Derry Girls star Siobhan McSweeney on touring the north for her new TV travelogue

Jane Hardy chats to Derry Girls star Siobhan McSweeney about exploring Northern Ireland by bike for a new TV travelogue...

Siobhan McSweeney pauses for reflection in Exploring Northern Ireland with Siobhan McSweeney. Picture by Kelvin Boyes

NOBODY would call Sister Michael, the terrifying nun in Derry Girls who probably keeps the Almighty in check, an 'outdoors type'. Yet the actor who interpreted her so brilliantly, Siobhan McSweeney, is the new presenter of a TV show in which she travels the length and breadth of Northern Ireland.

Like many of the graduates of Lisa McGee's acclaimed comedy, McSweeney now qualifies as a celebrity, so the travelogue is eponymous: Titled Exploring Northern Ireland with Siobhan McSweeney, the Waddell Media-made show will reach our screens on August 12.

The press blurb for the series informs us that McSweeney is a 'hiker' who 'can't wait to get on her walking boots'. Asked to elaborate, the actor says drily: "I do ramble," then reveals that her mode of transport for the show is an electric bike, not 'Shanks's pony'.

Filming under Covid-19 restrictions only finished a few weeks ago, as McSweeney explains: "It was mainly outside, which was good, but we did take precautions."

Before filming the first series of Derry Girls in 2018, the Co Cork-born actor turned presenter had never set foot in Ulster. But she has clearly warmed to the north. She says that her first impressions of Belfast showed her a city that was "confident and very cosmopolitan and had integrated a difficult past quite well into its present", having toured the Titanic Quarter and key tourist attractions for the programme.

McSweeney also waxes lyrical about our countryside, including the lakeland terrain of Co Fermanagh, though with her dyed blonde cropped hair and a wry take on things, Ms McSweeney – who absolutely won't reveal her age ("Why do you have to know and how old are you?" she responds) comes across as quite urban.

Pausing for sustenance. Picture by Kelvin Boyes

Not so: she was brought up in the country, in a tiny village, Aherla. Asked how small, she says: "Well, it had two pubs". Did she want to escape? "No, I didn't feel the need to escape, but I wanted more experience."

The actor got this at drama school, then enjoyed small screen success in TV shows such as The Fall and Porters prior to Derry Girls. Apparently, her very first role was as Jesus at junior school. Characteristically, she says she was grimacing and resenting the extra lines given to other characters including the donkey.

Since then, McSweeney has also chalked up quite a bit more stage work, including acting in a raft of plays by Brian Friel. You wonder if she had acting in the genes.

"No, none of them was foolish enough to take it on as a profession!", she says of her family.

However, her grandfather, An Suibhne Ach Meann or 'the Gentle Sweeney', was also a performer, being a noted Irish language poet whose legacy included much loved verse and cultural initiatives.

"Sadly, I never heard him perform as he'd died before I was born," explains McSweeney, who says her late parents read voraciously and were "into culture".

The best travel programmes have a quirky USP, be it Michael Portillo's brightly coloured trousers or Michael Palin's Pythonesque humour. McSweeney's show has her dry wit and brainpower. It's pretty hilarious from the start. Staring to camera, deadpan, she says "Am I going to the Maldives? Am I going to the Seychelles? No, I'm going to Northern Ireland."

She hoovered up Belfast's key tourist attractions with an observant eye and doesn't hide her enthusiasm for other areas of the north. She does St Patrick's trail, Catholic and Anglican, claiming to like a bit of meditation even though she hates St Patrick's Day, "a miserable day for St Patrick's parade in Cork cathedral".

Relaxing in Co Fermanagh. Picture by Kelvin Boyes

On reaching his burial site, she says she expected it to be sponsored by Guinness or something or have little leprechaun hats scattered about. She adds that she was most interested in St Brigid, who's often mentioned in the fight for female reproductive rights, a cause McSweeney supports along with same sex marriage.

Strangford Lough was "beautiful and peaceful" and the Derry Girls star was fortunate enough to get an art masterclass with noted portrait painter Colin Davidson.

The landscape in Fermanagh seemed ancient and prompted thoughts on the Celtic origins of our island and what it means to be Irish. McSweeney nails it: "Northern Ireland and the Republic are both young countries, two of the newest on the planet. We're adolescents, but old too. So reckless and wise."

McSweeney also headed up the north coast – which she declares "was just like California", having filmed during the recent heatwave – and gamely whacks a golf ball about at the Royal Portrush Golf Club.

We can't end the interview without metaphorically heading to the Maiden City for some fan-chat on Derry Girls.

In 2019, McSweeney returned to Derry to participate in Arts Over Borders FrielFest with a rehearsed reading of Brian Friel's The Freedom of the City. She said at the time she loved returning as everybody had taken Sister Michael, "and by default, me", to their hearts.

The actor reveals that she not only had to shield for three months when the pandemic struck as an asthmatic, she also spent a week or so in quarantine recently. One imagines Sister Michael's trademark stare: "I based the look on our family dog, a corgi named Cleopatra," she says, adding that she got seriously bored having to self-isolate.

"Yes, it was very boring and very isolating and very lonely, as I live alone."

When Derry Girls became a mega-success, McSweeney says she didn't splash out on a vehicle or big purchase, since freelancers have to be careful. However, she did treat herself to a pretty nice holiday.

"I went to Thailand for three weeks," she tells me.

"I loved the country, the people were very nice, and I visited places like Phuket."

Maybe another travelogue beckons...

:: Exploring Northern Ireland with Siobhan McSweeney starts on August 12 at 9pm on More4.

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