Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rises: but where’s the money?

Some years ago, displaying immense creativity and skill, a local team of hard-working people in Galway created ‘Macnas,’ an organisation that produces a series of exciting, colourful outdoor parades and indoor shows filled with magnificent costumes and performers.
With generous funding from the Arts Council, Údarás na Gaeltachta, Culture Ireland and Galway Council, the company expanded rapidly; exciting and inspiring audiences worldwide with performances as diverse as U2’s Zooropa Tour; the Millennium parade in New York City; WOMADelaide, South Australia; Chaoyang Spring Carnival, Beijing; the President’s Garden Party, Áras an Uachtaráin; and in a host of festivals, towns and cities throughout Ireland and across Europe.

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Macnas, Galway – an estimated 40,000 euro cost per festival show. (photo courtesy Macnas)

This weekend in the west Donegal town of Falcarragh, a similar group of local hard-working people, under the leadership of festival director, Kathleen Gallagher, and Sean Fitzgerald, will recreate a similar dazzlingly entertaining costume and culture filled show entitled ‘Evil Eye’ (Féile na Súile Nimhe). Featuring large-scale puppet characters, a samba band with Formorian soldiers (ancient sea-farers) and stilt walkers, it will highlight unforgettable Celtic legendary characters such as Balor of the Evil Eye and Lugh, the Sun God (thus ‘Lugh’s Mountain’ now known as Errigal) and the history of the Cloch Cheann Fhaola area.

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‘Evil Eye’ Festival Falcarragh, Donegal – organised on a budget of around 4,000 euro. A whopping ten times less than Galway’s Macnas (photo courtesy Eddie McFadden).

But there’s one major difference between the two festivals: while the Galway team hosts its show with pockets bulging with euro (an estimated 40,000 euro per festival, according to national news reports) – the Falcarragh one has a few pennies. And most of that was raised through its own activities, including determined people who tackled their first adventure race – the 23-kilometer combined run, kayak and cycling Mulroy Bay competition– and, later, the even more challenging 44-kilometer ‘Gael Force’ race.
So how does Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council and Donegal County Council view this admirable cultural tourism project?
Representatives of the above organisations came to enjoy the Falcarragh festival last year, full of praise for the creators of the extravaganza, a highlight in the west Donegal social calendar. But when asked for money, they all suddenly shied away. While more than 500,000 euro has been given to Macnas in Galway, the Arts Council finally granted a paltry 600 euro for ‘Evil Eye’ and around 1,250 euro is supposed to be donated from the council’s ‘The Gathering’ fund (money not received as of blog posting – two day before event begins).
In its turn, Údarás Donegal contacted the organisers earlier this year, but not to offer financial support. Instead, it called only to inform the team that the application deadline had passed (would it not have been more constructive to have contacted them before, not after, the deadline, especially has it had moved the date forward?).
Later, when approached for some space in one of its industrial estates in which to construct the festival’s giant puppets and store equipment and costumes, Udaras demanded 50 per cent of the commercial rate, which obviously – on such a tiny budget – the community group could not afford. Ironically, Údarás has thousands of square meters of space lying empty and unused in its industrial estates throughout the Gaeltacht for which it is already paying utilities, spaces that are supposed to be used for ‘community development.’ In the end, it was the generosity of local Falcarragh man, John ‘the Rake’ McFadden, that helped save the annual ‘Evil Eye’ festival. He donated his large agricultural shed to organisers.

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‘Evil Eye’ festival combines entertainment with education on Celtic history for both adults and children.

Faced with a severe lack of funding assistance, the hardworking festival team were forced to borrow and beg – costumes from the Northwest Carnival Initiative in Derry for 30 members of the Cloughaneely Marching Band who will act as seahorses in the historical re-enactment and other costumes from the Inishowen Carnival Group for 12 volunteer samba dancers. They also had to rely on the efforts of organisers of a childrens’ summer camp in Ballina Resource Centre at which local kids made shields and swords, 10 of whom will march in the festival. Nine members of the Curragh Club of Magheraroarty, as well as local plasterers, who will walk on stilts, are also helping out.
If this kind of creativity and community spirit had been displayed in other countries such as the US or Australia, it would probably be recognized immediately as such and funding made readily available (as indeed it is in other Irish counties such as Galway).
Yet Údarás in Donegal, with Fine Gael national board member, John Curran, living nearby, continue to ignore such culture tourism projects, projects with the potential for economic development through tourism, while at the same time wasting public money on generous expenses and junkets for its staff members (including a large delegation who traveled, with their spouses, on an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas – to meet officials of Dublin-based Enterprise Ireland).

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Údarás Donegal refused to give ‘Evil Eye’ organisers free space in its empty industrial estates for the construction and storage of giant puppets.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Gallagher voiced her frustration: “It seems to me that Údarás either has no interest whatsoever in tourism development or simply doesn’t understand its potential,” she said. “The tourism officer for Údarás, Gearoid O’Smaolain who lives in Falcarragh, has never even approached us to see if we needed help of any kind. He doesn’t belong on any of the local community committees or attend meetings to find out what is happening on the ground.”
She added, “I carried out comprehensive research into possible funding from Údarás and on which individual staff members I should approach, something that is not very clear from its materials. Many of their job descriptions certainly include the word ‘community,’ such as ‘community enterprise’ and ‘community development and marketing’ yet strangely, there doesn’t seem to be much community development going on at all.”
As multi award-winning actor Diarmuid de Faoite said of the festival: “The ‘Evil Eye’ is our ancient past and living present in all its wild beauty.”
It’s a shame the Arts Council, Donegal County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta don’t seem to agree.

While misguided policies, cronyism and wastage of public money has been an unfortunate hallmark of Údarás almost since its inception, the good news in this instance is that due to the sterling efforts of Falcarragh volunteers, the ‘Evil Eye’ festival is going ahead.
So why not treat yourself, family and friends to a wonderful spectacle of colour, culture and heritage and pop along to Falcarragh between August 22nd and 24th.
A festival highlight will be a medieval banquet in St Ann’s Church Killult, the 1900’s structure providing an excellent setting for a magical evening of song, dance and drama. The festival will also pay tribute to the history of Muckish Mountain’s mining legacy with guided walks on the old Miners Path and disused railway tracks. It will also feature birds of prey and weaponry displays, complete with a pig on a spit in a ‘medieval field’ while skills of strength and agility will be tested in a range of quest games to find one of the story’s main characters, Lugh Lámhfhada.
For further information, see Evil Eye Festival site.

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Shipwrecks, puppets and mechanical creatures – opportunities for cultural tourism

An earlier post – Cultural tourism: its time is nigh – highlighted the immense potential for cultural tourism in the Donegal Gaeltacht to help fill the vacuum left by failed government policies, mainly by Údarás na Gaeltachta, to provide jobs and prevent the departure of our dynamic young to foreign shores.

With the pursuit of major manufacturing companies a lost cause mainly due to difficult and expensive transport logistics and call centres being a short-term band-aid, cultural tourism has been an underused weapon in the battle against rising unemployment and severe economic decline in the Gaeltacht.

While some say a minority of people such as language-based entrepreneur Liam Cunningham in Glencolmcille have become tourism millionaires, mainly based on national and international grants with Cunningham perhaps reaping the benefits of his chairmanship of Údarás for over a decade (whether questionable or not, meaning within ethical parameters, is a topic for future discussion), the depth of funding to other local cultural tourism entrepreneurs has been sparse.

The reason, according to Udaras officials, is that cultural tourism doesn’t create long-term jobs. Asked why, officials are at a loss to explain, so what this long-held and somewhat irrational attitude is based on is a matter of pure conjecture, with some critics saying the real reason is unrelated to accepted principles of economic development but rather linked to cronyism, influence peddling and continued support, financial and otherwise, to Fianna Fail, a party that ruled the roost for so long and put certain people in key executive positions.

While the accuracy of this allegation requires further investigation, what is important to note is what other parts of Ireland and beyond have done – and are doing – to reap healthy benefits from committed policies to cultural tourism development and analyze whether the Donegal Gaeltacht has – to put it succinctly – ‘got what it takes.’

At a largely EU-funded conference earlier this year under the auspices of CeangalG and with the catchphrase ‘Selling Our Story,’ speaker after speaker talked about interesting cultural tourism ideas that have produced positive measurable results, including increased job creation. Many of the speakers agreed that key components for such success include ‘identity,’ ‘authenticity’ and ‘memorability.’

In my opinion, the Latin term ‘genius loci’ (spirit of place) best describes what the central element is – the specific nuances of any given place that separate it from the rest of the world.

So, does the Donegal Gaeltacht have what it takes?

In a word, yes!

Cherishing an ancient language that proudly holds its place among the oldest in the known world; with the singing tradition of sean-nós, whose ornamented, rhythmic intimations are an inspirational reminder of the primordial beginnings of Man; and with the area’s unique traditional dance and music, disparate elements of ‘genius loci’ are plentiful. Not to mention the intriguing Celtic legends such as those related to Balor and Lugh, thus the Mount of Lugh (now called Errigal) named after the ancient Sun God.

Having had the privilege over the last 30 years of travelling as a journalist on assignment to many parts of the world, I considered some of the places I’ve visited and successful cultural tourism projects there, projects that have not only strengthened the economic vitality of deprived areas but also uplifted the innate spirit and pride of the local population.

Here are a few, some which might just provide models of excellence for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

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Creative engineering in Nantes, France, has led to economic revival based on cultural tourism.

Nantes, France – Earlier this year, I travelled to this western town in the Pays Loire region to see such a project. Faced with empty industrial estates, local officials had decided to invest in cultural tourism to create jobs using the existing space and infrastructure.

Realizing how watching ships return to this riverside port with exotic cargo from around the world inspired a young Jules Verne to later write science-fiction classics as ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ the officials embarked on a project that now attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually. Entitled Les Machines de L’Ileand opened in 2007, it is a 21st-century mechanical wonderland consisting of monumental structures including the, ‘Grand Elephant,’ ‘Mantra Ray,’ ‘Sea Snake,’ ‘Heron Tree,’ and ‘World Carousel’ in what is known as the ‘Gallery of Machines’ upon which visitors enjoy adventure rides and experiences. Last year alone, almost 100,000 people rode on the Grand Elephant; 190,000 people visited the gallery and 250,000 the ‘World Carousel.’ Total investment – in various stages – was 17.7 million euro, a sum that was recouped within a few years. In comparison, according to Údarás, Largo Foods received around seven million euro in funding and left the area earlier this year.

Not only did the project increase business revenues, it also created permanent, long-term new jobs in central workshops employing such tradespeople as plumbers, carpenters and engineers. Could a project like this – using local legendary Celtic figures as central subjects – not help deal with the empty industrial spaces throughout west Donegal, while attracting more tourists to the area?

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Puppetry, an age-old tradition in Sicily, attracts tourists and locals alike, providing both entertainment and cultural education.

Palermo, Sicily – Like west Donegal, this rocky island at the toe of Italy has generally been ignored by the central government in Rome. Faced with worsening employment, local officials took matters into their own hands. Seizing on a peculiar and unique vein of cultural heritage dating back hundreds of years to the time of Socrates – puppetry – they created a flourishing tourism attraction that has boosted business and employment.

Opera dei pui’ (puppet theater) has a long tradition in Sicily, reaching its peak around 100 years ago on the island. With support from the Association for Conservation of Popular Traditions, visitors to the downtown Palermo puppet museum can now see hundreds of beautifully designed puppets, their masters’ equipment (mestiere), as well as other memorabilia, and regularly-staged shows involving cultural characters and chivalrous heroes such as Orlando, Rinaldo and Gano di Maganza. So strong has been the resurgence of interest in this long-held tradition, puppet theatre performances – that also play an important educational role in highlighting the island’s history –take place in other parts of Sicily. Again, using local legendary figures and stories, can the Donegal Gaeltacht not avail of a similar cultural tourism initiative? A creative team under the guidance of Kathleen Gallagher has already shown the level of know-how required for such a project.

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Donegal flag flies high over one of the area’s most well-known shipwrecks opposite Ostan Gaoth Dobhair. Many others lie offshore, spanning centuries of history.

Key West, Florida – before it became a hotspot for tourism, this area on the tip of the peninsula was a backward, forgotten place in the 1800s where local fishermen and their families led difficult hand-to-mouth existences. Only when the phrase ‘Wreck Ashore!’ rang out did hope for better things arise. ‘Unloading’ the many ships that ran into difficulty was a chore, but a most rewarding one.

Seizing upon this colourful aspect of the area’s history, local officials decided to create an attraction that would be both entertaining, as well as educational. Thus, the ‘Key West Shipwreck Museum,’ where visitors step back in time to discover Key West’s unique maritime heritage. The museum combines actors, video and actual artefacts from the rediscovery of wrecked vessels such as the Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the treacherous Florida Keys reef.

Narrator and master wrecker, Asa Tift, and his wrecking crew tell the story of how this unusual industry created livelihoods for the early pioneers of Key West. Visitors can even climb a 65-foot lookout tower in search of wrecks.

West Donegal, with its rich maritime heritage and its record of shipwrecks, including the sinking of Spanish Armada galleons off Tory and Gola Islands plus other vessels, both military from the two world wars and commercial, offers a similar historical backdrop to Key West. What’s to prevent officials funding such a project – except, of course, narrow-minded thinking and lack of specialised business acumen?

Columba: saint, soldier or New Age Pagan?

Columba, considered saintly by some, charismatic by others, was a bit of a ‘cute whore,’ a caustic and cantankerous character, a male chauvinist, thrifty to the point of miserliness and perhaps a non-entity who did diddly squat except be a pawn for powerful war lords vying over territory in early Ireland.

Such are the colorful views of some leading historians, archaeologists and writers gathered recently in what is considered the Celtic mystic’s ‘home place’ of west Donegal to deconstruct aspects of the legendary fellow’s life. The three-day conference at Loch Altan Hotel, Gortahork, was organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall, ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba.

Photo by Alan Sproull

Rural west Donegal – the area is considered the ‘home place’ of the legendary Columba. Photo by Alan Sproull

So who then was responsible for some of the magnanimous stories about this larger-than-life character and his supposedly ‘unEarthly’ powers and their ultimate adoption as mainstream belief? A new, ambitious group hell-bent on making sure it rose to the top of the ‘Champions League of Religions’ table, that’s who. Not an easy task, mind you, for developing Christianity faced well-established teams of equally high calibre, many with loyal fan bases, catchy club anthems, ambient arenas and good-looking kits – all well-suited to the emotional needs and superstitions of Irish people around 2,000 years ago.

To compete with the Red Devils, Gunners, Barças, Reals, Inters and Juves of the religious world, Christianity had to go on the transfer market to strengthen its position. And it didn’t much waste time about doing so either, quickly transferring a bunch of Pagan symbols – wells, crosses, incense, wreaths, bells, chants, ceremonies – even wedding rings – under its spreading angelic wings.

But that wasn’t enough. With solid defensive work and fine attacking play, opposing teams held out well against them.

Then leaders of the new movement put their collective heads together and in an illuminated moment of intellectual brilliance (in lingo religiosa ‘the Holy Spirit came upon them’) realized the one vital ingredient missing from their strategy – the persuasive power of an ancient, as well as modern, condition known commonly as ‘celebratitis.’

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Using Pagan symbols such as the cross, Columba may have persuaded tribes-people to a different way of thinking.

So, as one does when one has rising aspirations of political greatness, they created a sub-committee. A subcommittee with the sole purpose of weaving together stories on selected individuals, stories so grandiose and wondrous they’d make celebrities out of any plain Peter, Paul and Mary, alive or dead. In fact, their preferred choice was the latter, for among all the beliefs abounding – then and now – there’s one you can be pretty damn sure of –- it’s difficult to argue with a corpse.

Thus was born the legend of Columba – about whom, conveniently for his ‘handlers,’ conjecture heavily outweighs fact.

Hell-bent on their mission, monks of the newly-fashioned Christian organization created a carefully-crafted chronology of the fellow’s life that they entitled ‘Chronicles of Iona’ but while others mention a library in Kilmacrennan where it might have been housed, no-one has found a single shred of evidence of it (or such evidence, for reasons of strategy, has been craftily shifted to location unknown). A censored part of it is in the ‘Annals of Ulster.’ In it is included details of what they purport to be miracles (seemingly the head gaffer put around a memo to his fellow brethren asking for submissions as they were a bit short on anecdotes) and other material supporting their cause, including their anti-woman crusade (all contributions welcome as to the origin of this particular stance). For example, Columba is supposed to have banished all women from Iona, warning others to be wary of them, not to give them too much power, or – interestingly – too much water, one conference speaker claimed.

As for his alleged saintliness, historians indicate Columba – like many other monks of the time – often believed the secular to be more sacred than the spiritual and were mere ciphers for rival, warring factions, at a time when churches were placed on territorial borders as symbolic deterrents or markers. It is believed Dai Riada, the king of the area associated with Columba, might have wanted to expand his holdings and used our fellow solely for that reason.

Fired up by his missionary zeal, Columba also supposedly skedaddled hither and thither all over Europe. But, just as in the case of saints’ relics, he’d have to have been cloned to be in all the places he is supposed to have been, doing the things he is supposed to have been doing. Some believers, for example, say he was not only involved in discovering the holy wells of Derry but was the actual founder of that particular northern Irish city. There’s little contemporary evidence of this. Due to the gap of years between his death (around 593) and the city’s founding, he’d have to have been a time-travelling vampire to have accomplished the task. Another monk, Augustine, is more central to Derry, having established a church there since the 600s AD. At best, Columba’s favorite Uncle Fiachra was Derry’s founder but again evidence even of this is severely lacking.

According to Christian slant, Columba is also thought to have brought back the so-called Gospel of Martin from Tours in France. Please don’t ask me to accept this on ‘blind faith.’ That’s like the blind leading the blind, and there’s no easier way to go astray than that. More likely, with spelling in those days being less than precise and Tory Island known in documents as Toraigh, Toirinis and Tourensis, it was a case of geographical misplacement (or story enhancement).

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Iona – a windswept Scottish island that reflects the heritage of the legendary Celtic mystic.

Even the much talked about Battle of Cúl Dreimne near Ben Bulben in Sligo – allegedly fought over Columba’s illegal copying of a book (‘to every cow its calf and to every book its copy’) and his banishment to Iona – this may simply have been the workings of an over-imaginative scribe in a cloistered scriptorium. Instead, the battle may have been over the killing of man, who was under Columba’s protection, by Diarmait mac Cerbaill, High King of Tara. Some say the leader of a monastic settlement in Inismurray Island, Sligo, then told Columba bluntly it would be‘better’ to high-tail it out of town and across the water (others say he may have left out of guilt at causing so much bloodshed).

Regardless, what seems to be true is that there was no love lost between Columba and Diarmait. Diarmait, the last High King to worship in the Pagan manner and who celebrated the Feast of Tara, the pagan inauguration ceremony, was not keen on this new Christian doctrine, seeing it as an opportunistic usurper. The Irish annals include a reference to him even building druid fences on the battlefield.

As for Columba being caustic and cantankerous, word has it that he’d simply curse people he didn’t like. One man who pretended he was asleep to avoid talking to him ended up snoozing for a year and a day. Poked in the eye by a reed while tying his shoe, Columba cursed all reeds, thus the reason they’re brown and no longer sharp. After slipping on a salmon…… well, I’ll let you conjure up for yourself what curse Columba might have bestowed upon those innocent little creatures.

Amidst all the fact, fiction and propaganda, what emerges is that Pagan leaders and Christian monks and their supportive warring chieftains battled each other for territorial advantage and the spoils of victory that came with it.

Whether you believe Columba was your average Joe Blow or a saint, a term open to so many interpretations (one speaker at the Gortahork conference referred to him as “a bit of a James Bond character”), the cult that grew around him makes for fascinating anthropological and sociological discussion.

That is why the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project, a partnership between Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, could be a boon for cultural tourism. After hundreds of years, wouldn’t it be nice for communities, and not only the church, to benefit from such a legendary figure? Developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful pilgrimage project could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

For further information, see the book by University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey’s (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

A note of caution: when reading about Columba and his exploits it is probably helpful to keep in mind the old adage – History is written by the victors.

A poem attributed to Columba is also worth musing upon –

“If poet’s verses be but fables

So be food and garments fables

So is all the world a fable

So is man of dust a fable.”