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Island Hopping with Ardal O'Hanlon: Exploring Ireland's Hidden Gems

INIS na nIONTAS: our brand new 3 part Irish-language documentary coming to TG4 this January.

From Rathlin in the north to Cape Clear in the south, the islands off the coast of Ireland have long been a source of inspiration and of myth. But they’re home to a rich diversity of wildlife too – and a wide range of people. In The Emerald Isles, actor and comedian Ardal O’Hanlon takes us on a captivating journey, unearthing the history, observing the wildlife and meeting the islanders trying to live sustainably within their extraordinary environment.  

Making this spectacular series involved 61 days of filming and a total of 64 boat and ferry trips. But for presenter, Ardal O’Hanlon, there was an even greater challenge: the whole series has been made in both Irish and English. Ardal’s mother, Teresa, is a native Irish-speaker and in making the Irish version, INIS na nIONTAS (The Isles of Wonder), Ardal fulfils a longstanding ambition to broadcast in Ireland’s native language, promoting its use to a wider public.

The first episode focusses on the north, beginning on Rathlin Island, famous for its countless seabirds and, unique to the island, the golden hare. Here, Ardal learns how an astonishing archaeological find has rewritten Irish history, and he tastes some noodles made from kelp, sustainably farmed on the island. From Rathlin, Ardal travels to remote Tory Island off Donegal, where he learns of its musical tradition and its mystical past, and we see how farming practices are being fashioned to encourage the endangered corncrake. Next, Ardal heads to Arranmore, the largest island of the north. Here, he learns how the islanders are encouraging new residents, while on a beautiful, small islet the threatened little tern has found a welcome sanctuary.

In the second episode, Ardal continues down the west coast to the Aran islands, where he learns from a practising monk of their ancient Christian heritage while, all around, a remarkable range of flora blooms, encouraged by traditional farming methods. Heading south, Ardal visits the abandoned Great Blasket Island, former home to Irish author Peig Sayers, now home to a thriving seal colony and two young caretakers. On nearby Valentia, Ardal is shown fossilised evidence of early life emerging from the sea. Along the island’s coast, Ireland’s only vermouth producers forage for ingredients, while in the surrounding waters oyster conservationists are hard at work. The episode ends with a rare opportunity to film on the spectacular Skellig Michael, a UNESCO world heritage site made internationally famous in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. With Luke Skywalker long gone, the island is home to numerous puffins and the world’s most dramatic ancient monastery.

In the final episode, Ardal is in the far south, where he discovers beautiful Garnish Island. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Garnish is a paradise filled with gorgeous, lush gardens. It’s also a breeding ground for the rare and majestic white-tailed eagle. By kayak, Ardal sees its thriving seal colony, before heading further south to Sherkin Island, where he’s at sea once more, being introduced to a playful pod of dolphins. A local historian tells us of the island’s piratical past and a resident artist explains why Sherkin has become a painters’ paradise. A short hop takes Ardal to Cape Clear, Ireland’s southernmost island, where he’s taken on a tour in one of the island’s electric buses – the only in Ireland. We meet the island’s resident ornithologist, who explains the huge importance of the island for migratory birds, and visit a gin distillery that uses foraged kelp. A climactic clifftop view, out across the Atlantic, marks the end to an unforgettable journey. 

From mighty, windswept cliffs to sub-tropical Edens, the islands of Ireland are extraordinary in their diversity. Conscious that the series will boost awareness of these island gems, Tourism Ireland were keen to be involved and partially funded the production. And, for Ardal, the filming was a revelatory experience:

'It's was remarkable for me to witness the extraordinary diversity of our islands and to meet such a range of astonishing people. As an Irishman, I'd obviously heard of a lot of these places, but I was quite taken aback by visiting and seeing for myself. I was genuinely moved. We have some of the most breathtaking scenery and wonderful nature. There's truly nowhere like an island, and I now know there's no island like an Irish island! We need to cherish these places. And I'm especially proud of doing the whole thing in Irish! It just seemed so fitting.'  

INIS na nIONTAS is to be broadcast on Irish-language channel TG4. The English version of the series, The Emerald Isles, is to be shown on BBC Northern Ireland and SBS Australia in the following months.

Episode One TX: 10th January 2024, 9.30pm, TG4


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