself. Then I feel something my psychotherapist insists is “empathy”. I wipe a tear from my eye. “Fall over all you like, Myleene Klass,” I say. “Are we not all, in a way, celebrities falling over?”