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Bearman of Buncrana: not the odyssey into rural Ireland’s heart of weirdness we wanted

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The big disappointment with Return to the Wild (RTÉ One, Thursday) is that it isn’t half as bug-eyed or over the top as it should be. The series tells the story of Killian McLaughlin, a would-be wildlife park owner also known as the Bearman of Buncrana.

With billing like that it feels reasonable to expect a gonzo odyssey into the rural Ireland’s heart of weirdness. Tiger King with more rain and bears swapped out for striped great cats. Instead it is sensible and wholesome, with both feet planted firmly in reality. Do we want our Donegal Bearman planted firmly in reality?

McLaughlin is, if anything, the opposite of Tiger King anti-hero Joe Exotic. He is cautious, prudent and with a healthy sense of perspective. He’s also a solicitor with a partner, and thus, both professionally and personally, has a life outside wild animals.

All of which means that, instead of Tiger King: Donegal Edition, what we get is Room to Improve With Animals. Not that there are even that many hairy highlights in part one, with most of the tension centred on McLaughlin’s financial headaches.

McLaughlin has budgeted €150,000 for the park, which adjoins the Border and, or so goes the plan, is to feature animals that once roamed Ireland yet are now extinct, such as the spotted hyena and Eurasian Lynx.

He’s especially keen on brown bears, which died out in Ireland around the time Mayo last won an All Ireland (3,000 years ago) and pops over to Belgium to kick the tyres on a few specimens.

However, it’s the money issues that have him by the figurative throat. For that reason Return to the Wild is less a journey into the unknown than a case study in how difficult it is to get a small business up and running in this country.

The added whiff of dread is provided by the fact that he is staking his future on opening for 2020 tourist season. He doesn’t know what happens next – but we do.

McLaughlin and partner Katie Boyce are grounded and charming and you wish them well. Still, what this episode really needs is more animals (any animals at all really). The show is off to a quietly solid start – but an infusion of furry friends would not go amiss.

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