Singing lobsters and boxer shorts

A gentleman if ever there was one, Dore man Sabba Curran wore an undisguised look of contentment seated comfortably in the captain’s quarters of ‘The Cricket’ gazing out beyond a sleepy sea to the quaint houses lining the crust of Gola Island.

The Cricket boat to Gola Island, ferry to Gola Island, Donegal islands

Full steam ahead, Captain!

Behind him, a lively group – young and old, locals and tourists – stood on the open deck breathing in deep draughts of fresh warm air under a clear, azure-blue summer sky (no, I’m not color blind, though with the torrential rain we’ve had since it’s hard to believe).

Though barely mid-afternoon, the Gola Ferry Service was already completing its fourth return trip from Maghergallon Pier, having started early Saturday before any of us had even finished our scrambled eggs and scones (okay, okay, maybe just me).

painting classes, painting on the island, Gola painting

Maureen Ferry (l) and colleague prepare for the island painting class.

Meanwhile, the ‘island crew’ of Maureen Ferry, Sheila Gallagher, His Majesty, Eddie Joe Mac Aoidh, the Uncrowned Island King and family and friends, all members of the Gola Island Development Co-op, had finished their stuff.

Gola Island festival, Celtic traditions, pagan traditions in Ireland

Some lead a life of leisure and some gotta work – guess which is which!

A crowd of over a hundred was expected for the annual Gola Island Festival and things had all been put in order. Colorful buntings fluttered in the light breeze, the kettle was on the boil in the wee café (it really should have a name – any suggestions?) and assorted materials for an outdoor painting class were well in hand.

Der Spiegel, New York photographer, Pól Ó Muireasáin, sea-forager

(l to r) Photographer and reporter from New York and Cologne on Gola Island ready to capture the ‘Pól’ moment.

Even the day’s star guest, bearded philosopher, polyglot and sea-forager, Derry-man-cum-transplanted Bunbegian, Pól Ó Muireasáin, was ready and eager to rock ‘n roll. He’d powdered his nose, coiffured his hair and got his bits and bobs together, ready to lead a merry band of Marine Apostles, including Der Spiegel’s correspondent from Cologne and a photographer all the way from the Big Apple, on a hazardous two-hour, search-and find expedition for monsters of the deep among the sand and rocks of the coastal inlets.

And what a delightful day it turned out to be.

visit Gola Island, ferry to Gola Island, Donegal islands

(l to r) His Majesty Gola Island’s King Eddie and cousin Thomas from Aberdeen take a break from playing family catch-up.

King Eddie had a good ole chin-wag with his distant cousin, James Sharkey, now plying his trade in far-off Aberdeen;

Gola island caffee, scones and tea on the island, walking on Gola island

A pretty picture!

a smiling Marie Moloney-Pearson did her thing behind the café counter beside the island’s photo exhibition;

TG4, Irish islands, Irish television,

The Long and Winding Road…..Niall McCaffrey decides to takes a walk.

and boatman-cum-scriptwriter, Niall McCaffrey of TG4 ‘C. U. Burn’ fame, enjoyed a leisurely wander along winding paths (by the way, did you know his family name as Gaeilge is ‘MacEachmharcaigh,’ meaning basically, ‘son of a jockey’).

celebrate your engagement, Hollywood couple, visit the Irish islands

35 years may seem a long time, but it really ain’t, so treasure every moment.

There was also George and Yvonne Adams, a lovely couple from Hollywood (not the Tinseltown variety), who’d first landed on the island 35 years ago to celebrate their engagement and now had returned for a heartwarming taste of nostalgia.

Gola Island Donegal, lobster catching Ireland,

Pól Ó Muireasáin explains to visitors the intricacies of the skeletal-muscular make-up of lobsters.

And to top it all off, there was the rare (the rarer the better) sighting of a shy and reserved Pól the Peacock perched on a stone wall stripping to his nifty boxer shorts singing a German ditty at the top of his voice having just splashed through hell and high water to ensure the life of a young and wayward lobster.

Yes, a most memorable day had by all.

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Celtic traditions highlight dynamic Cnoc Fola festival

Every community needs a ‘connector’ – even more so in a small rural area.

Someone who initiates, encourages, coaxes and cajoles to tease a fine idea along the often difficult passageway to reality.

Mary Nic Phaidin (Teac Jack) and Sinn Fein councillor John Sheamais ó Fearraigh share a moment of fun at the Cnoc Fola festival Saturday (All photos by Columbia Hillen)

Mary Nic Phaidin is such a person.

Ask anyone in the west Donegal Gaeltacht – and far beyond for that matter – and there’s nary a person who doesn’t know Mary from Teac Jack.

Cnoc Fola festival Donegal, celtic traditions

Crows gather Saturday at Teach Mhuiris for the start of the Cnoc Fola Festival.

Personally speaking, the former school principal is one of the prime reasons my wife, Columbia, and I have been happily ensconced on Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) for the last few years. It was my good fortune to meet Mary by chance on a house reconnaissance expedition from Bucharest via Belfast one fine day quite a few summers back, and the rest is history.

Sean Hillen writer, Donegal wild atlantic way

Who’s that woman taking photographs?

I saw her yesterday afternoon (Saturday) performing her accustomed leadership role at the delightful annual Féile Thraidisiúnta Chnoc Fola (Cnoc Fola Festival) at the thatched Teach Mhuiris (circa 1860) perched high on a bend in the road offering panoramic vistas over the wide Atlantic.

broom dance Donegal, Donegal Celtic traditions

Proinsias and Eibhlin and Mhic Suibhne display their fine dancing skills.

Joviality and good-naturedness were in generous abundance among the lively crowd gathered there – neighbors, family, friends and national and international visitors, all enjoying a lively community gathering under clear blue skies and bright sunshine.

Irish dancing, Donegal traditions, music in Donegal

Now it’s your turn! A fine dancing display by Eibhlin Mhic Suibhne before volunteers are called for.

One minute, Mary was introducing the singers and dancers and asking for volunteers to attempt the high-kicking ‘damsha na scuaibe’ (broom dance) on the makeshift wooden stage and the next, happily regaling the arrival of such and such persons to the proceedings – all done with sheer aplomb and warm sincerity.

Interestingly, the popular brush or broom traditional dance has its origins in ancient Celtic Pagan Ireland linked to the deeply-rooted mythology of free roaming spirits and separation of body and soul. The broom also symbolizes fertility – the higher and more graceful the leap presumably the greater and more creative one’s love-making ability (and agility). So, dear readers, no better time than right now to grab those brooms from your cupboards and start practicing.

Not that Mary was the only one involved in what was a most successful July festival. As she herself readily acknowledges, “it was a true community effort with many people working extremely hard together to thread all the various strings together.”

There was the bearded, bespectacled Sinn Fein local councilor, John Sheamais ó Fearraigh, who officially opened the festival on Friday evening; there was Tony McHugh who has spent many, many hours over the years compiling a comprehensive archive displayed on local history for all to access freely in the Crann Og community center in Bunbeg; and there was Cathal ó Gallchoir, the center’s manager, preparing Teac Mhuiris from early morning for the day’s rush of visitors.

John Sheamais ó Fearraigh, Sinn Fein councelor Donegal, Toni McHugh Crann Og, Cathal ó Gallchoir

Mussels galore to feed the hungry.

Even our neighbors, the helpful Ferry brothers up the road from us in Bun na Leaca who supply us with turf to keep biting winter winds and rains at bay, were there, hauling sacks of mussels around on their shoulders trying to keep hungry mouths occupied.

farming in Donegal, fresh farm produce,

Farmer Pat McFadden proudly shows his healthy produce.

And there was friendly farmer Pat McFadden with a table-full of produce including potatoes, organic eggs and rhubarb jam, as well as hand-picked carrageenan; and Rose Sweeney, who taught international participants at the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ how to dance the ‘sevens,’ with her sister, Marie Ferry, and her Welsh friend, Maureen O’Sullivan.

Rose Sweeney, Marie Ferry, Sean Hillen,

Sisters Rose Sweeney and Marie Ferry caught having a good time.

The Cnoc Fola festival, which has been an annual event for the past 30 years, reflected the rich traditions of the area, with the craft of horse-shoeing and basket weaving being amply demonstrated outside beside tables laden with fish, crab-legs, lobster and cockles, not to mention delicious-smelling scones and wheaten bread being served under the rafters inside.

Rose Sweeney, Maureen O’Sullivan, Cnoc Fola Festival Donegal

(l to r) Long-time friends, Welsh-born weaver Maureen O’Sullivan and Rose Sweeney, enjoy some time together (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

And with the sad reality of Ireland’s youth forced to seek new lives abroad due to an inept and greedy Fianna Fail government, it was heartening to see so many young people involved – the pupils of Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, directed by Suzanne Ui Ghallchóir in association with Campa Drámaíochta Tuismitheoirí, performing the drama ‘Peire Speacloidi;’ and the excellent music of An Crann Óg group, tutored by Caitlín Joe Jack and her brother PJ, accompanying the dancers.

Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, Suzanne Ui Ghallchóir , Campa Drámaíochta Tuismitheoirí, An Crann Óg

An Chrann Og entertain the crowd with lively rousing music.

On behalf of all those who reveled in the day’s activities, none less than Columbia and myself, heartiest congratulations to Mary and the entire community team. A project well accomplished.

lobster in Donegal, Bloody Foreland Donegal

Fresh lobster for a tasty dinner (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

seafood wild atlantic way, Donegal seafood

Free seafood table attracted no shortage of takers.

local crafts Donegal, Cnoc Fola festival

Cnoc Fola festival highlighted traditional skills such as rope making.

horse-shoeing Donegal, Cnoc Fola festival

The art of making horse shoes.

fishing in Donegal, fresh fish Donegal

Fresh fish of all kinds straight from the sea (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

Toni McHugh, Sean Hillen, Donegal archives

(l to r) Tony McHugh talks about census documents and the comprehensive historical archive that has been collated.

baking Donegal, scones and bread

Freshly-baked breads were a big hit at the Cnoc Fola festival (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

basket weaving Donegal, creel making Donegal

Creel making demonstrations at the festival.

Brigid cross, crafts in Donegal

Crosses in honor of Brigid, an ancient Celtic Goddess who was symbol of fertility, healing and new beginnings.

Sea lettuce, sugar kelp and snakelocks anemone: exotic foods of the Gaeltacht islands

Pól Ó Muireasáin’s the kind of guy who’s hard to miss – especially in a quiet, rural place such as Gaoth Dobhair sweeping down to the islands of west Donegal.
He’ll talk to anyone – no-one being above or below his broad radar of interest.
guide tour of Donegal islands

Sea voyaging is filled with danger – Pól explains to participants at the Wild Atlantic Way ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ during an expedition on Gola Island, as he recites the names of those islanders who died engraved on the pier wall. Photo by Sean Hillen

Walking with him from A to B means inevitably stopping off at G, H, K and Z as he meanders this way and that to chat with most men or women who happen to come within his quite well-developed range of vision.

Not that you’d want to miss him anyway cos that’d mean you’d suffer the loss of hearing his colorful, homespun tales about wildlife and ghostly sightings; his abiding interest in the intricacies of the Irish language; his poetic lyricism on the beauty of the local landscape; and his whimsical descriptions about esoteric delicacies he manages to find hidden along nearby shorelines.  
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp and snakelocks anemone – these are just some of the lesser-known foods uncovered on the solo ‘search-and-find’ missions that Pól Ó, a committed, skilful ‘sea forager,’ conducts around the islands of the west Donegal Gaeltacht.
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp, snakelocks

Sea lettuce and snakelocks anemone make for tasty snacks (Photo by Pól Ó Muireasáin)

Wearing waders, a waterproof vest and carrying an aquascope, an underwater viewing device, the exploits of the Derry native now living in Bunbeg and a guest speaker at this weekend’s annual Gola Island Festival (Féile Ghabhla), have now attracted national and international attention, with Der Spiegel, the German national newspaper, despatching a photo-writer team this week to profile him and Raidió na Gaeltachta’s ‘Mo Ghrá Thú’ featuring him in a special.
“There is as much nutritional food underwater than there is above and we haven’t even really begun to understand it,” claims Ó Muireasáin, a youthful-looking 49, who worked for two years as the first Irish language proof-reader in Legal Services at the European Commission when it was granted official status in 2007, before moving to Gaoth Dobhair. “It’s sad when one reads about world food shortages and the lack of a nutritional diet, especially when so much healthy ‘cuisine’ exists in our seas and oceans.”
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp, sea forager, snakelocks anemone

Sea urchins – yummy, yummy! (Photo by Pól Ó Muireasáin)

An island lover, Ó Muireasáin, whose local nickname is  Pól a’Bhicycle, spends much of his time on Gola. In fact, he was the official island guide during the recent Wild Atlantic Way, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ at Teac Jack, which featured former CNN news editor, John DeDakis.
Needing to take time out to contemplate what was important in my life, I went seeking solitude,” he explains. “I wild-camped and developed an avid interest in sea-foraging, enjoying a calm convalescence, observing and listening to nature at close quarters. Doing so helped me appreciate the important things in life – mental and physical health, giving help to others and receiving help in return, smiling and making others smile and having a deep gratitude for simply being alive.”
writing in Donegal, Ireland Writing Retreat, lobster

On the pier at Magheraghallon, Pól explains the difference between male and female lobsters – “See, one is hard and erect,” he says, much to the ladies’ rising curiosity.

As for the obscure foods he finds on his foraging trips, Ó Muireasáin refers to the Atlantic Ocean as “freesupermarket.com,” adding, “All you need to know is which aisles to wander down for whatever type of seafood you want. The Japanese convert sugar kelp into crispy snacks, the Spanish deep-fry snakelocks anemone which they call ‘ortiguillas de mar’ (little sea nettles) in olive oil for a tasty dinner. You can also boil shrimps or prawns with sea lettuce for a nutritious meal or make a fine stew from limpets, not to mention using both types of duileasc – dillisk or creathnach – in a whole range of culinary ways.”
Ireland Writing Retreat, writing courses Donegal, Gola Island

His Excellency King Eddie of Gola (in blue T-shirt) listens attentively as Pól talks about some of his island adventures.

During his sojourns on Gola, near the dilapidated Teach Charlie Uí Fhrighil, the polyglot, fluent in five languages, has undergone a number of intriguing experiences, including ghostly apparitions in the dead of night that sent him scurrying like a madman out of his tent (though where he could scurry to on an isolated island, alone, without a boat or a paddle is beyond me), as well as his sighting of a six-foot conger eel sunbathing off Portacrin Pier. “Experiences I’d hardly get in Brussels,” he said, smiling, recollecting some of his adventures on the ‘high seas.’
Gareth Doherty, Selkie Sailing, Pól Ó Muireasáin’s, Pól Ó Muireasáin

Two seafaring environmentalists (l to r) Pól and Gareth Doherty share a joke on an island pier. (Photo by Sean Hillen)

Ó Muireasáin voices admiration for many local people who’ve befriended him since his arrival in west Donegal, including Gareth Doherty with Selkie Sailing, who organises training in water-sports and eco-tourism trips and has lobbied for greater protection for stranded sea mammals. Ó Muireasáin describes him as a “a committed and deeply knowledgeable environmentalist.”
Both men passionately believe environmental tourism coupled with the rich cultural history of the Gaeltacht can bring strong economic benefits to the marginalized rural area, describing the Donegal islands as a “a paradise of wildlife.”
“There’s dolphins, both bottlenose and Risso’s; otters, porpoises, whales, especially Minke; you’ve even got eels that travel around seven thousand miles from the Sargasso Sea,” said Doherty. “Not to mention diverse birdlife – sandwich and arctic terns, the largest migratory birds in the world; puffins, around two thousand on Tory Island alone, the most westerly of colonies; sand martins, skua, corncrake, as well as manx and sooty shearwaters, which fly about a million miles during their lifetimes.”
fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Dinner is served! (Photo by Sean Hillen)

Adds Ó Muireasáin, “There is tremendous potential here for attracting international visitors, especially from landlocked areas of countries such as Germany and the US, but local people need to pull together. They can’t act like islands.”
Ó Muireasáin, who studied Celtic languages and literature at Queens University before completing his Masters in Irish translation studies, teaching at the University of Ulster and working for the Department of the Gaeltacht, also admires Eddie Joe Mac Aoidh, the ‘Uncrowned King’ of Gola (Rí Ghabhla). Eddie, born on the island, has set up a café there to cater for visitors, many of whom travel over on ‘The Cricket,’ a ferry service organised by Captains Sabba Curran and his son, Daniel, of Gola Ferry Service.
Ireland Writing Retreat, John DeDakis, writers in Donegal

Participants at the Wild Atlantic Way ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ with Pól and Captain Sabba Curran (in T-shirt) before embarking on ‘The Cricket’ courtesy of Gola Ferry Service for Gola Island.

They’re all hoping this weekend’s island festival and the promotion in Der Spiegel, RnG and other media outlets will provide a welcome tourism boost and bring greater focus on the traditional Donegal island way of life.
See feature article on page 28 of today’s Donegal News.
Sean Hillen writer Donegal

Good writing gives me goose-bumps

Having arrived in picturesque west Donegal – Bun na Leaca to be precise – over six years ago and recognizing it for the artists’ haven that it is, my wife, Columbia, and I thought about establishing a creative writers’ retreat.
After all, surely such a pristine and bucolic landscape could inspire great prose. 

Ireland Writing Retreat participants enjoy a special Celtic legend coastal walk with guide, Seamus Doohan.

Not that such an idea hadn’t been done before.  Poet partners, Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late departed husband, James, had done so many years previous, setting up a ‘Poet’s House’ in a refurbished cottage at Clonbarra, outside Falcarragh.

Then funding was more generous and tens of thousands of euro annually wasn’t much of a problem for Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council, Donegal County Council, LEADER, and other sources.
Times have changed, however, and the public funding pump is dripping slowly, a mere trickle at best. Seanie FitzPatrick and Co. and Fianna Fail made sure of that.

Rose Sweeney teaches future members of the ‘Riverdance’ cast the basic ‘sevens’ of Irish ceilidhe dancing.

County Librarian and Divisional Manager of Cultural Services, Eileen Burgess, a keen supporter of our idea, issued warnings: “It’s a wonderful project but there’s simply no money in the kitty. You’d pretty much be on your own.”

But you know how it is – an intriguing idea comes along, sticks to you like furze in a meadow and simply won’t fall away no matter how hard you try.
So, even though there are more than one hundred creative writing conferences and book festivals throughout Ireland – many in the much-publicized, tourist-centric counties of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kerry – we took the plunge.
After all, isn’t Donegal the prettiest of them all?

Washington-based triple book author and former CNN editor, John DeDakis, enjoys a leisurely trip on ‘The Cricket’ to Gola Island with other writing retreat participants.

Of course, wisdom told us to delay until better economic times were upon us. But passion drove us forward, screaming, ‘tempus fugit.’ We swayed for a while between the two.

We’re going into our third year now and have managed to attract participants from far off fields, many of whom had never been to Ireland before never mind the back-roads of the Donegal Gaeltacht – Wyoming, Sydney, Utah, Perth, Stoke-on-Trent, New Jersey to name but a few.
Not bad for a project without public funding of any kind.

Guest speakers at the Ireland Writing Retreat held at Teac Jack, Gaoth Dobhair. (l to r) Singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith; Mark Gregory, forensic editor; actor/director Murray Learmont.

Imagine where it could go with a bit of financial support – but perhaps only if it’s located in one of the aforementioned counties.

As for this year, international stars of the week-long retreat included John DeDakis, triple book author and former senior editor at CNN for 25 years who flew directly from Washington to be at Teac Jack’s, the retreat location; Anthony Quinn, experienced author of crime fiction with a crafty literary twist; and Mark Gregory, a much-heralded forensic editor (the person who reads book manuscripts minutely word by word, syllable by syllable).

Plot, character, suspense – (l to r) Authors John DeDakis and Anthony Quinn discuss the challenging task of writing novels.

But committed locals also loaned their weight enthusiastically to the endeavor – actor and drama group director, Murray Learmont, guided participants on improving their public reading skills; singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith granted insights into the challenging task of lyric writing; Rose Sweeney taught participants their ‘sevens’ in preparation for a ceilidhe in the backroom of the popular Glassagh venue; Pól Ó Muireasáin gave an enlightening tour of Gola Island; and Seamus Doohan led participants on a Celtic legend coastal walk – all of which was grist to the mill for writers’ creativity.

Eddie, the uncrowned King of Gola Island (in blue) with walking guide, Pol O’Muiresean, (r) talk about life on the west Donegal island many years ago.

The ‘Donegal News’ considered this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ which ended last week, worthy of an article in today’s edition.
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Onward to 2016.