Donegal festival spans many subjects, music, film, creative writing….

Living in the west Donegal Gaeltacht, an idyllic hideaway in itself plum, on the Wild Atlantic Way and home of the now world-famous  Ireland Writing Retreat I had the pleasure of meandering ‘down south’ to the Ballyshannon-Bundoran region of the ‘Forgotten Land’ county to host creative writing workshops for The Irish Gap organisation.

And what a pleasurable few days it turned out to be.

Not just working with very talented people on aspects of writing such as dialogue, ‘show, don’t tell’ techniques and book plot planning using ‘Pretty Ugly’ as an example, but also attending the annual Allingham Festival in Ballyshannon named after the 19th century Irish poet William Allingham who wrote about faeries.

Film, music, history, theatre, prose, poetry and children’s activities – the recent edition of the festival can’t be accused of lacking diversity.

Reflecting this, one popular event featured Donegal paramedic, Cathal Gallagher (48) explaining how being on TV show ‘Operation Transformation’ saved his life. Weighing over 26 stone with fitness levels of an 80-year-old, Gallagher said felt suicidal.

“Cathal spoke from the heart, freely sharing his frailties and ongoing struggle with mental health issues,” said Liz Adams, Bundoran. “His emphasis was on the need to seek out help and talk, and not be reluctant to access counselling. He is a wonderful role model, especially men, and the young students in attendance were clearly engrossed in his sharing. I was touched by his honesty and willingness to be so open. That takes courage.”

Falcarragh-born poetess, Anne Ní Churreáin (left), with poetry winner, Marah P. Curran.

Then there was poetry. Around 300 entries in the competition, read by a jury under filter judge Denise Blake with Falcarragh poetess, Anne Ní Churreáin, now writer-in-residence at Maynooth University, as final judge presenting awards with the words –

“The making of a poem is often a solitary pursuit, which takes place behind closed doors, in the in-between hours, and at moments that are in one way or another deeply private and personal. In the making, so much depends upon the poet’s willingness to commune with the unknown, to translate mystery, to go where during the ordinary course of language one does not dare to go.

In my own practice, I think of the poem as both instinctual and technical. At first there is a flowering of the poem, and then comes craft and perseverance against the odds. At the heart of poetry is the constant and dogged pursuit of alchemy. And in the end the poem is what survives on the page when all other words fall away…

Given the great voyages that poets go on it seems rather ironic—if not somewhat cruel—that so much of the poet’s labour is hidden to the world. It was Wallace Stevens who said ‘the poet is the priest of the invisible’. For all of these reasons and others, it is important that we make space in our lives to recognise, award and celebrate the making of a poem, and to honour the achievements of those who pursue mystery.”

Marah P. Curran (The Children of Lir) won the poetry award, second was Annette Skade (Harbour’s Mouth) and third, Sighle Meehan (Wishbone). Flash fiction first prize went to Conor Duggan for ‘A Drag Queen Named Lipstik,’ followed by Clodagh O’Brien (Boy A & Boy B) and Julian Wakeling (The Mating Call of the Accountant).

A panel event entitled ‘History Ireland Hedge School’ on ‘Art & Culture in the Irish Revolution’ at Abbey Arts Centre comprised film, music, song, theatre and art. Ciara Chambers, head of film and screen media, University College Cork, said, “Tommy Graham, editor of ‘History Ireland’ magazine, hosts a series of these unique talks nationwide which fuse community with academia and generate strong enthusiasm for key historical subjects. I discussed how well newsreels, the only form of source of non-fictional moving images in the revolutionary period 1913 and 1923, reflected reality. Often, they didn’t. Being British controlled, for example, they portrayed over-optimism on the Treaty and underplayed misdemeanours by the Black and Tans.”

allingham festival donegal

Film expert Ciara Chambers (far right), with ‘History Ireland’ editor Tommy Graham (centre), and other panellists at the Abbey Centre, Ballyshannon. Other speakers included Roisin Kennedy (visual arts), Paul Delaney (literature) and Fintan Vallely (music and song).

Ciara said “it is very difficult to cover Irish politics – probably any politics – in film,” adding that “film is entertainment and directors and producers are keenly aware that they may have to change truth to suit that purpose.” Illustrating this, Ciara spoke about a scene in the 1996 movie ‘Michael Collins’ directed by Irishman Neil Jordan in which British armored vehicles are on the Croke Park football field and machine-gunners fire  on a crowd of spectators. “That didn’t actually happen, but it was a dramatic scene in the movie,” she said.

My (author’s) view: while it is known that spectators were shot and killed at that football match but the armoured vehicles were outside the ground and the shooting was done by hand, which leads me to think ‘why change historical truth, especially when a scene of shooters coldly, clinically picking off innocent victims is equally, if not more, dramatic than gunners in an armoured cars doing so.’ Perhaps, it’s because I grew up on the Falls Road/Andersonstown neighbourhood of west Belfast during the worst of the ‘Troubles’ and saw such armoured vehicles (both inside and outside) more times than I care to remember that I don’t find that particular movie scene so impressive.

Film events also included screening of ‘Gaza,’ on life in Palestine, directed by Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell. The festival paid tribute to Frank Mc Guinness, Buncrana-born poet and playwright, with a production of ‘The Bread Man’ by the local drama society and a public interview with RTÉ’s Sean Rocks.

As for music, Dicey Reilly’s, one of the oldest pubs in Ballyshannon, and a brewery producing a wide range of craft lagers, stouts and ales, hosted eclectic folk-jazz group, Hatchlings as part of the festival. “On a shoestring budget, this festival is slowly, quietly growing legs, with top-class events,” said Brendan Reilly, the friendly pub owner and graduate of the University of Ulster (as was Ciara and myself). “The hard-working organisers have attracted excellent speakers. We’re proud to be part of it.”

Lisnamulligan Farm Produce, Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes serves up delicious burgers.

Someone else speaking highly of the festival was Thomas Hughes who served up gourmet burgers to participants at Dicey’s, with the pork and beef gleaned directly from his own herd at Lisnamullingan Farm Produce, served with locally sourced hand-cut chips.

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