Tommy Tiernan describes his new series as “a ramble through the Irish imagination in all its awkward contradictions”. Rambling Tommy Tiernan’s Epic West (RTÉ One, 9.35pm) certainly is: in ways both good and bad, it is carved in the shaggy, digressive likeness of its presenter.
The first of two episodes unspools as a garrulous tribute to the west, here defined as stretching from Kerry to Donegal. Tiernan stands atop outcrops and squats amid the heather and, along the way, makes a passionate case for the west as a land apart – and also a state of mind and even a spiritual gateway to a higher state of Irishness.
It’s a bit purple, as you would expect from a comedian for whom the shaggy dog story is a stock-in-trade. And it does stray slightly into self-parody when, paraphrasing his late friend, the writer John Moriarty, he describes the Owenmore river as carving a “sensuous” path through the landscape.
“She sways her way through Connemara,” he says. “If a river could be a ride…” We’ve gone peak Tiernan and it is strange and scary.
He’s on firmer ground arguing the rural west is a liminal zone, drifting between the here and now and somewhere more ancient and eternal – much as Tiernan does between poet and pub bore. “There is something elusive about Sligo,” he says. “I find it very hard to define: half spirit country, an eerie place.”
He talks to fellow creatives – would it be cruel to call them kindred luvvies? – about how the west has shaped them. Author Kevin Barry, from Limerick by way of Cork, and a Sligo resident for 20 years, recalls pedalling furiously around the Ox Mountains seeking inspiration.
It arrived finally when he pulled up for a restorative Capri-sun and an overweight garda alighted from a car. Who was he and where was he going? It was the spark for which Barry had been searching.
In Tuam – “The Nashville of Galway”, says Tiernan – Leo Moran of the Saw Doctors describes how the town can contain multitudes. Poet Louis de Paor meanwhile invokes the moss-adorned shibboleth that “the further west you go, the more Irish Ireland becomes”.
Tiernan’s vision of the west as a realm unto itself – Irishness on steroids – is of course not original. It’s what drew Yeats to Innisfree on Lough Gill in Sligo and it is what has fuelled Martin McDonagh throughout his career. In the case of Tiernan’s contribution to the subject, what is lacking is an explanation of how and why the west is different.
Yes, it can be mournful. So can the Midlands, The Famine brought huge suffering to Connemara – as it did to, for instance, West Cork. And the toxicity of Irish small-town life is in no way confined to the west – or even to small towns.
Still, picking apart Tiernan’s arguments ultimately feels mean-spirited. Tiernan is thinking with his heart; it’s okay if the thesis he puts forward is slightly wobbly.
Epic West is a love letter to a place that looms large in Ireland’s sense of self. Yeats, McDonagh and Kevin Barry can rest easy – Tiernan won’t topple them any time soon as laureates of the country’s haunted hinterlands. But as a valentine to Ireland’s craggy soul, it soars and, just about, stays airborne.