Bantry naturalist Eoin Warner’s spectacular new RTÉ series on our islands is wowing audiences of all ages. His visit to Whiddy island was far more emotional than he had expected, he tells Conor Power
FOR all those watching Ireland’s Wild Islands on RTÉ, the calm voice of presenter Eoin Warner introducing us to a close-up view of the wonders that lie off our coast is a peaceful balm in these times of instability.
It’s a programme that showcases our islands and the natural world around them, in a way that hasn’t quite been done before.
Speaking to the Bantry-born presenter, it becomes clear that this was pretty much the main objective of the series that was three years in the making.
‘For me, the reason we picked the islands is because there’s still a glimpse of our wildlife there, because so much of their habitats have been taken from them on the mainland that they’re pushed to the margins all the time.
‘So I’m very keen to show people what we still have – just about. We’re hoping to inspire them; to know that this is worth protecting, and that we should be proud of what we have.’
And what we do have off our coast is as good as anything you’re going to see in Africa or the Antarctic ‘or anywhere else on earth’, says Eoin. ‘I’m so delighted that [production company] Cross the Line have put their resources into making a documentary that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with any documentary that the BBC are making. I’m so delighted that our wildlife is being shown in the same light, and with the same respect as anything else in the world, because it is so precious and so beautiful and we should all be proud of it,’ he says.
The first scenes in the three-part series were shot in September 2019. Filming a wildlife programme is very weather-dependent and the Irish weather is one thing you certainly cannot depend upon. And the Covid lockdowns played their part in complicating matters further.
‘When you’re filming at sea, there are so many variables,’ says Eoin. ‘First, you have to work with a window of good weather, and then you have to hope that within that window, you’re able to film something.
‘Covid knocked us back a good bit, too. It was very frustrating because with all that beautiful weather that we had in the first lockdown, we couldn’t film. And that was a really busy time in the natural world – spring and nesting and all of that.’
Another delay happened when they were filming on Skellig Michael and encountered some bad weather.
‘We got storm-bound there for four nights,’ recalls Eoin. ‘It was a wonderful experience. It’s such an opportunity for anyone to visit the Skelligs – it’s Ireland’s Machu Pichu, it’s so special; historically but also spiritually.
‘To spend a night there is something else, but to be there for four nights was really extraordinary.’
In the final programme in the series, Eoin focuses on the islands off the coast of West Cork.
The sequence was filmed last summer. Even though Eoin is a Bantry native and comes back regularly to West Cork, this experience brought emotions to the surface that he wasn’t expecting.
Having lost his father in the Whiddy Island tragedy of 1979 when he was just four years old, the producers asked Eoin to sail by the scene of the disaster. ‘We were filming the sequence with the white-tailed eagle on Garinish Island and when we were there in Bantry Bay, the director pointed to Whiddy Island and asked “What island is that?”… We went over to it and I didn’t expect it to be as emotive as it was, but because my father was killed in the Betelgeuse disaster in 1979 and because my mother had only passed away three months before that, it had quite an effect on me.
‘He was from Galway city and he was big into the sea and into Galway hookers. I’ve a lovely picture of him from the 1950s repairing an old Galway hooker in Galway and I thought that he would have been chuffed to have one of his sons sailing down into Bantry Bay in one.
‘It was fairly emotive, going around the jetty and everything else. It wasn’t part of what we were trying to do but it just happened. Because Mum had passed away only a few months before, I had a realisation that not only had I lost my mother, but I’d also lost my connection with the community.
‘And for her to not be there to see the final version, it made it an awfully lonely experience watching the first episode being broadcast.’
When asked to highlight the stand-out memory from the series, Eoin finds it hard to pick. ‘It was such an adventure; it was such great craic and there were so many wonderful moments that it’s hard to pick one, but for me it was probably that time I got to swim with the basking sharks off the Clare coast.
‘I’d always wanted to swim with them, but I always missed that opportunity by a day or something like that.
‘When we arrived, there were hundreds of them … and to be swimming with them for hours at a time was just incredible. We were free-diving too, which means that you don’t have any tanks with you – you’re just going down on one breath of air so you’re not making any noise or any bubbles and you really get the feeling that you’re meeting these animals on their terms and they’re not frightened by you. It was such a privilege.’
• Ireland’s Wild Islands is available to view on the RTÉ Player.