Flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles, Pagan wishing stones – all in a day’s work

His reputation was spoken of highly by good people – Mary McFadden, former headmistress and organizer of the lively ceilidh dances at Teac Jack’s and John Curran voluntary sector leader and aspiring politician. There seemed no-one better to uncover the anthropological and natural wonders of west Donegal for us than this fellow.

Seamus

So that’s how my wife, Columbia, our two small sheepdogs, Siog (‘fairy’ in Irish) and Lugh (who, according to Celtic legend, slew Balor of the Evil Eye) and myself ended up cowering for dear life under the branches of chubby furze bush as hailstones the size of a rabbit’s droppings – though much, much, much harder – pummeled down on us mercilessly from above.

But the drenching we got was worth the wetting (and sure didn’t the sun break out just a few minutes later as if to reassure us we’d be dry soon). For that’s how we got to know about flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles, Pagan wishing stones and Colmcille’s guide to the joy of sex all along the newly-Christened ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ And many’s another thing that’s in Seamus Doohan’s head about our wee area tucked away in the far corner of this, the Forgotten County.

An electrical contractor by trade, the jolly, bald-headed 48-year-old became fascinated by the immense diversity of natural and anthropological features around him in his native Gaeltacht area of Cloughaneely after he participated in a sports endurance charity event for cancer victims three years ago. There and then he decided to study the local flora, fauna and history in greater depth and to launch a guided walks and navigation service, Walking Donegal, as an added attraction for visiting tourists and for local people. So far, he has taken several hundred on tours, including visitors from countries as diverse as Italy, the US and Japan, as well as guided walks with the Errigal Arts Festival and for schools.

Seamus 2

“We are spoiled for landscape choice in west Donegal, with such a wealth of intricate and colourful plant species and a fascinating history dating back to the time of primitive man and Pagan worship, not to mention the Christian era that came afterwards,” he said.  “There is something mysterious and magnetic about the mountains around us here, with so many routes for walkers of all ages and aspirations.”

Seamus’s walks, which include forest, island, hill and beach, range in duration from one to five hours and are graded 1 through 5 in terms of difficulty, from flat terrain to challenging gradients. They traverse places such as Horn Head, Ards Forest Park, Sli an Earagail, Dunlewey Glen, Tory, Innisboffin and Arranmore, as well as the Joey Glover Challenge, a walk from Muckish to Errigal “taking in all the mountains in between.”

devil's matchstick

Halting momentarily on the way up rolling fields to Lough Altan near Errigal, Seamus suddenly bends down and parts some blades of grass. Hidden beneath is a tiny plant with a vivid red head. ‘Devil’s matchstick, or cladonia cristatella,” he says, then points to a spot a few feet away. “And over there, some Devil’s chalices.”

devil's chalis

Running his fingers over a spread of soft lime-green moss, he adds, “Sphagnum. During the First World War there was a shortage of bandages and they used this to stem the flow of blood, especially from bayonet wounds. But there are a hundred other varieties.” He swings round on his hunkers to gaze at a small plant with what looks like a set of animal horns on top. “That’s staghorn. And there’s club and fern over there. Beside them, that’s bell and ling heather. You can dry their flowers and make healthy herbal teas out of them.” Turning again, his eyes searching closely, he adds, “There’s some tormentil flowers. They’re yellow in summer, natural antiseptic to ease toothaches. And there, sundew plants. They’re carnivorous, the glands on their leaves emit a sticky gel to traps insects. They then eat them to supplement the poor mineral nutrition of the soil in which they grow.”

Spagnum

Further along, by the side of an old pony and cart track used more than a hundred years ago to get to Altan Farm, he stops again, this time beside a strange rock formation that resembles the open pages of a book.  “I call this ‘leabhar cloch Cholm Ciolle’ (Colmcille’s book of stone). It’s believed the monk, who would have wandered these hills, secretly copied a mysterious text. Who knows? This could be it – magically petrified.” Somebody nearby says the book in question was probably ‘The Joy Of Sex” – a particularly delightful illustrative book that helped enlighten me greatly in the face of strict Catholic doctrine on the sacrosanct subject. But Seamus rightly ignores my nostalgic ramblings. And rambles on up the hill.

book

Below in the sunshine, the ruins of a once sturdy, castle-like structure stands at the head of the lough, still defying the elements after all these years. To our left a herd of deer dart away on to higher ground while above us two eagles glide effortlessly, on the sharp lookout for unwary prey.

eagles

Later, up a steep climb behind Gortahork, Seamus, who is secretary and training officer of the North West Mountaineering Club, points to two round indentations carved out of bare stone, resembling an alien’s head. “Cup or ring marks, prehistoric art,” he says. “Sometimes known as wishing stones in Pagan times. Supposedly the water that gathers in them heals warts, thus the Gaeilge name, Tober na bhFáithní (the Wart Stone). ”

alien

Out at Ray, he stops at a ruined church and flat run of fields beyond, “This is known as ‘Lag na gCnámh,’ the resting place of bones, after a massacre that occurred here in the 17th century,” he ssays. “No-one knows exactly where the bodies are but there’s a lot of them under this soil somewhere.” In a hillside graveyard outside Falcarragh, he stands in the wind and rain, gazing east, “Amazing to think that druids long ago in their big, flowing cloaks stood right here with this amphitheater of hills in front of them and prayed to Nature.”As he spoke and the hailstones started pouring down again, I wondered if he might just take on the role, burst into a chant and invoke the Sun God to smile upon us.

Ray church

From boatman and builder to balladeer extraordinaire 

Standing confused on a boat in the tiny west Donegal harbor of Bunbeg is how I first met musician-singer-songwriter extraordinaire Pat Gallagher.

Looking from above and seeing an obvious landlubber flabbergasted as to how to tie a main anchor rope, he kindly doled out guidance and assistance in abundance. That got us to talking, the kind of small talk strangers do to pass the time, with me rambling on about a wonderful concert – featuring ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ – that I’d heard with my wife the evening before.

boat

“So you liked it then?” he asked.

“Liked it? I loved it,” I said enthusiastically. “Great songs, great singing. Whoever wrote them is a musical genius.”

The man smiled, a quiet kind of smile. The kind you’d hardly notice, the kind where the lips barely part. I suppose that should’ve been my first clue. But who was I to know? Hadn’t I just moved to west Donegal and bought a boat soon thereafter? What I knew about either, you could write on the back of a postage stamp and still have plenty of space for a Shakespearian sonnet, or two.

“Do you know who wrote them?” I asked innocently. Then a queer feeling came over me, and in an instant, I knew what that smile meant.

Meet Pat Gallagher – banjo player, guitar player, harmonica player, singer, songwriter. And that’s only what he does for fun. As a Jack-of-all-Trades, he can also lay bricks in a straight line and tell you where the best fishing is among the offshore islands around Gaoth Dobhair in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Pat Gallagher

And, of course, as he explained self-effacingly standing on that stony harbor pier, he’d written all the songs in the wonderful concert I’d just been to in Dungloe.

It’s no surprise then that I was delighted to meet him again this past week in the same little town, in a school auditorium between the mountains and the sea, once again with ‘Goats Don’t Shave.’ This time they were starring in a special, community-wide charity concert in aid of two-year-old infant, Lucy Gallagher, from nearby Maghery, who suffers from a rare, potentially life-threatening condition known as ‘harlequin ichthyosis.’

It was a classic sort of Irish evening, the kind I remember well from the days of my youth. The kind where – just like at Sunday Mass – the men all clump close together, too shy to be anywhere near the front of the hall. And the rest of the people are huddled on seats at the very back of the room, which left a very large intimidating space in the middle, right in front of Pat and his band members up on stage.

But where most priests don’t have the power or the charisma to raise the emotions of their listeners, the ‘High Priest of Music’ Mister Gallagher and ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ do, so it wasn’t long before the braver of souls there slipped shyly off their seats and a bit of groovin’ and gyratin’ was soon going on, others joining them, until that middle space began slowly to fill up with moving bodies. It takes some doing to turn a fairly solemn occasion into one of dancing madness but when I saw a young girl in a wheelchair spinning herself round and round to the music like there was no tomorrow – and let’s be perfectly honest, unlike the rest of us able-bodied, its not the same kind of tomorrow that awaits her – I knew the boys on stage had well and truly succeeded.

Dancing

Okay, there were still a lot of burly, muscular men – who could probably turn me into thinly sliced meat with a touch on the arm – still hugging their pints. But there were others who’d started hugging each other, as well as hugging the ladies. Some, lo and behold, unCatholic though the nefarious activity might have been, even hugging their own wives, which got me to thinking. Why is it sometimes we Irish don’t have the strength to be who we really are – emotional and affectionate? There’s a time to be subtle and retiring, and there’s a time to BE. It’s long past time we knew the difference.

But aside from our lingering awkwardness when it comes to overt shows of affection, there was plenty of that other characteristic component of Irish gatherings – rollicking good humor, especially when someone pushed a button by mistake and a giant suspended basketball board almost swiped poor Pat and his colleagues off the stage. Even funnier, as none of the band members noticed the near-catastrophe approaching them from the Heavens above.

lucy and group

As for Pat himself, his musical career has moved in an ever-increasing arc over the years. Having started early in life – he was an UlsterFleadh singing champion when he was 11 – he’s now a master of the art form known as songwriting, with more than 80 under his penmanship – whether it be the lively, foot-thumping ‘Las Vegas (in the Hills of Donegal); the hilarious lyrics and rousing satire of ‘Mary, Mary’ which opened the famous Dungloe festival years ago; the haunting melody of ‘The Evictions’, about the cruel events 0f 1861 in the Glenveigh Estate in Derryveagh under the infamous John George Adair; or the nostalgic journey Pat and thousands of other emigrant workers from Donegal took over the years on the ‘Glasgow Bus.’

He and his band have played many parts of the world, including 14 tours of the US,  taking cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago and Fort Lauderdale. Their debut album ‘The Rusty Razor’ went gold and London’s ‘Time Out’ magazine voted them ‘Best Band’ in 1993. Admirably, Pat is not afraid to face up to many of Ireland’s taboo subjects in his songs – ‘Lock It In,’ a bitter attack on men who physically abuse their partners; or “Let It Go,’ on bigotry against Travellers; or even “Killing Me,’ about his own past addiction to booze and cigarettes. At the same time, his ballads are rich with honest sentiment – ‘Tor,’ about the joys of fatherhood (he is the proud father of three children – Fionnuala, Sarah and Ferdia); ‘Rose Street;’ and one no doubt very close to his heart, ‘She Looked My Way,’ written especially for his wife, Cathy, and given to her as a Christmas present two years ago.

Having released six albums so far (the latest being ‘Songs from Earth’), before the tender age of 55, thankfully there’s still plenty of time left for the friendly musician to regale us with even more such quality work.

And to contribute his myriad talents to such deserving causes as that of unfortunate Lucy.

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Living in Gaoth Dobhair, the heart of the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area of Donegal in northwest Ireland, I take a strong interest in how this beautiful region – arguably the most scenic part of the entire country – is governed and develops, both economically and socially.

As such, I have vested considerable investigative journalistic experience, gained after 30 years in the media sector, in analyzing the workings of the largest economic development organization here – namely Údarás na Gaeltachta, an organization that has benefited from a spending budget of around one billion euro, mainly for job creation, since it was first established in 1980.

I have penned many news and feature articles on the organization over the last five years, the latest (below) published today (Friday) in the largest circulation newspaper in Donegal, the Donegal News.

For context, it’s probably worth reading the much more comprehensive, three-part series on Údarás that I wrote for the same newspaper. You’ll find it in the earlier posts below.

Pulling the ropes

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Like Br’er Rabbit, west Donegal’s largest economic development group is captive.

Captive to the belief that call centres and large manufacturing companies are the only way to create jobs – and to a golden circle that benefits from such thinking.

As such, Údarás na Gaeltachta is a Tar-baby, ever-more entangled in a sticky situation.

With the recent announcement that Largo Foods in the Gaoth Dobhair industrial estate will now close, with the loss of over 140 jobs, and after spending more than two million euro in the Donegal Gaeltacht over the last year, the Irish-language organisation has suffered a net loss of 78 jobs, according to its own figures, the worst record for many years.

So what has gone wrong? Seemingly, plenty!

Remoteness, poor infrastructure and a narrow skills’ set are the reasons most often given for few companies coming to the rural Gaeltacht of west Donegal. But does this excuse Údarás’ poor performance and lack of transparency as a public body?

After announcing recently it created 220 jobs in Donegal last year, Údarás promptly declined to give a breakdown of the figure. Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made earlier this year seeking a list of funded companies and their job numbers, as well as pension payments, it replied, “For data protection and commercial sensitivity reasons. We do not release specific information collated for the purposes of the Údarás employment survey to the general public,” adding that pensions, while funded by the taxpayer, were private matters.

I asked Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of the Oireachtas Joint Committee, which revealed Údarás pays half its annual budget in pensions for 136 former executives, to follow-up. His party leader, Gerry Adams TD, submitted Dail question Nr. 127, as well as Questions 416 and 417, asking the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to “detail final salaries levels, lump sum or additional payments and the pension payments made to each chief executive officer or regional executive of Údarás who retired in the past three years.” Minister Jimmy Deenihan answered: “I have been advised by Údarás na Gaeltachta it considers the payments referred to are covered under the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003. Accordingly, it is not in a position to supply the information requested.”

Mary Lou Nolan, TD, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on public expenditure and reform, then submitted yet another Parliamentary question, Nr. 148, asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts to which he refers; the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public, details of public service pension arrangements.” A full answer is still awaited.

Such lack of co-operation by Údarás is disconcerting and leads inevitably to suspicion, making the words of its Arranmore Island-born chairperson Anna Ní Ghallchóir to me – “utter transparency is a given” – seem pale.

About one billion euro has poured into the Donegal Gaeltacht since Údarás was founded – for a population of 24,000. Result: the highest unemployment rate nationally, ugly, empty, ghost-like industrial estates blighting a rural landscape and a horrendously under-developed tourism sector.

Two years ago, under the Fine Gael-Labour ruling coalition, a new board promised change, with both ni Ghallchoir and fellow board member John Curran saying to me in separate interviews that widespread funding for ‘cultural tourism’ projects would be given to create sustainability by attracting more visitors to west Donegal. Two years later, less than five per cent of Údarás’ budget has gone to such projects, leading people at a recent EU-backed cultural tourism CeangalG (ConnectG) conference at An Chuirt Hotel in Gaoth Dobhair to complain of dwindling support.

In the case of Largo Foods, where is the sustainability that Údarás grants totaling 6.2 million euro to it (over 43,000 euro per job) should have created, and what business-sense does it make for Údarás to allocate half a million euro for two years for this company, which didn’t even bother to draw it down? With call centers and large manufacturing units merely band-aids for local unemployment problems, why has Údarás shown so little trust in small businesses forming the backbone of the local area’s economy? Especially so when a national economist who completed her Doctorate on Údarás operations, concluded, “on supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will continue to be, insane.” Could the fixation with short-term job numbers be linked to retention of Údarás’ own staff jobs, whose salaries average 80,000 euro annually, excluding expenses?

Instead of cultural tourism being expanded with serious money, Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the organisation’s tourism officer, said in a recent public forum that “discussions are well-advanced” on building an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the coastal town of Falcarragh, beside an existing golf course in the Ballyconnell House estate. It is believed Údarás, having already turned down several tourism ideas for the area, will allocate between several hundred thousand and one million euro to the project, which will be run by an arm of the Catholic Church.

Ultimately, decent Donegal people deserve better. How many more millions of euro must be wasted, how many more years lost, before Údarás changes its vision, and for transparency and accountability to be achieved? Perhaps only then will the ceaseless brain-drain halt and our native language escape from withering on the vine.

Published in Donegal News