Journalism: a funny thing, sometimes

Sometimes it’s not writing about political showmanship and skullduggery or economic booms and busts that create good journalism.

Sometimes, it’s the simple quirks of everyday life that make for a good story.

You can imagine my delight in unearthing these two tales of near disaster in Donegal that end happily.

They give new meaning to the term ‘missing people.’

Missing boy (5) found safe – in a hot press on Gola Island

gola island donegal, donegal tourism, gaeltacht tourism,

He almost ‘missed the boat’ 

gaeltacht tourism, gola island, donegal tourism

 

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Wish me luck – I’ve applied as the first county council Donegal Gaeltacht Tourism Officer

Using the magnificent panoramic backdrop of the Atlantic coastline on Ireland’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ people living around Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) in the Donegal Gaeltacht this weekend displayed not only a strong sense of community spirit but a classic example of cultural tourism.

The event was the annual Cnoc Fola Festival, which continued today (Sunday) with Mass at the old 19th century Mass Rock, all organized by a hard-working committee led by well-known former teacher and headmistress, Mary Nic Phaidin, whose family run the highly-successful Teac Jack boutique hotel, bar and restaurant.

It is a festival enjoyed by locals and visitors alike and it was uplifting to see so many people there yesterday (Saturday), not just from the surrounding region, but also from countries as far apart as Japan, Germany, France and the US, including a bus-full of young students and teachers from New Mexico.

cnoc fola festival, gaeltacht festivals

Well-known former teacher, headmistress and community leader, Mary Nic Phaidin (right) enjoying the festival with photographer and website designer, Columbia Hillen.

Living within walking distance, my wife, Columbia, from Transylvania, Romania, and I attended with acquaintances from Portland, Oregon, Paul and Kristin Newbry, who thought it was “a wonderful event that reflected deep-rooted Irish traditions, and was so much fun to experience.” Like everyone else there, Paul and Kristin enjoyed the famous traditional ‘brush dance’ (Damhsa na Scuaibe) and sean-nós steps performed by Proinsias Mhic Suibhne; experts in sheep shearing; a blacksmith working his anvil, shoeing a handsome horse; and basket weaving by artist and teacher, Ownie Diver.

Ownie Diver painter donegal, Gaeltacht Tourism Officer

Gola Island native, Ownie Diver, artist and teacher and basket weaver showcases his many skills.

Even the stalls set around the charming, 100-year-old thatched cottage, Teach Mhuiris, offered the kind of foods and drinks that have been eaten and drank for generations, such as dulse and carrageen moss handpicked and sold by friendly farmer, Pa MacPhaidin; health-giving, organic bog bean juice made by Margaret ‘Kitty’ Boyle from Shaskenbeg; delicious wheaten bread and scones with rhubarb, gooseberry, blackcurrant and strawberry jam made by local women, and a wide range of fresh seafood such as crab legs, a bumper harvest caught by local fishermen.

The festival took place as Donegal County Council announced the closure of applications for its first-ever Gaeltacht Tourism Officer, a post that will be decided within the next week or so.

Proinsias Mhic Suibhne dancing, Pat McFadden farmer, gaeltacht festivals,

Friendly farmer, Pa MacPhaidin, shares a joke with Paul Newbry, a visitor from Portland, Oregon.

Having lived in the area for over ten years, in Bun na Leaca, in the shadow of Cnoc Fola, and proudly possessing ‘O’ and ‘A’ level Irish with accompanying gold fáinne I consider this an excellent initiative, so much so I have applied for the position myself.

Creating employment and the economic benefits that accrue from that for cafes, hotels, bed and breakfast operations, bars, activity and leisure projects and community groups in this marginalized area of northwest Donegal should be the number one priority. In doing so, we can help stop the sad flow of young people out of the region to far-off countries through emigration, a movement that desiccates the entire social fabric, with communities barely able, and sometimes simply unable, to even field football teams for local leagues and tournaments.

Irish dancing Gweedore, Irish music Gweedore, Gaeltacht festivals,

Proinsias Mhic Suibhne prepares to perform a ‘duet’ with the floor-brush – the famous traditional Damhsa na Scuaibe.

Gone are the days when the manufacturing industry took care of our employment needs, when the local industrial estates in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and elsewhere in the Gaeltacht teemed with thousands of workers. While some smaller companies still exist, due in great part to the valiant efforts of local entrepreneurs, large spaces stand empty and forlorn. To an extent, English-speaking call centers have replaced factories. And even they generally last only a short time before leaving, often under controversial circumstances, with some obviously adopting a ‘let’s-take-local-funding-then-run’ attitude.

For a number of years, I have voiced my opinion through this blog and through newspaper articles that cultural, environment-friendly tourism initiatives should be expanded and strengthened, that they are a key avenue upon which jobs can be created, enabling families to remain living in the Gaeltacht and the native language to remain alive.

Otherwise, I feel – like many others do – that it will go the way of the dinosaurs – extinction.

The success of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ that I helped establish more than five years ago and where I teach creative writing is a modest example of what can be achieved through cultural tourism. We have succeeded in attracting almost 100 writers – novelists, short-story writers and poets – from all over the world to Gaoth Dobhair, many of whom have never been to Ireland, never mind Donegal, before. And after learning basic Irish phrases through our collaboration with Foras na Gaeilge, ceilidhe dancing at Teac Jack, where writing workshops are held, with tuition from members of community centre An Crannog; excursions to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ ferryboat with Captain Sabba Curran, and to Glenveagh National Park and Castle, they all leave loving the place and its people.

An Crannog Donegal, Gweedore festivals, summer festival donegal, traditions in Donegal

Great efforts by community leaders such as these two stalwarts (l to r) Cathal Ó Gallchóir and Caitlin Ui Dhuibhir – help make festivals and events of all kinds successful.

With 35 years of experience in international media and marketing, including branding, on print, broadcast and digital media platforms and the last ten years specializing in tourism, with a travel book to be published later this year, perhaps, if selected as the winning candidate, I can contribute to the regeneration of the Gaeltacht area. We will soon see.

Gaeltacht Tourism Officer, donegal gaeltacht, gaeltacht festivals

Traditional artists such as these abound in the Donegal Gaeltacht.

Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rides high

I was delighted to write this feature piece for the ‘Donegal News’ recently supporting the hard-work, communal spirit and creativity of people in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and the Rosses in hosting their respective festivals.

For such a small rural area, often there are more diverse cultural activities – dance, theatre, sporting events, concerts, to be name but a few – than in major urban areas.

Delightfully, making choices as to which to attend can be the biggest challenge.

Sean Hillen Donegal gaeltacht, donegal gaeltacht,

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Another cultural entertainment success for Amharclann

What a terrific cultural contribution this historic theatre provides not just for Bunbeg, not just for the Gaeltacht, not just for Donegal but for all-Ireland, north and south.

world itineraries

by Sean Hillen

Six musicians-singers-songwriters with such a wealth of talent it seems blatantly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals – that sums up Irish-group, Arcanadh, which played to an enthusiastic audience at historic Amharclann theater, Bunbeg, northwest Donegal, Ireland this week.

Here I must admit my bias.

In a rare moment of wisdom, I invited this terrific group to tour Romania when I launched the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in that former-Communist country. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

The result more than 10 years ago was the same as that at Amharclann 72-hours ago – a boisterous appeal for more at the end and an appreciative standing ovation after their final encore.

Members of Arcanadh have known each other for more than twenty years and this is reflected in their smooth light-hearted banter off-song and their seamless harmonies on-song. Their passion for their…

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Irish officials designate Donegal’s Gola Island nation’s first nudist holiday resort

Irish officials are soon to designate one of Ireland’s prettiest islands, Gola Island off the northwest coast of Donegal, as location for the nation’s first official nudist holiday resort.

The announcement comes after an exclusive article in one of the county’s leading newspapers.

gola island, gola festival donegal

“Nudism, or naturism as it is often termed, is one of the fastest growing niche segments in the tourism market worldwide and we consider Gola Island a suitable place for such development,” said a spokesperson for the newly-formed Irish Ministry, Roinn na nDaoine Nochta. “This innovative initiative is a creative extension of our highly-successful ‘Oscar Wilde Atlantic Way’ programme, one that will boost tourism revenues over the coming years for the northwest, an economically marginalized region that has not benefited as much as other areas such as Galway, Dublin and Kerry from the rising tide of visitors.”

She added, “With top foreign guests to Ireland being from the US, France and Germany where naturism is well developed, we expect rapid economic benefits. Stripped to its bare essentials, this is extremely positive news for the island.”

According to respected international magazine, ‘Tourism Review,’ (https://www.tourism-review.com/nudism-now-amp-then-news980) nudist tourism is a 440-million-dollar a year industry in the US alone, with the International Naturist Federation having over 2.5 million card-carrying members.

nudist beaches donegal, gola island donegal

Funding for this naturist initiative will be substantial, added a spokesperson for Government Agency, An Roinn um Fhorbairt Mhíchéillí. “With the support of the World Bank and the IMF, an emergency budget of 666 million euro is being aside immediately for a wide range of substructure and superstructure works supporting this island project. We consider this a bare minimum to fully cover cost of materials and manpower necessary for upgrade of facilities. This project will provide gainful employment for construction workers including carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, not to mention masseuses. It will also help redress the unfair balance in island funding nationwide. Under the present system, Donegal islands receive much less than islands in other parts of the country such as Galway.”

The spokesperson added, “Depending on the number of nudist visitors that descend upon Gola, we’ll consider further funding. If numbers rise as quickly as we expect, we may invite experts from Holland to advise on best methods for reclaiming submerged land and extend Gola out to the Three Sisters. That’s if they don’t mind, of course. Naturally, we’d seek their views before beginning such works. As Pagans, at One with Nature, I don’t foresee there’ll be any protest.”

nudism in donegal, nudist tourism, nude beaches in ireland

Views from Gola Island in the future?

Officials from An Roinn um Fhorbairt Mhíchéillí, Roinn na nDaoine Nochta and Aire na Forbartha Craiceáilte are also seeking private investors for the project.

Four officials, two men and two women, visited Gola last weekend for final inspections, including the evaluation of existing accommodation, the cleanliness of offshore water and the suitability of beaches as nude bathing sites.

irish naturist association, gola island donegal
Could cruise liners such as this soon be anchoring off Gola Island?

A horticultural expert from the Irish Parks and Recreation Association and another from the Irish Bird Life Society have been recruited as consultants on the project.

“We are particularly worried about clegs, or horse-flies, which can leave severe red welts on the bodies of unwary victims,” said a government inspector with the newly-formed An Roinn Turasóireachta do Dhaoine Lomnochta. “If they are found to be in abundance on the island, absolute mayhem could result. Quite frankly, it could be a bloody unholy mess.”

The inspector added, “We’re also very concerned about corncrakes, an endangered species. They’re shy birds and we’ll be monitoring their reaction to flocks of naked people. Such trauma could cause their mass migration from Irish shores forever.”

Island households as well as boat owners, especially passenger-carrying ones, are being asked to convert all wooden furnishings to metal. “When it comes to people without clothes, we have to be careful about the dangers from wooden splinters, especially in certain sensitive areas of the body,” said a health and environmental specialist. “Splinteritis is a very dangerous condition, one that can be handed down from generation to generation.”

Naturist Federation, gola island festival,

Could such facilities soon be common on Gola Island?

Gola, spelled ‘Gabhla’ in the Gaeilge language, lies about a mile off the northwest coast of Ireland, a region considered by many to be one of the most picturesque and attractive in the country. It may have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, ‘Treasure Island.’

Electricity connection to the island was installed some years ago but officials are now renovating an underwater cable supplying water as part of a general upgrading of facilities in advance of the naturist initiative taking effect.

Government officials said factors leading to their decision included Gola Island’s close offshore position, easy and convenient access by ferry, its many quiet coves and discreet beaches providing an acceptable level of privacy for both clothed and non-clothed people and, of course, its hot tropical micro-climate.

Other islands under consideration for the major economic boost included Inis Mór in Galway, Rathlin Island in Antrim, Clare Island in Mayo and even the Skellig Islands in Kerry, which gained famed recently as a location for the latest ‘Star Wars’ movie.

nudist beaches donegal, gola island

Naturism: now a popular practice in urban and rural areas.

While realizing the obvious economic benefits locally from the substantial cash injection, elected representatives are assessing the views of Gola islanders on the surprise initiative before making official statements, either for or against.


That’s when I woke from my dream. And into the bright light of reality.

It’s Saturday. It’s the first day of the annual Gola Island Festival. A committee led by Máirín Ui Fhearraigh has put together a wide range of enjoyable activities for both children and adults. Hard-working Sabba Curran, captain of ‘The Cricket,’ is busy ferrying passengers over.

Alas, Irish officials haven’t given the island 666 million euro for a ‘natural development’ or indeed development of any kind. Donegal still remains poor cousin to Galway, Kerry and Dublin when it comes to public funding.

Ah well, at least there’ll be a good bit of craic going on at King Eddie’s wee café.

I urge you. Go along and support this worthy community initiative.

For information on this weekend’s Gola Island festival, contact Máirín at 087 413 4244.

 

Van Morrison, Seamus Heaney and I….

Was Van ‘the Man’ Morrison inspired by Seamus Heaney’s delightful poem ‘Death of A Naturalist’ when the famed R&B singer wrote his timeless ode to youth, ‘Coney Island’?

And what possible connection could there be between the old Belfast street song ‘My Aunt Jane’ and the famous Derry-born Nobel Laureate?

And for goodness sake, what has butter melting over delicious homemade Irish soda bread got to do with a man who was such a venerated poet and professor at such august institutions as Queens University, Harvard and Oxford?

Sean Hillen speaking at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Olivia O'Leary, Marie-Louis Muir

(l to r) Myself, Olivia O’Leary, Malachi O’Doherty, Marie-Louise Muir, Elaine Monaghan and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan – panelists at a recent conference at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace.

I was delighted to air these quirky questions and more during a most enjoyable conference at the impressive Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy last week. Eldest of nine children, Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and is buried near the museum and conference center that bears his name which hosts a wide range of cultural events.

Seated on a panel with Olivia O’Leary, a ‘Grand Dame’ of Irish journalism, as well as popular BBC arts presenter, Marie-Louise Muir, multiple book author, Malachi O’Rourke, and two professors from Indiana University Bloomington, Elaine Monaghan, an experienced foreign correspondent, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan who specializes in religious studies, we analyzed the links between Heaney’s writings and journalism, particularly on ethics.

Photos & videos by Center for the Imagination

Conducting research on the northern Irish poet ahead of the event, I came across a radio recording from 1989 when Heaney was being interviewed for the popular BBC program ‘Desert Island Discs,’ in which various celebrities are asked what music they’d want if stranded offshore. Sandwiched between two ‘heavyweights’ – Beethoven’s Quartet Nr. 13 and the choir of Magdalen College Oxford – as his favorite pieces of music was ‘My Aunt Jane,’ a little ditty I grew up with on the working-class streets of west Belfast.

Seamus Heaney HomePlace events, Seamus Heaney museum

On an impulse, in the crowded conference hall, I sang a few lines, receiving gracious applause for my rather off-tune efforts, then asked how many people remembered the song.

Hands all across the hall shot up, including those of the panelists, giving strength to the point I wanted to make: that Heaney, at his core, was a common man of the people, someone who grew up in a rather modest rural household steeped in tradition which was reflected bountifully in his poetry.

discussions on Seamus Heaney poetry and journalism, Olivia O'Leary, Marie-Louis Muir, Malachi O'Rourke

As for my ‘Van the Man’ comment. Having read the lines from Heaney’s ‘Death Of A Naturalist,’ the title of his first published book of poetry (by Faber & Faber)…

‘Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles.’

I was reminded of a similar jampot/jamjar image from Morrison’s ‘Coney Island’….

‘On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
In the jam jar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
And all shining through

Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
Mussels and some potted herrings in case
We get famished before dinner.’

While my comment was tongue in cheek, interestingly, both men – arguably the most iconic artistic figures Northern Ireland has ever produced – managed, one in poetry, the other in song, to pay magical tribute to their respective regions through their journeys of nostalgia to childhood pathways and pastimes. Heaney to his native county Derry and Morrison to county Down.

Whether they ever met, I’m not sure. Alas, to my knowledge, they didn’t perform together – now that would have been a most memorable duet.

As for the melted butter over scrumptious Irish soda bread, watching one of the videos above you’ll see what I mean about ‘Show, don’t tell,’ a key element of both journalism and creative writing.

Join me on Saturday, May 12 at Seamus Heaney HomePlace where I will be hosting a workshop on “IQ for Creative Writers” (IQ meaning ‘I Question’).

Wizards of Lies, or nightmare accountancy?

Would you approve almost one million euro in public money for a company with liabilities of half a million and a cash shortfall of around 200,000?

Hardly.

Strangely, that’s what seems to have happened in the case of SLM, the English call center that closed several weeks ago without warning in the Donegal Gaeltacht leaving many local people still owed a big chunk of back salaries.

Helluva Christmas gift Mr. Scrooge!

And here’s something even more intriguing…

Michael Gallagher, from the coastal village of Falcarragh, is an intelligent and likeable fellow, a man deeply concerned about social justice.

Sensing something amiss, Michael decided to carry out his civic duty and promptly investigated the financials of the Manchester-based company in the official register. Shocked by what he unearthed, he quickly warned two senior staff members at the economic group, Údarás na Gaeltachta, which intended to hand the company close to a million euro of scarce public money.

Michael Gallagher letter about SLM, Udaras and SLM

Alas, Michael’s timely and crucially important information seemed to have been promptly ignored as Údarás went full-steam ahead with its earlier decision to pour 842,000 euro into the company – strongly supported, maybe even led, by Minister of the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh.

The award was announced with fancy fanfare, with screaming national and local newspaper headlines. Written by Greg Harkin, now a spin doctor for Minister McHugh, an article in ‘The Irish Independent’ read, ‘125 new jobs announced at SLM Éire Teo in Donegal.’  Not surprisingly, McHugh – who seemingly went to school with SLM manager James Moran and flew to Manchester to seal the deal – was given a pretty quote about being ‘delighted.’

The Údarás website blasted, ‘UK Digital Marketing company to create 125 jobs in Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal,’ with its then CEO  Steve Ó Cúláin saying, “Today’s announcement is the result of Údarás’ enterprise strategy for this vibrant Gaeltacht region. I wish the promoters of SLM Éire every success and wish to thank the Údarás employees whose dedication is helping to make this jobs announcement become a reality.”

Cupán Tae

Meanwhile, quite separately, my interest in SLM began in the most innocent of ways – over a welcome cup of tea shared with a fellow jogger after a challenging morning run. The person worked at the call centre and complained training was lax, pay was the legal minimum, bonus targets were pretty much unreachable and on-the-floor Manchester managers were as scarce as a prickly cactus growing in the turf bogs. Adding that only around 30 people worked there, a far cry from the 125 promised more than a year before.

Two weeks later, on December 3, an article appeared in the ‘Donegal News,’ with the surprising headline ‘SLM Eire Teo Plans To Increase Its Workforce.

Strangely – considering the company closed its doors permanently in Donegal a few short weeks later, barely one year into operations – local SLM manager, James Moran and Paid O’ NeachtainÚdarás public relations director, both said the company would employ more people.

Sheer ignorance? Spin doctoring? Who knows?

Out of the quagmire that has resulted, a key question remains: why did a supposedly experienced, national economic organization such as Údarás award such a formidable grant to a company obviously struggling to make ends meet?

Michael Gallagher discovered SLM Manchester at end financial year 2015 had liabilities of 556,400 pounds sterling and a cash shortfall of 171,600. My Freedom of Information request showed Údarás approved an employment grant for SLM of 614,000 euro, plus a 60,000 employment grant for managers, a training grant of 100,000 and rent subsidy of 68,000.

budget for SLM Donegal, Udaras funding SLM Donegal

Is no-one at Údarás trained in simple analytical accountancy? Did they simply choose to ignore SLM’s shaky financial situation? Or did Minister McHugh – for political kudos through positive media coverage – override concerns that may have been raised by Údarás staff? Or indeed, did everyone involved truly believe this was an employment bonanza for the Donegal Gaeltacht but were duped by SLM owners?

The answer my friend – to use the words of a well-known song ‘…is blowin’ in the wind.’ And, as usual in modern Ireland, no-one’s taking responsibility for failings.

Isn’t this exactly what got Ireland into economic quicksand? Isn’t this why the World Bank and the IMF own us? Isn’t this why health and education are underfunded, why sick people with IVs in their arms are sleeping on chairs in hospital corridors?

If you want to know more about how Údarás spends scarce public money, simply e-mail Cathal O Gallachóir c.ogall (at) udaras.ie and ask for information under FOI. With what you find out, you might even be encouraged to do what Michael Gallagher did, write a letter to the editor Údarás challenged on SLM dealings thus placing important information in the public arena, or notifying concerned councilors such as new Údarás board member, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh.

John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, Udaras Donegal

Curious to know how many SLM jobs that Údarás included in its annual summary, I have requested the much-delayed 2016 report, which 13 months later has still not been published.

It’s still blowin’ in the wind…