• ‘Exploring Northern Ireland’ hosted by Siobhán McSweeney. (Waddell Media )Source: Waddell Media
Siobhán McSweeney is the ultimate guide to Northern Ireland’s highlights, striking a perfect chord between travel insights and revealing her personal connection with the people and place.
By
Cat Woods

2 Mar 2022 - 10:49 AM  UPDATED 7 Mar 2022 - 4:36 PM

Who better to guide you around Northern Ireland than Derry Girls’ Sister Michael? It’s not a rhetorical question, because there is a significantly better guide. Siobhán McSweeney, the woman best known for portraying Sister Michael, was born and raised in County Cork before moving to London to study acting.

It is her own discovery of Northern Ireland, and the connections she establishes with the land of her ancestors and her birth that makes every episode of Exploring Northern Ireland unmissable viewing.

There’s no shortage of history documentaries, or news features on Northern Ireland that depict it as a place of war, terrorism and danger. There’s also no shortage of travel documentaries that depict an Ireland that is all pubs and greenery and jolly accents. McSweeney manages over four episodes to reveal the spirit of Northern Ireland through its landscapes and residents, all while keeping the mood irreverent and impish. She is, after all, a Derry Girl.

Exploring Northern Ireland has achieved what many glossy travel shows and sombre documentaries fail to do: convey a place and people that exist now, not as symbols of a country’s past or examples of news headlines, but refreshingly relatable human beings.

Last year, McSweeney confessed to The Times that she had been struggling with crisis after crisis. Indeed, only months after that interview, she broke her leg and had to pull out of hosting The Great Pottery Throwdown. As an asthmatic, she’d also spent much of the pandemic shielding herself from exposure. These struggles, and her determined, curious, resilient nature, make her enormously magnetic as a guide.

In her usual, droll fashion, McSweeney reveals to viewers that she got a call asking her to do a travel series. Her response?

“Am I going to the Maldives? Am I going to the Bahamas? Am I going to the Seychelles? No, Siobhán McSweeney, you’re going to Northern Ireland.”

Before her Derry Girls role in 2018, she was a stranger to Northern Ireland. As we follow along, we witness her take on the duties of a rowing cox, descend underground in a geopark, scale ancient mountains and leap about in the icy ocean waters, kayaking (imperfectly), having an evidently brilliant time. There’s no woman we’d rather live vicariously through.

“What surprised me most, I think, is that for such a small geographic area, how diverse all the places were,” McSweeney told Channel 4 News. That incredible diversity is on show: from the urban Belfast to the stunning, sunny beaches and the soaring, dramatic mountains.

“I was really confused and hurt at how people I knew who were intelligent, educated and really interested in the world had huge black spots when it comes to Northern Ireland, and Ireland in general, and by extension, their own history,” she says.

Before you sheepishly look away at this point, let me admit, me too. I’ve read all the Adrian McKinty crime books in which there are constant checks for car bombs and dastardly battles between Catholics and Protestants. My idea of Northern Ireland was of a grey, drizzly urban centre surrounded by bare, rural land and dour farmers.

Whether you tune in because you’re a Derry Girls fan, or because you know and love Ireland, or because, like me, you’ve never been to Northern Ireland and you want the ultimate funny, reverential, irrepressibly funny host to one of the world’s most wonderfully majestic locations, this series caters to you.

Watch it from top to tail, rather than diving in, because it makes sense to discover Northern Ireland alongside McSweeney, as her invisible accomplice. The second episode, where she reveals the breathtaking Mourne Mountains is a highlight, as is Lough Erne in episode three.

While exploring Northern Ireland – or anywhere – with the severe and, frankly, scary Sister Michael is not an appealing prospect, Siobhan McSweeney aces the job of tour guide. If she takes on the rest of the world, count us in for that, too. As the Irish proverb goes, “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields…”

And may Siobhan McSweeney always be your travel guide.

Four-part series Exploring Northern Ireland premieres at 8.30pm, Saturday 5 March on SBS. Episodes air weekly. Start with episode 1:

 

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