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Earth Day Interview with Ella McSweeney

April 22, 2009

Ella McSweeney

Ella McSweeney

corey says…Ella McSweeney’s work for Ireland’s RTE Radio 1 has taken her to every corner of Ireland. The Trinity College-educated producer and radio host has taken her listeners on the search for the endangered corncrank (that’s a bird, in case you didn’t know), the home of the elusive Irish otter and on treks along Ireland’s dramatic coasts and inland landscapes – she’s even introduced audiences to the recently discovered coral reefs of the Irish Sea, just to name a few.

Working with RTE and the BBC, Ella has a well-established répertoire earning her a Young Science Journalist of the Year award and a nomination for a Phonographic Performance Ireland (PPI) Radio Award.

With three of her acclaimed programs now available as podcasts, Ella’s nature walks and science programs are finally available to audiences outside of Ireland. For visitors looking to enjoy some of Ireland’s natural wonders, her podcasts provide a fascinating peek into the flora and fauna of the Emerald Isle.

This Earth Day, we’re pleased to revisit our interview with Ella.

What is your idea of a perfect day?
It would be walking along the lakes of Burrishoole, Co. Mayo – my favourite place in the world! It’s just magical there – the landscape is so rugged and majestic, and the diversity of wildlife that you see is breathtaking.

What is your morning ritual?
At the moment, I’m completely taken with my seedlings. I’ve bought hundreds of seeds from the Irish Seed Savers Association ( – they do some brilliant native varieties – and so far, so good. Each morning I get up to see if they have grown through the soil.

Once I’m happy that they are watered and content, it’s the usual – shower, breakfast and off to work. I’ve been out and about recording a lot of late, and haven’t spent as much time in RTE as normal. That will all change once I get back to edit my programmes. I really like everyone I work with and morning coffee and chats are always fun.

The perfect place to live is…
Either Ireland or Cornwall in England. My mum is Cornish, so I’ve spent a lot of time there, and the landscape reminds me of here. Last year I spent a week in a small fishing village called Mevagissey, it was wonderful. Mayo is really stunning – there’s something about the evening light that transforms the landscape and makes it so special. The writer Michael Viney documented this vividly in his book, ‘A Year’s Turning,’ about a year in the life of Mayo.

What are the best places for visitors to immerse themselves in Ireland’s flora and fauna?
West Cork is always a favourite,and a walk along the Sheep’s Head Peninsula is a good bet. Leitrim is just marvelous – the landscape is breathtaking. The machair habitat just outside of Dunfanaghy in Donegal is really amazing – the orchids that grow on the machair are magnificent.

How has Ireland’s economic growth impacted the wildlife of the country?
I think badly, but obviously we’ve had an amazing boom in terms of jobs and opportunities. We don’t have a culture of caring for wildlife – probably because we have a lack of politicians who are educated in matters of the environment. Until 1971, there were no environmental studies taught in primary schools in Ireland, so we have a generation of politicians who don’t have core education in this area.

It’s all changing now – mainly thanks to the like of An Taisce ( and the Irish Wildlife Trust ( who do some great work, especially with the schools.We definitely missed an opportunity to make Ireland as sustainable and green as possible – we have too many roads, too little money invested in trains and buses, and we have an incredible amount of new, expensive cars on the roads. You can hear the hum of traffic in too many parts of Ireland, it’s a pity. Blackbirds are a much prettier listen!

What is the story behind the name of your show, Shanks Mare?
The shank is where your calf on your leg is, and to take shanks mare means to walk – that’s what I do in each programme, I walk!

How would you describe your sense of humor?
Now I’m blushing!

Name an off-the-beaten-path destination in Ireland you think more visitors should visit.
I’m obsessed by Mayo – it’s just incredible. I would always say Burrishoole – the lakes of Lough Feeagh and Furnace are wonderful. There’s a brilliant Youth Hostel called Traenlaur Lodge on the shores of Lough Feeagh – it used to be an old Guinness hunting lodge and is a brilliant place to stay.

If you’re in Dublin, Glencree Valley is near enough and there are some beautiful walks there, especially up Lough Bre to the Eagle’s Crag. It’s always worth popping in to Dublin’s Natural History Museum to get away from it all – we’ve got one of the best in the world.

What music are you listening to today?
I listen to a wide range of stuff, from Digital Underground to the Scottish folk singer Isla St Claire. Today, I was listening to my iPod on shuffle, so heard music by Charlotte Gainsbourg, Smokey Robinson, Gillian Welch, Debussy, Joan Baez, The Ethiopians, the brilliant Gabby Pahinui and songs by Gene Kelly, who I absolutely love. Gene and Cyd Charisse – the best ever!

In the event you are reincarnated, what would you like to return as?
Because I love eating fish, swimming in the sea and being in the countryside, it has to be my favourite of creatures, the otter. The Irish for the otter is ‘madra uisce’ – the waterdog – and it’s a perfect description for this majestic mammal.

Name one trait you most deplore in yourself.
Impatience. (That and my inability to find outer space exciting – it’s really frustrating why I’m not thrilled by it.)

Name one trait you most deplore in others.
Doing awful things because of superstitious beliefs – it’s

What is one of your most treasured memories?
After I finished college, a group of us went body boarding on an incredible beach between Tralee and Dingle in Co. Kerry. It was the end of a long summer’s day and the huge glowing sun was slowing setting. As it winked goodbye over the horizon, we continued to float in the water on our boards for about an hour, listening to the sound of the sea. It was just supermagical.

What experiences most influenced your career path?
My biology teacher in school, Dr Burke.He was such a good teacher with wonderful energy. It’s because of him that I studied science in college. The other person who influenced me greatly is Keelin Shanley, a remarkable broadcaster who was the first person to help me in my wish to work in radio!

What three things are you most grateful for?
The fact I was born – imagine the chances of that! My family, including the new addition in the form of my sweet little edible nephew Sacha, and finally my health. I know that sounds cliched, but I’ve just completed a second series of Mind Matters, which looks at conditions of the brain such as Huntington’s Disease, migraine, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, and it’s made me even more aware of how much people have to cope with when they are ill. Ireland’s public healthcare system isn’t as good as it should be considering our wealth, so it’s a hard struggle for people.

Which of your podcasts do think is the most useful to a first time visitor to Ireland?
The good thing about podcasts is that you can subscribe to the series and then pick and chose yourself. I’ve done three seasons of Shanks Mare from locations all over Ireland – from the shores of Donegal to a gem of a place called Canty’s Cove near Goleen in West Cork. The idea of the series is to find out more about Ireland’s natural history, and the programmes are full of local people who love their area.

Who are your personal heroes?
Whilst making Shanks Mare, I came across so many admirable people across Ireland who are volunteering on various projects in their local area for the greater good. It’s amazing and very uplifting.

What is your favorite meal?
Anything with fish, I just love it.

What is your favorite Irish tradition?
It has to be the annual Regatta na Lachain – the Dingle Duck Race in Kerry. Hundreds of ducks compete along the Mall River. It’s just so much fun.

Your philosophy on life is…
Worrying is overrated.

What would you like to achieve in the next 12 months?
I’ve been extremely lucky in my life – I have a lovely job, and I’m extremely content. My main aim personally is to grow as many plants in my garden as possible -I’ve just seeded hundreds of them and hope that this summer, the butterflies and bees will appreciate me!

In my work, I hope more than anything to continue working in the area I am at the moment. And of course, I’d like to do more of what I find admirable in others – volunteer in the community.

Ella’s Podcasts:

Other sites Ella mentions

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