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.

Finding Nature Right Before Your Very Eyes

Was asked to write a short essay for ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ on its latest ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ offering 1,000 euro in prize money, 500 words maximum, flash fiction and creative non fiction, deadline December 10, with Nature as a central theme.

Before discussing the important role Nature can play in setting scene, mood and suspense in creative writing, let me confess a couple of things.

First and foremost, I’m married to someone who in a previous not-too-long-ago era might have been accused of witchcraft, perhaps even tied to a stake and burned on a pyre for her beliefs and her potions – basically for her comprehensive understanding of Nature.

My wife is a medical herbalist. Here is a video of her beloved garden.

Secondly, I am one of those lucky people who happens to live in what I modestly describe – to plagiarise the Carlsberg beer commercial (which was probably plagiarised from somewhere else) – as ‘probably the most beautiful place in the world,’ plum on the picturesque ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ on the northwestern coast of Ireland. A place known as ‘the Forgotten Land.’

As such, it is easier for me than for many other writers to access relevant information on Nature either through what I’ll lovingly call ‘pillow talk.’ Or simply by gazing out my front living-room window across to the forest, over the turf bogs, past the mountains and down to the ocean and the basket of islands that nestle snugly quietly below (what, you don’t believe me – well then, have a look at this.

So, integrating Nature into my novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ was less due to the power of my imagination than the power of my senses, mainly seeing, hearing and smelling. And to a great extent, feeling, using my heart-brain.

That being so, I’d like to share with you some of the instances in which I relied on Nature to help me encourage a certain mood or expectation in my readers.

I hope this will encourage you to enter this edition of the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA). It’s a lovely autumn writing challenge. And remember: deadline is coming soon, midnight, Thursday, December 10th.

CURIOSITY AND INTRIGUE

“Ernie turned, moving upwind towards the abandoned houses, the bog moss soft underfoot, brown water oozing out from under his heavy boots with every step. He felt strange, as if he was trespassing on sacred ground, walking a place he didn’t belong to anymore. In the distance, he could see fog approaching, a fluffy gray pillow rolling gently along the sky. He watched it creep silently landward. It was as if the floating mists carried wisps of memory curled in their spidery nets. As if ghosts were coming ashore. Out at sea, in the caesura between waves, an eerie lull lurked. He remembered the wailing winds and the loneliness. He shrugged off the thought. He wouldn’t stay long. A quick check things were fine. He’d promised. Then he’d be gone. He took a folded sheet of paper from his coat and opened it. Two lists were typed neatly on it, one on each side. He scanned the first – ‘Arthropoda – cockroaches, millipedes, termites, earwigs, crab-spiders, grasshoppers, dragonflies.’ He flipped the paper over. ‘Lower Invertebrates – ribbon worms, mussels, anemones, hydra, jellyfish, slugs, limpets, cockles, moss animals, abalone.’

Above him lay a menacing sky. He had to be up at the house before dark. He’d promised Patricia. He fingered the keys in his pocket. He felt trusted but an inexplicable sense of apprehension rushed over him, of events out of his control. Secrets were hard to keep around here.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

SUSPENSE/FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

“Below, a band of mist stretched across her vision etched with tiny lights blinking like stars indicating the whereabouts of scattered homes among the hills. The silhouetted slopes of Errigal and Muckish mountains loomed around her, their respective pyramid and bread-loaf shapes barely recognizable in the gloom. Beyond lay the endless sea, its constant ebb and flow the sound of a slumbering giant snoring softly, each rhythmic breath, she imagined, blowing a ripple of surf along the surface of the water. The dark humps of Gabhla, Inis Oirthir and Inis Meain islands lay in a disheveled cluster, mismatched jigsaw pieces, their jagged edges like fingers reaching valiantly out to each other.

Trees swayed beside her, their branches waving to and fro maniacally as if delivering a dire warning, ‘Stop, go no further, go back, go back…before…’ She felt goose pimples form on her arms and started to shiver, the damp seeming to enter her very bones. She felt a sudden urge to rush back to the house but when she turned the house had melted into the fog, which had grown denser and was billowing all around her. It seemed as if she had stepped into a limbo, a non-man’s land between the living and the dead. She stopped nervously in her tracks listening, sensing a presence nearby. But there was only the groan of the wind, the smack of raindrops splashing against leaves. She started walking again but felt ever more disoriented in the fog and was forced to stop every few minutes to avoid sliding into the deep ditch that ran along the side of the road.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

IMPENDING DOOM/TRAGEDY

“He raised his hand slowly to the thing stretched across his cheek. It felt spongy, string-like. He brushed it off then tried moving his other hand but jolts of excruciating pain shot through him almost making him black out. With sheer willpower he remained conscious staring into the gloom. Within minutes, his eyes began to decipher vague shapes and forms. Stones, rocks, weeds. A desolate terrain bereft of bushes or trees. To his fevered mind, it seemed a futuristic, post-Armageddon world. His eyes fell upon the spongy substance, recognizing it for what it was – a clump of sphagnum moss.

Then realization dawned: he was lying in the middle of a bog. He could feel it under him, soft as if alive, clasping him closer. Thinking back as to how he had got here his mind conjured up a series of fast-moving images as if on a film spool. A woman’s sad face; raised voices; a slammed door; heavy rain; tendrils of fog; screeching brakes; the world turning upside down; pain. Then nothing. Feelings rushed at him snarling like rabid dogs foaming at the mouth – guilt, fear, loneliness, an abject sense of failure.

Feeling a tugging sensation from behind, he turned his head slightly. A thick swathe of mud had encased itself around his legs, just below his waist. It clung to him tenaciously like wet cement. Then he felt the tug again. Was there a reptile below the surface pulling at the cloth of his pants? The sinking sensation made him stiffen but he couldn’t muster the strength to pull himself out. The more movement he made, the more pain he endured, the more he was being sucked in. The viscous mud itself was dragging him slowly downwards into it.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

ACTION

“Yanking open the door, he strode purposefully outside, the sudden chill making him shiver.

The storm had gotten worse, matching his mood. Clouds as black as ink. Rain pelting down as if heavens’ drains had opened. Fog as thick as cement draped the coastline, blotting out buildings, fields, islands. He could scarcely see his car standing in the driveway. A blustery wind howled around him, plastering his hair in a wet mess against his forehead. Impatient to put miles between him and this brooding place, he twisted the ignition key sharply, stamping down hard on the pedal. The tires squealed, tossing up gravel. He didn’t care. There wasn’t too much he cared for anymore. Past memories, present frustrations, they made for a potent cocktail. He careened out of the driveway, the car slipping and sliding on the muddy ground. Then he was on the steep slope leading down between the bogs, Patricia fading into his past with each passing second.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

INTROSPECTION/GUILT

“A line of hefty oak trees bordered the road, a battalion of soldiers keeping intruders out of the ancient turf bogs beyond, but these gradually gave way in the glare of the headlights to straggly bushes like war-weary remnants of a bedraggled army in retreat, then to stunted patches of grass and reed. Sturdy drywalls that had defied a thousand storms and the bone-chilling winds sweeping across the Atlantic seemed to retreat now in the glare of his headlight, leaving behind a sullen emptiness, a bitter, forlorn landscape that matched his mood.

Questions rushed at him, tormenting him, reminding him of feelings he thought he’d buried deep inside. It was as if his heart had been ripped from his chest and tossed raw and bleeding into the cold, wetlands around him where it lay inert and shapeless. The mask of hope he’d dared to wear upon entering her home had been torn asunder and cast into the billowing waves below. And the awful, gut-wrenching truth that whatever he’d tried, whatever efforts he’d made, he’d failed, rushed at him, drowning him, sucking his emotions in a downward spiral. Then a sudden realization dawned. It wasn’t Patricia he was hearing. It was the ghost of Maria. Taunting him, blaming him, accusing him of not caring enough to believe in anything. Or was it just himself, refusing to forgive himself for not being there for her? And now, here he was. Running away yet again.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

Biden Versus Trump – a heavyweight battle for democracy and leadership

Expect ‘O’Biden’s Bistro and Pub’ and ‘Folksy Joe’s Café’ to open soon in Mayo and Louth, with both Irish counties vying for the ultimate prize as the US President-Elect’s favourite ancestral home.

But don’t expect an end to the disputed US elections any time soon – at least, that’s what my favorite American TV news channel, CNN, is telling me.

I’ve never been one for daytime television, but I have to admit, I’ve been pretty much glued to the box over the last week. One of the reasons has been a heightened sense of professional responsibility. My local radio station, Highland, here in northwestern Ireland, asked me to offer my insights into what is happening across the Pond so I needed to stock up on info for my 15-minute stints with friendly host Greg Hughes.

Here’s my latest thoughts on Monday morning’s show –

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. If my sense of professional responsibility is so keen, why didn’t I watch Fox News? Suffice it to say, while I may not be the most upright of citizens, hardly the salt of the earth type (though my dearest wife might disagree, I hope), I do have some shreds of dignity left, even when no-one’s looking. And CNN is so colourful, dynamic and ‘with it.’ In culinary terms, it makes our paltry Irish national TV channel, RTE, seem as flouncy as a flat soufflé, with presenters this side of the Atlantic, like Miriam O’Callaghan, paid twice as much as their more talented counterparts across the Atlantic.

Anyway, simply put, Donald Trump doesn’t like losing, indeed is a pretty sore loser, and he won’t stop until he’s scoured every avenue to turn last week’s election result on its head, including a slew of lawsuits. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a re-run of the controversial saga of ‘Bush V Gore’ twenty years ago.

Reminds me of one of the many election jokes I’ve been sent. No, not the one – what does the end of World War Two and end of the US elections have in common? Both ended with Fascists in a bunker.

The one I mean is the one below.

While Trump won’t win back the White House, (he needs to roll back tens of thousands of votes in several different states to do so), his misguided efforts are rousing the ire of Republican voters – no doubt part of his political strategy ahead of the two all-important Senate run-off elections in Georgia on January 5.

Whichever party wins those key seats will shape the future of the US and to a certain extent the EU and Ireland. If Democrats win, the party will control all three power centres – White House, House of Representatives and Senate – and can pass legislation easily, including strengthening environmental protection measures and Obamacare, as well as re-joining organisations such as the World Health Organisation. Not to mention dealing with the frightening spectre of racism in the US.

If Republicans win, they’ll embark on a strategic policy of obstructionism that will frustrate President-Elect Joe Biden, just as it did Barack Obama for the last six years of his two-term presidency.

While Biden has called for “unity and an end to partisanship and demonization,” his calls have gone unheeded. Backed by Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate majority leader, Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State and Bill Barr, Attorney General, who told the Justice Department to investigate alleged voting fraud, partisanship has reared its ugly head even higher.

Biden nor his staff can even access their new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue nor highly-classified intelligence documents that normally losing presidents hand over as part of a smooth transition. The General Administration Agency just won’t hand over the keys.

This leaves the US in a state of semi-paralysis.

With no peaceful transition of power for the foreseeable future, the consequences are enormous. Failure to recognise the result of the Presidential election stops, or at the very least, slows down all legislative action. This bodes badly for the US as the country grapples with over 100,000 new coronavirus cases every day, 10 million cases already with a quarter of a million dead, and a struggling economy.

But there’s worse to come. A Trump lame duck firing spree has begun with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper the first to see the back door. Rumor has it the CIA and FBI directors are next. Trump has 60 days or so to install ‘yes’ people, to help him in his ludicrous mission to overturn the election. This will destabilize the country.

I’m sure Vladimir Putin is saying a decade of the Rosary in gratitude, rubbing his hands with glee. Or, more likely, checking the progress of his Internet hackers.

But there is some good news for Ireland. One of the reasons, I’m hoisting my favorite cocktail here.

As Joe Biden’s ancestors are from here, he will favor us not just with a visit or two but he’ll help protect the Good Friday Peace Agreement and use Ireland as a conduit to Brussels, with obvious political benefits, not to mention strong prestige.

An added bonus for Donegal, a pristine place from where I write this, is that Philadelphia Congressman Brendan Boyle, whose father, Frank, emigrated from Glencolmcille, less than an hour from my house, could be promoted as advisor to Biden’s White House.

And, of course, there’s always the new O’Biden pubs, clubs and cafes in Mayo and Louth to look forward to – when that pesky coronavirus goes away and allows us, that is.

Writer receives heartfelt news. On her hospital bed

One minute she’s updating friends on Facebook about preparations for a dream 50-day hiking and camping trip around Donegal, the next lying in a hospital bed having metal stents inserted in her arteries to help her heart do what it’s supposed to do – keep her alive.

That’s the transformative experience musician and teacher, Donna Harkin, has undergone over the last few days at two separate hospitals either end of Ireland as her life turned topsy-turvy after suddenly feeling sick last week.

Donna Harkin musician donegal, wild atlantic writing awards

Donna, a model creative writer hard at work.

That’s why it was such a pleasure for me to call her yesterday in the hospital and tell her a short story she wrote had been selected by international judges among the top ten out of several hundred by writers worldwide including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

Sadly, Donna, 50, was forced to cancel her longed-for trip but the good news that she was the only Donegal person to achieve this literary goal in the inaugural ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ hosted by ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ helped lift her spirits.

Donna Harkin, donegal musicians, ireland writing retreat

Help! I’m being attacked from behind by an Alien.

“My head was in a bad place when I got the good news but it couldn’t have come at a better time, I’m delighted,” said the friendly Letterkenny ‘Mistress of the Button Box’ who has produced a CD entitled, Tell It Like It Is.

Donna’s achievement is all the greater considering the award’s distinguished panel of judges included Dublin-based crime writer Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, founder of writing.ie and publishing consultancy Inkwell Group, as well as Irish and American authors and writing tutors such as Anthony J. Quinn, who has nine books to his name, John DeDakis, formerly with CNN in Washington, Danny Morrison, Bradley Harper, Anne O’Reilly and myself.

irish writers, writers in ireland

Donna Harkin – Mistress of Music.

In her story, ‘To Be A Writer,’ submitted for the creative nonfiction category of the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ (WAWA), Donna describes in a witty way her struggle to overcome what every writer has to overcome – procrastination.  

The story begins, ‘To be a writer, one must write, and therein lays the problem.’ Then she proceeds to tell how she ‘paints the kitchen, plants the garden, re-tiles the downstairs bathroom, rearranges the furniture in the living room and watches six seasons of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ all to avoid sitting down at her laptop.

Donna Harkin donegal, wild atlantic writing awards finalists

Ok, I’m ready. Now show me where the bank is.

In the morning, I avoid eye contact with the door that leads to my creation station and it sticks like a splinter in my mind as I move through the day,’ she continues. ‘I grieve for words I haven’t written before I even write them, and in some reality, this realisation is enough. Opening the word document, I gently turn down the volume on scorn and rancour, and getting out of my own way I remove my I and write – simply because I must.’

“I’ve been writing for my own joy and amusement for about fifteen years,” said Donna, who writes mostly prose poetry but has been experimenting with other forms. “I love the way words can be used to create visceral experiences in the reader.”

Donna Harkin, Ian Smith, Stephen Campbell, donegal musicians

(l to r) Guitarist-singer-songwriter Ian Smith, box player Donna and fiddle maestro, Steven Campbell enjoy a relaxing moment together.

Thank you Donna for your good humor and your immense creativity. The world needs more spirited souls like you, especially in the particularly strange times we all live in right now.

For anyone interested in reading Donna’s original and delightfully quirky views on everyday life, do yourself a favour and check out her Facebook. It’ll make even Donegal’s dreariest rainy day seem that little bit brighter. 

If you are interested in creative writing, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ will host a second awards competition over the next few months. For information become a Friend. It’s free.

New writing competition – almost 3,000 euro worth of awards

If you like writing, please take note – a new competition in northwestern Ireland offers around 3,000 euro worth of awards, for just 500 words.

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing many of us to stay home, Donegal-based ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ at which I am co-founder and tutor, decided this was a good time to launch its first-ever competition, with key prizes for winners.

Welcome to the inaugural ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ (WAWA), a competition that we hope will provide challenge, diversion and enjoyment for you as a wordsmith in the strange times we live in right now.

After much brainstorming, it was decided the competition should reflect the nature of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ itself and what it has focused on over the last five years of operation.

The conclusion: not one, but two, separate competitions: fiction and creative nonfiction.

woman in gray sweater sitting on wooden floor typing on portable computer

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

Flash Fiction Award

The fiction writing competition is open to all genres – sci-fi, crime, romance, horror, humor, thriller, mystery, whatever tickles you and your Muse’s fancy. And it is in the form of flash fiction, a field growing rapidly in popularity.

To add spice to the idea, there is a single theme.

After many hours of debate, we realised the perfect one was staring us right in the face.

Writing itself.

In other words, upon reading competition entries, judges are left in no doubt that a key element in your story is linked in some way to writing itself. For example, one of the characters, human or non-human, could be a writer. Or a piece of writing could play a key role in the story. Let your imagination be your guide.

All you have to do is pen a flash fiction story in any style or genre focusing on the act of writing, in any way, shape or form, up to a maximum of 500 words.

PRIZE

The winning entry will receive 500 euro in cash.

And more.

An added bonus of 990 euro in value in the form of free participation* – including all excursions, by land and sea, food and drinks tastings, concerts and dance performances, and all writing workshops and author talks – at one of our retreats of your choice, either this autumn in either Paris or Donegal, or one of our retreats next year.

In effect, a total prize equal to almost 1,500 euro.

Plus, with the writer’s permission, the winning entry will be published on the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ website, with short bio and photograph. The writer retains all copyright to her or his work.

sad elderly man writing on brown notebook

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Creative Nonfiction Award

As for our creative nonfiction competition, we offer you a similar challenge.

To write a story of not more than 500 words on any subject – whether it be in the form of memoir, profile, literary journalism, personal essay, travel (and remember, award-winning travel articles don’t have to be about exotic destinations, it could be about your own hometown), food, or any creative nonfiction category you prefer.

PRIZE

The winner will receive 500 euro in cash.

And more.

An added bonus of 990 euro in value in the form of free participation* – including all excursions, by land and sea, food and drinks tastings, concerts and dance performances, and all writing workshops and author talks – at one of our retreats of your choice, either this autumn in either Paris or Donegal, or one of our retreats next year.

In effect, a total prize equal to almost 1,500 euro.

Again, with the writer’s permission, the winning entry will be published on the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ website, with short bio and photograph. The writer retains all copyrights to her or his work.

Grab this golden opportunity to unleash your creative abilities during this period of restrictive ‘social distancing’ and emerge a happy winner.

Enter now the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.

*See full terms and conditions.

New Irish Government was decided BEFORE the elections

Weeks before the recent Irish election was even announced and long before the first votes were cast, representatives of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael met behind closed doors to cut a deal, with one solitary aim in mind – to keep Sinn Fein out of government.

At the same time, generously funded by major corporations, banks and developers, highly-paid public relations specialists in the pockets of these two same political parties were instructed to create what’s known as a ‘news camouflage.’

To avoid any fall-out from someone learning about these secret meetings, they spun a story through a web of overly acquiescent Irish media that these two political parties would instead discuss forming a coalition with other minor parties.

irish elections, elections in ireland

Coalition terms were discussed on behalf of these two men by their representatives BEFORE the Irish election was even announced.

It is a well-planned and co-ordinated charade to create a facade of democratic fairness.

Among those most wanting Sinn Fein side-lined at all costs was Jim O’Callaghan, wealthy Dublin barrister, senior counsel and Fianna Fail’s justice minister, a man who only managed to get elected on the eighth (8th) count, beaten by Sinn Fein candidate, Chris Andrews.

O’Callaghan is brother of millionairess and RTE presenter Miriam O’Callaghan who infamously grilled Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, on a pre-election ‘Leader’s TV Debate’ on – guess what – justice issues.

In doing so, she used an archaic 13-year-old audio report excavated from deep within the archives of the BBC as a weapon. It may come as no surprise to many whom Miriam’s husband, Steve, works for.

Yes, you guessed right. The BBC.

The O’Callaghans, like many wealthy people in Ireland today, would be required to pay a little more in taxes under a Sinn Fein led government, with loose tax avoidance loopholes used by many rich people closed. These taxes would help close the gap between rich and poor and ease the housing, health and education crises mainly affecting working-class people.

Reflecting growing popular interest in the economic inequalities in Ireland, a blog I wrote before the elections on the O’Callaghans attracted a massive 20,348 views from readers in just one week. More than 2,000 readers every single day.

 That being said, here is my prediction.

Within the next two weeks – after demonising Sinn Fein as a ‘cult’ through a slick and expensive media campaign (thus demonising half a million Irish people who voted for that party), Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will announce a new Centre Right government.

The word ‘change’ will be sprinkled liberally throughout their joint manifesto and media interviews and they will announce they ‘have put aside their differences —- in the interests of the country,’ thus positioning themselves as some kind of ‘national saviours.’ 

Sinn Fein President, Mary Lou McDonald, won more votes for Prime Minister than both existing PM Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin.

I predict this development with sadness, but with confidence gleaned from 40 years of journalism experience in Ireland, the US and mainland Europe. 

And on this election issue, I’ve got things right so far.

I predicted Sinn Fein would get more than 30 seats.

I predicted the five politicians who would be elected in my own constituency of Donegal

I predicted Pat the Cope Gallagher, a Fianna Fail member of parliament for 40 years, a man with whom I had a public run-in would lose his seat, with many people telling me such a prediction was like Manchester United being relegated from the Premiership.

With the Cheltenham races coming up, perhaps I should make a few big bets for I even predicted the following two weeks ago in my blog –

“… on voting day tomorrow (Saturday), will the final outcome be any different from that over the last 100 years? Sadly, regardless of Sinn Fein receiving a well-deserved boost, hopefully above the 30 mark, I don’t think so.

If past results are anything to go by, we will remain with a Centre Right majority that kowtows to wealthy individuals, major corporations, banks, vulture funds and major land developers offering tax breaks and other incentives. A coalition that steadfastly fails to rectify the growing, severe inequalities in social life here.”

The truth is simple. Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin wants to be Taoiseach, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar still wants to be in Government. And they both need to pay back their rich sponsors, both individuals and corporations.

Such was the huge turnout for this week’s Sinn Fein public meeting at Dublin’s Liberty Hall, site of many famous events hosted by socialist leaders such as 1916 Revolution leader James Connolly, people were addressed both inside and outside the Hall.

As they prepare to announce their Government, it is important to point out the following for context: 

*Sinn Fein elected 37 TD’s, out of 42 candidates;

*10 Sinn Fein candidates topped the polls;

*27 Sinn Fein candidates were elected in the first count.

*Sinn Fein doubled their vote in Dublin;

*Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald won more votes last week for Prime Minister than both the present PM Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin; 

*Sinn Fein’s Dublin West candidate, Paul Donnelly, elected in the first count, beat Leo Varadkar, who only got elected in the fifth count, the first time in Irish history a Prime Minister has lost his own constituency;

* Sinn Fein candidates in my constituency, Donegal, were both elected on first counts – Pearse Doherty with 21,044 votes, 8,000 over the quota, and Pádraig MacLochlainn, with 13,891 votes, a massive 45% of the total vote;

*Sinn Fein’s candidate in Clare Violet-Anne Wynne who received just 385 in the local elections, won over 10,000 votes in the national ones;

*Sinn Fein candidate Johnny Mythen won in Wexford, the first time in 100 years the party has won a seat there;

*Sinn Fein won 45,614 votes, a mere 2.5% of the total in the 1997 election. In 2020, that transformed into 535,595 or 24.5%;

Is it any wonder the O’Callaghan’s and wealthy people like them are fearful.

And so sadly it seems are the Irish media which, displaying its Right-wing bias, has failed miserably to fulfil its role as the Fourth Estate, to serve and protect the public interest.

It refused to report on the emerging banking crisis under Fianna Fail’s watch that left Ireland bankrupt and at the mercy of the IMF and it is now refusing to report the real reasons Sinn Fein is being excluded from Government.