Young Donegal performers display their talents

Movie music, Irish fiddle tunes, classic compositions and songs  by Fleetwood Mac and Britney Spears – such was the diversity of entertainment I enjoyed recently at Donegal’s Regional Cultural Centre.

From Ennio Morricone’s captivating score for the movie, ‘The Mission,’ to ‘Finlandia’ by classical composer Jean Sibelius to traditional fiddle tunes, young maestros at Donegal Music Education Partnership (DMEP) served up a feast of entertainment at their summer concert.

Two reels by Caitlin Kennedy on fiddle, accompanied by her brother, Neil, on guitar; Chason Triste by Tchaikovsky played by Deirbhile Flynn on violin; Deux Interludes by Jacques Ibert played by Andrea Mota on oboe and Eve O’Donnell on flute; a concerto by Mozart played by Marina Mercade on flute; an allegro from a sonata by Handel played by Clara Mercade on violin; Ashokan Farewell by Jay Ungar played by Seana McGarry on violin; and Palladio by Karl Jenkins played by Clodagh Doherty on viola were all part of a diverse repertoire by members of the Donegal Youth Orchestra. Percussionist Cathal O’Donnell displayed his vocal skills, singing ‘You’ll Be back’ from the musical, ‘Hamilton.’

The Donegal Youth Choir performed songs ranging from ‘Nothing’s Gonna Harm You’ by Stephen Sondheim from the musical, ‘Sweeney Todd,’ to ‘Songbird’ by Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac and ‘Everytime’ by Britney Spears.

Audience members at the packed event at the Regional Cultural Centre Sunday evening included Anne McHugh, chief executive of Donegal Education and Training Board, which funds DMEP, and Dr Martin Gormley, ETB’s director of schools.

Martin McGinley, DMEP music development manager, introduced the two-hour event, which ended with presentations to graduates of the educational program which provides vocal training and tuition in a range of instruments.

Orchestra conductor and composer, Vincent Kennedy, who also played a trumpet duet with Niamh O’Donnell, and choir conductor, Evan McGarrigle, and accompanists, including Hannah Gallagher from Falcarragh, all received an enthusiastic standing ovation. The evening also featured Kennedy’s composition, ‘The Letterkenny Waltz.’

‘Donegal Danny’ is to proudly lead the St. Patrick’s Day parade through Philadelphia next week

Some years ago when I lived in the American Midwest, I launched an Irish newspaper aptly called ‘The Shamrock’ and an Irish-American Cultural Centre in Kansas City, Missouri.

It was then I realised how Americans with Irish background are often more Irish than the Irish themselves, extremely proud of their heritage and working hard in a wide range of ways to support this age-old trans-Atlantic connection. I will never forget people like the wonderful Phil and Kathy Chaney, Bill Quinn and his brothers, and many more who made me so welcome as a young emigrant in a foreign land in the 1980s.

Dan Harrell wears his Irish heritage with pride in Philadelphia.

Recently, after renewing a friendship with a Belfast school friend from 50 years ago, Bruno McBride, I’ve come to learn about another such person, a man born and reared in Philadelphia who has built sports and cultural bridges across the Atlantic to the Emerald Isle.

That’s Dan Harrell, 79, known as ‘Donegal Danny,’ son of a Donegal mother, Agnes Bridget McDaid, who emigrated at the tender age of 15.

For his efforts on behalf of the Irish over the decades, including long-term membership of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and his successes in linking Ireland and the United States, Dan has received a reward that means the word to him. Dan has just been named Grand Marshall of Philadelphia’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, an Irish community tradition there since 1771, five years before the Declaration of Independence was even signed. 

Thumbs up for a man on a mission.

And as Dan marches proudly ahead of a lively procession of more than 200 groups including marching bands, dance and youth groups and Irish Associations in several weeks time, he’ll be watched by tens of thousand of people from all over Pennsylvania, and far beyond the state and country borders. The Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Parade is the second oldest in the country, topped only by New York City. 

Dan will be helping uphold a strong Irish tradition in Philadelphia, a city as big as Dublin, where even George Washington was a member of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick and actively encouraged Irish-American patriots to join his colonial army.  Irishmen suffered with Washington at Valley Forge, fought with him at the Battle of Germantown and fought again in 1812 and in the civil War to preserve the nation. In the hard work to build Philadelphia’s industries, the Irish bore a heavy burden of labor. They have lived in the city’s neighborhoods along with people of other backgrounds since the city’s beginning, and they have helped build its schools, libraries and fine institutions, the city’s cultural treasures.

Dan and Bruno McBride always enjoy each other’s company. And will do so again this week ahead of St. Patrick’s Day.

The Irish population in Philadelphia increased swiftly in the 1840s as victims of the 1845-46 Great Famine sought refuge in America. In Philadelphia, there were 70,000 Irish-born people by 1850. This Irish community, beset by poverty, discrimination and troubled exile from their homeland, sought to build a new life for itself, a life that included fun and recreation, as well as the hard work the times required of them. 

“It’s humbling to be named Grand Marshall, a great honour, and believe me, I’ll be cherishing my mother’s memory and the great county of Donegal as I walk down the centre of Philadelphia,” said friendly Dan. “I’ll even have my mother’s Irish passport in my pocket, close to my heart.” 

Dan is one of seven children – four brothers and two sisters – born to Agnes who grew up in Drimarone, close to Donegal town, before emigrating to America in 1928 when she was a teenager, where she worked in various jobs including a department store and a college.

“I go back to Donegal as often as I can,” said Dan, who is father of six girls, Leonora, Colleen, Deborah, Melissa Jacquelyn and Erin. “I love the people, the way of life there, the landscape around the Blue Stack Mountains and elsewhere in the county. It’s a warm, welcoming place. But sometimes I feel sad, thinking about how difficult it must have been for people like my mother back then to have to leave such a beautiful homeland at such a young age to start a new life as an emigrant in another country.”

Dan, who is grandfather to seventeen grandchildren and has a great-granddaughter, still has relatives in the county, specially Jim and Bernadette Quinn who own a crane business in Donegal town, whom he sees on his trips across the Atlantic, his next visit being in early April. 

Dan and Bruno visit the historic Liberty Bell in Philadelphia (Bruno brought a slightly smaller version back with him).

Dan, whose wife, Regina, sadly passed away, enlisted in the US Marine Corps Reserve for six years. During his time in the military, he worked for General Electric, then at the University of Pennsylvania where he earned his bachelor’s degree. He has been named Ancient Order of Hibernians Man of the Year. He also coaches football and is heavily involved in the Society of Saint Anthony DiPadova and the Southwest Football Coaches Association and has awards in his honour at the University of Pennsylvania and Saint Malachy’s College Belfast. He also launched an exchange program which brings students from Ireland to the US every year.

Meeting Bruno in our hometown of Belfast is always a pleasure. He’s even a character in one of my novels.

“There’s no better person to lead the Philadelphia Saint Patrick’s Day parade than Dan,” said Bruno. “He has worked so hard for so many years in the Irish-American community and helped bring such wonderful memories to so many people with his basketball project. I’m proud to be participating in the parade, helping Dan celebrate his wonderful achievement.” 

Donegal loses much-admired community leader

Since arriving in Donegal to live, I have met many friendly, generous people – and one whose personality shines brightly is that of Anne (Bheag) Gallagher whose tireless energy and devotion on behalf of her community through the years is well known. 

Passionate about social justice. Helpful to those in need. Committed to the ideal of a united Ireland.

These were just some of the comments used to describe Anne, 62, a much admired, long-time resident of Gaoth Dobhair in the Donegal Gaeltacht and chairperson of the local Sinn Fein Phádraig Mhicheail Airt Cumann, who sadly passed away last week and was buried in Bun na Leaca where I now live.

Born in Glassagh, Anne moved with her family to Glasgow but returned as a teenager in the mid-1970s and quickly became involved in a wide range of local charity and community projects including the ‘Over 50s Club,’ which organised various activities and excursions for its members throughout the area and Gweedore United Football team, for which she played in her younger years and also coached.

“Anne was a great part of the club, she was always involved in some way, either playing for the woman’s team or helping her Dad Micí, who founded the club with my father, Pádrag,” said club secretary Pól Mac Aodha, one of more than 100 people from the club to form a guard of honour at her funeral. “Anne will be sadly missed. We will always remember her strong support down the years.”

A fervent supporter of Celtic Football Club, Anne was also deeply involved with ‘Huddle Up Errigal,’ a non-profit initiative by local supporters of the club who raised thousands of euro for important causes such as the Donegal Cancer Flights, the autism unit in Bunbeg school, the Celtic FC Foundation and the Donegal MS Society while sharing their dedication to the club and promoting the Gweedore area. Hundreds of people from Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere took part in various events including a climb up the mountain. Anne worked closely with chairperson John Joe McGinley and other volunteers to make the project a success.

“Anne was a selfless and invaluable member of the community, devoted to many key causes, an extremely reliable and sincere person,” said local Sinn Fein councillor, John Sheamais Ó Fearraigh, a neighbour who knew Anne for many decades. “There was nothing Anne wouldn’t do to help someone out. Over the years, she organised and hosted many quizzes in places like Teac Jack, Foreland Heights and Teach Mhicí to raise money for various worthy causes. I myself owe Anne a tremendous debt in terms of my own election as she worked tirelessly on my behalf. She was very loyal to Sinn Fein and a wonderful strategic forward thinker.” 

Pearse Doherty TD said, “It’s not often in life that we have the honour to come to know and love a great character such as Anne Bheag. I had the pleasure of first coming to know Anne in the early days when I started out in public life and republican politics in Gaoth Dobhair. Many a meeting, canvass and conversation I shared with Anne. To say that we’ll miss her feels inadequate. There’s a void left which can’t be replaced. She brightened up every day with her smile and wit.  She was passionate and she was proud. And I was beyond proud to call her a friend. A trusted confident and a constant rock. She truly was the personification of goodness and kindness. She was selfless in every way.” 

Anne is survived by her sister Sandra (McGivney) and brothers John and Brian.

Kill the messenger?

There’s an old saying – ‘if you can’t deal with the message, deal with the messenger.

Usually it’s a strategy by people who are guilty of something, or who are inadequate or who have made a mistake and need to hide it somehow. 

Sadly, as a messenger, I was the brunt of such a ‘deal’ this weekend. 

My sin  – I dared speak out.

If I was wrong to do so, then I’ve only myself to blame.  Even though I do feel – if one cares enough about something – one should always speak out, even when your gut tells you you’ll be crucified for it. Otherwise, nothing in life changes.

In attempting to help Amharclann, my local theatre in Donegal and the work being done there, I suggested more than eight weeks ago that the theatre should organise a fund-raiser for the unfortunate families of people tragically killed in an explosion in the nearby town of Creeslough. That was October 9, two days after the tragedy occurred. 

As you can see, I also offered to help bring top national performers to the Amharclann from different parts of Ireland who would not normally have come to Donegal. Here is my message –

Two board members thanked me by return email for my idea, informing me a decision would be made by the board and someone would get back to me.

More than eight weeks later and still not a word from anyone on the board. 

This weekend in a Facebook post I said I was disappointed with the delay in responding and also suggested some simple marketing improvements based on my experience owning a multi-national publishing and events company that I thought might help attract more people to shows at the Amharclann. 

For this, I was accused by the powers that be at the theatre, the spokesperson and chairperson of the board I presume, of ‘self preservation and glorification,’ creating ‘Fake News’ and making ‘off the cuff’ remarks.’ See below.

I must admit, I was taken aback by the severity of the backlash, especially as I praised the hardworking of theatre staff in my Facebook post. As I have done for previous events, I also urged people to attend this evening’s special event (Saturday) in aid of a cancer victim. 

But those positive comments were conveniently overlooked by the person who wrote the response above on behalf of the theatre. 

I also received an aggressive text from the board chairperson saying my comments reminded him of ’hurlers on the ditch ….bellowing.’ Of course, he’s entitled to his opinion, but he’s conveniently forgetting that I have attended many events and written many articles supporting the theatre and have even helped organise a fund-raising event there. That’s hardly being in the ditch.

Here are just a couple of my articles – 

I simply couldn’t understand the furore that necessitated an urgent board brainstorming session within a few hours of my Facebook message being posted to compile such a negative response to me. 

In terms of timing, comparing a few hours to more than eight weeks, there seems to be what I’d call a ‘major time discrepancy ’ between the two. So why?

Last night, I happened to be reading my local newspaper and saw a full-page of photos and text in the Donegal News praising a successful event organised by Ionad Naomh Fionnan, a small community centre in the nearby town of Falcarragh, which raised more than 5,000 euro for the Creeslough Community Support Fund. 

That’s when the penny dropped. 

Did my Facebook post make a certain person at Amharclann, the largest theatre in northwestern Donegal, embarrassed at failing to organise themselves properly in more than two months to host a fund-raising event for the families of victims? And sadly, instead of taking what amounts to delayed action on the idea, not for my sake but for those in need in Creeslough, they decided to use their energies to deflect blame from themselves and attack the messenger – me – instead. 

It’s a tried and true trick, used since the days of Ancient Rome. And if it worked then, it could well work now, more than a millennium later. 

As for the moral of the story, I’m still not sure. 

It’s difficult for me to accept the obvious – ‘simply, keep your mouth shut.’ If we all did that, owners of homes destroyed by mica would not receive any compensation and be homeless over Christmas.

Some things are simply worth speaking out about.

Accepting praise is easy, it’s accepting constructive criticism that’s a true sign of character. I, like everyone else, want the Amharclann to succeed. It is my local theatre, after all, and I wouldn’t have written so many articles about it otherwise and praised those who worked so hard to attract the investment necessary to renovate it years after it closed.

But as my taxes and those of others helped pay for this renovation, shouldn’t we all have the right to voice our opinions and make sure the investment of so much public money is the very best it can be for all concerned?

I’m still waiting for the answers to my questions:

Intriguing to see how Amharclann can make a decision to respond within a few hours to my Facebook post. Yet still not make a decision on my suggestion for a fund-raiser for families of victims of the Creeslough tragedy made two months ago (October 9). While it’s disappointing to see Amharclann attacking me personally rather than dealing with the issue, let’s together try to make things clearer, point by point. These are my questions to the Amharclann representative who made the comment on behalf of the board.

  1. I still do not see how planning tonight’s event, which I fully support and which was due to take place in October, prevented the board making a decision about my suggestion for a fund-raiser for families of the Creeslough tragedy. Please explain.
  2. I have received no notification of a decision by you on the Creeslough fund-raising idea. 
  3. I never said the theatre refused to host a Creeslough fund-raiser. Not making a decision is a decision as there is no such event on the theatre’s future program.

4. Amharclann says costs for the theatre are not one million euro as my inside source informed me, which you label ‘Fake News.’ For transparency sake, please give a brief breakdown here of the real figure to justify your accusations.

5. Myself, my wife Columbia, friends and guests, have attended more than 25 events at Amharclann and I have written a series of articles promoting the theater. Never on any occasion has any of us been asked to leave our email/phone contact for marketing purposes. And we have never received any direct notification of events. Please explain how this database you mention was compiled and how is it used. Do only certain people receive notifications?

And lastly, for clarification purposes, please explain how a fund-raising concert for families of the Creeslough tragedy would benefit me personally, for my ‘self-preservation and glorification’ as you describe it. 

I simply don’t understand.

And for the record, I fully support the aims and mission of the Amharclann, as evidenced by my many articles and attendances at shows.

In the meantime, I wish Ann Mooney success with the medical treatment she is undergoing in Spain. This is the link if you, like me, would like to make a donation.

Help Ann Receive Vital Cancer Treatment

Every song has a story, every story has a song

Such is the headline on the inside label of a CD by supremely talented Donegal-based singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Brí Carr and it ’s an extremely appropriate phrase.

For Brí is one of those naturally gifted artists who literally can turn a phrase into song and music as she did quite brilliantly during an evening of excellent entertainment on Culture Night recently that she hosted at Amharclann in Gaoth Dobhair, Donegal where she is that theatre’s first-ever Artist-in-Residence.

Taking a phrase from one of the writers attending international workshops that week hosted by ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ she transformed the words of Bernie Doody from Omagh into a spontaneous slice of music that left seated writers from countries as diverse as Germany, Ireland and the US gasping with admiration. You’ll also appreciate Brí’s many talents in doing this by listening to the short music video above taken that very evening.

Though Brí has been writing songs since the tender age of 16,  she never performed publicly until she was in her 40s. That was due to part to derisory laughter she received by a man after she had penned a song to uplift the spirits of a close friend who had just found out she was pregnant. That song is entitled ‘Yesterday’ and, after listening, it is very hard to forgive the ignorance of the man whose only response was critical laughter.

But that is just one song in a wide-ranging portfolio created by Brí over the years and which feature on her CDs, namely ‘Full Circle/Rotha an tsaoil’ and ‘Roots/ Fréamhacha,’ as well as her singles.

Take, for example, ‘Smile Again,’ penned as a young college student in honour of her beloved Uncle John who left his native Arranmore Island in Donegal to work in the London tunnels in the summer of 1988 and sadly died just a few months later.

Extending the island theme, the place of her mother’s childhood, she then wrote ‘ Árainn Mhór,’ her first single, released in early November 2016, which captures the mystery, tradition and history of the island. It reached Nr. 3 in the Irish iTunes Charts in World Music that same week. Other songs in tribute to the island include ‘Ar an Oilean,’ ‘Where We Went To School’ and ‘Home To Shore.’

In late December 2016, her follow-up single, ‘My Father’s Legacy’ topped the charts in Easy Listening Music. It features a beautiful vocal from her then 7-year-old daughter, Caela.

Enjoying close family bonds, Brí dedicated at least three songs to her husband and children, whom she says “never fail to surprise me.” The songs include ‘How I Love Him,’  ‘Tog Mo Lamh Aris’ and ‘Bealach an tSaoil.’

Aside from song-writing, Brí, a teacher, is heavily involved in arts education.

As a job-sharing resource teacher in Lurgybrack NS, I’m extremely fortunate in that I can develop and build upon my facilitation skills in and out of the classroom,” she states on her website. “To date I have enjoyed working with the children and staff of my own school on various school projects, from our LucyBarney School TV, Seachtain Na Gaeilge, Scór, RTE Junior and after-school music and drama. We have recorded albums for ourselves and with the Goats Don’t Shave as part of charity projects.”

Brí’s activities are multi-level. “I enjoy regular interactive workshops with other schools, mainly facilitated by Donegal County Library as part of WainFest, Ireland Reads and Spring into Storytime, which I thoroughly enjoy as it gives me the opportunity to teach and learn from students and teachers from Junior Infants all the way to Leaving Cert, creating and collaborating on new ideas, methodologies and cross-curricular activities,” she said.

As part of Peace IV, Brí was facilitator and director of several inter-school music, art and drama projects from Derry to Dunfanaghy, creating stories, exploring local heritage and cultures, bringing lively performances to the stage in Ozanam Centre, Dunfanaghy, the Workhouse, Dunfanaghy, An Grianan Theatre, Letterkenny and Relay for Life Donegal.

Collaborating with Donegal Education Centre, Donegal Women’s Centre and local schools helps me keep focus on the curriculum, and come up with new ideas for implementation in a fun and educational way,” she said.

Brí is also deeply involved in other organisations and initiatives including Blue Ribbon Arts, the Wider Horizons Project USA and Wild Atlantic Women, to name but a few. A manual by her in both Irish and English will soon be published entitled ‘The Big Blue Ribbon Book of Drama.’

International guests from Germany, the US, Romania and Ireland enjoyed musical performances by Brí and fellow artists, including her daughter, Caela (standing beside her in shorts), at Amharclann on Culture Night recently.

Her book is filled with almost thirty years of Arts in Education games, ideas and inspiration to aid fellow teachers in delivering Drama and SPHE games. She also created the ‘Ready to Rock Music Programme’ for Primary schools with CJ Fallons and is a member of ‘Wild Atlantic Women,’ a group of Donegal’s finest female artists in a wide range of genres from folk to country, traditional to modern who she said, “decided to join their voices in support of all thing Donegal.

As for being Amharclann’s first Artist-in-Residence, pride oozes from her. “It is an honour and a privilege for me as both an artist and as a lover of west Donegal culture, language and heritage,” she said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities and challenges coming out of the Covid era, as people are beginning to re-emerge and embrace life in a careful, cautious way. What better way than through the arts, between concerts, exhibitions  theatre, music and drama  all of which are rich and abundant in the Rosses and Gweedore communities. I have been blessed with support of all ideas during the year, and as well as Oíche Chultúr, there has already been a great many stand out moments that I’ll carry with me on to the next phase of my journeys via writing, performance and community involvement.

Brí Carr and Anne Biddie (r) make a terrific musical duet.

Brí is thankful for the opportunities she has been offered.

I can never thank the people of Gweedore, and in particular Coiste Amharclann, for giving me this platform to further explore my work, my art and most of all, my self belief. I’ve had such growth, nurtured many new friendships and been part of countless amazing memories. I’m really excited about all the projects so far and will definitely be rowing in behind the next recipient of Artist-in-Residence, if they’ll have me, to further develop as an artist , engage more with the local community and continue my commitment to Amharclann in the years to come.”

It is certainly no surprise to learn about Brí’s favourite motto: ‘Lots to learn lots to do.’

King Charles, Treason and ‘Romantic’ Fox Hunting

Now that Charles Philip Arthur George is King, will I be tried under Section 32 of the Treason Act of 1842 like teenager John Morgan who tossed a nine-pound breeze block at the Queen’s Rolls Royce in Belfast in 1966?

A few years ago Charles tried to sue me in Romania when I was editor of a national newspaper after I published an article based on British newspaper reports saying Charles had stated publicly he would leave England and give up his rights to Royalty if the Government passed a law banning fox hunting.

The then Labour Government did indeed pass such a law but Charles didn’t follow through on his promise.

Rather, he bought vast tracts of land in Transylvania, the birthplace of my wife, which he still owns today.

In view of fairness, I contacted Charles directly through his private secretary at Buckingham Palace by email asking him if he had purchased the land deep in the Romanian countryside simply to pursue his love of killing foxes for sport (which, for the record, I consider to be merciless and cruel in the extreme).

I received a prompt response.

But not in answer to my question.

Instead, it was in the form of a letter from one of Charles’s organisations in London – the Mihai Eminescu Trust, named after the poet laureate of Romania, which with the grandiosely named ‘Prince’s Foundation’ is under Charles’s supervision – threatening me with a lawsuit if I did not publish an immediate apology, the exact text for which it provided – but with still no answer to my original question. The letter also pointed put that the apology it wrote and demanded to be published was the very same word count as the original article in my newspaper.

Naturally, I politely declined to do so, quoting freedom of the press, which Charles had said previously he fully supported. After this exchange of love letters, no lawsuit ensued.

Now that Charles is the new-crowned King, is my liberty at risk? Must I seek political asylum aka Julian Assange in an endless array of Embassies worldwide?

I’m delighted since then that in April the UK passed a law declaring all animals as sentient beings with rights to a normal, decent life like the rest of us, thus protecting foxes from this awful ‘blood sport.’

In view of all this, it is despicable to learn of stories about unethical fund-raising schemes by Charles and the ‘Prince’s Foundation.’

For example, from oil-rich people in the Middle East. Charles’s foundation offered to help a Saudi Arabian billionaire obtain a knighthood and UK citizenship in exchange for generous donations, with police investigating this money-making ‘cash-for-honours’ racket. It must be remembered, Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist and critic of Saudi Arabia’s government, was murdered recently by Saudi officials inside its own Embassy in Istanbul and his dead body cut into pieces and dumped, allegedly to be eaten by dogs.

Charles also raised money by offering free accommodation and private dinners with him at Dumfries House, a Palladian mansion in Scotland he purchased and renovated with public money. Such people included former Russian bankers and the wife of Turkish billionaire, Cem Uzan, after the couple donated 400,000 pounds to the ‘Prince’s Foundation.’ It emerged Uzan was under investigation for fraud-related offences in the US.

Charles’s foundation was also found to have taken millions of euros from high-ranking Qatari officials – all in plastic bags – a total of three million euro (2.6m pounds) from billionaire Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, former prime minister of Qatar. The cash was handed to Charles in a suitcase on one occasion, a hold-all on another, as well as in Fortnum & Mason carrier bags, the up-market department store which holds a royal warrant to supply Charles with groceries. 

Jaber al-Thani, one of the richest men in the world who stayed regularly at Charles’s Royal castle in Mey, Scotland, also gave Charles a horse named Dark Swan worth around 200,000 euro.

On a political level, not being a Royalist, I cannot accept Charles as King. But on a personal level, he has my gravest sympathy upon the death of his mother.

Donegal man leaves top job at  Údarás na Gaeltachta, remains keen to support key projects

by Sean Hillen

After five years as CEO of Údarás na Gaeltachta – the leading economic development group in lrish-speaking areas – co-ordinating around 300 million euro in publicly funded projects, Donegal-based Mícheál Ó hÉanaigh has completed his contract, leaving some people in the county worried about future local projects.

Having remained in close contact with Mícheál over the last few years, I am one of those somewhat fearful, in the full realisation that Donegal, indeed Ireland, has just lost a loyal servant in a key national position.

Mícheál Ó hÉanaigh held key position at Údarás na Gaeltachta.

Mícheál, 63, took up his position as head of Údarás when the organisation was trying to overcome the worst public relations disaster in its history, when multiple scandals over misspending of public money rocked its foundations. This was highlighted when board members and their partners enjoyed first-class airline tickets and luxury accommodation in various places in the US, including Las Vegas – purportedly to meet officials of the Dublin-based Industrial Development Agency, which also has offices throughout Ireland, including Donegal.

It was believed such situations – including conflicts of interest among top officials – continued unchecked because successive Governments turned a blind eye, not wanting to criticise an organisation working within the Irish language, a politically sensitive sector. And also because few journalists and editors in Dublin knew much Irish and shied away from tackling Údarás’ operations, seeing the language as a challenge to proper investigation. Media in Galway, where Údarás is headquartered and has a major influence, also stayed clear of major controversy.

Donegal having the second largest Irish-speaking population and the largest in geographical size, I myself investigated the organisation and wrote a three-part series for the Donegal News and a series of stories for this blog (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). For other stories, simply type ‘Udaras’ in the Search engine of this blog. Members of the Dáil’s multi-party Public Action Committee, an important body whose aim is to ensure public money is spent properly, told me they were ’utterly shocked’ by revelations about corruption within Údarás.

It was in the midst of this furore that Letterkenny-based Mícheál bravely took up the gauntlet, and from all accounts, rose to the occasion, sorting out many of the difficulties Údarás faced such as image problems and personnel changes. His responsibilities also included governance and risk management.

Among many tasks, Mícheál also prepared and implemented the Gaeltacht Regional Strategy for Economic, Social and Cultural Development ‘based on sustainability, innovation, entrepreneurship, learning and creativity.’

Living in Donegal, Mícheál was enthusiastic to promote his home county and supported initiatives in the cultural, community and business sectors. I collaborated with him on tourism-related proposals for Gaoth Dobhair, one revolving around the Spanish Armada and another entitled ‘Fiddles and Faeries’ to promote traditional music and culture, awards for which were presented at Leon’s Tavern in Crolly this year.

Led by Mícheál, Údarás na Gaeltachta helped fund this cultural initiative of mine.

Mícheál told me proudly this weekend about his accomplishments during his five-year tenure at Údarás. 

“Tourism development in Donegal has been  a major focus of mine, with key projects such as the Fanad Lighthouse, Sliabh Liag, the Errigal Project and Crolly Visitor Centre being advanced, as well as the Blas na Gaeltachta project initiated in Annagaire and the Narosa Marine project in Machaire Rabhartaigh,’’ he said.

He added, “The Gteic Gaeltacht Digital Hub Network was also established and now comprises thirty hubs, with five established in Donegal and three more in development.’’

Mícheál also said, “last year saw record job creation in the overall national Gaeltacht region of Donegal, with employment on the Gaoth Dobhair Business Park growing to over seven hundred and companies such as Randox in Dungloe seeing substantial growth in employment.’’

Mícheál is keen to promote environmentally-friendly tourism and culture projects and renewable energy initiatives.

The ‘Green Economy’ was also among his top priorities. ‘’Plans are advanced for a 5MW community-owned photovoltaic renewable energy project in Gaoth Dobhair and marine resources harnessed, with plans for offshore renewable energy projects and the development of added value projects based on seaweed and fish processing,’’ he said.

In financial terms, Mícheál added, “Last year, a selection of larger Gaeltacht companies had combined sales of over one billion euro, with over 600 million euro in exports, 450 million spend in the Irish economy and 175 million paid in wages.’’

My fervent hope is that Mícheál remains deeply involved in the economic development of the Donegal Gaeltacht with his comprehensive experience not only as the eyes and ears of Údarás for the last five years but also as vice-president of Tourism, Culture and Youth for the Assembly of European Regions (AER) and former director of Services for Community and Enterprise at Donegal County Council.

What’s next for Mícheál – “At this time, I’m examining all my options,” he said simply. ‘I feel I have a lot more still to give.”

Sean Hillen, author and journalist, has worked on a series of Europe-wide projects for major NGOs, including UNICEF, the Rockefeller Foundation and billionaire philanthropist, George Soros

Driver’s Diary – Death At The Mouth of Flowers


Content in this post may be upsetting to some people.

Today (Monday, August 22) is the day exactly 100 years ago when Irish rebel leader, Michael Collins, was killed in an ambush near Béal na Bláth in his native county, a single bullet penetrating deep inside his brain. It is believed he died instantly.

Strangely, he was the only person killed or injured on that particular afternoon in a serene, bucolic wooded hillside on the bend of a countryside road in rural Cork.

Stranger still, especially considering Collins was the most popular and well-known person in Ireland at that time and probably could have been the new Republic of Ireland’s first-ever official President, no proper postmortem was ever conducted on his body. 

And the armored car he was travelling in on that fateful day was taken out of Ireland within weeks, then transported as far away as possible, all the way to Africa, to British-held Kenya. 

And isn’t it too coincidental that sworn enemies of Collins including Eamon De Valera, Erskine Childers, Liam Lynch and other anti-Treatyite leaders were all gathered together just a few short miles from the very spot where Collins was killed?

Bewildering mystery still surrounds this entire tragic incident, one that led to the transformation of Irish society with the Catholic Church being given almost complete control and oversight of the nation, including its all-important health and education systems by Eamon De Valera, a man bitterly jealous of the respectful moniker the charismatic Collins had earned among most people at the time in Ireland – The Big Fella.

With all this in mind, I spent much of the last three weeks, including an exhausting marathon 21-hour writing session this past weekend – completing my fictional version, based in part on verified historical facts, as to who planned, plotted and assassinated Michael Collins. And what they had to gain from such a dastardly act.

As part of the research for my book, I also travelled from Donegal to Béal na Bláth to see the site of the ambush and also held discussions with officials at the Michael Collins House Museum in nearby Clonakilty.

The result of all my efforts is ‘Driver’s Diary – Death At The Mouth Of Flowers.’

Some people may find various scenes in my book morally upsetting. Not by their graphic nature, but because they deal with sensitive social taboos such as homosexuality and clerical deceit, hypocrisy and worse which still unfortunately have not gained widespread acceptance in some places.

Some readers may also find the climax of my book – whilst credible and based on existing background evidence – too shocking to contemplate.

To encourage healthy open public debate on an event that created such long-lasting effects on an entire nation and before being published as a book available on various platforms for sale, I am making ‘Driver’s Diary – Death At The Mouth Of Flowers’ available free online until the end of this week, midnight Sunday, August 28.

Regardless of whether you agree with my conclusions or not, I truly hope you enjoy my story, one written with the best of literary intentions.


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.