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'I was thrilled to come back to Northern Ireland for a travel series through an artist's eyes'


Martha Kearney visits some of Northern Ireland’s beautiful and historic sites

Martha Kearney visits some of Northern Ireland’s beautiful and historic sites

Martha Kearney visits some of Northern Ireland’s beautiful and historic sites

Broadcaster and journalist Martha Kearney goes back to her family's Ulster roots to follow in the footsteps of little-known 19th-century Irish artist and geologist George Victor Du Noyer in a new mini series for BBC NI.

Du Noyer spent his entire adult life walking around Ireland drawing and charting unusual geological landscapes as part of the great Victorian Geological Survey of Ireland, which began in 1845.

He was also a hugely talented artist and captured life as it was more than 150 years ago in a large collection of exquisite drawings.

Martha Kearney, who presents BBC Radio Four's World at One, last spent time in Northern Ireland during the period between 1988 and 1998, when she reported on the Troubles and the Good Friday Agreement for BBC radio's On The Record and TV's Newsnight.

"I was delighted to come back and thrilled to be asked to present a travel series about Ireland through the eyes of an artist," she says. "I had never heard of Du Noyer before and was surprised at how few other people knew of him."

Born in Dublin, Kearney and her family moved to England when she was a child, but she has strong connections to Northern Ireland. "My maternal grandfather was from Lurgan and he later moved to Dungannon, where my mother was born. I also have an aunt who lives on the North Coast. When I was a very young child, living in Dublin, we visited Dungannon quite a lot.

"Coming back to Northern Ireland now and seeing how the place has changed has been incredible. I know there are still difficulties, but the transformation has been quite extraordinary, particularly in Belfast. Just looking at the city centre, it seems much happier and positive.

"When I was last here, I remember Army patrols, constant bomb warnings and it was obviously very difficult for people to live with that. It's wonderful to see such a change."

Over the course of the four programmes, Martha joins viewers on a comprehensive walk of the island, unlocking the story of Ireland's hidden landscapes and revealing Du Noyer's unique record of how the country looked during the mid-19th century - a period of huge change.

In Northern Ireland, she takes in the extraordinary beauty of the Giant's Causeway and Dunluce Castle, Co Antrim, and Mussenden Temple, Co Londonderry and discovers the history of the buildings and the area.

She also marvels at how Belfast was shaped by the Victorians and visits Kearney Point on the Ards Peninsula, Co Down.

The islands of the Fermanagh Lakelands - White Island, Boa Island and the renowned Station Island, a spiritual retreat for many over the centuries - are also explored.

Du Noyer was born in 1817 in Dublin. He was a polymath: a draughtsman by training, who was equally versed in archaeology, history, geology and, paleontology. His journey began in 1834 when he was employed by the civilian department of the Irish Ordnance Survey. He remained there until 1845, when the newly established Geological Survey of Ireland began - an ambitious project to map the entire island including its geography, geology, archaeology, and historical sites.

Du Noyer walked the Irish countryside, accompanied by his loyal dog, Mr Buff, visiting each and every rock exposure, and recording the details upon six-inch sheets issued by Ordnance Survey.

As he walked, he sketched the landscapes alongside mapping them. He also drew street scenes, flowers and plants. He recorded fossils, castles, houses, people that interested him, broken gates, big vistas and little details.

There may have been more accomplished geologists, artists, and archaeologists, but no one could match him for skill - and passion - in cataloguing step by step the landscape in its entirety.

In April 1867, Du Noyer became the Geological Survey of Ireland's first district surveyor and moved to Carrickfergus, Co Antrim.

Sadly, while working in Antrim in December 1868, he took ill with scarlet fever and died on January 3, 1869, aged 52, his daughter Fanny having died from the same disease the day before. They were buried in the graveyard adjoining All Saints' Parish Church in the town.

Thanks to Du Noyer and his thousands of drawings, we can see Ireland how it was more than 150 years ago. His numerous sketches and pictures, with their combination of artistic skill and technical accuracy, were the "field photographs" of their day.

"Du Noyer had the same kind of curiosity that journalists have, which was something I really admire about him," adds Kearney.

"He talked to everyone and was very interested in finding out about the history and culture of places that were really remote.

"I had never done a programme like this before and it was a wonderful and fascinating experience. We visited the most beautiful places including my favourite, Dunluce Castle, which has an extraordinary history."

  • Great Irish Journeys with Martha Kearney, BBC One NI, Monday, 7pm

Belfast Telegraph