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Tales of travel in a time of quiescence

THOUSANDS of people have learned new skills and developed new interests during this year’s lockdowns.

Some of us have learned to bake banana bread or found a new found love of running or gardening, while others have gone a bit further from the beaten track. One of these is Fergal O’Keeffe, an Ennis native now based in Tipperary, who has been making a weekly podcast series called Travel Tales with Fergal. Each episode features a discussion with a different person about their travel experiences, and it has already included several Clare contributors including sports stars Anthony Daly and Keith Wood, as well as journalist Richard Fitzpatrick.

Fergal is a son of James O’Keeffe, of the well-known Ennis bar, while his brothers and sister still live in the town. He now lives in Clonmel, where he is also in the licensed trade.

He said he got the idea for a travel podcast because he was regularly listening to less positive ones. “There’s a beautiful walk, the Suir blueway, it’s five minutes from my house and I was surrounded by the Comeraghs and Slievenamon and the Suir, but listening to podcasts about Trump and Covid. One day I said I must listen to something nice, so I typed in travel. I started to listen to travel podcasts, I’ve been travelling all my life, and I said ‘I could do this’.”

Some time after that he was celebrating his 50th birthday with some friends in Lahinch, when it was suggested to him that he use his own vast experience of travelling for a podcast, and he soon got to work. He had never done anything very similar before, but had been used to work where having a certain amount of chat is required. “With the business I have a comedy and a music club, I’m very much involved with stand up comedy, I’ve been a promoter for 15 years, so I do a lot of talking with that.”

There are already plenty of Clare guests included in the series. “Anthony Daly is coming up, I interviewed him, he tells great stories about Clare hurling trips. I have Keith Wood who talks about Lions tours. Next week I have Mark O’Halloran the screenwriter. I had one about the American election, the guy is an Irish American, Sean O’Neill, whose father is from Clare. Until I did that episode I assumed Trump was going to lose. Sean is a Democrat, he said he wasn’t voting for Trump, but he wouldn’t vote for Biden and essentially said that it was all down to the economy. When I heard that I thought oh God, it’s going to be much closer than I thought.”

Married with four children now, he has always loved travelling. “I’ve been to over 30 countries. I’ve been travelling since my teens, with college I used to do the J1 and that kind of thing. I’ve travelled all my life. Now, we’re a family of six and we have always tried to do adventurous holidays. Last summer we did the tour de Mont Blanc, which is a walk from France to Italy in the Alps.”

Living with four kids might blunt the edge for travelling a little bit, but Fergal says that’s already changing. “I used to do a lot of hiking around the world so that stopped until last year when Finn (the youngest) was seven going on eight. I’d said he’s old enough now! Before that we did the Greek Islands, they all had their own little bag. Now Finn is nine, so I like to think I’m training them all in to be more adventurous.”

Fergal lived in Australia, has a fondness for Thailand, but some of his favourite destinations are in Europe. “I just love Greece, absolutely love it. I was there two years ago in a place called the Peloponnese peninsula. It’s sort of equivalent to the west of Ireland, there are little fishing villages surrounded by mountains, with very few tourists and it’s cheap and beautiful.

“The other place which is kind of similar is Puglia, the heel of Italy. It’s kind of like Greece, there are whitewashed walls, little villages. I absolutely love it.”

Unsurprisingly for a nightclub owner, he also loves Ibiza and one of his guests has been Dawn Hindle, who has a famous premises there. “She owns Pikes Hotel, where Club Tropicana by Wham was recorded and Freddie Mercury used to have his birthday parties there, she had great stories.”

Asked about his favourite episodes, he references a guest who will be well known to regular listeners to Eamon Dunphy’s popular The Stand podcast., “A guy called Philip O’Connor, he’s an ex-pat living in Sweden. He comes on Eamon Dunphy’s podcast to talk about Covid in Sweden. He’s an amazing character, he has lived in Sweden for 20 years, he was telling me about his summer house up in the Fjords and he has travelled to loads of Winter Olympics and done lots of Conor McGregor fights. That was an amazing chat. Literally, I didn’t have to ask him any questions. It was the first time I experienced that. He said things like ‘Fergal, you were asking me before we went on’, so he was asking himself the question and then talking about it! It just flew, it was just amazing.

“The one about Ibiza as well, hearing all those stories. I know I sound like I love them all, but the one that’s coming out with Mark O’Halloran (Ennis actor and scriptwriter) I particularly love, because we’ve been friends since primary school, so that was a chat between two mates. That was lovely and he has amazing stories, he’s had great adventures.”

So far he has had pretty close connections to a lot of the guests. “I know Mark since school, I know Keith Wood, Anthony Daly stays in Aherne’s Hotel which I have, he comes for the coursing and I know him very well. Another guy who is coming up is Richard Fitzpatrick from Ennis, who is in Barcelona, he put me on to Philip O’Connor. Sean O’Neill I’ve known since he was a kid, he used to come over and stay with his granny.”

Travel may be where the podcast begins, but his guests would be under utilised if that’s what they were limited to, and Fergal says all sorts of topics flow. “It’s travel but I’m covering other things. It was politics last week and it fitted in because it was about what is the culture in America and would you want to travel there now. I’m also talking about the history of countries, food, drink. I’ll be interviewing Dan Jones, a historian who has written about the Crusades, so I’ll talk to him about his history books and also about the middle east. It’s travel, food, politics, culture, people, places.”

He already has enough episodes recorded to take him up to the end of 2020, and by the end of next week, should be okay for content until the beginning of March. There’s a share of work involved in getting so far ahead of schedule, but it doesn’t feel like work to Fergal. “I’ve loads of free time, the pub is shut since March so rather than do nothing or feel sorry for myself I just wanted to do something positive and it’s been great, I’ve learned a lot, producing it, hosting it, doing interviews. Really enjoying it.”

Of course there is every chance that he would never have recorded a podcast had his business not been suspended, and it has been an uncertain and challenging time. “It is hard. If they just told us last June that you’re closed for the rest of the year and given decent support, that would have been fine. But getting ready to open, then you open and then you close again…

“ The Government are giving restart grants each time, but if they just put that money aside and said you’re shut for the rest of the year, here’s a decent payment for each week, for your head that’d be better. But wondering will you be open or will you not every couple of weeks since June, that was tough.”

About Owen Ryan

Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.