The best trips are those filled with good stories and good friends, but for acclaimed Irish actor and director Adrian Dunbar (Blood, Ashes To Ashes, Line of Duty), a decent pint of Guinness doesn’t hurt either. It’s lucky then that the homeland of the now London-based star is renowned for all three, as he begins a once in a lifetime journey to discover the stories behind its breathtaking beauty in his new two-part series, Adrian Dunbar’s Coastal Ireland.
While many of us are guilty of failing to explore our own backyard, Dunbar proves that there is a strong and often unexpected sense of belonging that can be found in doing so, though admittedly there are very few places in the world that can compete with the Irish coast. It isn’t hard to feel at home when you have some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery on your doorstep. It has been more than two decades since he officially left these shores to pursue his acting career, but Dunbar’s deep sense of pride in all that the Emerald Isle has to offer endures and he admits to returning whenever he can. It’s this love for his country that makes him the perfect host, reconnecting with its unique natural environment and the people that are the contemporary custodians of its ancient past.
Dunbar’s enthusiasm sees him waste no time in showcasing the best of a 950-kilometre section of rugged Irish coastline. There’s no need for tortuously long monologues to camera or self-indulgent introductions here; this is an adventure that has been a long time in the making, and you get the impression that it is one that would have been taken whether there was a series to be made or not. We’re just lucky enough to tag along for the ride.
With much to see, the series feels more like an immersive travel diary than a traditional documentary, and the Fermanagh local is on a mission to tick some of the most stunning parts of this wild Atlantic route off his list. Despite his recent success and subsequent fame, Dunbar has retained an everyman quality that allows him to slot right back into the slower pace of rural Irish life. Storytelling is and has always been an intrinsic part of Irish culture, with its various literary icons a source of inspiration for Dunbar throughout his career, and he is able to bring the many tales he uncovers along the way to life, diving into the incredible history of each location.
He begins his travels at the most southerly point of the island in County Cork, suspended forty-five metres above the ferocity of the Atlantic Ocean on the Mizen Head bridge. It’s a marvel of engineering that has stood proudly above the roaring waves for over a century, continuing to provide its visitors with one of the most spectacular views this part of the country has to offer. Dunbar’s conversation with the engineers behind the bridge is indicative of conversations to come.
The series is so much more than a history lesson; he is genuinely curious, reiterating at every opportunity how privileged he feels to be able to experience these settings firsthand, and is eager to meet those who understand their significance better than anyone else. These conversations confirm that for every unbeatable view or historic monument, there’s also a chapter of Ireland’s unique story waiting around the corner, along with new friends to be made, and old ones ready to welcome you with open arms.
It’s at Ballymalloe House, where Dunbar pays a visit to one of Ireland’s finest chefs, Darina Allen, that the produce of the region is given the spotlight. This is the birthplace of modern Irish cuisine, and as Dunbar acknowledges its thriving food scene, he also recalls a pivotal career moment starring alongside Anthony Hopkins in Robert Knight’s The Dawning. There’s a personal touch to every aspect of Dunbar’s exploration of the coast, going out of his way to retrace memories from his childhood and early career, calling by to see those who feature in them whenever he gets the chance. He drops by to see renowned photographer, John Minihan, famous for his portraits of Princess Diana and Dunbar’s literary hero, Samuel Beckett, and artist pal, Barry Britton, who put the tiny seaside village where Dunbar holidayed as a child on the world surfing map.
His arrival on the Skellig Islands off the coast of County Kerry is a personal triumph, a destination he had previously tried but failed to reach twice thanks to treacherous seas. The UNESCO world heritage site was once a monastery 600 feet above the sea, and more recently a setting for the Stars Wars films, but in either case it is undeniably otherworldly. WB Yeats once wrote of ‘the land of heart’s desire’ and the folk stories and mythology that first inspired him to pen this phrase permeate the second part of Dunbar’s journey as he leaves the islands and moves north, placing him at the extremity of Ireland’s coastal environment, first on the remote Aran Islands, and again in the high winds of Malin Head, its most northerly point. By the time he returns to the Giant’s Causeway, crosses the precarious Carrick-a-rede rope bridge, and finishes his journey in the majestic Mourne Mountains in Restrover, County Down, Dunbar will have you captivated by the magic that Ireland has to offer. The worlds of lions, witches and wardrobes that were undoubtedly born out of these landscapes suddenly don’t seem so farfetched after all.
If you are yet to visit Ireland, the series will only confirm the need to see the beauty of its coastline for yourself one day. For the Irish living abroad, it’s easy to understand Dunbar’s desire to show the world the spectacular beauty of his country. As for those that have been fortunate enough to take a similar journey, Irish or not, it’s wonderful to relive it all over again. In Dunbar’s case, it’s just good to be home.
Catch the premiere of two-part series Adrian Dunbar’s Coastal Ireland at 7.30pm on SBS, Wednesday 29 September, concluding on Wednesday 6 October. Episodes will stream at SBS On Demand after going to air.