‘Pretty Ugly,’ suspense-filled medical novel set on Donegal’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Over the last 40 years or so in media I’ve covered police, education, city hall, the rise, and fall, of Mayors, Prime Ministers and Presidents, I’ve been a medical writer, a war correspondent, a columnist, a travel writer, a publisher, a creative writing teacher…

…I’ve written about heart transplants, airplane crashes, wars (Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Romania, not to mention my very own native northern Ireland), I’ve survived earthquakes and tropical storms and a few other catastrophes (some of my very own making)… but completing my first novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ recently linking Ireland (Belfast and Donegal) and the US (Kansas City, Boston, New York and Washington) beats them all for sheer challenge.

Pretty Ugly novel, Sean Hillen author

Pretty Ugly’ has been a few years in the writing, and I wish I could say it was all plain sailing, but as probably most first-time novelists will tell you, “It wasn’t.”

I crashed into some plot rocks, found myself diverted by a few wayward literary waves and was even capsized mid-story and tossed into the opaque waters of writers’ block without a literary lifebelt. And if that wasn’t enough, I then had to throw a lot of ballast overboard in a desperate attempt to save the whole kit and caboodle from going under (100,000 words in total), with only myself on the poop deck waving a sad farewell.

The GOOD news, however, is that it’s DONE! And boy, am I PROUD – not about ‘Pretty Ugly’ being a success. That decision I leave to others more astute and objective than I, which includes you. But about finishing it, just the way I wanted.

Christmas gifts, new booksNow all I need is appreciative book-lovers to read what I’ve written. In fact, as many such readers as I can possibly muster. More than that, some of those fine people to kindly, generously, selflessly, write a short comment on the Amazon page below. Around 50 words is enough. I’ll even settle for 10. Even one, preferably ‘Great.’

I know it’s a lot to ask. In today’s fast-moving world, there seems barely enough time for even the ‘must-do’ things in daily life than to pen a few words to help an aspiring author. But following the timeworn advice, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get,’ I’m asking. Not quite with cap in hand, but with one knee slightly bent (lopsided, probably from playing too much football as a young man).

So, here goes…

PRETTY UGLY in print

PRETTY UGLY in kindle

Far be it from me to say, ‘Pretty Ugly’ would make an excellent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year or birthday gift for book-reading friends and family, but think of it this way. It has a pretty cover, it’s a pretty good read and it’s a pretty size so it’s bound to look extremely pretty wrapped up with nice colorful paper or inside a seasonal red stocking. What about the ugly bit, you ask? Always keep in mind, ‘Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.’

Who knows, maybe the land and seascape descriptions and dramatic action in ‘Pretty Ugly’ that take place in west Donegal including Gola and Tory Islands, Dunlewey, the Poisoned Glen, Gaoth Dobhair, Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland), Bunbeg, Teac Jack, Teac Hiudái Beag’s and many other places, will kick-start literary tourism here in the northwest.

new medical novels, wild atlantic way novelsIf it could but emulate a fraction of what Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ and ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller did for Salem, Massachusetts; Anne Rice’s ‘Interview With A Vampire’ did for New Orleans, Lousiana; John Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ for Savannah, Georgia; an even George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ more popularly known as ‘Game of Thrones,’ did for northern Irish tourism, then the rewards would be rich. A flood of international visitors would come to the area creating stronger business for local cafes, restaurants, pubs, B&Bs’ and hotels, as well as greater support for community and cultural activities.

Why, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ even contains words and phrases as Gaeilge, therefore supporting development of the Irish language and scenes involving traditional Irish music seisiún and that most ancient of skin rejuvenation treatments – bog turf.

Anyway, please take a look and see what you think. Then leave a one-word or ten-word review on Amazon. I’d be much obliged.

Go raibh maith agat. Is mise le meas mor.


Youthful Irish spirit and creativity generate success

Entrepreneurial spirit often starts early in life – perhaps it’s embedded in DNA – and that certainly seems to be the case with teenage brothers, Rónán & Conor McGarvey, who are enjoying their successful venture, ‘Donegal Pens.’

Started in a makeshift garden shed at their parents’ (Eoin and Marie) home in the charming village of Loughanure in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht in Ireland’s most inspiring and northerly county, where their father is a local postman, their company has flourished. The siblings showed a true spirit of endeavor by developing their fledgling idea of using leftover wood from local carpenters and sawmills to create stylish, elegant pens, some of which have inbuilt styluses with a special touch application for use on IPhones.

Donegal pens, Christmas gifts

Rónán & Conor McGarvey

‘We’ve worked hard at building up our wee business but we’re used to the six and seven day weeks by now,” said 19-year-old Rónán, who with 16-year-old, Conor, started ‘Donegal Pens’ when they were only 14 and 11 years old respectively, when they were both students at Rosses Community School and after first trying their hand at making pens from wood at a craft-fair in Antrim. “We’ve sold several thousand pens so far, with the most popular being from bog oak, trees that can lie deep in the bogs for thousands of years.”

Ireland Writing Retreat, what to buy for Christmas

Conor McGarvey

Their pens, from trees as diverse as bog oak, yew, ash, elm, beech, ebony, olive, beech, cherry, laburnum, purple heart, oak, jatoba, maple, pear, walnut, spalted beech and red cedar, are individually turned and polished. Interestingly, the equivalent of their hometown ‘Loughanure’ in Irish is ‘Loch na Luire,’ meaning ‘island of the yew trees.’

Donegal pens, hand made pens

Conor McGarvey

Not only are their pens sold in 50 stores throughout Ireland but also internationally, with three shops in Germany and two in the United States – Carrick Mór, a gift shop specializing in the best of Ireland and Irish culture, run by Kristin and Michael McGowan in Glenrock, New Jersey and Sarah Maguire’s Cottage Scents & Gifts run by Arlene & Ann Maguire in New Milford, Connecticut, who named the store after their great grandmother.

Donegal made pens, Wild Atlantic Way crafts

Rónán McGarvey

With the growing success of ‘Donegal Pens,’ the two brothers have developed their business premises from their modest shed to a second garage where they store the wood and also a small office. Having taken classes in wood-turning in Downpatrick in northern Ireland, they also now create designs on a special computer which are then ‘burned’ on to the wood of the pens. All pens are put together painstakingly by hand, not by machine.

Irish made pens, Christmas gifts

Rónán & Conor McGarvey

Ireland Writing Retreat’ is delighted to partner with the two creative young west Donegal pen-making brothers, Ronan and Conor, from the ‘Island of the Yew Tree’ for a ‘Winter Season Special Gifts.’ To find out how you can win a unique Irish Gift, your perfect inspirational writing companion, become a Friend of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ before December 31st.

Ramelton basks in cosmopolitan manouche music festival

Artistic and organizational daring-do recently transported the pretty coastal town of Ramelton (Ráth Mealtain in Irish means ‘Fort of Mealtain’) in east Donegal, Ireland back to the charming musical nostalgia of pre-World War Two, reminiscent of ‘Midnight in Paris,’ the recent movie directed by Woody Allen.

Marting McGinley jazz festival, Donegal manouche

Raphoe-born, Donegal fiddler and journalist Martin McGinley (on left) listens to an informal group music session at the traditional Conway’s Bar, Ramelton on Friday evening just before the gypsy jazz festival kicked-off.

Billed as ‘Django sur Lennon,’ the inaugural weekend festival focused on a genre of music known as either gypsy jazz or manouche, with one of the foremost pioneers being Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt, a Belgian-born French guitarist and composer of Romani ethnicity.

With international musicians from countries such as Italy, Spain, Holland and Slovakia playing, the tiny Irish town alongside the River Lennon became a cosmopolitan hub of melodies with a definite positive vibe, both in formal concert-hall settings and informally in many of the town’s pubs and cafes, and even in a ‘mystery venue’ – a 17th century mansion.

Kicking off the festival was a quartet in the Town Hall, complete with an elegant, colorful stage canvas backdrop of chandeliers, bay window and ornate Doric pillars and a choice of either table-side or cinema-style seating.

Skilled guitarist, Romane from Paris, was joined by Dublin-based, pony-tailed José Anselmo on double bass, Rudo Bado on violin and Belfast-based Nicolas Deschatrettes on rhythm guitar. They played classics such as Reindhart’s ‘Swing 48’ and Romane’s original creations such as an enchanting tune he composed for his wife and first practiced with the violinist a mere hour before the show. Among their other musical renditions during the unbroken 90-minute set were ‘Pour Parler’ and ‘After You’ve Gone.’

Romane guitarist, Rudolf Bado manouche

Romano and Bado produced delightful, flirtatious musical interludes.

It was delightful to listen to Romane’s guitar and Rudo’s violin intimately, affectionately, effortlessly wrapping around each other, flirting like old familiar lovers knowing the simple caresses that turned each other on, a pure musical joy to listen to.

A second enjoyable quartet at the town later, was led by Amsterdam-born singer-guitarist Irene Ypenburg. Their diverse musical offering included a tune which originated out of a Norwegian folk song, then was re-interpreted by a Greek composer before Django transformed it manouche-style. Another tune, ‘Django’s Tiger,’ was a playful, flirty tune, almost naughty in style if lyrics had been put to it. Ypenburg, who is also a Reiki master and a talented artist, also sang a gypsy ballad penned by Schnuckenack Reinhardt, a relative of Django, about what defines ‘richness’ – material well-being or simple contentment.

Other tunes included the lively ‘My Brother,’ the song ‘Chavo’ meaning ‘Man’ or ‘Lad’ and the well- known Yiddish song ‘ Bei Mir Bistu Shein,’ more popularly known as ‘My Dear Mr. Shane’ a former hit by the Andrews Sisters, as well as ‘The Sheik of Araby’ and the romantic classic ‘Autumn Leaves,’ sung by Irene in both French and in English.

Later during the festival at Ramelton Town Hall, another concert featured three guitarists, the Dario Napoli Trio, who opened with the tune ‘Within,’ composed by the Italian-born Napoli, with the composer-guitarist explaining that his genre of music was not “pure Django but a modern fusion.” If Olympic gold medals were doled out for the fastest fingers running up and down guitar frets, Napoli would be Usain Bolt. Immensely talented, he and his two supporting musicians shifted seamlessly from one tune to another, fast, sometimes furious, producing intricate three-way sets of string harmony, never, ever harsh.

Master of his instrument, it seemed at times as if the guitar was a natural physical extension of Napoli’s arms. His rendition of his composition ‘My Favorite Spot,’ created last year while on a music coaching camp in Tuscany, ended with a flourish of flowering notes, the visual version of petals opening under a speed camera. ‘Unsaid,’ a song he composed about relationship break-ups and avoiding important truths, was melancholic and sad with a sense of inevitability and a touch of ‘c’est la vie’ hard realism to it. In contrast, the band’s interpretation of the age-old ‘Tiger Rag,’ made famous by the Mills Brothers in the 1932 comedy movie ‘The Big Broadcast,’ was bubbly and uplifting. And if deft guitar playing isn’t enough, Napoli also sings, and pretty darn well too.

In addition to the five concerts over a weekend, there were also workshops in guitar and violin.

Dario Napoli, gypsy jazz

Dario Napoli from Cortona swept his listeners into an enthusiastic standing ovation with his fast-fingered guitar skills.

Full credit goes to festival organizers – Donough Cleary, Donal Casey, John Kinsella, Damian Doherty, Martin McGinley, Aisling Cleary, Ann Casey, Mary Kinsella, Violet Buchanan and Simon McCafferty. Cleary and his colleagues were obviously content with the festival’s success. “Django Sur Lennon has exceeded all our expectations,” said Cleary. “We had some truly exceptional musical performances over the weekend, big crowds at the concerts and a fantastic atmosphere for the pub gigs. Our workshops were also well supported. It’s all going to drive the development of gypsy jazz in Donegal. Watch this space!”

Festival sponsors included principal funders, Sir Gerry and Lady Heather Robinson of Oakfield Park in Raphoe and Peter Nolan, also from the same town. Sponsorships also included financial consultants Fintan Moloney and Company Limited while Donegal Music Education Partnership sponsored the violin workshops.

Traditional Tennessee music comes to northwest Ireland

Dressed in checked shirts, caps and denim dungarees with big colorful handkerchiefs sticking out of back pockets, American musicians at Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Center (RCC) this week looked as ready for harvesting corn (or producing moonshine from it) as hosting a concert.

Fortunately, it was the latter and what a knee-slapping hoedown the evening turned out to be courtesy of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, combining a mix of musical talent and fine stagemanship with good humor, including some zany ‘instruments.’

With an impressive number of CDs behind them, the five-member group are so at ease on stage, they often decide at the last minute which song they’ll play next, which lends their concerts a delightful sense of spontaneity, such as when they ended this week’s show with a lively rendering of that all-time Irish classic, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’

As evidenced Wednesday evening at the RCC, their inventory of songs and tunes is diverse, ranging from romantic ballads to spine-chilling ghost stories to comical tales of ‘tooth picking time in false-tooth valley’ and revengeful chickens as in ‘Ghost Chickens In The Sky.’

Add to the mix, the well-honed skills of Dan Kelly on fiddle; smiling Ernie Sykes on bass and voice; bald-pated, nimble-fingered John Tomlin on mandolin and voice; versatile band leader Troy Boswell, known professionally as Leroy Troy, playing claw hammer-style banjo, harmonica and washboard and voice, as well as Mike Armistead on guitar and voice.

Concert-goers were also treated to the amusing sight of Troy teasing a tune out of a plastic milk jug and a water bottle and Sykes producing the same from closed hands on the song, ‘Sick, Sober and Sorry,’ and then later hilariously miming a chicken.

Among the song highlights of the evening were a touching ballad entitled ‘These Hands’ and the carefree ‘Chug-a-Lug,’ about aforesaid moonshine, written and recorded by American country artist Roger Miller, both sung by Sykes; the ghostly tale and bluegrass classic, ‘Bringing Mary Home’ written by Chaw Mank, Joe Kingston and John Duffey and sung by Tomlin; as well as ‘Miller’s Cave,’ a Don Williams melody and the hilarious and probably most confusing song yet written, for which a family diagram is required, ‘I’m My Own Grandpa,’ both sung by Troy. Instrumentally, Troy’s prowess on the scrub board on ‘They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree’ was a delight, as was the group’s interpretation of the Hank Williams song ‘A Mansion On The Hill.’

The evening’s concert was ably opened by singer-guitarist Nashville-born George Harper, who sang a variety of songs from his ‘I’ll Be Back’ and ‘No Smokin In Here’ albums including the lively ‘Overland Express’ and a traditional folk song with the amusing kick-line ‘sugar tit a mile wide and six feet long.’ Northwest Ireland wasn’t left out of his repertoire either, with ‘Why Do I Go To Sligo,’ a song about the pretty girls of that particular town, written after a previous gig there. His voice and Tomlin’s mandolin playing on the love ballad, ‘A Stone’s Throw Away’ made for a perfect combination.

Considering Letterkenny lies in the peripheral end of Ireland, about three-hours away from Dublin where music groups often congregate, great credit goes to RCC director, Shaun Hannigan and his colleagues there, as well as Donegal County Council Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain, for bringing so many diverse bands to play. Last week I enjoyed a marvelous performance by ‘Hot Club of Cowtown’ and the series of US country concerts ends next Friday (Nov. 11) with singer-songwriter-musician, Maine-born Jude Johnston performing alongside Linley Hamilton and Dave Keary. After that it’s something different – a Swiss jazz trio, Vein, with New York saxophonist, Greg Osby, on Thursday Nov. 17, and acoustic guitarist Pierre Bensusan from France, the very next day, Fri. 18.

The concerts are presented in association with Earagail Arts Festival, Donegal Music Education Partnership and Music Network.

Grassroots initiative promotes men’s health and well-being

Few things deserve greater praise than a community-led initiative that helps increase the quality of life of its members – thus the Men’s Sheds concept.

Started only five years ago, the idea has enjoyed phenomenal growth with more than 350 such sheds throughout Ireland already with an amazing 10,000 people attending activities every week, and a growth rate of 1.5 sheds per week. Donegal alone has 10 sheds.

What’s the aim? A simple, yet admirable one – improving members’ mental and physical health through diverse activities.

See article below I wrote for this week’s edition of the ‘Donegal News.’ It contains a couple of Donegal contacts for those interested in finding out more.

Making Lives Better in the Shed

Many men throughout Donegal travelled to Belfast this past weekend for the biggest international gathering of ‘Men’s Shed’ members with the goal of developing diverse activities and closer links with each other to help improve members’ physical and mental health.

Embracing the traditional concept that the garden shed has long served as a sanctuary for men, a place where they ease the everyday stresses of life, ‘Men’s Sheds’ are spaces where men meet and work together on diverse projects. Community-based and non-profit, they are open to all men who want to enjoy a safe, friendly and inclusive environment.

Sheds without Borders, Gaobh Dobhair Men’s Shed

Members of Gaobh Dobhair Men’s Shed (Scioból na bFhear), Liam Ó Gógáin, Paul Treacy, Michael Coll, Dónal Clancy and Austin O’Donnell, at Belfast international ‘Sheds without Borders’ conference.

Founded just five years ago, the Irish Men’s Sheds Association (IMSA) organized the Belfast event, entitled ‘Sheds without Borders,’ which was attended by several hundred people from countries such as Scotland, Wales, Australia and Ireland. The association has experienced phenomenal growth and now represents sheds both here and across the border with a rapidly-increasing membership of 350, with around 10,000 ‘shedders’ attending weekly. It is growing at a rate of 1.5 sheds per week. Membership is also expanding in Northern Ireland, with 44 sheds and around 1,000 attending weekly. Donegal now has about 10 sheds county-wide.

Reflecting on their growing popularity, Liam O’Gogain, a member of Gaobh Dobhair shed (Scioból na bFhear) in the local industrial estate who went to Belfast with several colleagues, said, “Worldwide, sheds have a proven positive mental health dividend for members countering feelings of isolation with a relaxed, community spirit and an opportunity to share your skills and learn new ones.” He said “increasing public awareness” about them was key, with the shed he attends meeting every Monday and Thursday evening 7-10 pm. Anyone interested can contact sciobolgaothdobhair@gmail.com or call Liam on Mobile 087 254 3997 for details.

Liam Ó Gógáin Donegal, Men's Sheds

Shedders enjoy a joke while converting a disused room into a tea-room using bits and pieces.

Enthused by the Belfast conference, O’Gogain said he heard, “endless stories from men of all ages about how their shed has transformed their lives, through friendship, conversation and simply having fun with projects,” which, he added, “creates effusive, natural companionship.”

Asked why Men’s Sheds’ are particularly important in Donegal, he added, “With the loss of the manufacturing jobs base here, Scioból na Bfhear, like other such sheds, provides a welcoming environment for men from every background from their mid-30s to their 80s, any age, to gather and work together through craic and collaboration.” As to the benefits of last weekend’s international event at Belfast City Hall, he said, “We made friends and contacts with other sheds in Donegal and throughout the country who offered information, ideas and support to fledgling sheds. Interesting talks ranged from mental health to adult learning.”

Back from Belfast and speaking about inclusiveness and easing social isolation, Gerry Connolly, chairperson of the Ballybofey-Stranorlar shed established last year, now with 30 members, said, “We started, in part, because may men here in the area suddenly became unemployed either out of illness or redundancy when the crash happened but we also have many retirees.” Members completely renovated and rewired a Portacabin for meetings, which is also used by other community groups, and will make ‘buddy benches’ for schools with the help of a skilled woodturner. Those wishing to know more can contact Gerry at Mobile 086 825 0550.

Shed activities nationwide range from boat-building to making ornamental crafts from wood such as candle-holders and toolboxes to simply playing pool or table-tennis and creating choral groups.