Joe Mahon: 'My daughter Emma is my hero... she had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and we nearly lost her twice, but thankfully she survived'
As the popular UTV series Lesser Spotted Ulster returns for another run, its presenter Joe Mahon tells Una Brankin how he faced his worst nightmare, and why the show has turned into a family affair
On a Joe Mahon fan page on Facebook, an admirer defies anyone not to be totally relaxed by the broadcaster's soothing voice.
So, when he suggests that I'm falling asleep while he's "rabbiting on" about townland names down the phone-line, I could blame his velvety tones.
Far from nodding off, though, I'm fully engaged by his learned translations - insightful local knowledge which has made the Lesser Spotted Ulster series, which he presents, such a long-running hit for UTV.
Praise abounds online for the former English teacher from Londonderry, including plaudits from fellow UTV presenter Frank Mitchell.
Being an outdoor guy, however, Joe isn't even aware of the Facebook page. He doesn't do social media and leaves the "techie stuff" to his daughter Sarah (32), a freelance Irish language editor who helps out at his award-winning Westway Film Productions company, based in Derry's Georgian Clarendon Street.
Westway is very much a family affair; working alongside Joe's "brilliant" Lesser Spotted production team of more than 20 years, are son Patrick (30), a senior researcher, and his eldest daughter Emma (38), who looks after the administration and has co-written children's dramas for schools and Channel 4.
Joe and his wife Phil, a former nursing manager, are now grandparents to a little boy and twin baby girls, courtesy of their son Kevin (35), a garage mechanic. Their youngest Brendan (16), works in Dunnes when he's not singing and playing in a local band.
Joe says: "Brendan's the tallest of us - 6ft 3ins.
"He still lives at home with Phil and me. Phil retired five years ago but she's always busy working on local festivals. That's the secret of a happy marriage - we never see each other," he jokes.
Once the head of Radio Foyle, Joe could easily have climbed the career ladder of the BBC if he had moved from Derry. With his effortless articulacy and avuncular attractiveness, he would have been an ideal replacement for Derek Davis, when the late broadcaster headed to RTE.
But he stayed in Derry because he wanted to be with his much cherished family, setting up Westway in 1996. Within five years, however, he was facing the nightmare of losing one of his children. Emma was at university in Manchester and working as a waitress, when she began to feel ill.
Joe says: "One October she wasn't well at all and we discovered she had Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma.
"She had two years of treatment and we thought we'd lost her twice. The doctors said 'Sorry, you may lose your daughter.' She was in and out of hospital. She likes music and remembers meeting a girlfriend of one of the lad's from Ash, in a waiting room once, and the girl being of great comfort to her. She had been through something similar."
Emma was eventually given stem cell treatment.
He adds: "She wasn't in great health and she was very listless for a while, but she gradually recovered. It's not something I talk about much, but she's fairly laid back about it. She is one of my heroes, to have gone through all that and come out the other side." At the time of Emma's illness, Joe was producing McGilloway's Way, the precursor to Lesser Spotted Ulster, which followed the late Ollie McGilloway around the highways and byways of Northern Ireland. Ollie died suddenly, in 1994.
Joe says with affection: "Ollie McGilloway gave us no warning at all when he left the scene - most inconsiderate.
"He was an absolute gentleman and too young to die, and UTV wanted us to keep going. Presenting didn't immediately appeal to me but it was a simple necessity, desperation really."
Joe was to lose another friend and colleague before his time, when Gerry Anderson died last August.
Gerry was in the first flush of his hey-day when Joe was made station manager at the then "buzzing" Radio Foyle in 1984.
Like many of us, Joe watched a recent repeat of Gerry's documentary on his beloved Stroke City, narrated with a voice weakened by terminal illness.
Joe sounds as if he still can't quite believe Gerry's gone, that mellow voice rising with incredulity.
He says: "I spoke to Gerry a couple of weeks before he died - he had no intention of leaving the scene. Some people, even when they're terminally ill, don't.
"I miss him. I always listened to him in the car, travelling round. It's very hard to get used to him not being there. Very difficult to come to terms with."
Like Gerry, Joe has a natural ease in front of the camera and is exactly the same off it. He has a talent for making his interviewees relax into unforced conversation, and he's a master at summarising and conveying the most interesting nuggets of local history and cultures.
But the congenial host admits it wasn't always plain sailing in the early days of Lesser Spotted Ulster.
"I used to have to drag people in front of the camera. They were shy and self-conscious, especially about their accents - which were the butt of many a cheap joke. All you had to do was put on a country accent to get a cheap laugh in the past," he says.
"Now, many people in these rural areas have talked to the media before and want to promote their own areas. They're far more media-savvy. Luckily, we've been well-received wherever we go, even if they've never heard of us. You get from people what you give to them.
"We always treat them with the greatest respect; we'd never make fun of them. I try to establish a naturalness for people to be themselves and talk freely. I think we've pretty much achieved that."
He calls from the tiny, picturesque village of Freshford in Kilkenny, which, he tells me, in his precise, but mild, way, is surrounded by 52 chestnut trees and hosts the Irish Conker Championships every year.
It will be featured in the new Lesser Spotted Journeys series, which will see Joe widen his travels to all over Ireland - from Glenshesk, one of the lesser-known Glens of Antrim, to the parish of Kilcommon in north-west Co Mayo.
Does that mean Joe is finally running out of places to visit up here?
"If you think that, the answer is: stop the car and get out and walk. Ireland has 60,000 townlands, 1,500 or 1,600 in Ulster alone, all with their own names and stories and histories. We're only about a third of the way through.
"But to think I have been exploring for 20 years is remarkable; I'm really not quite sure where the time has gone. I've learnt so much and met so many extraordinary people and cultures in that time, but I thought, after two decades, the time was right to explore a little further, so that's how Lesser Spotted Journeys was born."
He observes that the rural character on both sides of the border is "the same" and made up of identical daily concerns - all related to him with remarkable candour on screen. He has often been approached for out-takes by the likes of It Will Be All Right On The Night, but keeps the bloopers in: "We're not po-faced about interviewing people; we work around any bloopers. We take a light-hearted approach, although that doesn't mean the subject matter is not taken seriously."
In the first episode of the new series, Joe's in scenic Ballyknockan in Co Wicklow.
"There's a beautiful lake surrounded by green hills there and in 1940, the valley floor was flooded for a reservoir to supply water and electricity to Dublin. Seventy homesteads were given notice to get out - if you stay here, you'll drown, they were told. Very traumatic. I met one elderly lady, in her mid-90s, who remembers being shifted out. She sang to me, at a picnic by the side of the lake, 'The water is wide and I cannot swim over it' (from the ballad Carrickfergus), appropriately enough."
Ever curious, Joe then heads off to check out the science behind barnacles on the rocks on Lough Hyne in Co Kerry. Later in the series, he looks into the Anglo-Norman heritage of the village of Carlingford, which used to be part of Ulster.
"I made my own coin at the mint there, and went up the mountain to see all these men's sheds. They've hacked back on the hillside and discovered a wee deserted village that was there for hundreds of years, until about 1930. Really atmospheric. And Greenore, down the road, is like a film set from Jack the Ripper. A wee London borough stuck onto the Cooley peninsula."
Back home, the team discovered a family - and a flock of sheep - that go back 400 years, in the Glens of Antrim.
"Glenshesk really is a lesser spotted glen, one of the least fashionable. I think it's beautiful; you could disappear into it. I tried to get up high enough to see Ballycastle and Rathlin; wonderful views.
"There's a family there, the McCaughans, who were originally sent there to keep an eye on another crowd 400 years ago, and stayed. They have kept their own ewes down through the years, so the same sheep have been there for all along, too. They allowed me to feed them on the hill when it was covered in snow. Tough customers."
For many years, Westway Film Productions operated on a shoestring budget. Its consistently high ratings has made life easier, if not drowning in wealth.
"We have enough and UTV have been good to us, but you always need more time," Joe admits.
"It's not lucrative, but does suffice. Travel and accommodation are our biggest outlay. We have to be highly organised; not going just hoping something will happen when we get there. It takes weeks' work. The schedule has to run like clockwork.
"But hopefully this series is just the beginning. Given the wealth of places and people waiting to be discovered, I think we could have enough material to explore with Lesser Spotted Journeys for another 20 years."
With that, he's off to "hoke out" a DVD for me, of him cooking eels, "delicious with a big lump of butter", on the lough shore with a fisherman neighbour of my parents, along with a collection of highlights of programmes I've missed down through the years. Essential viewing, all.
Joe adds: "I think our Less Spotted team is unique, in that the producer, Orlagh, and the camera and recording guys, Vinnie and Billy, have been working with me for 25 years.
"We have worked together so long, we have a sort of telepathy. Team effort."
Lesser Spotted Journeys, sponsored by Glens of Antrim Potatoes, begins on Tuesday, September 15, at 8pm on UTV. Viewers can join the conversation online by using the hashtag #LesserSpotted
Are you a Lesser Spotted Snapper?
Lesser Spotted has been bringing audiences off the beaten track to some of the most intriguing and unknown corners of Ulster since 1995.
To celebrate Lesser Spotted Journeys, Joe Mahon has called on all budding amateur photographers to enter the Lesser Spotted Snapper photography competition.
Entrants are being asked to submit images of their most loved and special places, with the overall winner crowned as the Lesser Spotted Snapper of 2015.
Any photographers wanting to take part in Lesser Spotted Snapper can find full entry details and terms and conditions at www.u.tv/snapper