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The Secret Life of the Shannon

Narrator Colin Stafford-Johnson canoeing on the Shannon at sunrise.

The River Shannon is the subject of a recent RTÉ wildlife documentary produced by the Wicklow-based company Crossing the Line. It opens in the orange of dawn, with a sepia mist rising from the surface of the river before the silhouette of a canoe traverses the plane of water. “The dawn chorus comes and the reeds are full of bird song,” the narrator says. “It’s a wonderful, happy time.”

From this opening sequence, The Secret Life of the Shannon introduces the audience to the tone and timbre of what is tocome. With presenter Colin Stafford-Johnson in the canoe, the two-part series takes viewers on a comprehensive tour of the Shannon, from mouth to source, dawn to dusk, and across the four seasons. Filmed over a period of two years, Stafford-Johnson canoed the 211-mile river dozens of time to reveal the hidden natural splendor of the river’s wildlife. Ranging from wide aerial shots to slow-motion closeups of the Shannon’s fauna, the documentary is a breathtaking survey of a largely unseen Irish landscape.

The documentary premiered in May on RTÉ One, and recently took home three awards from the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival in late September, known as the “Oscars of wildlife film-making,” including the top prize. Winning the Grand Teton Best of Festival award, On a River in Ireland (as it is titled internationally) beat out other big-name contenders like Disney’s Chimpanzees and BBC’s Africa and Frozen Planet series. The other two awards were for Best Editing and Best Wildlife Habitat Program.

The clips available online attest to the spectacle of nature captured on the Shannon: The ribbon-like movements of hundreds of starlings converging on a single spot on the river:

Or the slow-motion, high-definition majesty of the kingfisher diving for a catch:


frog’s distending vocal sac as he orates his mating call:

And the fleeting jumps of red squirrels as they move among the thinnest branches of the tallest trees on the riverbank:

You can read more about the technical feats of the program here, on RTÉ’s website, but maybe the most salient feature of the documentary is Stafford-Johnson’s ability to relate the habitual lives of the Shannon’s creatures to our own. Dawn, he says in the opening sequence, is “a time to declare your intentions,” to stake out a patch of land to call your own, find a partner, find food. In that search for stability and bounty, we are perhaps not so different from the least accessible animals who abide by the natural law of the Shannon’s waters. -A.F.

One Response to “The Secret Life of the Shannon”

  1. Birgit Sharp says:

    Lovely magic!

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