Donegal’s Gay Pride Festival and Parade helps shape new era in Irish rural life

When Pól Penrose spoke tearfully at the end of Saturday’s Gay Pride Parade in the Irish rural town of Falcarragh in Donegal and thanked everyone profusely for their support, he probably didn’t fully realise how truly history-making his efforts – and those of his fellow committee members – had been.

In Ireland, but more specifically, rural Ireland, and in an Irish-speaking Gaeltacht to boot, he and his colleagues, and all those who marched in, and watched, the parade, including my wife and myself, or hung supportive rainbow-coloured banners and flags from their homes and shops, helped break through yet another socially backward barrier.

The well-organised festival, which included poetry readings, film workshops, drama, concerts and online discussions both as Gaeilge and as Bearla, and Saturday’s parade promoted dignity, equality and fairness for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people (LGBTQ+), and their families.  

As Pól, a gay actor from Falcarragh who features in ‘Ros na Rún,’ TG4’s longest-running series, said to me during an interview for an article for this week’s ‘Donegal News.’

“Such a festival, BRÓD na Gaeltachta, is a long time coming, a celebration like this in an Irish rural town means people no longer have to move to bigger towns and cities due to their sexuality,” said Pól. “Though it was the first such event in any Gaeltacht, community, support was so strong our initial idea, a weekend event, exploded into a weeklong festival.” Pól co-ordinated the festival following a vigil he initiated after the death of two men in Sligo in April in homophobic attacks.

Maggie McKinney, originally from county Down who walked in the parade, summed up the views of many, “I’m delighted it happened, it was such an important event, promoting inclusivity for all.” Someone from Berlin said, “it was well worth the journey.”

There are probably few more experienced people than friendly author and archaeologist, Brian Lacey, to describe what a social milestone, Falcarragh’s Gay Pride Festival and Parade represented. Lacey, who has penned many scholarly books, as well as one entitled, ‘Terrible Queer Creatures: Homosexuality in Irish History,’ and a festival committee member living in Dunlewey, said, “It was a wonderful spectacle, one that clearly illustrates how Irish society has changed. It was fully supported by the community and businesses, most of which flew Gay Pride Banners. Keep in mind, long ago the Catholic Church burned people at the stake for being homosexual and in more modern times, gay people had to battle with issues such as AIDS and their civil and legal rights, with little public support. The same-sex marriage referendum here seven years ago was, of course, transformative.”

To all those, young and old, male and female, people of all religious and spiritual persuasions, who helped the recent festival in any way, shape or form, to be the success it was, I salute you and raise my glass to your long life and happiness.


Through your bravery, your vision, your determination, your sheer pioneering spirit, you have helped lead people – not just in Donegal, not just in Ireland, but in places far and wide – into a brand new emerging world of greater mutual understanding and acceptance. And there’s no better attitude than that to forge a better future for each and every one of us

That is an exemplary accomplishment, one to be proud of, one no amount of money can buy, no level of fame can achieve.

It was done through pure organisational grit and determination powered by an openness and a willingness to do more than just talk the talk – to literally go one step further – to walk the walk.

Bravo to you (us) all.

Is mise le meas mor, Sean.

Photos and videos by Columbia Hillen.

‘Fiddles and Faeries’ competition reaches climax

I am both delighted and proud that ‘Fiddles & Faeries,’ an international fiddle-playing competition I launched, has proved so successful, with ‘Awards for Excellence’ being presented at a most enjoyable event at Leo’s Tavern, home of famed Celtic group, Clannad, and singer, Enya, in west Donegal this past weekend.

While not a fiddle-player myself, I am an aficionado of traditional culture and this competition allowed me to highlight in a modest way the wonderful talents of so many musicians worldwide, younger and older – including a schoolgirl just 12 years old and a farmer and retired plasterer in his ‘70s – many of them from Donegal, the beautiful northwestern Irish county I now call home.

People from different countries including England, the US, Ireland and Australia celebrated fiddle-playing.

From so many different countries including Iceland, France, Canada, Ireland, the US, England and Scotland, the participants all had one thing in common – a passion for music – with the fiddle being their instrument of choice. 

There were some who told me the ‘Fiddles & Faeries’ project would never work. That it would require too much effort and organisation. And to an extent they were right. There was a tremendous amount of work involved, more than I ever anticipated, both for me and for my wife, Columbia, over the last nine months. 

But if we all simply gave up on projects – especially those projects close to our hearts – because others said that they couldn’t be done, sure maybe we’d never try anything.

Aside from the naysayers, there are a number of people I’d like to thank individually for their advice and support, without which I might not have gone ahead. Among them are Mícheál Ó hÉanaigh, chief executive of Údarás na Gaeltachta, and his colleague, Meadbh Seoighe, who trusted me to succeed to the best of my abilities; Colm Ó Baoill at Foras na Gaeilge in Donegal, a musician himself, who offered sound advice; the wonderfully tireless Mary Coyle, manager at  Ionad Naomh Pádraig Community Centre in Dore, who helped me host a launch event last autumn with Donegal musicians and poets, even though her husband was suffering symptoms of Covid; and Bartley Brennan and Sean Mac Ruairí who worked closely with me for the enjoyable ‘Awards for Excellence’ event at Leo’s Tavern last Saturday. 

Hopefully, pandemic permitting and financial support available, the ‘Fiddles & Faeries’ event will be a prelude to my proposed Guinness World Record breaking fiddle-playing attempt, an event that would bring much positive national and international attention to this little, economically marginalised, culturally-rich corner of Ireland. I found out that such a world record, which requires having the most fiddlers playing in one place at one time, has never been tried and promptly paid the dues necessary to do so. I am fearful, however, someone else, somewhere else, may organise it before I do. 

In preparing for the Guinness World Record breaking attempt last year, I conducted a lot of research on fiddle-playing. Within Donegal, communicating with such people and organisations as Rab Cherry at Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí, a non-profit friendship or association of fiddle players formed in the early 1980’s to support and promote the art of fiddle playing in the Donegal tradition and Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan fame. But also outside Donegal, in Sligo, meeting with people like John McGettrick, manager of The Coleman Traditional Irish Music Centre, a living musical museum dedicated to Michael Coleman, a legendary fiddle-player who emigrated to America many years ago; in Wexford at the home of brilliant fiddle-player Colm Mac Con Iomaire, one of the founding members of dynamic traditional band, Kila, who also plays with The Frames alongside Glen Hansard; and in Kildare with Marina Guinness, descendant of the famous brewery family who has selflessly helped many struggling musicians over the years.

Sean meeting with Colm Mac Con Iomaire, renowned Irish composer, fiddle-player and founding member of The Frames and Kila, at his Wexford studio

My time on the project amounted to well over 100 hours of work and travel. And then, just as the world record attempt was beginning to take shape, Covid struck again last year, forcing me to shelve my plans.

Meeting Marina at her Kildare home – (l to r) Columbia Hillen, Sean Hillen and Marina Guinness.

But the unique idea of establishing such a world record is still out there in the ether, waiting for the right people at the right place at the right time. And with its strong tradition of fiddle-playing through the generations and over the centuries, it seems to me Donegal is the perfect place to do it.

If you know of a vibrant community centre or a music school to partner with on such a fabulous, albeit challenging, musical project, please get in touch with me.

And now all that’s left for me here is to have the honour of congratulating all participants in the inaugural ‘Fiddles & Faeries’ competition. For their initiative in entering it, the musical pleasure they gave to so many people and the hours and hours and hours of practice every day, every week, they’ve put in to become as talented as they are. 

In addition to those musicians in the videos above, other finalists included Ty Kelliher from Connecticut; Steve Blake from London; Charlotte Slater from Aberdeenshire in Scotland; James Timothy Plattes from Minnesota; and Jamesie Wray and Meghan McGinley from Donegal.

Go raibh maith agat – Thank you – to everyone involved in this cultural project.

Star-studded cast of musicians kick-off Guinness World Records attempt in Donegal, Ireland

Friday (tomorrow) evening will see a star-studded cast of musicians officially launch Donegal Ireland’s attempt to break not one but six (6) Guinness World Records – for fiddle playing – including an assembly of more than 1,000 fiddle players in one place at one time.

Admission is free and the extravaganza, starting at 7.30pm in Ionad Naomh Padraig in Gweedore, and themed ‘Fiddles and Faeries,’ is 90-minute long show featuring traditional music including an orchestral-style concert of more than 25 troubadours from all over Donegal and beyond, including maestros on fiddle, tin whistle, accordion, flute, uilleann pipes, mandolin, guitar and accordion, as well as award-winning sean nos dancers.

The talented cast of musicians includes many who are award-winners with their own CDs who have embarked on many top-notch international tours while others belong to Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, the primary Irish organisation dedicated to the promotion of the music, song, dance and the language of Ireland. Many of the fiddle players are under 12 years of age at least one being only eight, organised by Theresa Kavanagh and Sinead Hegarty.  

The young and not-so-young, the musicians, live in towns across Donegal, inc. Falcarragh, Dunfanaghy, Bunbeg, Lifford and Letterkenny. 

They include –

Theresa Kavanagh – fiddle player and music teacher, Gortahork, Donegal

Martin Crossin, uilleann pipe player and maker, from Milford, Donegal via Belfast

Tara Connaghan, fiddle player and teacher, Glenties, Donegal.

Noel Lenaghan (Ramelton, Donegal via Belfast) – whose repertoire includes rarely-performed songs from Galway, Mayo, Donegal, New Zealand, and Belfast.

Writers who will recite their poems linked to faeries as Gaeilge agus as Bearla on the evening include Colette Gallagher, Letterkenny and Gweedore and Máire Dinny Wren, Gweedore.

There will also be generous prizes on the evening for the best dressed ‘faeries’ for both children and adults, so organisers are advising audience members and performers to take out those Halloween costumes from the cupboard.

Worthy charities to benefit from the two musical Events include those supporting cancer sufferers, Alzheimer’s, debilitating genetic condition, amyloidosis (or Donegal Amy), motor neurone disease, fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, suicide prevention and diabetes. 

“This exciting line-up of arts and cultural entertainers on Friday evening featuring top-class musicians, dancers and singers will highlight the rich seam of arts and cultural talent throughout Donegal and the efforts being made to harness it,” said Sean Hillen, lead organiser of the Guinness World Records breaking attempts. “The two events, this Friday and on New Year’s Eve, will not only help important charities but also help promote Donegal and particularly its Gaeltacht region as a prime tourism destination point for national and international visitors seeking exhilarating cultural and arts experiences on their world travels. This, in turn, will create added business for hotels, museums and heritage centres, cafes, pubs, Airbnb, taxi services, walking and bus tour guides and restaurants, thus creating greater employment opportunities for local people, thus helping the Irish language and culture to survive and flourish and bring attention to the need for regeneration of rural Ireland and its traditions.”   

The event on Friday evening follows an informal meeting earlier this week to discuss details of the New Year’s Eve 3-hour music extravaganza culminating in the attempts to set six (6) different fiddle playing world records, including the largest assembly of such musicians anywhere in the world at any given time. 

The meeting was attended by attended by such well-known figures as Mary Coyle, manager, Ionad Naomh Padraig; Donegal County Councillor and Udaras na Gaeltachta board member, John Sheamais O’Fhearraigh, and Michael Doherty, sound and video technician and highly-respected GAA supporter.

Due to its uniqueness and timeliness, the New Year’s Eve event is expected to attract widespread international  broadcast and print media attention nationally in Ireland and  across Europe and the North American continent. 

Register to receive updates HERE.

Due to Covid restrictions, rules regarding mask wearing and social distancing will be followed. Remember to bring your mask and vaccination certificate.

Half million euro missing in Donegal, 250 euro returned

Half a million euro would be considered a miraculous life-saver by Mary, the tireless community worker struggling on behalf of cancer patients from Donegal who can barely afford the hefty cost of travel to Galway for specialised treatments.

If the hardworking managers of local community centres in the Donegal Gaeltacht received half a million euro, they could hire additional full-time Irish, and English-language, staff for several years and expand exponentially their range of services and activities in support of local people. 

If Amharclann, the Irish-language theatre in Bunbeg, received half a million euro, it could run an exciting cultural programme of dance, music, cinematic and theatrical performances for the next five years.

Not to mention how hard-pressed individual artists and musicians bereft of gigs due to Covid could use that money. Or indeed the Donegal office of Irish-language organisation, Foras na Gaeilge, whose local members help keep our native language alive here. And as for those unfortunate people whose homes and businesses have been destroyed by mica ….

But none of these groups have the luxury of half a million euro. 

Such a notion would be considered pure and utter fantasy, especially in the hard financial times in which we now live. 

Yet that is about the sum of money former Donegal Fianna Fail Senator, Brian O’Donnell, from Falcarragh in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht, has just wasted. ‘Snatched brutally, selfishly and greedily’ some are saying, from the public purse. Others use the term ‘stolen,’ but in this article I wish to be diplomatic.

How did he do this?

Ironically, over the Irish language.

O’Donnell was caught taking money from the public purse by duplicating travel and subsistence expenses as both board member of Irish-language economic group, Údarás na Gaeltachta, and Donegal County Council. 

The accusations – and this beggars belief – investigated by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) – was that it would have been impossible for him to have been in two different parts of the country at exactly the same time, at two different conferences. 

And there I thought teleportation – where matter is de-materialised at one place and recreated instantly at another – happened only in science-fiction movies and fantasy comics.

If that wasn’t enough, the former Fianna Fail Senator then cowardly left the scene of an accident while driving his car in a drunken state.

But that’s only the beginning of the saga.

O’Donnell, with the aid of well-paid lawyers, fought the accusations against him, not on the basis of whether they were right or wrong, true or false, but on the simple basis that the cases should be heard as Gaeilge (in Irish) not English. The fact that both languages are official languages of the Republic of Ireland didn’t matter a damn to him, nor them. Nor the eventual cost to ordinary Irish citizens, including those unfortunate people suffering from cancer.

The rest of the story is spread across years of newsprint.

After deploying numerous tactics to delay the ‘claims investigation’ many times, he then decided to do the same to the ‘leaving the scene of an accident’ investigation, not once but a total of 20 times.

As a result, the total bill to the ordinary Irishman, woman and child has been estimated at around – yes, you’ve guessed it – half a million euro, the amount the board of trustees of Amharclann, Donegal’s proud Irish-language theatre, the hardworking staff of the county’s community centres and the many severely sick people – all dream of having to help them.

In the meantime, craftily devising his delaying tactics, which eventually spanned a massive eight years, did O’Donnell quietly planned his ‘get-out-of-jail card’ – his emigration to Canada? In fact, O’Donnell being found guilty could perhaps have led to a short prison sentence and would have prevented him emigrating to Canada. And certainly would have prevented him getting a Canadian driving license.

Was his delaying tactics also related to avoidance of his share of the legal costs? For example, I’ve been trying to find out if he ever paid a legal bill placed upon him by three judges who threw out of court his claim that the SIPO was not entitled to investigate his duplicitous behaviour because, he claimed, the allegations arose from ‘an anonymous complaint by a member of the public.’ 

I’d like to know not only if Mr. O’Donnell has paid his full legal bill but how much it was. If Mr O’Donnell is reading this, please get in touch. It’s only fair to hear his side of the story. And transparency is something we all should strive for.

Mysteriously the court hearing that finally put an end to one of the most ludicrous and wasteful cases in Irish legal history, almost went under the radar earlier this month, slipped quietly and quickly onto the docket of a mundane court sitting.

How did this happen? Donegal media said simply that, “according to court papers.. O’Donnell’s case was not due to be heard until the Wednesday after during a sitting  of Falcarragh District Court.” That’s when his (O’Donnell’s) solicitor, Sean Cannon, “brought the matter up with Judge Paul Kelly …during a family law sitting of Letterkenny District Court.” And the judge conveniently and quickly moved the case forward.

‘Brought the matter matter up?’ What the hell does that mean? And does such a serious case merit being in a sitting on family law? The mind boggles.

And this Judge Paul Kelly? Who is he? Was he appointed under a previous Fianna Fail government? Does it look like it from this article? But then again, that doesn’t matter, surely. After all, the Irish legal system is separate from the political one, isn’t it?

Though, as we well know, it is not unknown in Ireland for political favours and indeed, brown envelopes, or both, to pass hands.

The result of the long-delayed case: a ridiculously low fine, in my opinion, of 250 euro for charges of drunken driving leaving the scene of an accident and providing misinformation the police. I dare you to find any court case where such a laughable decision has been made in such a serious case. 

As for the short ban from driving, does it really matter? O’Donnell is sitting pretty in another country. Did an infamous Irish ‘brown envelope’ pass hands to facilitate this convenient legal accommodation in Letterkenny? No-one knows, and unfortunately no-one will probably ever know. Is this just an example of the old adage, ‘there’s a law for the ordinary working citizen but a very different one for the elite, well-connected in Irish society?’ 

So, while O’Donnell enjoys his new life in Quebec, Irish men, women and children in his very own constituency in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht continue to struggle to make ends meet, people continue to suffer pain and hardship, some desperately trying to raise enough money to help them avail of specialised life-saving cancer treatments. And young, talented teachers from the Donegal Gaeltacht, and other parts of the county, are forced to go abroad, to places like Quatar in the Middle East, because there’s no money to employ them here at home.

Is this called ‘fairness’ in Ireland today? 

Among all this misconduct (there are stronger words to describe O’Donnell’s behaviour), there are two other guilty parties that should not escape blame and require stronger scrutiny by the public at large and by themselves. 

At the very least, both Údarás na Gaeltachta and Donegal Council obviously urgently require a proper Code of Practice for Good Governance. And, more importantly, to enforce it. Want to know more about the failings of Údarás na Gaeltachta, an organisation that receives tens of millions of euro from the public purse every year? Read more here. Has it cleaned up its act since then? Time will tell.

There’s little anyone can do now about the regrettable situation surrounding the O’Donnell controversy, except two things.

Firstly, as a citizen you have the right to appeal to the relevant authorities about a court decision you consider overly-lenient and unfair and to have the case reviewed. One place to start is writing to the Complaints Department of the Law Society of Ireland at complaints@lsra.iethe

Then the Judicial Conduct Committee established by The Judicial Council recently. You can write a short email to: info@judicialcouncil.ie You can ask to remain anonymous in both instances. It’s time to stand up and speak out, don’t you think?

I have already sent a complaint about Judge Paul Kelly’s decision as I consider a 250 euro fine to be utterly ridiculous and a 3-year driving ban to be insignificant, considering that Mr. O’Donnell can simply come to Ireland in the intervening years and drive with no problems using a Canadian driving license I presume he will obtain quite easily, thus posing a danger yet again to ordinary people on our roads. On both sides of the Atlantic.  

Secondly, when election time comes round, and it will come quicker than you think, consider carefully which political party and candidates you vote for. Is it not better to avoid the Brian O’Donnells of this world and choose others with a much greater sense of decency and honesty? 

Faeries and music: top Irish fiddler sheds light on both at Ireland Writing Retreat

He has accomplished so much, in so many walks of life, and to top it all off he’s a wizard on the fiddle.

Irish music is firmly lodged in the family genes of maestro Martin McGinley.

And now, he and his partner, Violet, and fellow musician, Noel Lenaghan, flute-player, mandolin player and singer, have kindly agreed to open this year’s edition of the week-long international ‘Ireland Writing Retreat.’

With his mother, Kathleen, a well-known fiddle and melodeon player, as teacher and muse, there was no escaping Martin’s fate. As he played classical violin growing up since the age of eight, as well as banjo and mandolin, the only question was: what instrument and what genre of music would be adopt?

That question was answered in his late teens and his musical mastery of his chosen instrument can be enjoyed in his recently-released fiddle solo CD entitled ‘Full Circle.’

Produced in collaboration with Cairdeas na bhFidléirí (Association Of Fiddle Players) in the ‘Traditional Fiddle Music from Donegal’ series, the CD contains a whopping 30 tracks, 79 minutes of pure music to be exact, with a rich repertoire from many sources, including his own mother.

Tunes include esoteric titles such as Kiss the Maid Behind the Byre, Drowsy Maggie, The Old Man Rocking the Cradle, The Irish Washerwoman, My Love Is In America, Toss The Feathers, Down the Broom and The Pinch of Snuff. A booklet accompanying the CD is filled with comprehensive background information.

“I owe a great debt to my mother and her constant encouragement,” he said. “She was cracked on Irish music and would gather all the local fiddlers to a hotel for regular seisuns in my hometown of Raphoe. There I’d find myself among the most talented of musicians. When jazz became the big craze many years ago after American military personnel came to Derry, she became interested in that too.”

Martin’s background in music is impressive.

He played mandolin in a group called Ferdia and was founding member of Dervish, a band once described by the BBC as “an icon of Irish music.” He also presented the national television series ‘The Pure Drop,’ featuring solo instrumentalists and small groups, as well as various radio programmes focusing on the development of traditional Irish music. So talented is Martin, he has composed between 70 and 80 tunes (he said he stopped counting a long time ago) including jigs, reels, highlands and waltzes. He even attempted to transform ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ by rock group, Queen, into a reel and a classical composition by Johann Sebastian Bach into an Irish jig.

“Music has always been there for me, it seems I’ve never not being playing the fiddle – at work, in my spare time,” he said. “While I have other hobbies, playing music is central to my life.”

One interesting theme Martin will discuss with retreat participants in September is the link between music and the spoken and written word. Another even more intriguing and unlikely of themes is that of faeries. “It’s said some fiddlers are visited by faeries who help them become brilliant musicians,” he said. “John Doherty, of one of Donegal’s most famous fiddlers, always wanted to be accompanied home after a late-night seisun, just in case the little folk were around.” As for meetings with faeries Martin may have encountered along the road of life, that question will be addressed at our special retreat evening.

Not only is Martin one of the leading fiddle players in Ireland, he is also deeply involved in education and training. With a Masters degree in music from Open University, he has been manager of Donegal Music Education Partnership (DMEP) for the last six years.

Part of the Donegal Education and Training Board, Martin spearheads a project that promotes the teaching of music across Donegal and helps hundreds of young people receive one-on-one tuition and the chance to perform in concerts, workshops, music weekends and masterclasses. The ten groups involved in DMEP include Donegal Youth Orchestra, Mind Your Quavers, a ‘return-to-music’ initiative, Donegal Chamber Orchestra, the Errigal Singers and Donegal Youth Choir.

The gregarious bearded musician from Raphoe in east Donegal is also board member of the Irish Association of Youth Orchestras and is involved in the annual Django Sur Lennon gypsy jazz festival in Donegal. Martin has also adjudicated fiddle and banjo competitions at a national and regional level, including the famous Fleadh Cheoil, an Irish music festival run by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

Martin has led a colourful life, having once been co-owner and bartender at the Sail Inn, a famed traditional music pub in the Donegal fishing port of Killybegs; reporter for Radio Foyle in Derry; correspondent for the BBC in Belfast; an actor; and editor of several prominent newspapers in northwestern Ireland including the Derry Journal, the Donegal Democrat and the Donegal People’s Press. He also ran his own public relations company and now writes a popular weekly current affairs column for the ‘Donegal News.’

Curious to hear Martin live in an intimate setting while telling his favorite faery stories? There are a couple of places still available on our September retreat. Treat yourself.

And don’t forget to enter our ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.’ Deadline: Midnight Irish time, Thursday, September 30.

Was Columba gay?

Thousands of euro of public money are pouring into diverse celebrations this year throughout Ireland to celebrate the life of a 6th century Celtic monk called Columba (or Colmcille) – a strange and elusive man we know almost nothing about.

Even though schools, community centres, Christian churches, local councils and other groups celebrate the 1,500th year of the mystical monk’s birth, no-one knows exactly when he was born. Nor do we know exactly where. We think it was Donegal but we don’t know for sure what part. We know he left Ireland for the Scottish island of Iona where he spent a good part of his life. But we don’t know the real reasons why.

Sitting on the Torr an Aba (Hill of the Abbott) in front of Iona Abbey where it is said Columba did most of his meditating.

We don’t even know for sure if Columba had a mistress, a wife, children, or indeed whether he was gay or bisexual like many of the monks of his time. (Celibacy was not compulsory then, monks/priests could marry and have families and homosexuality was not denigrated as it is today by the Catholic Church).

Nor do we know where Columba is buried. It was thought his bones (or at least the smaller ones) were wrapped up inside a wooden casket covered with silver and copper-alloy designs known as a reliquary and carried by Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Bannockburn where they famously defeated the English. But we now learn there was nothing in the box, which now sits behind a glass case wired to a sophisticated security alarm system in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and labelled as the ‘Monymusk Reliquary.’

Make no bones about it – Columba’s relics are not in the ‘Monymusk Reliquary.’

The reason we know so little about Columba is that while he and his followers attracted a worldwide reputation for penning and illustrating magnificent books of all kinds including the famous Book of Kells, there are no records whatsoever of Columba’s own personal writing, not even a simple diary.

So, how is it then we’re spending so much public money celebrating a man we know nothing about, indeed a man who was never even declared a saint, though most people think he was. Why would the Vatican canonise him anyhow? After all, the Celtic Christian church Columba represented stood firmly against the Roman version, battling tooth and nail for ultimate supremacy, that issue being eventually settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 with Rome being the victor.

Who knows, perhaps Columba, a lover of herbs, specially St. John’s Wort, followed too many Pagan practices, maybe even believing in faeries, and his writings were wilfully destroyed by the powers that be in Rome.

This brings me to another man, a man of our time.

Dr. Brian Lacey relaxes at his rural west Donegal home in the shadow of Errigal mountain.

Lively septuagenarian, author, archaeologist and historian, Brian Lacey is an exceptional dinner guest. A fine raconteur with quirky views of the world, he’s a man at ease with laughter and story-telling.

And he has just penned his latest book, on a spin-doctor called Adomnán (or Eunan) who single-handedly raised Columba’s name to ‘the High Heavens’ by inventing a series of mostly fictional or at the very least, highly-exaggerated, stories about the founder of Iona Monastery and the ‘miracles’ he supposedly performed.

Rather than it being a selfless literary endeavour, Adomnán’s reasons for writing his book were directly linked to both politics and money. In raising the profile of Columba, he also raised the public profile of the community of monks on Iona that he presided over 100 years after its founder had passed on, thus no doubt encouraging new recruits to sign up and more money donated to the monastery’s coffers.

Meeting the man himself, academic celebrity par excellence.

Some in Ireland might use local slang and call Adomnán ‘a cute hoor,’ loosely translated as ‘a shrewd scoundrel, especially in business or politics.’ Probably he was, but he also achieved much more, as you can see from the article below I wrote for the ‘Donegal News’ recently.

New Book On Columba’s Spin-doctor 

By Sean Hillen

Hemmed in by mountains in Dunlewey near the Poisoned Glen under the shadow of Errigal, one might think Dr. Brian Lacey has taken on the life of a hermit.

Far from it.

Instead, the gregarious 72-year-old regales visitors with colourful tales from bygone days with the natural gift of a seanchaí, explaining the complexities of early medieval life in an easy, entertaining manner.

That, and his vast experience as author, historian and archaeologist, has made him one of the most popular speakers on the life of Columba (Colmcille), the famed monk born yesterday (June 9) 1500 years ago.

Brian’s latest book, one of 15 he has penned, is of particular interest to scholars as the first written in over 1,000 years about a key 7th century figure called Adomnán, who was responsible for launching Columba into the forefront of popular folklore.

‘Without him, Columba could well have been simply a tiny blip on the radar screen of history,” said Brian, whose book entitled Adomnán, Adhamhnán, Eunan: Life and Afterlife published by Four Courts Press was launched during the recent American Conference for Irish Studies. “Adomnán wrote Vita Columbae, (Life of Columba) over a hundred years after Columba’s death in 597 AD and in doing so ‘made’ him into the saint later generations would celebrate.”

The Vita is in three sections – Columba’s alleged ‘miraculous’ powers,’ his ‘prophetic foreknowledge’ and his ‘angelic visions.’ While Brian admires Adomnán for his life’s achievements, he acknowledges he was, “an astute spin-doctor pushing his own Christian agenda.”

“If I met him, I would share few of the same beliefs, most particularly his religious views, but I certainly acknowledge his accomplishments and skill,” he said about the 9th abbot of Iona in Scotland where Columba established his community. “He probably ignored any evidence that cast Columba in a bad light. Instead of a biography he compiled a work of hagiography to extol his spirituality. He also voiced his own political convictions and raised the prestige of the monastic federation – the Familia Columbae – over which he was leader.”

He adds that Adomnán, who was probably born close to Raphoe and studied at Drumhome monastery in south Donegal, even had Columba ‘ordain’ Áedán mac Gabráin, King of Dál Riata, reputedly the earliest recorded instance in European history of the Christian inauguration of a king. “The story fitted Adomnán’s belief in an ideal Christian kingship established in Ireland and Britain,” said Brian.

Brian praises Adomnán for having many ‘firsts.’ 

“He was first to draft a law – Lex Innocentium – for the protection of noncombatants in war, a precursor of the Geneva Convention,” he said. “He also wrote the oldest surviving ‘guide-book’ from western Europe about the Holy Land, De Locis Sanctis, (Concerning Sacred Places), including famous buildings, structures and relics. In it, he also introduced to the English a character who would later become their patron saint – Saint George.”

Brian also said Adomnán was the first to write about the Lough Ness monster, which makes its appearance in the Vita when Columba sees people burying a man savaged by ‘a water beast.’ Adomnán also gained fame as a hostage negotiator, helping free 80 prisoners held by the King of Northumbria.

Flying  high

Eldest of nine children and son of a train driver in Donnybrook, history was not Brian’s first career choice. Before the academic bug hit, he worked in air traffic control in Dublin and Shannon, earning around eight pounds a week, before leaving for Brussels and Paris.

But investigating the past was a pet passion and he soon left the security of the skies and hit the ground running, studying early and medieval Irish history at UCD, becoming a lecturer at Magee College in Derry in the mid-1970s. Brian later led a team of 35 people on a one-year archaeological survey of Donegal, the first project of its kind in Ireland. “This brought us to almost every field in the county,” he recalls fondly. “Four thousand sites, including an Iron Age barracks near the Barnesmore Gap and over two thousand sites dated before 1700 AD.” That project, completed in 1983, helped Brian become head of Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service and director of the Dublin-based Discovery Programme. 

In his pursuit of truth in history, Brian is not averse to controversy. He considers the Christian tale involving saints Colmcille, Fionán, Dubthach and Begley at Cnoc na Naomh (Hill of the Saints) at Machaire Rabhartaigh deciding by tossing their croziers who should convert Tory islanders, to be rooted in Paganism. “This story emerged out of the cult of Lugh and his spear. Adoration of Lugh was widespread through Europe, but the Romans, then Christianity, killed that belief.” 

Having already written an earlier book entitled ‘Saint Columba His Life and Legacy,’ Brian is something of an academic celebrity at many events linked to Columba throughout this special commemoration year.

Published in the ‘Donegal News’

If you want to know more about skulduggery disguised as religion and furious political struggles between Celtic Christians and their Roman counterparts, read the excellent series of Sister Fidelma novels by Peter Tremayne (pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, historian, literary biographer and novelist). 

Fidelma is a ‘dálaigh’ or judge in ancient Ireland, a sexy red-haired female version of Sherlock Holmes in a habit.

Intrigued by the reputation of this early Irish mystic monk known as Columba, I decided as a travel writer to head for Iona, the Scottish island where he established his community of like-minded people. Here’s what I found after landing on a little stony pier after taking the ferry from Mull last autumn, a massive, treacherous sea crossing that took all of five minutes.

Click on the photo to read the story

Love boat sets sail again

With its clear water, impressive sea arches, interesting monuments and meandering stone pathways leading to a rustic cafe-cum-information centre, Gola Island is an idyllic, picture-book getaway from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

And if it wasn’t for Captain Sabba Curran and his daily ferry service, few people would be able to enjoy this west Donegal island’s rugged beauty.

C

Many’s the time, stiff from sitting on a chair in front of a computer, I’ve jumped in my car and driven the ten minutes from my home on the slopes of Bloody Foreland towards Magheragallon Pier near the Gweedore Golf Course to catch Sabba’s regular crossings, greeting an old acquaintance on board or meeting a new friend ‘up from the country’ or from another country altogether.

After a short hike and a refreshing seawater swim if the notion takes me, I head to the Uncrowned King of the Island, Eddie McGee, sup an cupán tae and enjoy his lively raconteurship at one of the outside cafe tables overlooking the back pier near the toppled stones of the old schoolhouse. 

So enamoured am I of the island and its quiet, unassuming personality, I included it as a key location in my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly.

In honor of Sabba, Eddie and the beauty of the island, I penned this short news story for the ‘Donegal News’ this week.   

People welcomed the re-launch of the ferryboat service to Gola Island this week following easing of Covid restrictions, with some hailing it as a major boost for tourism.

Captain Sabba Curran, 58, from Dore, began the Gola Island Ferry Service five years ago after he purchased and renovated a 38-foot, 300-horsepower Aquastar, named ‘The Cricket’ (also known as ‘The Love Boat’) with 12-passenger capacity.

“There was a great need for a regular ferry service and as I have a strong interest in boats it was a good match,” said Sabba, who operates his service every day until September, leaving from Magheragallon Pier beside Gweedore Golf Club. “I’m delighted how things have gone so far though I encourage the county council to recognise the island’s tourism potential. It’s been twenty years since the council maintained the roads and the island has only one Portaloo. More are needed, as visitor numbers have increased.”

In addition to individual sightseers, Sabba caters to school groups, as well as hikers, rock-climbers, paddle-surfers, and those attending the island’s festival. Estimates vary but at least several thousand people, including visitors from the US, France and Germany, go to Gola every year. Among island highlights are old schoolhouse ruins, sea arches and monuments to victims of 9/11 and local people aboard the Asgard, used in a gun-running operation for Irish Volunteers in 1914.

Sabba provides other services to the council including transporting the island’s only Portaloo twice a week to the mainland for cleaning. He also brings leftover rubbish to a skip on Magheragallon Pier, thus keeping the island tidy. 

Margo and Paul McGinn from Rathcoffey, Kildare, often travel to west Donegal for holidays. “The Gaeltacht region offers some of the best scenery in Ireland, with Gola, ten minutes by ferry from the mainland, a jewel in the crown,” said Margo. “I like seawater swimming and the island has some of the clearest water I’ve ever been in, as well as sandy beaches. We’ve also enjoyed hiking there and have been rewarded with wonderful views. As a tourism destination, it’s greatly underrated.”

Added Eddie McGee, who manages an island information center-cum-cafe, “It’s great the ferry is back running again. Gola is becoming better known, with many Irish people coming for the first time after Covid prevented them travelling abroad.”

Local Sinn Fein Councillor John Seamais O’Fearraigh said, “without the ferry service, the island wouldn’t have developed as it has over the last few years. I will be pushing the council to fund better amenities to support this. I expected road funding this year but it went to three other islands.”

Interested in travel writing? Join me for a special workshop on April 10

While Ireland’s remote northwest corner may arguably be the gem of the Emerald Isle, being stuck here with a five-kilometre travel restriction during the wild, windy, wet months of winter has made me yearn to be on the road again.

As a travel writer used to new sights, smells and sounds, my forced stay-at-home lockdown has been even more difficult to handle.

Thankfully, that may soon end, with in-country travel probably permitted before June and international travel by mid-summer.

So, with Covid vaccines being distributed and the travel industry gearing up for business again, I thought it would be an enjoyable idea to share some of my experiences and host a special writing workshop for those interested in submitting their travel stories to newspapers and magazines. Or simply developing your own travel blogs.

Hungry for publicity but with little cash to pay for traditional advertising, hotels, museums, restaurants, airlines and tourism agencies will soon offer free ‘fam’ (or ‘familiarization’) visits to travel writers and bloggers. So there’s no better time to polish your writing skills and take advantage of them.

I’ve focused on travel writing for the past ten years and have been fortunate to enjoy ‘fam’ visits across Europe, the US and the Far East, to exotic countries as diverse as Iceland, Morocco and India. During that time, I’ve penned upwards of 500 stories, both short news pieces and longer color features, including those focusing on city and regional destinations, as well as hotel, restaurant and entertainment reviews. They’ve appeared in publications as different as The Irish Times, JustLuxeUpscale Living and Fodor’s travel books, as well as my own blog, World Itineraries.

Learning more about California’s spectacular forests from a regional manager of the ‘Save the Redwoods League.

Among my ‘Regional Destinations’ stories have been northern California and Jersey Island while ‘City Destinations’ have ranged from Washington DC to Montpellier in southern France to Ireland’s oldest city, Waterford.

Quirky features I’ve written have included a dreamlike stay among the mesmerising sand dunes of the Sahara Desert and a fascinating journey in the footsteps of Scotland’s most famous novelist, Robert-Louis Stevenson, author of ‘Treasure Island.’

Rome is awash with eye-popping art. Here is its Musei Capitolini, home to the Salon of Horatii and Curatii. 

Skills I learned working as a journalist for various newspapers in the US and Europe and later as foreign correspondent for The Times, London and The Daily Telegraph helped me develop new approaches to writing about places. What I learned is part of what I want to share during my workshop. 

Writing about a luxury spa on the coast of Gran Canaria a rustic Mediterranean island retreat or an elegant riad in the heart of ancient Fez has given me ample opportunity to tackle diverse subjects.

Crazy Horse cabaret in Paris combines brilliant choreography with a hint of cheekiness.

As for entertainment, I’ve written about such dazzling and spectacular cabarets as the famous Le Moulin Rouge and Crazy Horse in Paris and a dynamic salsa festival along Romania’s Black Sea coast, not to mention music and theatre venues from Boston to Barcelona.

My practical, two-hour travel writing workshop, which will take place on April 10, will focus on some of the following subjects.

Room with a View, Columba Hotel – Iona island off the west coast of Scotland offers much in the way of meditation.
  • Key elements of travel articles, from destination features to hotel, restaurant and entertainment reviews;
  • Starting a blog;
  • Effective strategies for research;
  • Writing winning pitches to editors;
  • Critiquing your own travel writing stories.

Come join us and learn the ‘write’ way to see the world. Join the Virtual Travel Writing Workshop.

And don’t forget to enter your travel story or memoir in this new competition, WAWA Love Competition, 1,000 euro prize money for 500 words.

Saint Patrick – a propaganda figure invented by crafty spin-doctors?

Who the hell was Patrick?

Researching my novel in which Celtic Christianity plays a key role, this is what I’ve been wondering about.

Iona island, off the western coast of Scotland, where Columba lived most of his life after leaving Ireland. Mystic monk, or New Age kind of guy with a penchant for chewing St. John’s Wort?

Today, March 17, Ireland’s national day, and it’s hard to imagine we Irish have been so easily tricked into accepting a man as our patron saint who – if he existed at all, and there is really no incontrovertible evidence he did – wasn’t Irish and indeed was a propaganda figure against Celtic Christianity. 

The Church in Rome, which was then – and is even more so today – extremely cunning, deceptive and politically shrewd – needed to invent someone who could ‘stick it to’ Columba (or Colmcille as he was also known) and his followers who dared preach a rival Celtic version of Christianity.

Their intention was simple: let’s toss these maverick Celts into the dustbin of history. Or into the Irish Sea, whichever is easier. 

Full credit to Rome’s spin-doctors. Coming up with the shamrock idea was a gem. Do we ‘drown’ it on March 17 to honor its symbolism, or because we think it’s utter balderdash?

Some might say that couldn’t possibly be true, Columba and Patrick lived at different times. 

Really? 

No-one really knows anything about Patrick. There are no manuscripts in Ireland in the 5th century when he was supposed to be strutting his stuff. Even his own supposed writings have been shown to have been penned about 400 years later. And there’s no solid evidence it was his words that were copied.

Patrick was probably just an imaginary figure, a synthesis of personalities, conjured up by well-paid church spin-doctors in Rome, who promptly decorated his life with fabricated fantasy stories associated with mind-boggling miracles and snake symbolism (to win over Pagans), and with a bit of fanfare shoved his name into the public arena as a mighty man of morals, when in fact he might have been a mere mouse of a fellow, if at all.

Interestingly too, absolutely none of Columba’s personal writings have ever been found, very strange considering he led a group of renown writers and illustrators who produced thousands of books and pamphlets. Even stranger, not a single word is written about Columba by anyone until around one hundred years after his supposed death – by another monk called Adomnán, who accepted Rome’s rules and regulations. And even his story is considered by historians to be but a fanciful piece of fiction. Were Columba’s writings destroyed to undermine Celtic Christianity still further?

To understand why Rome would go to so much trouble to invent a larger-than-life figure called Patrick, it’s helpful to know the intense political rivalries at the time. I use the term ‘political’ because religion was – and still is today – exactly that, making our traditional parliamentary one seem like kindergarten playtime. And politics, as we know, is economics under a different guise. Have you any idea how much money was made selling religious relics alone? Tens of billions of euro in today’s currency. Peddling relics wasn’t a cottage industry, it was a lucrative conveyer-belt one. For hundreds of years.

So how did these Christian rivalries emerge?

Well, after the Roman Emperor Aurelian established the imperial cult of Sol Invictus, the Invisible Sun, as the Supreme god in 200 AD, it became easier for Christianity to be established, adopting the exact same supreme god idea. With the Roman Empire being so vast then, it was simple to spread the ‘Word of Christ,’ especially later when Emperor Constantine converted – for political (aka economic) purposes. (Do you really think it was because he or his mummy saw a thingy in the sky?) It was made even easier when Emperor Theodosius made it the official religion of the entire Roman Empire.

Different versions of Christianity quickly arose and one of the most prominent was the Celtic one.  

I like to think this painting says, ‘Guys, put your thingies away. I’m here and I’ll show you what liberation really means.’

Fearing it might take over the whole shabang and ruin their party, the Romans organised the Synod of Whitby in England in 664 to claim the number one position over its Celtic rival. Can you imagine the Almighty kerfuffle if the Vatican had been set up in Columba’s wee home place of Donegal in a remote corner of northwestern Ireland instead of Rome?

Naturally, many Celtic Christians were unhappy with the vote in Whitby, probably considering it rigged with hefty bribes doled out here and there. They jumped into their currachs in a huff and sailed back to Ireland, angry, frustrated and hellbent on revenge. That’s when the propaganda battle began. 

Of course, we know who won, but do you know what we lost?

Celtic Christians, generally following the Brehon Law, recognised women as equals, allowed co-habitation by both genders inside ‘religious houses’ and permitted them to rumble and tumble under the sheets, considering, quite rightly, celibacy to be a most unnatural state. And, unlike the Catholic Church today, even believed homosexual unions to be fine. 

Consider it’s an episode of ‘Ireland’s Got Talent.’ If given the chance now, who would you pick for the country’s patron saint – (l to r) Columba, Brigid or Patrick?

Celtic Christians followed John the Evangelist’s teachings while, of course, Rome followed Peter’s. And we all know how jealous Peter was of Jesus’s mistress and closest confidante, Mary Magdalena, so the subservient role of women in the church was a given from day one. No wonder the Roman church lambasted her as a whore.

So, not only did the Catholic Church overturn the traditional practises of our Druidic ancestors (stealing and using many of them), they also overturned the Celtic Christian ones. 

Anyhow, regardless of whose rightful day it is today – including, I might add, Brigid, who would probably have been a much better choice as patron saint of Ireland than either of the two men – let’s take any opportunity to celebrate – ooops, just remembered, all the pubs are closed.

Death by Twitter

Rampant chaotic scenes that unfolded in and around the Capitol building in Washington DC yesterday – an attempted coup fermented by US President Trump – reminded me of a similar situation I once experienced in another country.

Capitol police point their guns as protestors try to break into a Congress chamber.

It was then, as a foreign correspondent for The Times of London, I learned first-hand how, unfortunately, violent coups can sometimes reap rich political rewards.

It was Bucharest, September 1991.  

President Ion Iliescu, a former member of the Communist apparatchik who had taken over the country after the Christmas Day 1989 execution of dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, wanted rid of the country’s Prime Minister, Petre Roman.

When all else failed, he and his henchmen urged thousands of burly coal miners from the countryside to come to Bucharest, promising them a better life while igniting fierce anger with false stories portraying peaceful protesters in the capital city as traitors to the nation.

Protestors, many of them young students, had occupied a city center square, Piata Victoriei, seeking civil rights. As miners armed with makeshift weapons rushed from buses and trains, massive street clashes began. Some people were killed, others severely injured.

Surrounded by miners, Romanian politician Ion Ratiu calls for calm in parliament.

As a journalist, I mingled with the crowds to cover the story, observing up-close as the shocking spectacle unfolded, defenceless people maimed and murdered with iron bars, shovels and pickaxes.

Soon, the bloody scene became utterly frenzied, as mobs of miners, some uniformed, some not, roamed the streets seeking new targets. Anyone nearby, regardless of age or gender, became victims, including myself. Caught and attacked by a group of miners, I consider myself lucky to have escaped alive, especially when the one who held me in a tight stranglehold kept screaming in my face ‘Te facem praf,’ which I was reliably informed later translated as ‘we will beat you into dust.

As for Prime Minister Petre Roman, he was forced to resign. In an interview with myself and one other journalist in his private office several days afterwards, he said he would be back in power soon. He never was.

That was Romania soon after Communism fell. That was before the explosion of social media. Before websites, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Yesterday’s shocking scenes in Washington took place not in a country just emerging from the shadow of Communism, but one that has enjoyed many decades of democracy, free of absolute dictatorship. Ironically, a country that has repeatedly criticised Romania for its lack of acceptable democratic norms.

Yesterday’s scenes in the US show that democracy cannot be taken for granted, that it can be so easily shattered, especially in today’s technological age where hate-filled individuals and organisations are allowed to spoon-feed false rhetoric to people on the Internet. 

Political and civic leaders must act now to control the immense power of social media which, too often, has become an echo chamber of fake news and xenophobia. Such platforms combust passions spontaneously. And once inflamed, create destruction and death in their wake.

Suspension of Donald Trump’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts is too little, too late. The world of social media must be better regulated, a powerful public-private collaboration, to make sure hate groups aren’t given a license to kill.