War memories and close ties in Hector’s new travel show

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One of Hector Ó hEochagáin’s favorite things in life is to look at a map. He and his director, Evan Chamberlain – the duo have worked together on travel documentaries for more than 20 years – will lay a map of the world on a hotel room bed. On the table next to them will be a few beers. They will lean over the map, plotting, plotting like two Victorian adventurers.

“I loved geography at school – the names of capital cities, mountains, rivers always kept me going when I was a kid in Navan,” says Hector.

“My favorite was the capital of Albania. I knew it was Tirana. It always brought me bonus points! When I look at a map, I get a buzz. It’s my best friend. There’s “Something about maps. They’ve been there for centuries. Google Maps in your car or on your phone replicates what sailors had in their galleons hundreds of years ago with all their instruments and stuff.”

Chamberlain and Hector chart their course. “We’re going: ‘what about that? Look at the Balkans. Look at the Bosphorus. Look at the Black Sea. And if we go from here to there, from the Balkans to the Baltic? The title immediately attracts people. Where are the Balkans? Where is the Baltic? If you look at the map, it’s a natural progression through Eastern Europe, from line to line.

Hector Ó hEochagáinin in a hammam sauna in Istanbul for Balkans go Baltics, on TG4.

Hector’s 3,000 kilometer trek from the Balkans to the Baltic in the north is the latest seven-part episode of his travels around the world, as he learns about the cultures and customs of Turkey and several former Eastern bloc countries, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and Poland, as well as two Baltic states. Each country is given an episode. It’s remarkable, he says, how much the communist experience dented the people he met along the way.

“There is so much mental and physical baggage in the air in these countries. The former Yugoslavia was divided into six countries. All of these countries are unique in their own way, but they have been covered by the curtain of communism. You can feel that there has been a lot of misery, war, tension, a lot of grief and death. Lots of oppression.”

Hector says it is difficult for countries like Poland, Serbia and Latvia to let go of their past. “A country like Poland was beaten by the Nazis and ruled by the Russians. People think that Eastern Europeans are cold and tough and very stern people. But they suffered a lot of destruction in the 60 to Last 70 years. It takes a while to break these people down, to get to know them, but I found them to be the most amazing, friendliest and hardiest people.

“I wanted to find out during the trip if I had anything in common with these people, as an Irishman from an island a few hours away in Europe. What do we have in common with them?”

Hector and his production team had to shoot an episode about Ukraine at the last minute, as Russian military forces began to gather at the Ukrainian border just as they were about to enter the country for filming. .

He touches on several other war-related topics during his travels, including a fascinating visit to Gallipoli, the site of the needless deaths of over 3,000 young Irishmen during the First World War. His visit to Auschwitz left a mark that still lingers.

“It was a beautiful sunny winter day. There was soft falling snow, about three or four feet of snow on the ground. We entered through this wooden door. It’s only been seventy years since that happened, in the blink of an eye – where millions of people lost their lives. Even talking about it now makes me nauseous that humanity could be so mean for doing what they did.

Hector Ó hEochagáin at the gate of Auschwitz.
Hector Ó hEochagáin at the gate of Auschwitz.

“When you look left at Auschwitz, that’s the way to the gas chamber for these men and women. When you look to the right, even in the hospices, in the places where they slept, you see the marks on the walls, the bloodstains. There is a spirit of sadness, a sense of stillness, a sense that something awful has happened in the buildings and in the neighborhood. I felt guilty leaving him five or six hours later – guilty as a human being that it happened. How in God’s name did we allow this to happen?”

Hector found the visit interesting but scary. “Nothing can prepare you for being in the gas chambers. They have only one facility. It’s a glass box. It’s about 20 meters long. There are suitcases and children’s shoes stacked on top of each other that they removed upon entering the gas chamber. As a parent it was painful to witness. It’s horrible, a place of history, but everyone should see – to see what happened there.

The mood, of course, is lighter elsewhere in the series. It’s hard not to burst out laughing at the sight of Hector grimacing during a vigorous massage at the Turkish baths before dawn. He drinks rakia – a home-distilled spirit like poitín – in the Bulgarian countryside, singing along with the jovial distillers; he visits Count Dracula’s castle in Transylvania; he is honing his tennis skills at Novak Djokovic’s center of excellence in Belgrade.

Hector at the Novak Center in Serbia with tennis player Andrea Mrvić.
Hector at the Novak Center in Serbia with tennis player Andrea Mrvić.

Hector felt a special kinship with the people he met in the Baltic republics, that he was with kindred spirits. He happily danced jigs with the locals, who played accordions and dressed like Wren Boys, in the Lithuanian countryside, for example, at a festival marking the end of winter, which culminated with the burning of a 40 foot effigy of a scarecrow. .

“When I arrived in Latvia,” he says, “I was with a survivalist in the forests. A great guy, who took me through the snow on a frozen river in 10 below zero degrees by canoe. We are We went hunting. We started a fire. He fed me from this tree in the desert. He showed me how to survive in the virgin Latvian forests. Almost sixty percent of the country is under forest. recalled how Ireland might have been when Ireland was full of silver birch, rowan and oak trees and we were all tribal.

“What I took away from sitting with this man, and the way he looked, with his blue eyes and white skin, and the way he talked about Mother Nature – I immediately felt a connection with him, as a descendant of this island of the Celts because I know that I am descended from the Fir Bolg.

“If you look at the latitude line, Latvia and Lithuania are our real northern European cousins. I really felt at home in a forest in the ice with a survivalist hunter talking about his love of the land. The feeling I got from Latvia and Lithuania was: these are my people.

  • Hector — Balkans go Baltics, TG4, Thursday evening, 9:30 p.m.
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