John Creedon is back on the road, and his latest TV show is uniquely suited to his interests. He chats with Donal O’Keeffe about ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’.

“In this game,” says John Creedon, “you’re always hoping for the magic question, the golden ticket, and this year RTÉ finally asked it: ‘What do you want to do?’”

Creedon’s annual summer TV programmes – from ‘Creedon’s Retro Road Trip’ (2011) to ‘Creedon’s Road Less Travelled’ (2018) – have always reflected the broadcaster’s interests and obsessions, and this year’s ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’ is tailor-made for him.

If you’ve ever listened to John Creedon’s week-nights music show on RTÉ Radio 1, you’ll know he is fascinated with place-names and their origins.

“I’ve always had a grá for place-names, since I was a kid really,” he told me told me last week.

“My mother and father were Irish speakers, my father especially. He was from Inchigeelagh, which he called a “Breac Gaeltacht”, a speckled Gaeltacht – which is a beautiful term in itself – where some houses were Irish-speaking and some English-speaking. My dad had Classical Latin and Greek. And makey-up words!

“As a young fella, it was from him I got that interest. I have a very clear snapshot in my head of standing in the well of the car in front of the front passenger seat, with my elbows up on the dashboard, asking him about place-names.

“‘Dad, what does Glengarriffe mean?’ ‘It’s from Gleann meaning Glen and Garbh meaning rough. So Rough Glen and if you look around you, you'll see why!’

“Or Tír na Spideoga, which translates as the Land of the Robins. Or Keimaneigh, the Leap (or the path) of the Deer.

“Within all these place-names, there’s just huge information that I’m just mad curious about, about the people who were here before us.

“As a kid, I always loved place-names, and rather than reading my books, I was more inclined to be looking at maps. The atlas, I’d say, was the only book that left my schoolbag!”

The first episode of ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’ – which airs at 6.30pm on RTÉ 1 on Sunday – features a scene with a young John Creedon – or rather young actor Tomás O’Connor McGovern – leafing through an atlas and circling place-names.

Creedon’s life-long curiosity about place-names led to a two-year Regional Studies diploma course in UCC, where he studied Irish Folklore and place-names. Now, he explores his passion in his new show.

For Creedon, the study of place-names has changed the way he sees Ireland.

“Driving around the country, I find my view of the landscape has become 3D, as I read the signs and stories within the place names.”

Two years ago, publicising ‘Creedon’s Shannon’, he told me: “I feel the older I’m getting, the closer to me I’m getting, and that just makes it easier. I’m not trading as a matinee idol, so I don’t feel the need to go into the gym for three months before making a show. And, also, increasingly, the subject matter is coming from my own book, from my own interests.

“I’m just so fortunate that I’m out talking about place-names, wading up to my neck in water, catching frogs and acting the eejit.”

Now, talking with Creedon, it’s clear he has found a subject matter dear to his heart, and a format which really suits him.

From watching the first of the three episodes of ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’, it’s a fascinating programme, cleverly written, and beautifully shot, and, as you’d expect, it’s also great fun. The presenter’s passion for his subject beams from the screen throughout.

One of Creedon’s greatest talents is that he makes this stuff look easy, and as anyone who has ever tried to function – even briefly – in front of a camera or a microphone will tell you, it ain’t easy.

‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’ is a worthy addition to John Creedon’s library of programmes, and a credit to its production team in RTÉ Cork.

The opening episode features a visit to the Ordnance Survey Ireland map store, where cartographer Hubert Davey shows Creedon around OSI’s archive of 43,000 maps, dating back to the original, official 1825 maps. John also looks at the 1600s Down Survey maps, where the Anglicization of Irish place-names began.

The British Government became unhappy with the taxation it was receiving from Ireland, and decided it needed to tighten its oversight. The decision was made to undertake a more detailed survey of Ireland, on a scale of six inches to a mile, with place-names marking out the 1,900 maps it would take to cover Ireland.

“Six inches to the mile!” Creedon says as he talks to me on the phone. “So, if you think about it, between where I am, in Cork, and where you are, in Fermoy… Work that one out!

“That’s a foot for every two miles… so there’s about ten feet of map between where you are and where I am!”

The British Army carried out the 1820s survey, under the supervision of Major Thomas Colby (1784-1852). He would require surveyors, and his advertisement was to-the-point:

“Surveyors wanted. The successful candidate will be expected to endure travel, ill lodgings and diet, as also heat and cold, being men of activity, that could also leap ditch and hedge, and could also wrestle with several rude persons with whom they might expect to be crossed and opposed.”

A young scholar named John O’Donovan was employed – Hubert Davey likens him to a “place-names archaeologist” – and with his team he set out to record forensically and translate the country’s place-names, a task which took over ten years and covered over 140,000 place-names.

It is in O’Donovan’s footsteps that Creedon sets out, following the path of a place-names giant.

“They covered everything,” says Creedon. “Every crossroads, every townland, every holy well, every antiquity, the type of land, scrub, all the big houses were included – you remember the ordnance survey maps from school – they were really, really, really detailed.

“The Ordnance Survey guys told me it would be very hard to find a place on the planet more intensely mapped than Ireland. Part of the reason was rates – some farmers might claim they only had nine acres when in fact they had thirteen.”

Creedon is a fan of the great Brian Friel play Translations, and it receives an honourable mention in the first episode of ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’.

“That’s set at the time when the Brits are mapping the place, and even though people can be quite critical of what they did to our place-names – ‘What did they ever do for us?’ – they did a lot, as it happens, in terms of engineering, and bridges, and railway lines, a lot of stuff that we have since dismantled, but anyway… but when they mapped us, they mapped us really well.”

Creedon tells me a fascinating story about what he calls Dungarvan’s case for Viking status, which is covered in episode three of ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’.

“Helvick, apparently, in old Norse, means ‘safe bay’.”  

He paints a vivid picture of driving down the hairpin road into Dungarvan, overlooking “the lovely horseshoe bay”, and describes a flat, marshy townland into the left called Killongford, which Creedon says means “lung” – a ship – and “fort” meaning port, and which perhaps validates the theory that Vikings really did reach Longford.

“Sorry now, Donal,” he says, in apology for the length of his answers, “but I know you won’t even use this.” I will, I will, I say, as we both laugh.

“I’m sorry,” he says, “I go off like you press a button, and then I’d be saying ‘Christ, look at the time!’”

This is precisely what happens at the end of our chat, when Creedon realises he’s late for a photo shoot at RTÉ Cork.

He is unfailingly generous with his time, and a gifted storyteller. Our quick chat lasts an hour, and he waits patiently as I’m interrupted in the middle. Afterwards, as I transcribe the conversation, I’m guilt-stricken at all the good stuff I can’t use. Sorry, John!

At one point in our conversation, I mention a phrase he often uses on his radio show, when he talks about wandering off down Botharín na Smaointa – the byroads of daydreams. Might his next programme be called ‘Creedon’s Botharín na Smaointa’?

“It might,” he laughs, “although ‘twould go on too long!”

Creedon calls the radio show “the one great constant in my life” and likens it to “being in my man-shed”.

The John Creedon Show on RTÉ Radio 1 is now in its tenth year in its current slot, and last week’s Joint National Listenership Report (JNLR) showed a year-on-year increase of 7,000 listeners. Those figures don’t reflect the show’s international audience, which texts and tweets in droves from all over the world every evening.

Creedon has made those texts and tweets an intrinsic part of his show, and clearly they haven’t done any harm at all when it comes to listener loyalty. Describing himself as a shopkeeper’s son, he says shooting the breeze with customers comes as second nature to him.

Almost every night, regular as clockwork, in what has become an endearing tradition, around about half past nine, with half-an-hour to go, Creedon realises that he has become hopelessly swamped with messages, and announces something along the lines of: “The texts and tweets are clicking in here at a rate of knots, folks, and I’m sorry, but I probably won’t be able to get to all of them, and I trust you’ll forgive me, because right now, I must press on with the music”.

And what music it is.

Any night will feature songs from anywhere, although Creedon has a long-standing grá for Irish talent. You never can predict what will come around next on the Creedon Jukebox.

One Horse Pony. Jack O’Rourke. Bruce Springsteen. Julie Feeney. David Bowie. Leonard Cohen. Elbow. Sorcha Richardson. Rory Gallagher. Josh Ritter. Bob Dylan. Miles Davis. Teleman. Greenshine. BB King. Clare Sands. cat power. Gil Scott-Heron. Marlene Enright. The Beatles. Tom Waits. Emma Langford. The Frank and Walters. Steely Dan. U2. Joni Mitchell. Ultan Conlon. Hothouse Flowers (featuring Creedon’s regular radio stand-in, Fiachna Ó Braonáin).

As our interview comes to an end, and Creedon realises he’s late for an appointment, he leaves me with one last yarn from ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’, this one a ghost story.

The townland of Matehy, he tells me, “out beyond Blarney”, gets it name from an infamous event which occurred some 300 years ago, during Penal Times. Pronounced “Maw-teh-ha”, it comes from Magh Teithe, which literally means the “Plain of the Flight”.

“There’s a Carraig an Aifrinn, a Mass Rock, out there, and there’s a story about a Captain Fox, who beheaded a priest. When Fox was buried on consecrated ground, the locals didn’t approve, but there wasn’t much they could do, before Catholic Emancipation.

“No-one is quite sure why, but all the graves are empty in the old graveyard. The story locally is – and people talk about this as if it’s real – on the night Fox was buried, the dead arose and carried their own headstones across the parish, to the new Catholic cemetery, and re-interred themselves. 

“We were in both, and it was mad to be in a cemetery with only one headstone in it.”

There’s a lovely moment in the first episode of ‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’, where Creedon visits Dublin’s National Archives, to view John O’Donovan’s 3,311 original, vellum-bound 1820s pocket-books covering his work recording Ireland’s place-names. 391 of them cover Cork.

Creedon’s eyes light up like a child’s on Christmas morning at the sight of the pocket-book marked “Inchigeelagh, Barony of Muskerry, County Cork”.

The young John Creedon, circling names on the map in the Creedon family home on Devonshire Street, would probably jump for joy.

‘Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland’ begins at 6.30pm on RTÉ1 on Sunday 11th August. ‘The John Creedon Show’ is on RTÉ Radio 1 at 8pm, Monday to Friday.