Praise and prise

As one year ends and another begins I look back at the privilege I’ve had of writing in this blog about exceptional individuals who – through skill, initiative, invention, passion and sheer persistence – deserve great praise.

They’ve brought added color and a refreshing sense of diversity to Donegal, one of the most remote parts of Ireland straddling its most northwesterly Atlantic seaboard.

Consider Sabba Curran from Dore, who some years ago, without knowing much about boats drove down through England at exactly this time of year and returned with one in tow. Now he owns ‘The Cricket’ one of the largest passenger boats in the area and brings people for enjoyable excursions to Gola Island and much farther out on leisure fishing trips.

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

Or Gareth Doherty, whose boat-trips with his grandfather unwittingly launched him on a series of sea-loving escapades. Now, with a plethora of certificates to his name as master of different crafts, Gareth takes visitors, young and old alike, on sailing and canoeing adventures, teaching them the skills he himself has learned over the years and showing them the beauty of the bird and sea-life population all around us.

Selkie Sailing, Gareth Doherty

Then there’s Pól Ó Muireasáin, one of the most refined Irish speakers in the entire Donegal Gaeltacht, or indeed any Gaeltacht for that matter. Having taught as Gaeilge at university and worked as a translator in Brussels on complex European issues, there’s very little Pól doesn’t know about our native language, grammar, linguistic or etymology.

Brimming with civic spirit, there’s few challenges Pól won’t try, including line-dancing as a nun and a cowboy, then imitating that most famous of seasonal characters, Santa, thus bringing untold pleasure to young and old alike.

fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Photo by Sean Hillen

Trips with these three men over the last few years has filled me with the kind of exhilaration and child-like exuberance one rarely finds in the bland concrete-and-glass urban settings I’ve often lived in.

But it’s not just lovers of the sea that help restore one’s faith in humanity. There’s also lovers of the land. Such people as Seamus Doohan, walking guide and lover of all things Celtic.

Seamus Doohan walking guide, walking Donegal

Having had the pleasure of experiencing his tours for an article in ‘The Irish Times’ as well as for this blog, I can guarantee a right-royal good time in his company, meandering among the hills of Donegal while learning about the colorful history of the area – including flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles and Pagan wishing stones.

Treading a different terrain altogether is Kathleen Gallagher.

Kathleen Gallagher Falcarragh,

Standing at Falcarragh crossroads just before sunset one year, I – like hundreds of others – was astounded to see a dramatic spectacle unfold before our eyes. At the edge of the hazy horizon, slowly coming into view, appeared wave upon wave of grisly, shapeless, blood-spattered zombies, horrible-looking members of the UnDead who, as they drew near, suddenly burst into a frenzy of brilliantly-choreographed dance moves to the pounding music of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Such a mesmerizing event, part of a community festival, is but one example of the sheer creativity of this lively, zesty individual who’s probably the envy of Galway’s ‘Macnas.’

Kathleen’s artistic talent brings me conveniently to another transplant to Donegal, this time from the heart of Scotland – a man who has brought Kings, Queens, medieval murderers and even ‘Cold War’ spies to this small part of the world. From James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ to Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man,’ Murray Learmont is a stage supremo directing members of the Cloughaneely Players to theatrical success.

Murray Learmont theatre director, theatre in Donegal

‘Toss a stone and you’ll hit a musician on the head.’ Such were the memorable words I recall hearing from someone after first setting up home in Bun na Leaca fifteen years ago. It’s an understatement. ‘Toss a stone and it’ll bounce from the head of one musician to another, to another, to another….’ is a more accurate depiction of the situation.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing so many performing, it would be impossible to name them all here, but two whose lives I’ve written about deserve mention.

Few around here, nor in places beyond Ireland, don’t remember ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ and its founding member, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Pat Gallagher, who penned the immortal tribute, ‘Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal’ that became an instant national hit. Such is his musical prowess Pat can meander effortlessly from one genre to another, from ballads and blues to folk rock and country. Listen to ‘A Returning Islander,’ ‘Turfman’s Blues,’ ‘Children of the Highways,’ and ‘Let the World Keep on Turning’ and you’ll understand just what I mean.

Pat Gallagher musician, Goats don't Shave

Then there’s Ian Smith. Not managing to become a native of west Donegal, he did the next best thing – married beann álainn, Breda, from here. Formerly a guitarist and singer with a rock band in England, Ian left thousands of groupies broken-hearted and settled near Burtonport – and has never looked back, well, hardly ever. During that time he has played with some of the best musicians in the world and has cut not one but three full CDs, one of which ‘Restless Heart’ showcases his immense song-writing talent, with many of the titles his own work.

Ian Smith musician, folk music Donegal

That’s the praise bit of the headline. What about the prising bit?

Such talented people as mentioned have not received the kind of support they deserve from those with their hands on the cash that is meant to enrich the cultural, social and economic soil of west Donegal.

Instead of providing generous funding for touristic and artistic initiatives that help attract welcome visitors to the area and create jobs, the powers-that-be at the Gaeltacht’s leading funder, Údarás na Gaeltachta have either repeatedly fed the billion euro they’ve received to well-known, rich elites; to themselves or acquaintances; to developers to build now derelict, deserted industrial estates; and to companies which have gladly accepted the hand-outs, then promptly left the area, leaving out-of-work unfortunates in their wake.

Perturbed by the stories I’ve been told by local people about such discrimination and the wall of informational silence constructed by Údarás – I began prising apart, bit-by-bit, snippets of information through the Freedom of Information Act about the spending policies of aforesaid economic development organization.

To say I was surprised and disappointed at what I found is a distinct understatement. Astonishment would be a more suitable word. Lack of strategy, absence of clarity, cases of cronyism and nepotism – in fact, all the dubious goings-on that continue to bedevil Ireland and prevent its healthy development.

With the New Year approaching, I’ll continue to praise and prise. Perhaps, in doing so, I’ll help create a bit more transparency as well as highlighting some more of the real heroes of the area and thus contribute something to the area where I live.

I hope so cos’ I’m a terrible singer, can’t play a musical instrument if my life depended on it. As for gardening, what’s the difference between a parsnip and the tail of a donkey? Don’t even mention boating.

In the meantime, have a happy and contented New Year, wherever you are, whatever you do!

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Crooks, citizens or celebrities?

Ethics, or lack thereof, has been the raging catchphrase in Donegal recently with county councilor John O’Donnell  caught on RTE camera allegedly offering lobbying services for cash and Bunbeg-based, EU-funded former school principal, Finbarr Boyle, stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for childrens’ food.

But what’s all the commotion about? Hasn’t there been such unsavory goings-on right here in Donegal for years? Why the shock? Or is there any, really?

In last weekend’s edition of ‘The Irish Times,’ columnist Fintan O’Toole, painted a scary scenario, a malaise spreading nationwide.

…other cultures criminalise the things they find unacceptable; we find unacceptable only the things that have been criminalized. If you can get away with it, we reckon, it can’t be all that bad.” He then quoted Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan on white-collar crime, saying, “It is remarkable, first of all, how long it takes, how heavy the procedures are and how light the consequences.

Back in Donegal.

Ardara-born Finbarr Boyle’s story is well-publicized “School principal pleads guilty to 7 counts of theft and forgery.”

As a journalist and editor for over thirty years, I thought sharpened instincts had made me a good judge of character – boy, was I ever wrong.

Sitting at a lunch prepared by my wife in my home with Mr. Boyle as guest some time ago, I would never have guessed the man across from me would stoop to such lows as using a village school’s money where he was principal to treat himself royally to holidays in England, Spain and other fine places, car and house payments and expensive golf equipment.

Finbarr Boyle Donegal, CeangalG,

(l to r): Concubhar Ó LIatháin, CeangalG Marketing Manager, Claire Nic Neacail, Alasdair Morrison CeangalG Director, Dinny McGinley Fine Gael TD and Fionbar Ó Baoill – CeangalG Training Manager.

Mr. Boyle was given space inside the headquarters of Údarás na Gaeltachta in the Gweedore Industrial Estate, Bunbeg as a training manager – surprising, as that particular organisation has refused to gave any free space to small, local entrepreneurs in that same estate, a situation local Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, has consistently taken issue with.

I must admit, Mr. Boyle impressed me then, a fast talker, assertive and supremely confident. Yes, I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘Sounds like a conman to me.’ As things turned out, you are absolutely right. But I was left sad and disillusioned after learning of his multiple theft. He struck me then as the kind of person who could be a positive force for change, especially as we discussed the importance of ethics and the need for the Donegal Gaeltacht to rid itself of its historic cronyism and nepotism which have warped normal economic development of the region.

Yet this is the same person found guilty of seven counts of theft over a number of years (he admitted to many more as part of his plea bargain), for whom Judge John Aymler may not impose a custodial sentence because, in part, 25,000 euro of the money taken may be paid back within a year. That’s around a tenth of what was stolen.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

A key question, however, still remains unanswered: Mr. Boyle was caught red-handed several years ago (the investigation has been ongoing for at least seven (7) years), so how did he obtain a well-paying position as training manager of a lucrative, multi-million euro, tax-payer supported EU funded project – ironically, one aimed at helping economically disadvantaged people? Was this , in itself, a classic case of nepotism and cronyism? Regardless of the multiple thefts, people have asked, “Does a school principal have the business credentials to train entrepreneurs?”

When contacted by me this week on the issue, Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Scotland, e-mailed back, saying, “Mr. Boyle’s actual contract of employment, for the post of Training Officer, with the wider CeangalG Project, was formally and directly managed through our Project Partners, Údarás na Gaeltachta.” He added that Mr. Boyle was “employed by the project between 9th Sept 2013 and 31st March 2015.” The Gardai investigation began as late as 2008 and Mr. Boyle, according to media reports, admitted his thefts almost two years ago (January last year).

Mr. Munro added, “At no stage in either the recruitment process or during his subsequent period of employment, was CeangalG ever made aware of there being any on-going police investigation.” Mr. Munro cc his email to the law company of Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie and to the University of the Highlands. Have I touched a red button?

Entitled CeangalG (ConenctG), this project is funded by the EU’s INTERREG IVA, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, MG ALBA, the Scottish Government, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and focuses on the Gaeltachts of Donegal, Scotland and Belfast. On it’s website, it states:

CeangalG Donegal, INTERREG IVAAs for independent councilor John O’Donnell, the ball is largely in his court. He can do the dignified thing and bow out. If he stays, he places the entire council under a shadow. Independent councillor Frank McBrearty says he should be removed from all committees. But it seems resigning is the last thing O’Donnell will do. Another Independent councillor, Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuic, is right in asking fellow councilors to walk out of the chamber at the next meeting in protest. Someone has to stand up, otherwise – due to blatant impunity – it will get much worse. Let’s see if that happens. If not, then Fintan O’Toole’s words ring frighteningly true.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

Independent councilor John O Donnell: will he do the right thing?

But questionable dealings are nothing new in Donegal, as many local people have told me.

Under the auspices of the former Fianna Fáil government, Liam Cunningham (Liam Ó Cuinneagáin), was paid substantial sums for his services as member and long-time chairperson of Údarás na Gaeltachta – more than a quarter of a million euro. Between 2002 to 2012, his travel expenses alone amounted to 131,730 euro. His fees amounted to 206,962 euro.

More than that, documents requested by me under the Freedom of Information Act also now show that at least one company he established, Oideas Gael, received generous amounts of money – more than 350,000 euro in a series of payments – from the very same organization he chaired for so long. Mr. Cunningham said Oideas Gael was a hobby. With a financial return like that, that’s quite a hobby.

In stock market terms, is this not a case of insider trading, and therefore unethical? After all, no better-placed person to access money from a group than the person who’s on the inside track of that very same group, knowing intimately its budgets, its strategy and its key staff. When called by me about this situation in a phone interview, Liam said, “Sean, things were different then. I don’t see it as a conflict of interest.” Different then? How is it different? The question was never answered.

Oideas Gael, Liam Cunningham Donegal

Liam Cunningham: is it wrong to lobby for money from the very funding organisation that you chair?

Some readers might say, ‘Liam hosts Irish-language classes.’ That’s true, but so do many others and they don’t benefit from the rich financial backing Oideas Gael received so handily. Still others could do so – if they had that kind of money. Is such treatment fair and ethical? Is the playing ground a level one? How many times has Údarás said there’s not enough money for your project?

The particular situation of Mr. Cunningham also raises an inevitable question: was it linked to an ongoing quid pro quo agreement among local Údarás board members then? And has anything changed since? Interested to find out? You have the right to know, and here’s how. (See below).

Mr. Cunningham has since been named, ‘Donegal Person of the Year.’ Considering the dire economic development of the Gaeltacht, where I live, under his watch, the question must be asked, ‘Is this how we want the term ‘model citizen’ to be defined?”

Michael Heaney, formerly a director of services with Donegal County Council, has recently been appointed director of Enterprise & Investment with Údarás. Will his leadership change the way Údarás doles out money, how it selects projects to fund? Or will the same old cadre of elites be the recipients? Time will tell.

As Údarás is helping DLDC select projects for funding under the EU’s upcoming LEADER programme, it will be operating under much tighter European regulations than the rather loose Irish ones it has been working under thus far. It will be interesting to monitor the quality of their project selection process for LEADER.

As O’Toole writes in last Saturday’s column, “If corruption is very low on the list of priorities for criminal justice, it is little higher on the list of political priorities…. So long as impunity reigns, the rare eejit who gets caught will always evoke sympathy… What marks out (Ireland) is the breathtaking degree of impunity for all white-collar crimes.

Isn’t it long past time this situation changed? The upcoming election gives us the chance to affect such change. In  ofthis regard, it is worth noting the words  ‘Donegal News’ columnist Martin McGinley’s in Friday’s edition, “We get what we accept.”

You have the right to know:

You can find out additional information on the dealings of Údarás by e-mailing Judy Ní Dhubháin at judy(at)udaras.ie. Quoting the FOI Act 2014, you can ask for any information you like, financial or otherwise. The service is free.

Anyone wanting answers from CeangalG, can contact Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group at dm.smo(at)uhi.ac.uk or +44 (0) 1471 888352. Claire Nicolson is the organisation’s administrator claire(at)ceangalg.net Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, is its director. Or through Údarás na Gaeltachta, Donegal. Tel: 074-9560100. Fax: 074-9560101. Email: dnag(at)udaras.ie

Be sure to tell me what you find out. I’d be curious to know.

Donegal entrepreneur Moira Ní Ghallachóir pushes for local tourism diversity

With no particular experience in tourism and no specific agenda, Edinburgh-born Moira Ní Ghallachóir bravely packed up her bags in London four years ago and returned to west Donegal where she grew up, to re-invent herself – and says she has never looked back.

Moira Ní Ghallachóir Donegal,

Back home, and lovin’ it! Photo by Philip Mulligan

Living in her grandmother’s home in Derryconnor just outside Gortahork in the Gaeltacht, she noticed the large number of local people with outdoors skills such as Iain Miller, an experienced mountaineer, and Gareth Doherty, a sailing instructor, so she launched mng Ventures to organize outdoor adventures linking their skills to clients.

mng Ventures, Donegal outdoor activities

Iain Miller puts Moira ‘through the ropes.’

“I looked at my life in London, the work-week, then partying all weekend, and asked myself, ‘Is this it?’ ” said the petite, short-haired 39-year-old woman sitting in An Crannog, a community-based complex in the coastal town of Bunbeg under the management of Cathal Ó Gallchóir, where she was given free office space for a year to help develop her business. “If someone had told me I’d be earning as little as I have over the last three years, however, I’d have said, ‘You must be joking.’ But, honestly, I feel more fulfilled, happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. With islands, mountains, lakes and the Atlantic Ocean right beside us, this place is truly world class. That’s what inspired me to set up a business.”

While Moira is armed with plenty of enthusiasm and networking links gained from living in Ranafast from age 8 to 18, she is concerned at what some describe as ‘generational grant dependency,’ the over-reliance on public hand-outs for projects rather than sheer entrepreneurial spirit.

mng Ventures, Rock agus Roam

Ready to ‘Rock agus Roam, a project organised by mng Ventures!

“Many people feel they have to be supported by government grants and if there is none, then ‘game over’ it cannot be done,” she said forthrightly. “We need to realize what we have and build on it. Some people say, ‘We need an adventure centre,’ not realizing that the adventure centre is all around them. Many also don’t appreciate what a beautiful landscape they have here. How can they then expect tourists to appreciate it? They’ve got to believe in their business and tell it as it is, get the word out there, with honesty and an authentic voice. Why be quiet about generating jobs or being environmentally-friendly? With today’s technology we can promote ourselves at the click of a button.”

Moira also believes greater co-operation among local people is required for group success. “We need to work together more closely, we’re still not doing enough of that. We need to start clustering.”

activities in Donegal, Donegal people,

Captivating seascapes around the northwest coast of Donegal.

Taking language as a cultural issue, she adds, “There is a lot of fear here in the Gaeltacht around the Irish language issue. Yet it can be our greatest strength, an important part of our cultural landscape. I have never viewed the Irish language as central to the growth of my business, but I embrace it with respect, with ‘meas.’”

In fact, Moira says having a bilingual business is “a challenge, double the effort as it’s often difficult to marry English and Irish,” with even announcements having to be written, edited and designed in both languages.

rock-climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, island hopping, whale watching

Speaker Finbarr Bradley captures his audience on Saturday.

Her statement inadvertently raises an important issue for Gaeltacht areas. Is too much precedence given to Irish-speaking-only entrepreneurs for funding from grant-awarding bodies such as Údarás na Gaeltachta, than local non-Irish speaking applicants or ‘blow-ins’ as they are referred to locally? In terms of larger grants, language doesn’t seem to be a barrier, with English-speaking call centers having received millions of euro over the years from Údarás. With smaller entrepreneurs, however, ‘blow-ins’ report having very little success accessing grants from the organization for projects that they say could create badly needed employment.

While Moira admits to it being, “hard to make a decent living here,” she is optimistic things will get better. “About three hundred are already booked for outdoor pursuits next year,” she says proudly. While she says success so far has been ‘built on my own investment and initiative,” she adds that she has accessed grant funding from Foras na Gaeilge for the Colmcille Trail (Colmcille Eirinn is Alba) project launched recently and from Údarás for a three-month pilot programme, which ends in January.

entrepreneurs Donegal, outdoor activities Donegal

She also says she will probably apply for the upcoming EU-funded LEADER programme aimed at economically regenerating rural areas.

Though mng Ventures organizes a wide variety of activities including rock-climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, island hopping, whale watching and hill walking, Moira believes there is still not enough diversity of tourism offer in west Donegal. “We need more choice and we need to work from the inside out to achieve that.”

where to eat in Gweedore Donegal, Donegal cafes

Caitlin Gallagher, owner of Caife Kitty, and her daughter served up delicious food and drinks to everyone Saturday.

Her words were echoed by Finbarr Bradley, professor and co-author of ‘The Irish Edge’ and a mentor to Moira’s fledgling company. At an event Saturday organized by Moira at Sean Teach Niall O’Domhnaill Loch an Iúir where fine food was prepared by Caitlin Gallagher of Caife Kitty in Bunbeg, he said, “This area of Donegal is rich in landscape and culture and that’s what many people are searching for now, something experiential, something spiritual, something authentic. Building upon all that you already have here so naturally is the best way forward.”

Finbarr Bradley author, University College Dublin

Watched by excellent singer Noeleen Ni Cholla (centre), Finbarr Bradley talks about the importance of ‘cultural authenticity’ in tourism development.