Lion-tamers, nude concert-goers, the Rolling Stones, one-clawed lobsters and terrific Irish music

How can small boxes of air that fit neatly between one’s hands create the haunting rhythm of a heartbeat, the roar of an angry sea and the chanting of cloistered monks at prayer?

Ask the talented, five-member ‘Irish Concertina Ensemble’ who captivated a packed audience earlier this week at Teach Hiudái Beag, a popular traditional music venue on the main street of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht (a region that features prominently in new suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ (Easons, Gallaghers/Matt Bonners Bunbeg, Amazon) and where the Irish Writing Retreat takes place every year).

Such wondrous music left me bemused about how such a rich diversity of melodies can emerge from such a tiny bellows-buttons-reed instrument. The ensemble, with members from different Irish counties, was one of many performances at this week’s ongoing annual ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ (Winter School) in Gaoth Dobhair (the festival continues right through Sunday, so buy your show tickets now).

Composed of Tim Collins, Padraig Rynne, Micheal O’Raghallaigh, Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Edel Fox – the musicians brought this popular, cozy pub to a hushed and appreciative silence. So exhilarated were affable pub manger and owner, also himself a fine musician, Hugh Gallagher, my wife, Columbia, myself and others, we gave them a hearty and well-deserved standing ovation.

Irish Concertina Ensemble, Scoil Gheimhridh

Boxes of air that produce mellifluous music.

Drawing on a wealth of melodies, some old, some new, some composed for other instruments such as the fiddle, flute and uilleann pipe, the group displayed the surprising and immense versatility of the concertina.

Not only were there versions of tunes by such iconic instrumentalists as Turlough O’Carolan, (1670–1738), a blind Irish harper and composer, but also their own compositions. Highlights among the latter were a series of mellifluous waltzes in honor of Kathy, a friend and admired social activist who died from cancer, and also a dreamy melody inspired by watching the sunrise with Oisin, the young child of one of the group members.

The opening night of the festival was a veritable cabaret of myriad talents at Ionad Cois Locha in memory of well-respected community and media leader, Seamus Mac Géidigh, broadcaster and manager of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta‘s northwest service in Donegal, who recently passed away.

Such is the interest in preserving local Irish heritage, fiddle player and teacher Róisín McGrory who is also co-founder of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project established in 1999 to preserve the music of the region, also performed at the festival.

Another highlight of this week’s festival and music school so far has been the double-bill of Carlow-based brothers Diarmuid and Brian Mac Gloinn who perform as ‘Ye Vagabonds’ and star fiddle-player and ‘Hobbit-lookalike’ Frankie Gavin, who played alongside bouzouki-mandolin player, Brendan O’Regan. The former, resembling young, bearded troubadours, moved effortlessly from ballad to toe-tapping melodies, from the ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ a soft air about a man lost at sea, which they learned from Donegal-native Paddy Tunney, the same county their mother hails from – Arranmore Island – to a lively finale that included ‘The Lark In The Morning.’ They sang songs in both English and Irish.

While he strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of my heroes, the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the affable Gavin’s blinding bursts of speed reminded me more of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney,’ the character in the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name whose fiddle playing ‘made folks dance like a wave of the sea.’

Frankie Gavin, Brendan O’Regan, Donegal Irish music

(l to r) Frankie ‘Bilbo Baggins’ Gavin and Brendan ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan display their ample talents at Teac Jack.

To say Gavin’s bow tripped lightly over the strings would be a severe understatement. Skipping, dancing, somersaulting even, would be much more appropriate descriptions – from hornpipes and reels to jigs and highlands; from Donegal composition, ‘Strike the Gay Harp’ to ‘The Old Grey Goose;’ from tunes by well-known Irish musical ambassadors such as fiddler Tommy Peoples and music collector and uilleann pipe player, Séamus Ennis; to others learned from fellow musician, Dermot Byrne; and still others he performed previously with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in a ‘Jigs and Jazz’ show.

Gavin’s ludicrously fast fiddle-playing may have seemed eye-to brain-to-fingers neurologically impossible but when he picked up the flute he really put the emotional brakes on his packed audience at Teac Jack in Glassagh (which also features prominently in ‘Pretty Ugly‘), leaving them glassy-eyed with his version of the classic slow air, ‘Boolavogue,’ about Father John Murphy and the Wexford uprising during the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Not only, but the founder of the well-known group, DeDannan, is also a natural raconteur and effortlessly entertained his listeners with an assortment of jokes, ranging from lion-tamers to one-clawed lobsters. Alongside him, ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan displayed his musical virtuosity with a simply brilliant solo of his own competition on mandolin.

The festival’s energetic and committed organizers deserve great praise.

They include Conor Byrne, accomplished flute player who was mentored by west Belfast musician Frankie Kennedy (who tragically died from cancer at a young age and for whom the festival was originally named after); Cathal Ó Gallchóir, who is also manager of local community center, An Crannog in nearby Derrybeg, where varied activities ranging from yoga to Irish language and music classes take place; their excellent, friendly support team; and special guests such as fiddle player, music teacher and journalist, Martin McGinley, who opened the festival this year and who conducted a most interesting, light-hearted and insightful  afternoon interview with Gavin at PobalScoil Gaoth Dobhair (more on that, including naked Danish concert-goers and sessions with Jagger and Co. of The Rolling Stones in an enlarged festival review on World Itineraries later this weekend).

Scoil Gheimridh, Irish music festivals, live Irish music

Cathal Ó Gallchóir introduces festival musical performers.

‘Scoil Gheimridh’ has now rightly become a prominent feature of national Irish cultural life. Students and teachers, men and women, schoolchildren and retirees, both national and international, lovers of instruments ranging from the bodhrán, an Irish hand drum, to fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina and even traditional sean-nós singing and dancing, gather every year in this beautiful north-western region known as the ‘Forgotten County’ to attend classes taught by leading musicians and to enjoy the many concerts and seisún.

Here, in this most northerly region of Ireland, interest and pride in the native Irish language, Gaeilge, and the rich cultural heritage of their forebearers remains impressively strong, especially in the face of the fickleness and superficiality of modern-day life.

The festival ends this weekend with a concert tonight (Friday, 8.30pm) by Dublin four-piece band, Lynched, at Teac Jack; an exhuberant New Year’s Eve celebration at Club CLG Gaoth Dobhair with Kerry-based Polca4 and local band, An Crann Óg; and two seisiún mór (big informal music/dance sessions) at Teach Hiúdaí Beag Saturday and Sunday, plus the classes.

Sponsors of the annual winter school include The Arts Council of Ireland.


A sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.’ (Clement Clarke Moore)

As winds howl around me and rain rattles my window panes like the chattering of false teeth, I recall this sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story…

Prominent politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness on the Irish national stage gets stuck on a knife-edge. Someone with access to key information can prove he falsified expenses on the back of the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow’ citizen, both as a board member of Irish-language body, Údarás na Gaeltachta, and Donegal County Council.

Concerned about the effects on its chances of returning to Power if things get sour, spin doctors at his political party’s Dublin head office get involved. Politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness also calls in his own local cronies, most from the west Donegal Gaeltacht area – well-paid fellows in silk suits, some of whom made financial hay on the back of his and his party’s long-term, some say overly-long, stay in power.

Christmas story Donegal, politicians in Donegal

Money, money – who says I’m interested in money?

They say ‘deny, deny,’ which said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness does. He’s hoping the custodians of the county council and the national Irish-language body – many of whose top brass owe their own cushy, well-paid admin jobs, expenses and pensions to his own political party – will sit on it like dementia-suffering chickens, and do nothing.

But the evidence is much too solid, and from a respected and knowledgeable insider too, comprising definitive documents that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the culpability of said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness.

Also, hushed voices are alleged to whisper in the Corridors of Power, ‘there’s so much more that could easily come to light and make donkeys of us all.

Aforesaid local top brass know they must do what’s unavoidable. Otherwise their own jobs, generous expenses and pensions could be on the line. So, faced with no alternative, they bring the allegations – rather reluctantly – to the attention of the relevant authorities, hoping it will all go away and they can return undisturbed to their comfy desks, genteel lifestyles and holiday homes on the Spanish coast.

But that doesn’t happen.

An investigation begins by the six-member, national Standards in Public Office (SIPO) chaired by an experienced, former High Court Judge.

corruption in Donegal, what's on in Donegal

Now let me think: two places at the same time. Mmmmm, surely it must be possible. Anyway, who’s lookin’?

Re-enter stage left the local and national spin-doctors-cum-advisors to said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness. Okay, not ‘deny, deny,’ but ‘delay, delay.’ Until it all blows over and our All-Consuming Party climbs back on to its Rightful Throne. ‘Knowing the fickleness of the average dumb, thick-as-shite, Irish voter, that’s inevitable,’ they say, ‘quicker than you can slip a brown envelope into a pocket.’ Then we can blow this under the carpet as we have done with much more serious stuff in the past.’

But national elections come around. And, lo and behold, the hoped-for Dramatic Return to Power, which they feel is theirs by Right, they being the ‘Soldiers of Destiny,’ doesn’t happen.

The battle cry, as per the silk-suited, well-heeled advisers and cronies, then becomes not ‘deny, deny’ or even ‘delay, delay’ but that bastion of Irish patriotism. The one, they feel, will blind the thick-as-shite voters to the insignificant wrongs of falsifying expenses and screwing the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick Joe O’Blow.

The sacred language. The language of Pearse, Plunkett and Wolfe Tone.

Let’s tell them, by George: ‘We want any investigation to be conducted in our native language, as Gaeilge, le do thoil. If not, we’ll not recognize this court.’ Quite ironic, as the comprehensive falsifying of expenses, by all accounts, was done in the dignified language of the Royal British Crown.

And so it’s done.

And so the cost continues to rise…and rise…and rise even more.

Finally, the rather inevitable conclusion was reached, just last week after around two years of delay: politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness has indeed screwed over the average thick-as-shite Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow.’ Regardless of our rapid technological development, it seems it’s still impossible for a homo sapien to be in two separate physical places at the very same time.

But guess what?

poverty in Donegal, Senator O'Donnel Donegal

Hey Mister, Merry Christmas, can ye spare a penny cos the politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness stole all our parents’ money?

Instead of costing the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick thick-as-shite ‘Joe O’Blow’ a couple of thousand euro, it costs, wait for it – with lawyers’ fees, documents, photocopying, translation costs, administrators and secretarial overtime etc – a whopping 350,000 euro.

To put this sum in perspective, this is the equivalent of around 12,000 (that’s twelve thousand) round-trip airfares on flybe for cancer patients from Donegal’s Carrickfinn Airport for specialist treatment in Dublin.

Yet, even sadder, so unimportant and insignificant is scarce public money, both Donegal county council and Údarás na Gaeltachta have just announced they’re not going to ask for the money back from said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness.

Now isn’t that a sad and pathetic Christmas story?

But know what the even sadder thing is?

Said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness continues to be paid out of Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow’s’ thick-as-shite’ pocket. In fact, between 2011 and 2015, said politician was among the top ten most expensive Senators in the entire Irish nation – 409,183.06 euro to be exact in salaries and expenses. That’s about a 100,000 euro a year. Did you ever earn that figure?

As for the party of our politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness. Fianna Fail by name. Beset by ever-increasing, power-hungry pains and after spending a great deal of time, effort and money defending ‘Their Man’ and spinning the truth, they – in their instantaneous wisdom – cut him loose. Snip. You can always come back another day, they say, the Seamus/Sean/Patrick thick-as-shite-Irish-voter suffers genetically from short-term memory problems, so we’re all okay, in it together, if you know what I mean.

Now, you tell me. Who’s the real loser in this sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story?

Donegal politicians, Fiana Foil Donegal

Yeah, it’s pretty bad. We ain’t got no shoes or socks. Where did the money for them go anyway, you ask? Well, it’s a sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story…

If you’re interested in political and corporate corruption in a suspense novel linking Donegal to the US, read newly-published ‘Pretty Ugly.’ Can be purchased direct from Amazon, in eBook or print form, or in Donegal from Gallaghers or Matt Bonners Bunbeg, or Easons Letterkenny.


First suspense novel links Donegal ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ with America 

Readers have asked me in reference to my recently-published suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ focusing on deadly cosmetics and political and corporate corruption, linking Ireland with America, how I describe Donegal in the book.

Of course, as an author, I should respond “well, might I suggest you go out and buy the book and the mystery will be revealed.” (‘Pretty Ugly’ can be purchased at Easons Letterkenny, Gallaghers Bunbeg, or direct from Amazon).

But as this is the season of goodwill and the ‘Forgotten County’ plays such a key location role in the unfolding drama of the novel, I’m including two videos of readings from the novel that focus on Donegal that I made recently at a Berlin bookstore .

The context is that Colm Heaney, an investigative reporter, is on a plane over the Atlantic en route to Ireland, chasing after a world exclusive. He’s hoping to find a beauty queen, a former Miss USA, who is hiding from the paparazzi – in, of all places – the hills of the west Donegal Gaeltacht, in the shadow of Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) in Gaoth Dobhair.

Dare I be immodest and say it? Okay, okay, if you think I really should: ‘Pretty Ugly’ makes for a pretty good Christmas gift, with a pretty stunning cover and at a pretty decent price.

Looking forward to your comments and feedback on Facebook, directly on the book’s website or on Amazon.

I wish you and your family and friends a most contented and relaxed holiday season. The perfect time to settle yourself in a comfy armchair with a glass of something strong and an interesting book to delve into.

‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ in more ways than one  – ‘Love of Art’ or the ‘Art of Love’?

From what I’ve been told, it was a helluva post-show celebration Saturday night – and rightly so: twenty-five years of providing high-level drama and music to a Donegal, indeed nationwide, nay, international, audiences is well worth commemorating in style.

Led by its loyal leader and chairperson, Pluincead O’Fearraigh, the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group displayed its multi-faceted acting and singing talents at An Grianan before two enthusiastic audiences this weekend, with appreciation demonstrated in lively standing ovations.

Fortunately, I was able to attend the Friday evening performance, warning people on twitter (@HilleanSean and @worlditinerary) that they’d better hurry to buy tickets or they’d have to pay well over the odds on Donegal’s thriving theatrical black market.

A rousing ‘Oklahoma’ really stirred the audience to life. Photo by permission of LMDG.

I also found out that not only does the group support ‘love of art’ but also ‘the art of love,’ with several happy marriages resulting from – well, let’s just call it ‘performer get-togethers’ over the years, and leave it at that. No wonder the classic song ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was part of the group’s select 25th anniversary repertoire this weekend.

The group began its humble origins following the departure of the Letterkenny Vocational Players from the local drama scene in the late 1980s. Pluincead O’Fearraigh picked up the reins and formed a new group, with former members of the LVP joining him. From their debut ‘The Absent Minded Bridegroom’ in the Loreto Convent hall, the group entertained audiences with performances such as ‘Oklahoma’ (1992), ‘Calamity Jane’ (1993), ‘Juno and the Paycock’ (1993) ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ (1994) and ‘The Field’ (1995), performing their musicals in St. Eunan’s College Hall and their plays in Loreto before the opening of An Grianán in 1999 and hosting the very first show there, a ‘Magic of the Musicals’ concert, in October.

Entering the Drama Festival Circuit in 1996, the group has won many group and individual awards, reaching the Confined All-Ireland finals in 1999 and 2000 with ‘Wedding Fever’ and ‘All the King’s Horses’ respectively, with Anthony Delap scooping the All-Ireland Best Supporting Actor accolade in 2000.

In 2012, it brought Ulster and All-Ireland Drama success to Letterkenny for the very first time with their immensely successful production of hit West End show, ‘The 39 Steps,’ with Elaine Gillespie, John Ruddy and Eoghan McGiolla Bhríghde each winning All-Ireland acting awards and Pluincead O’Fearraigh scooping the All-Ireland Best Director award.

In 2013, the group were the recipients of a Civic Reception by the Letterkenny Town Council in recognition of their enduring success.

Here’s what I thought of the group’s weekend performance.

Never have I witnessed such hustle-bustle and buzz of anticipation so long in advance of a show at Donegal’s An Grianan as I did yesterday (Friday) evening.

Pluincead O’Fearraigh Donegal, live shows in Donegal

John Ruddy, in character, sings ‘If I Were A Rich Man.’

With more than a half hour to go before curtain-up, the lobby was already choc-a-bloc and lines had already formed at reception, with two friendly ladies dealing with ticket-seekers as best they could. People walking, people in wheelchairs, in couples, in groups, all beaming lively seasonal goodwill.

The reason for the excitement: the opening night of a stupendous ‘grand variety’ style show celebrating the most memorable of performances by the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group since its inception a quarter of a century ago.

And the high level of anticipation was well-matched by the quality of the two-hour plus, multi-faceted performance on stage. Luckily, a second show takes place tonight (Saturday, 8pm) so if you don’t have a ticket grab one. So good is the show, however, if you don’t move fast enough, you may have to buy on the black market – at treble the price.

Chris Duddy tugged at heart-strings with his version of ‘Mr. Cellophane.’ Photo used with permission from LMDG

Some people think writing a review of a top-caliber show, whether it be music, theater or opera, is easy. And that writing about a bad show is hard. Not so, not always. To illustrate. One of the main challenges in writing a review of last night’s captivating music and drama group’s offering is that there were so many quite brilliant performances, a review could end up being merely a long shopping list of the good and the mighty. At the same time, it would be bereft of me not to mention at least some of the highlights.

But first an overall impression.

Aside from the overall holiday-like theatrical atmosphere, the on-stage performances – from the opening, and most appropriate, number, ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ the classic Irving Berlin 1946 song written for the musical’ Annie Get Your Gun,’ sung by Rodney McKeague, Ciara Gallagher and ensemble, to the heart-warming carols at the end, were so impressive – I felt at times wondering if I’d stepped into the West End or Broadway by mistake. When I say ‘performances,’ I mean singing, choreography, timing, dancing, costumes, musical support, acting and stage set-up and management.

After viewing on-screen during the interval the other highly-engrossing aspect of the evening – video clips from previous shows by the local music and drama group down through the years – from ‘Calendar Girls’ to ‘Sister Act,’ I definitely thought I had teleported to the Big Apple or London.

Letterkenny Music and Drama Group, live theater in Letterkenny

All aboard for ‘South Pacific’ and a singing ode to the beauty of women. Photo used with permission from LMDG

The evening’s quality entertainment wrung the full gamut of emotions from audience members, including my dear wife. At one moment, Columbia was laughing heartily at the ‘train-chase’ excerpt from the drama group’s All-Ireland award-winning adaption of John Buchan’s 1915 melodrama, ‘The 39 Steps,’ performed by Elaine Gillespie, Kieran Kelly, Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde and John Ruddy. Later, I noticed her brushing tears from her eyes at the poignancy of actor Iarla McGowan’s recitation of the 1914 World War One ‘No-Man’s Land’ scene when German and Allied soldiers exchanged gifts and pleasantries during an impromptu Christmas Day ceasefire, which was followed by a wonderful rendition of ‘White Christmas’ by the whole ensemble.

White Christmas Donegal, music in Donegal

Carols light up the theater atmosphere. Photo used with permission from LMDG

Here you’ll have to forgive me. I mentioned already an aversion to long shopping lists in a review but now find myself inclined to make one, though short not long. If I don’t, this review could turn into a thick book of praise. So, succinctly, other highlights included:

  • John Ruddy’s melodious rendition of ‘If I Were A Rich Man’ from ‘Fiddler On The Roof,’ complete with credible accent.
  • Catherine Gaffney, Aoibheann Diver and Andrea Emmet for their combination of captivating acting and singing in the song ‘Matchmaker, Matchmaker’ from the same musical.
  • Using only white gloves as an accessory, Chris Duddy’s heart-string pulling performance of ‘Mr. Cellophane’ from the musical ‘Chicago.’
  • The ensemble’s rousing ‘Oklahoma’ led by Martin Gallen, Rosaleen Connolly and Ali Logue.
Eavan Hennessey Donegal, Donegal singers

If Eva Perón had looked or sang anything like Eavan Hennessey Argentina would be the most admired nation on Planet Earth. Photo used with permission from LMDG

  • Riana Lynch’s goose-pimple-creating rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’
  • High-octane rock ‘n roll numbers led by Kieran Kelly and ‘Buddy Holly Lookalike’ James Coyle singing ‘Chantilly Lace,’ ‘Oh, Boy’ and ‘Johnny Be Good,’ with gyrating boogying accompaniment by talented dancers.
  • Blonde bombshell Eavan Hennessey, the personification of elegance, singing a soaring version of ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ from the musical ‘Evita’ created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. If Eva Perón had looked anything like Eavan, I’d definitely have voted for her.
  • Paddy McTeague and ensemble singing so passionately ‘Take Me To Paradise’ from ‘The Celtic Story,’ especially impressive as the last time Paddy performed with the group was 10 years ago.
  • Dressed in black, Katie Porter’s touching rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’ from ‘Cabaret.
Paddy McTeague Donegal, The Celtic Story

The team may be out of Europe but Paddy McTeague and ensemble still sang passionately ‘Take Me To Paradise’ from ‘The Celtic Story.’ Photo used with permission from LMDG

It was also wonderful to see how some of fellow neighbors from Gaoth Dobhair played such key roles in the overall evening, including, of course, award-winning maestro and group chairperson, Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh, who deserves high praise for his sterling work over the last several decades in creating such consistently high-quality shows – 22 plays and 23 musicals in total, in Donegal and elsewhere.

And a lady I termed in an inscription in my newly-released suspense novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ (linking Donegal to America) as ‘the nightingale of west Donegal,’ Jacqui Sharkey, who sang beautifully, ‘Tell Me It’s Not True,’ from the musical, ‘Blood Brothers.’

Kieran Kelly, James Coyle, Donegal actors

Led by Kieran Kelly and Buddy Holly lookalike James Coyle, lively music aka ‘Chantilly Lace,’ ‘Oh, Boy’ and ‘Johnny Be Good’ rocked An Grianan. Photo used with permission from LMDG

Of course, none of the songs would have sounded so good if it had not been for the impressive musical backing from The Band, led by Denise Roper and Pat Campbell.

A deserved standing ovation greeted the whole cast at the finale and there was also one for those members of the music and drama group who sadly passed away during the intervening 25 years and whose images were show on the on-stage screen.

The Letterkenny Music and Drama Group’s next production for the festival circuit is American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night.’ Readers, wish them well.

Visiting Berlin Wall speaks volumes for free thinkers

It was as cold then as it is now, I recalled, thick coat and woolly hat keeping my body and soul together, even though the ‘Cold War’ had just melted away.

Exactly 27 years ago, swaying atop the Berlin Wall, a bottle of champagne in one hand, the other firmly clasping that of someone unknown to me but equally as carefree and excited, both of us wildly celebrating a supreme historic moment.

Sean Hillen speaking in Berlin, Berlin books

Reminiscing: Quiet now but thousands clambered on to it and over it 27 years ago, myself included.

There were tens of thousands of us, stumbling over rubble, banging on the solid concrete with anything we could lay our hands on, hammers, candlesticks, shovels, pitchforks, pieces of metal piping. You name it, we were using it, desperately trying to dislodge pieces to take home with us.

In some ways, it seemed to me we were doing so not just to have a hard-won souvenir to show to friends and family but also because we felt we were facing a frenzied race against time, that we feared men in uniforms, with rifles and growling, muzzled dogs, might suddenly come along and order us down, telling us it was a bad joke, that the powers that be had changed their minds, that the exhilarating glimpse of freedom was over.

Sean Hillen author, books by Sean Hillen

Checkpoint Charlie: Tourist attraction now but filled with drama when I first visited it in the mid-1980s during the Cold War.

We were all of the same thought: the wall had to come down and it had to come down now before someone powerful somewhere changed their mind. After all, it had gone up fast, so down it must come – equally as fast. And boy, were we ever doing a helluva demolition job. With a capital ‘D.’

That’s why it was a delight to be there again last week standing beside the few remaining remnants of the wall, much of it covered by colorful graffiti, reliving those exuberant moments from years before. And an even greater delight to be talking not only about my experiences as a foreign correspondent covering the dramatic fall of Communism, then rushing by train to Bucharest, to the Romanian revolution, but also about my first novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ which deals with many of the same universal themes, freedom of thought and action.

Gazing around me as I walked to the Berlin Book Nook bookstore in the Neukoelin district, the American sector after World War Two, I was astonished to see how much Berlin had changed. Changed? Transformed would be a better description. Bright lights, lively pubs and cafes, the conversational buzz of shoppers filling the streets. Open-air markets like the Gendarmenmarkt packed with people drinking gluhwein and chowing down on currywurst, and carolers singing sweetly about hope and love.

Author talks Berlin, Berlin book shops

Enjoying a chat at the Berlin Book Nook about literature, art, travel and the German capital’s ever-changing face.

The overriding sense of togetherness and positivity was a vivid reminder to me of that same collective sense of well-being I felt all those years ago along the crumbling wall, the grim edifice that symbolized the very opposite of all that is good in Mankind.

As for my author’s talk, when is it not thoroughly enjoyable to speak to book-lovers about books? Even more satisfying as I had earlier that very day visited ‘The Story of Berlin’ museum where a pile of books tossed randomly along the floor was a sad reminder of the tragic ‘burning of books’ episode instigated by Hitler and his racist Nazi cronies intent on destroying any semblance of free thinking.

Sean Hillen author in Berlin, Pretty Ugly a novel

Books underfoot at ‘The Story of Berlin’ museum symbolizing the despicable Nazi ‘burning of books’ episode in 1933.

Talking about the inspiring land and seascapes of Donegal’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ (no wonder the county recently topped the National Geographic Traveller magazine’s ‘Cool List 2017’) where much of the dramatic action in ‘Pretty Ugly’ takes place and about how my main characters, both in Ireland and America, strive for justice in face of overwhelming odds, I felt like I was staging my own private revenge against the Fuhrer and his violent mob of senseless bullies.

Pretty Ugly book, Irish writers

Pretty nice to see ‘Pretty Ugly’ on the shelves of a popular Berlin bookstore.

I hope you feel the same, especially at this time of year when we think more of family and friends and how fortunate we are compared to others much worse off.

Have a most contented winter holiday season. I very much look forward to hearing your feedback after reading my novel.

Here’s where you can order your copy of Pretty Ugly.