Colmcille: mysterious monk, mystic and mischief-maker

Though his name has become well known down through the centuries, nobody seems to know much about him – one of the reasons he has become a figure of legend.

But efforts are now underway to unmask the mysterious Irish monk known as Colmcille and in so doing create a special pilgrimage aka the Camino of Santiago de Compostela that could provide a much needed boost to the ailing tourism sector amid the rugged beauty of northwest Ireland.

To this end, a launch event will take place this Friday at 12.30 in An Crann Og in Derrybeg, west Donegal, where all will be revealed.

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Much of the information about the enigmatic fellow was written many years after his death in the middle of the 6th century and as such, as often happens when attempts are made to enhance an individual’s saintly credentials, is either embellished or simply inaccurate. But the result has been even greater intrigue and heightened interest in the fellow – what he did and what he stood for.

One absorbing element is that his name is linked to the ‘illegal’ copying of a secret manuscript – with many observers saying it may have been the first-ever case of copyright infringement. But nobody is certain whether it really happened as described or, if it did, what the sacred document was, belonging to Finian, the monk’s former teacher, that Colmcille felt such a great need to copy, and why.

Following the incident, Diarmuid, High King of Tara, is supposed to have handed down an edict, “To every cow her calf, and to every book its transcript. And therefore to Finian of Moville belongeth the book.” Not surprisingly, this decision was not to the liking of certain interested parties, including the revered monk himself. Records indicate fighting erupted over this bizarre case of intellectual theft with Colmcille facing the High King at the ‘Battle of the Book’ on the slopes of Benbulben in Sligo.

Some also say this – a bloody battle that left several thousand dead – was the reason Colmcille left Ireland for Scotland voluntarily and with great remorse, to establish his own settlement on the island of Iona. Others say he was ordered, or ‘advised,’ to get out of town fast or have assassins forever chasing his tail. After all, a spear to the head or sword to the gut were pretty strong persuaders in the dark days when rival monks were also fighters well trained in the art of swift and agonizing chop-chop.

Colmcille’s story by most accounts began in Gartan, Donegal, where he was born into the northern branch of the O’Neill Clann around 521. His mother, Eithne, was believed to be a princess from Leinster, and his father, Fedelmidh, a prince of Tír Conaill and the great grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the pagan king who brought Patrick, he of shamrock fame, as a slave to Ireland. Christened Criomhthann (meaning ‘fox’), Colmcille certainly lived up to his name, jumping in among the chickens as he did and causing such a furor.

Scholar, warrior, mischief-maker, prince, diplomat – Colmcille seems to have been a man of many parts. If you want to learn more about him, be at Crannog, this Friday where Brian Lacey, renown historian, author and expert in the era, and Moira Ní Ghallachóir, founder of outdoors tourism group, mng.ie which organises ‘Rock agus Roam,’ will speak at the launch of an innovative tourism venture entitled ‘Connecting Colmcille.’

In addition, a special exhibition entitled ‘Amra Cholium Chille’ – a modern translation of a poem composed after the monk’s death with paintings by Brian Ferran and caligraphy by Donald Murray – will be opened at An Gailearai in Aislann Ghaoth Dobhair at 8pm this Friday evening. The event is free and open to the public with wine and refreshments served.

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

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Michael the modern Messiah

With gray beard, tousled hair and wrinkled coat and pants, writer Michael Harding descended upon Donegal Friday night looking all the world like the modern risen Messiah and promptly mesmerized his disciples.

As one who enjoys a night at the theatre  – pointing my rickety but faithful jalopy weekly out my pebble-stoned driveway enroute to one venue or another – it has been a long while since I last saw An Grianan theatre so packed (a shame really as it hosts so many enjoyable performances).

Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

On this occasion, rightly, theatre director Patricia McBride and her marketing adjutant, Daithi Ramsay, should be marching triumphantly all the way to the bank. Or at least to the office of Traolach O’Fionnan, arts officer at Donegal County Council, with hands outstretched for a somewhat larger annual stipend.

So what magical message did the Messiah from Cavan (via Leitrim) bring northwards to have created such a keen fan base that left nary a seat unoccupied. Notwithstanding the writer-cum-playwright-cum-columnist-cum-actor’s obvious charisma, down-to-earth homeliness and ageless, sage-like physical bearing, I’ve narrowed his popularity in Donegal down to several things –

  • Humanism:  Harding carries a soothing, spiritual message that – in the stress-bedraggled world we inhabit – is manna from heaven. In this respect, he is suitably qualified – as a priest, a calling he abandoned after some years, then as a Buddhist, a calling he continues still. Summing up his lifestyle message Friday night, the author of ‘Staring at Lakes’ and ‘Hanging with the Elephant,’ said, “The ultimate wisdom is that there is no wisdom, so fuck it, just relax,” adding that his secret to contented living was following what he termed “the ancient Gaelic tradition of meditation” – in a word, ‘dozing.’ “I think I’ll start organising workshops training people how to doze properly,” he said tongue-in-cheek.
  • Nostalgia – he recounts homespun, heart-warming tales about life, love and growing old; about mothers and families and childhood, suggestions of innocence reminiscent of our own youth, of those fading bygone years we’ll never experience again but in which we bathe joyously for the remembering and the re-telling. In this respect, Harding is a wistful humourist, the Irish equivalent of Garrison Keillor whose radio programme, ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ I listened to faithfully on National Public Radio each Saturday evening when I lived across the Atlantic.

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  • Empathy – the performer’s first words after coming on stage Friday evening were, “I’m not well,” said with a downright doleful expression. Immediately he’d captured the audience’s undivided attention. After all, having all been sick at one time or another, hearing someone else who’s sick makes us feel both empathy for that person and better about ourselves, either because, fortunately, we are no longer sick or because we are still sick but as Mephistopheles tells Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s classic tale “Misery loves company.”
  • Sympathy – one of Harding’s strengths is that he is unafraid to bear his soul, to show his vulnerable side. With a hint of melancholy, he touches – often poignantly – upon self-doubts, mistakes, indecisions, depression and the other suitcases of distress that life tends to carry with it. And we feel for him and support him and want him so dearly to succeed because – aside from altruism – if he emerges okay at the other end, then there’s hope for the rest of us.

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  • Hilarity – Harding can be belly-wobblingly funny – no more so when he is in a self-deprecating mood or on a sudden flight of fancy. The aisles rocked with fits of laughter Friday night as he launched into a story about how – in the muddled midst of a mid-life crisis  – he read that shaving one’s pubic hair helped expand exponentially one’s erotic experiences.  So, fortified by a bottle of wine, he sallied forth, “with a Wilkinson triple blade.” Unfortunately, the mirror he was using was not tall enough so he had to balance himself precariously on a chair to accomplish the feat. The result: “fresh breezes in the nether regions and a boil from an ingrowing hair that had to be pierced by a doctor – a lady.”

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  • Familiarity – Michael has been to Donegal on several occasions, last year at An Earagail Arts Festival with singer Tommy Sands and in late 2013, speaking after the launch of ‘Staring at Lakes.’ He also spent some time previously on holiday in the county and opened the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair a few months ago.

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Overall the evening with Michael Harding was a most enjoyable occasion ripe with amusing, philosophical ramblings that left the audience departing the theatre wrapped in added layers of warmth to fend off the cold, biting weather outside.

With but a mysterious suitcase on the floor stage centre, a padded armchair and his lectern as props, Harding took his listeners on a delightful stroll down ‘Nostalgia Avenue,’ his deft turns of phrase encapsulating many-layered meanings in a flurry of simple-seeming words.

His ability to mix ‘n match moods, swinging rapidly from melancholy to bittersweet to outright hilarity was impressive, all part and parcel of personal anecdotes gleaned from the trials and tribulations of his own life. One illustrative example was when he described how his mother would make him wait in the street in front of a draper’s shop while she went in to buy “women’s things” leaving him “to develop childhood neuroses outside,” then in response to the shop-owner asking if he was her son, she’d say yes but that she would have preferred a daughter.

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And how, not having sisters, it took a visit by three Letterkenny girls to his home for him to see “women’s things” first-hand. “Their bras hanging in the bathroom like a line of dead rabbits,” as he amusingly put it.

The writer’s description of rummaging through his mother’s belongs soon after her death was emotive by its sheer simplicity. “I found my dead mother in little boxes and drawers,” he said, before recounting exactly what he found.

Harding’s terse turns of phrase can be poetic as when he talks about his Aunt Molly, as “a woman like a tree with so many shaking bits” or love in Cavan as “not many hugs but a lot of apple tarts and extra portions of potatoes.” Or even a dead chicken hanging on an assembly line in a meat factory as “wrinkled and naked like an old man’s neck.” His sharp observations of everyday life are also impressive as when he describes his uncle sleeping as “heavy on the bed like a hammock” or the danger of men “having ideas” especially in the toilet, leading him to warn women to beware of men emerging saying, “I was just thinking…..”

His insights on Irish rural life are delightfully illuminating whether they about the tradition of “throwing cocks over neighbours walls” to keep a healthy gene pool or the differences between the rural walk (“with chakras open”) and the urban one – both of which were accompanied by amusing on-stage simulations. Or even the annual ‘Blessing of the Graves” which he describes as, “Getting out the deckchairs and sitting on top of the dead to keep them down.”

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Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

Harding, not surprisingly, has a love for his native Cavan, though he admits, with himself foremost in mind, that, “you’re not going up in the world merely by going from Cavan to Leitrim,” adding that he is more “a refugee seeking asylum.”

An oft-quoted saying is that ‘one can never go back home,’ but Harding achieves the next best thing, resurrecting vivid memories of places and people from his past that help bring an audience on an enjoyable and entertaining journey of nostalgia.

Minister of Public Expenditure raps Údarás na Gaeltachta for lack of transparency

Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, has rapped Údarás na Gaeltachta on the knuckles for failing to release vital information on spending of public money affecting Donegal and other Gaeltacht areas.

Following a refusal by Údarás to provide details on hefty pension payments to former executives that accounts for more than half its annual budget under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I filed, formal written parliamentary questions were submitted by TDs angry about the lack of transparency by the Gaeltacht economic development group.

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Such questions culminated in one by Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein TD and member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on my behalf, directly to the Minister, “To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in view of his stated commitment to transparency and accountability in the spending of public moneys, his views that it is acceptable for a public body fully funded by the Exchequer to withhold from the public record details of public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers; and if he will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government.”

A formal written response has just been received from Minister Howlin, in which he, in effect, tacitly states that Údarás was wrong to turn down my FOI request seeking details of pensions for former executives paid wholly out of public funds, and that it should release the information forthwith.

The Minister writes, “Under the 2014 (Freedom of Information) Act, the terms and conditions of any individual who holds or held any office or other position remunerated from public funds in a public body, rather than just those of a Director or member of staff as provided for under the 1997 Act, are not afforded the protections under the Act in relation to personal information. On that basis, the type of information to which the Deputy’s question refers i.e. public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers which would be part of remuneration, would be available from a public body that was subject to FOI, other than where a specific exemption applies against the release of such information.

The Minister elaborates further, “Under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, as was the case in the original Freedom of Information Act in 1997, an exemption from the provisions of Freedom Of Information (FOI) is provided for personal information. The 2014 Act also expanded the definition of what does not constitute personal information in the context of FOI.”

In answer to McDonald’s question as to whether the Minister “will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government,” the Minister writes, “Given the matter is already provided for by the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I do not consider further legislative action is required.

As we have seen with scandal-hit FAS and other Irish state bodies that abused peoples’ trust and misspent public money, the only way to prevent corruption is by creating greater transparency. The government coalition of Fine Gael and Labour made this a central issue in their electoral platform. In the three years since they took office, little progress has been made.

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Several weeks ago, Ireland was placed 31st position ‘in the league of transparent nations’ following research by the World Wide Web Foundation. It is the worst of any European nation, even behind countries such as Russia, Mexico and Brazil. The group’s categorized Ireland as a country that faces challenges to “mainstreaming open data across government and institutionalizing it as a sustainable practice.” It also said “core data on how the government is spending taxpayers’ money and how public services are performing remains inaccessible or pay-walled even though such information is critical to fight corruption and promote fair competition is even harder to get.”

Tim Berners-Lee, Web, founder of the Web Foundation and the London-based Open Data Institute, said, “Governments continue to shy away from publishing the very data that can be used to enhance accountability and trust” and highlighted the power of open data “to put power in the hands of citizens.”

Údarás is a classic case in point.

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Dinny McGinley, former junior minister for the Gaeltacht, wrote back in a vague response to my FOI request saying simply that Údarás had informed him it was “a data controller, defined under the Acts as a person who either alone or with others controls the contents and use of personal data.

For so many years untouchable hidden behind a veil of Irish-language support, Údarás perhaps is in many ways no different to FAS in terms of greed and individual self-interests. According to Údarás sources, former board members in Donegal remained in boardroom meetings during discussions on lucrative payments to their very own companies and organisations. In addition, not one but at least three Donegal Údarás board members have been up before the Standards in Public Office Commission on corruption charges relating to double dipping on expenses. When one considers the expense claims for board members, particularly under the long-time chairmanship of Liam Cunningham from Glencolmbcille (from 2005 to 2010 he received more than 155,000 euro in fees and expenses, according to Highland Radio), one has an idea of the unchecked, proliferate spending that went on.

Some details as already reported by Highland Radio –

  • Four former Donegal members of the Údarás board each received in excess of 100,000 euro each, over a four-year period, in travel expenses.
  • Fianna Fáil member Daithi Alcorn earned nearly €120,000 between 2005 and 2009;
  • Fianna Fail Senator Brian O Domhnaill received €115,000 while independent Donegal member Padraig O Dochartaigh received €105,000.

Over one billion euro of public money has already gone into supporting Udaras na Gaeltachta yet unemployment rates in Gaetachts are consistently highest in the nation.

Misspending of public money (an issue brought up by the former head of the PAC, see 3-part series article series), includes all-expenses trips to Las Vegas for Udaras board members and their spouses – supposedly to meet a delegation of the IDA;

In truth, Údarás was – and perhaps still is – a cash cow for well-to-do insiders in west Donegal.

It is long past time Údarás prepared proper annual reports instead of the porous documents it now produces that disguise the spending picture and that it holds open public meetings to allow the people of the Gaeltacht to know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent.