Walking briskly by the table, he tosses a comment almost imperceptibly. “Love your programme.” The stranger hasn’t broken his stride, nor interrupted our conversation. Earlier at the front door there’s a fleeting shorthand about, I think, a match. Something makes me ask, do you know them? Ah no, but sure we’re all friends here, he says.
It sounds almost hokey, but it’s with such comfort and grace that you understand: it’s about belonging.
Sure, don’t we all know John Creedon? His warm mellow voice, the intimacy of radio tales between tunes; the inquisitive natural-ness of his TV series that belies an extensive knowledge. A luxurious, Cork-lilted accent, his speech rich in anecdote.
But he’s more than that.
It’s a sort of nourishing experience to spend several hours in his company. You feel a more-rounded, happier person for having done so.
He could talk for Ireland. But then, he is of Ireland. Mr Ireland.
When we first sit down in the Montenotte Hotel in Cork, he’s reminded of a wedding there, and he takes off. It becomes a funny and moving story about his childhood relationship with a grown-up family friend, on whose farm he spent time as a child; the rural experience contrasted with his “intense urban life” at home.
Creedon diverts down various byways during its telling, drawing connections between place and people and who we are: his recent holiday in Estonia and Finland and the complex interrelationships of ethnicity vs nationality; how Arlene Foster’s life has been much about maps and borders and rights of way (“too many” she said); where does Cork finish and Kerry start? He regularly returns to the main (gripping) narrative.
But you can’t use it, he says, because I’m hoping to write it myself.
To be fair, I get the odd word in edgeways, but basically he hasn’t stopped talking for 20 minutes. He’s aware of this propensity; acknowledging it becomes an anecdote. It comes from his dad. “Like myself, he couldn’t shut up. It’s in my genes.” Which reminds him of his cousin Con, a GP in Dunmanway (dons accent), “going on, not unlike myself, no commas no full stops nowhere to get in. Con said they don’t call me the listening doc at all, they call me the talking doc. Whatever ailment you go in with you come out with a pain in your ear.”
On his popular evening slot on RTÉ Radio 1, Creedon shares wildly eclectic and unfailingly excellent music. But mostly he’s of place. While Cork’s in his veins, he’s covered most of Ireland intimately over several TV heritage/travel/folklore series, from Creedon’s Wild Atlantic Way and Epic East to Atlas of Ireland, and now a folklore book.
TV has taught me the value and joy of collaboration. And the joy of trying to write is that it’s between me and you, the writer and the reader, with very little between us
“I’ve had so many lives. Work has been my university, really. I was a dad at 20 so I was out the gap and working. It’s a huge education. The number of people who came through the studios that I’ve interviewed over the years, the briefs I’ve read about stone circles or climactic conditions. The variety has been mad. Doing comedy, sketches with Gerry Ryan or the Republic of Telly: I feel like that’s completely me. But at another level I’m working with live radio on an outside broadcast, with Christy Moore or whoever, and that’s fully me.
“I could be onstage with the Concert Orchestra, and that’s me. Writing at the moment [he gestures to the book], that’s genuinely me as well. Mairead [Heffernan, his partner] said, ‘I betcha you were a real gubby kid.’ Meaning: wanting a go at everything. And a curiosity and an energy I suppose. Even though I’d be scared senseless then backstage. Why did I say I could do a lecture on Tchaikovsky or something when really and truly ... I’d be petrified. Even with the book. I’m not an expert anything.”
To the viewer, listener or reader, however, that passion brings an ease and accessibility. (Plus, he’s way more expert than he lets on.)
“TV has taught me the value and joy of collaboration. And the joy of trying to write is that it’s between me and you, the writer and the reader, with very little between us.”
He diverts regularly into placenames, their sounds, their stories. Atateemore or Áit an Tí Mhóir in Kilkenny. Buttevant. “I cracked the code myself.” In Irish it’s Cill na Mullach (church of the beast, or perhaps of the summit), but Buttevant is from Butte en Avant, “attack in advance” in old French, or “lash all around you and move forward, like the Cork hurlers”.
In return for help in reinstating Diarmuid McMorrow as king of Leinster, Anglo-Normans including the De Barrys, or Barrymores (of Fota House: Butte en Avant coat-of-arms on the gate), got land stretching from Buttevant to Fota Island. That’s the short version, with digressions on Vikings (“no interest in us, only to raid and trade”), and the great placenames they gifted, from Longford to Lambay to Helvick.
I was blessed growing up with not knowing what stratum of society I fitted into. I went to a Christian Brothers school a mile from my house
Back to the gorgeous book, An Irish Folklore Treasury. The book draws on the National Folklore Archive’s Schools’ Collection, an amazing oral history project. In 1937 Irish schoolchildren were tasked with asking their oldest relatives and neighbours their memories, writing them in special copybooks. The 50,000 pieces represent a preservation and celebration of ordinary lives, a snapshot of Ireland from the late 19th century to the 1930s. (Check out the digitised dúchas.ie; perhaps you’ll find your forbears’ careful childhood script.)
It’s especially important, Creedon says, against the backdrop of the 1921 shelling of the Four Courts Records Office, when “we lost the story of us”. The often hilarious recollections reflect a sort of crossroads, when our belief system incorporated Christianity, and freethinking, and superstition.
To curate some in book-form was inspired. With the help of Josephine Weatherford at UCC, “a brilliant researcher, she really knows her way round the collection”, Creedon worked on it online over Covid, unable to access the original copybooks. He chose about 1,000 pieces, theming them around ghost stories, agriculture, trades, schooling, pastimes, weather, folk medicine. He’s written “signposts” to contextualise. “It’s very personal. I’m not Mr Know-it-all or Professor-of-anything”. The result is a sort of people’s history of us, “a gentle, happy, storytelling people” and our lives in the not-so-distant past.
From self-sufficiency to local legends, from fanciful to wise, it’s a rich lucky dip. At random: A gas account of a sort-of hurling match in Tullylease, Co Cork, with about 50 players a-side, a 16″ ball, no goalposts or rules or ref, playing for about six hours until “it was usual to have a good fight between the rival players for a finish”.
Creedon reflects on the new state’s wisdom, initiating this project, and also the idealism of the Proclamation, “a moving document”. Rereading it recently, he was stirred: “I want to be part of this secular society”. That young State had a “desperate drive to educate us and get a peasant society off its knees. When I am facing a challenge now, I have a ready reckoner in my head. It’s called my schooling. All the world’s a stage.”
John Creedon was born in 1958 in Cork, “the youngest boy in everything”, coming 10th in a comfortably-off family of 12; his father was a bus driver and the family had a late-night shop on Coburg St, living in generous rooms above. “With nine sisters, I was the only boy in secondary school who knew the difference between mauve and lilac.”
“I was blessed growing up with not knowing what stratum of society I fitted into. I went to a Christian Brothers school a mile from my house. There was another Christian Brothers school, similarly about a mile away, but the one I went to, we spoke Irish and played hurling and got smacked with the leathair.” This was the North Mon. “The other Christian Brothers school, they played rugby and were educated in English and most of them ended up in the South Mall or the banks. I was totally oblivious to all that.”
His parents were both West Cork. “Life is a lottery. You don’t get to pick your parents. I had a good roll of the dice. They were gentle, generous to a fault.”
Hi father Con Creedon was from Inchigeelagh, a breac-Gaeltacht in “lake, fen, pheasant” countryside. The family was relatively well off, with a small hotel, post office, shop, mill, petrol-pumps. The baby of four boys, “he grew up fishing, hunting, chasing girls, playing music. A big swaggering 20-stone man, hands on his hips. My mother would complain, Jesus he’s telling everybody everything. He was an open book. He saw the fun in everything. He spoke to us in Latin, Irish, Greek, and in makey-up words.”
He too was a great storyteller, full of phrases. “To hell with poverty, we’ll kill the hen.” He recalls his father and uncle skitting laughing about placenames, like the nearby townland of Céim Curragh Boola. (“It’s not in Hawaii! Céim: the path, through curragh: flat grasslands, to the boola: cattle enclosures. I could see a painting of cattle at sunset going back.”)
In the introduction to the book, Creedon writes about visiting John Behan’s famine memorial near Croagh Patrick with his father near the end of his life. The man who couldn’t shut up was silenced and later shared a childhood memory of knowing an old man who had been a child during the famine, recalling the cart picking up the dead and dying from Bantry workhouse. A direct line back. Silenced himself, Creedon asked his father, how come you never told me this before? Because you never asked me, he replied.
His mother Siobhán Blake was one of 10 girls “in the parish of Adrigole way out on the Beara peninsula”. Just 40 miles west of his father, in reality it was much further: different countryside, humbler circumstances. The Blakes were Protestant stock from the 17th century, converting along the way. She was “tall, willowy, genuinely beautiful. High cheekbones. They were poor farmers but aristocratic in their own way. She was kind and nurturing.”
Jesus I’m just so lucky. That’s all I want to do, is keep learning. For a fellah who wouldn’t do his homework
In the Dúchas collection he stumbled on entries from two of her sisters, his aunts, and wept to see the elderly women he’d known as little girls doing folklore homework with the grandad he’d never met.
“I am blessed with the gift of forgiveness. I forgive everybody. I forgive myself,” he says.
This comes from his mother. As a child, the shop was raided, causing mayhem. While waiting for the guards to come for the thief, who was injured, his mother, her face flushed, dressed the wound. He asked why. “He was some poor woman’s baby, once.”
“What happened to him to make him like that? I’m not a churchgoing anything. I believe in forgiveness and redemption for everybody. We can all come back.”
Several times he says: “There’s currants for cakes but there’s raisins for everything.” It’s those reasons he’s curious about. “I’m fascinated by the human condition. The older I get the more grateful I get. The challenge is to understand: why would someone do that?” He quotes John Prine’s song: “You is what you is, you ain’t what you ain’t. There’s a reason people end up in drug gangs.”
He recounts, reluctantly for fear of causing offence, “a patronising comment when I was skint in Cork in the 80s, by someone who spoke with a better accent than me”. He was delivering equipment to the Royal Cork Yacht Club, and had set the gear up, when an officious employee inquired which door he entered. Upset he’d used the main entrance, he insisted Creedon haul the heavy equipment back out and come in the back. He’s sanguine, reflective about the man’s raisins; and careful to say one individual doesn’t represent the club or its members.
He started college but has no regrets about being diverted down different paths with a young family. He worked as a librarian, promoting gigs, in a factory, in pirate radio. He and his ex-wife have four daughters, now grown up: in Cork, Australia and two in Scotland, plus seven grandchildren.
His break was an RTÉ audition. The young family lived in Goatstown in Dublin for 13 years, gubby boy trying it all at RTÉ, from a health show to covering the 12th in Portadown. He returned to Cork in 2000, as part of decentralisation in RTÉ.
In his 40s while working on daytime radio he returned to college, doing a diploma in Regional Studies (history geography, folklore) at UCC. It was “a labour of love. There was no master plan to use it for work.” As a young man “I reached out to English culture. Ska, punk, Man United.” Now he revelled in “my own people”. He enrolled in Gaeilge labhairt. Curiosity about our ancestors, and place, blossomed.
His appearance as a contestant on RTÉ’s Fáilte Towers in 2008, a reality show where celebs ran a hotel, exposed his basic decency and generosity under pressure. Also, he won. With a raised profile, RTÉ asked what he’d fancy next. He said he loved Ireland, and talking to auld fellas. And that is essentially what he’s done since: traipsing Ireland.
“Jesus I’m just so lucky. That’s all I want to do, is keep learning. For a fellah who wouldn’t do his homework! I’m always looking for connections.”
After our long afternoon ends, I realise I haven’t even opened my notebook with questions I meant to ask. He answered them, and more.
An Irish Folklore Treasury, a selection of old stories, ways and wisdom from the Schools’ Collection, by John Creedon, is published by Gill Books