Mayo GAA: The Mighty and the Meek, They Shall Inherit the Earth

What I will write here may seem the realm of the fantastic, but bear with me and for a moment merely consider the possibility that it may be true.

Also, keep in mind, there is no existing evidence that it’s not true.

A few days ago, I had the utmost pleasure of sitting with novelist, playwright, radio and television social and political commentator and former public relations director of Sinn Fein, Danny Morrison, in the Upper Cusack Stand at the venerable Croke Park Coloseum to watch what – for me – was one of the most exciting, thrilling sporting spectacles I have every witnessed, either live or recorded.

Granted, my complete and utter support was with Mayo and I was devastated that particular, rather impoverished, mainly rural western county lost – especially in the aching way that it did. Though not half as heart-broken as the throngs of anguished people – hardy grown men, teenagers, young children, mothers and grandmothers – who shuffled past me for the exit gates at the final whistle, tears flowing profusely from their eyes.

For the purpose of this post, for those uninterested in Irish GAA football, Mayo – rank outsiders at 3-to1, considerable odds in view of the fact that there were only two teams on the pitch for this All-Ireland football final and both had 15 skilled, experienced able-bodied men each – lost its ninth final since 1989 and the chance to win its first Sam Maguire Cup in 66 years. Indeed, this was the third time in five years it has lost in the final (including a narrow defeat after a replay to Dublin last September, its rivals again this past Sunday). In sheer contrast, for Dublin Sunday’s victory marked their first three-in-a-row in 94 years.

In terms of probability, the cumulative odds of Mayo losing so many finals are probably calculated in the millions to one (not bad odds if you’re fond of punting a penny or two at the local bookmakers).

So how did this peculiar, bizarre defying-the-odds situation come to pass?

Let’s consider for a moment that it had nothing to do with football.

I know, I know you’re thinking: ‘that’s ridiculous, it’s football, one team wins and one team loses, that’s how the game is played, and the team that wins is the one that scores most goals/points.

But million to one odds of such a thing happening? By reason alone, is that even possible?

My contention is that something else – something strange, something far beyond football –could be at play here.

So, as a committed pantheist, this is my take on last Sunday’s fantastic football final.

It has been reported that there’s a curse on the Mayo football team that has prevented it winning the coveted All-Ireland football final since 1951. That curse, the reports go, was placed upon the team by an angry priest. The reason: the team on its victorious way back home across Ireland by bus with the Cup in safe stow came upon a funeral and failed to pay their rightful respects to the dead.

That story smells of a downright lie.

Why?

Because there are no funerals in Catholic Ireland on the Sabbath, the very day the football final is played. And don’t be telling me the Mayo team, any team, wouldn’t rush back home with the coveted trophy on the very day it won it.

You might then ask: ‘then where did this story originate, and why?

Credit where credit is due.

The Catholic Church, universally, not just in Ireland, has developed a highly-sophisticated propaganda machine over the centuries since it emerged from its ancient Egyptian forbearers (Google details on Isis and Osiris to find out how the Church unashamedly plagiarized and cunningly adapted an already existing mystery cult that also involved baptism in water).

mayo curse, GAA football

Thus, putting word out in the right circles, media and otherwise, that one of their priests had the power to curse a football team and prevent it from ever winning a national trophy after so many attempts is an easy-peasy task for such a rich and powerful institution.

But there’s another version, one that has been quashed quite easily by that same institution, for its own power-hungry, money-making purposes.

It’s not that the fine, upstanding people of Mayo – for which the players on the 1951 winning team are upstanding Ambassadors – are to blame. It’s not that they failed to pay their respects to the dead. As decent, honest people, they would surely have done so, with the same passion, dedication and sincerity that they showed last Sunday afternoon, even when three points down in the first 85 seconds and playing with just 14 men for almost the entire second half.

There is another possibility (remember, I merely asked at the beginning of this post that you humor me and consider a possibility).

That the players, coaches and management of that wonderful 1951 winning team were down-to-earth, honest-to-goodness people I have no doubt. And for this reason, I don’t agree for a second that they would not pay their sincere respects at the death of a fellow Man.

But what if it was not the dead person they didn’t respect (if there ever was one, which is now in grave doubt for the above mentioned reason), but the priest himself?

What if they didn’t believe, in their hearts of hearts, that this priest was neither dignified or decent enough to be a true representative of any God, regardless of its origin? Further, what if, in their heart of hearts, they actually believed they didn’t need Other Gods, that they themselves were Gods, mini-Gods all interlinked, like all of us here across the Earth, indeed throughout the Universe. That they were – to use Biblical terminology – among ‘the Mighty and the Meek, those who Shall Inherit the Earth.’

Mighty? Absolutely. Was there not more than ample evidence of that on the football pitch Sunday afternoon? In the way the Mayo players fought for every ball no matter how remote the chances were they’d catch it; supported each other so valiantly in every situation; placed themselves in considerable physical danger to capture every ball that came their way.

Meek? Absolutely. Was there not more than ample evidence of that on the football pitch Sunday afternoon? In the quiet, dignified way they accepted defeat, all the more admirable considering they were beaten by one single, solitary point scored by Dean Rock with mere seconds to go after six full minutes of extra time just after their own kicker, Cillian O’Connor, hit the woodwork in a grueling, hard-fought match.

You might now say: ‘it hardly makes a difference now anyway, the priest’s curse won the day, didn’t it?’ Maybe, or perhaps, just perhaps, it wasn’t the power of the priest at all. Maybe it was the misplaced power of belief in the priest by a mass of people. Maybe – as seems to be happening right now following multiple cases of horrendous clerical pedophilia resulting in lies and ruined lives – when more people stop believing in this misguided way, justice and righteousness will return to our Fair(y) Land.

All I ask, dear reader, is for you merely to consider the possibility that what I write here might just be true.

Then we can bang our drums for Mayo again in next year’s final –and hopefully cheer them on as they return Home to their Rightful place as Gods once again.

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Giant rhubarbs, faeries and other enchanted species on ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Invasion by giant rhubarb plants throughout Donegal’s Gaoth Dobhair region captured the imagination of international writers during this summer’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – with intriguing stories involving faeries and magical creatures emerging onto blank pages. Some of the stories are soon to be published on the Ireland Writing Retreat Blog.

And such far-fetched tales weren’t due to the influence of the whiskey, poitín and pálinka served up at various events throughout the enjoyable week-long event, even though such potent liquids have been Muse for generations of great novelists and playwrights including James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Ian Fleming and Mark Twain.

wild rhubarb Donegal, faeries in Donegal

Faeries and other magical creatures hide among the giant rhubarb leaves.

Call it a combination of fresh sea-air along the ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ excellent writing guidance from published authors and a wee drop or two of uisce beatha, some of the inventive stories focused on faeries planting the giant rhubarb to warn humans about how they are polluting and destroying the natural environment around us,” said one of the retreat organizers, delighted with the week’s success. “The writings were really fun to read and bringing such a diverse group of fine international writers here also helps promote this lovely area through literary tourism. One participant summed it up brilliantly when she said, ‘I came to Donegal searching for inspiration, and instead found magic.’  That makes me proud. I know we’ve achieved our goal.

The stories also included a mysterious faerie named after the gigantic rhubarb, called Rhu, who can produce a flame by simply cupping her hands together and a secret, white-washed faery-home hidden among the plants themselves.

Sliabh Liag Distillery, Donegal whiskey

Ian Smith plays his own composition ‘The Holy Hour’ as Sliabh Liag Distillery managing director, James Doherty, and international writers listen intently.

With Donegal having its first distillery for more almost 200 years, the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – at which I’m proud to be one of the tutors – collaborated with the Sliabh Liag Distillery to create a hearty ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ for participants.

Taking place at Teac Jack, a popular boutique hotel in Glassagh, and with the distillery’s chief executive James Doherty at the helm, writers from places as diverse as Wyoming, Alaska, Newfoundland, California, Ohio, Wisconsin, Belfast and Ballybofey sipped whiskey cocktails with the surprising flavors of rhubarb (not the infamous rhubarus gigantus variety) and orange.

We want to reclaim part of the lost heritage of Donegal, to replicate the uniqueness of whiskey-making, a skill that was an integral part of life here two centuries ago,” Doherty said, as he described the subtle taste of his company’s ‘Silkie’ brand to his attentive audience.

Not only but guitarist-singer-songwriter Ian Smith entertained guests with some of his very own compositions, one appropriately entitled ‘The Holy Hour,’ about whiskey, that will feature next year in a special musical show he stars in that will tour Germany, entitled ‘Whiskey, You’re The Devil.’

Teac Mhuiris Donegal, An Crann Óg Donegal

Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg serves up a tasty feast for international poets and novelists at the Ireland Writing Retreat.

Bringing even more good cheer, writing retreat participants – most of whom had never been to Donegal before – also enjoyed traditional foods ranging from delicious home-baked breads and scones to carrageen moss and dulse in the traditional thatched cottage ‘Teac Mhuiris’ with panoramic views over Bloody Foreland and the islands of Gola, Inismeain and Umfin. Here, local people, Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg, the Bunbeg community center, her daughter Alanna, experienced seanchaí-historian Antoin MacAodha, Anna Ní Bhroin from Foras na Gaeilge and music teacher, Caitlín Joe Jack, related the history of the cottage, taught basic Irish words and phrases including the meaning of place-names, as well as Irish dance steps in advance of a lively cèilidh that evening at Teac Jack.

The week-long writing retreat also featured a host of other activities including nightly music concerts, a boat trip to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat’ captained by Sabba Curran and a talk by uncrowned King Eddie Joe McGee, as well as a tour of Glenveagh National Park and Castle.

boat to Gola Donegal, Gola Island Donegal

Captain Sabba Curran of ferry-boat, ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat,’ at Magheragallon Pier with international writers headed for Gola Island.

As for classes, participants completed assignments on many of the excursions they experienced during the week which were then critiqued by published authors and editors, including Anthony Quinn, author of five books, ‘Disappeared,’ ‘Border Angels,’ ‘The Blood Dimmed Tide,’ ‘Blind Arrows,’ and ‘Silence’; Mark Gregory, a forensic word editor, and yours truly. Tuition focused on strengthening key writing skills such as character development, dialogue and importance of landscape.

I was delighted to host a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ highlighting the importance of questions (thus IQ meaning ‘I Question’) and the five journalism Ws – ‘who, what, why, where, when’ with the all-important sixth W, ‘what if,’ in the development of strong plot and character. And to use my recently-published novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal with New York, Washington and Kansas City, as an illustration of that.

Pretty Ugly a novel, Sean Hillen author, IQ for Creative Writing

No greater joy than being surrounded by friendly, talented writers – except maybe winning the national lottery.

Without public funding of any kind, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ now in its fourth consecutive year, has gone from success to success, with a second Autumn Writing Retreat taking place late this September.

Mysterious cat murderer provides intriguing subject for creative writing workshop at Belfast Book Festival

Illustrating the wide span of activities at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre, walking to Room 3 on the second floor earlier this week where I was hosting a workshop on creative writing at the city’s annual book festival, I passed a book club meeting, a dance class, an event hosted by a UN group and even a music lesson for people learning the tin whistle.
To say this well-known arts centre located a short walk from Queens University provides an impressive range of cultural and educational activities for city residents and visitors alike may be an understatement.

Under the skilled directorship of Keith Acheson as well as staff members such as Peter McCloskey, the centre maintains its position as a popular community venue by reaching out to people of all ages, genders, faiths and nationalities.

The week-long annual Belfast Book Festival, which ends in a few days, is a prime example. Dwarfing many such festivals in other countries for sheer diversity, it comprises around 100 different events and activities, ranging from children’s literature to crime, with multiple author presentations in many genres and lively discussions and debates.

I was delighted to be asked to host a two-hour workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ in which, through a combination of practical writing exercises and a multi-media presentation,

The workshop allowed me to demonstrate the links between rules of journalism and creative writing, as well as the importance of asking questions (thus IQ, meaning ‘I Question’) to develop strong characters, plot-lines and locations, indeed all aspects of a novel or short story.

Using the classic five Ws of journalism, ‘who, what, why, where, when’ plus the all-important sixth ‘W’ – ‘what-if’ – workshop participants, including an experienced teacher, a qualified solicitor and an actor, produced vivid stories based on a recent intriguing newspaper article I found that focused on a mysterious murderer of cats in small-town France. One such story written by one of the participants featured a unique character – an astute detective – a cat.

Other stories developed during the workshop included an intriguing tale of “promises, praise and half-truths” about the shenanigans of a corrupt chemical company whose products caused widespread illness and a tension-filled story about a woman’s momentous decision in the dead of night to follow her husband whom she suspects of being a cat murderer.

Participants also discussed the qualitative difference between open and closed questions for critical information gathering.

I also showed how I utilized my own background experience in print and broadcast journalism in Europe and the US to help me develop scenery, drama and key characters for my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly.’

The Belfast Book Festival continues this weekend. Don’t miss your last chance to enjoy a wealth of interesting talks on the wide world of literature.

Love Boat to Gola Island

Shouts of celebration leaped from Donegal’s Gola Island ferry, ‘The Cricket,’ Sunday afternoon as holiday-makers from places as diverse as Cambridge, Brighton, London, Letterkenny and Belfast raised a warm cheer for newly-engaged couple, Donal McGee (29) from Falcarragh and Rosie O’Brien (28) from Dunfanaghy.

Being an incurable romantic, Donal decided an island was the best place to propose marriage to the woman he loves. But his good intentions almost fell asunder, giving the term ‘missing the boat’ a new meaning.

Having carefully planned his surprise and with beautiful engagement ring safely stowed away in his pocket, Donal – understandably somewhat nervous – called Sabba around 11 in the morning to ask if he was going to Gola.

“I replied I would be within the hour, and looked forward to seeing him,” said Sabba from Dore. “When he didn’t turn up at Magheragallon Pier, I was surprised and headed off with the other people waiting there. An hour later, I got another call from Donal saying he must have missed me. Again, I said I’d be leaving in an hour but again there was no sign of him when I set off. Then I got a third call from him saying he had been waiting for me at the pier but couldn’t see me. Puzzled, I asked where he was. That’s when the riddle was solved. He had been waiting all this time with his girlfriend at the wrong  pier, the one in Bunbeg.”

Gola Island ferry, Love Boat Donegal

A happy Rosie shows off her engagement ring as husband-to-be Donal smiles with contentment.

But love is strong. It conquers all, including time.

Within the hour, Donal arrived at the right place with his fiancée-to-be, poised and ready to carry out his heartfelt wish and make his life-changing decision. The cheers that went up as ‘The Cricket’ plied the waters showed his request was warmly accepted by a contented Rosie.

While it was the first time Donal and Rosie had been to Gola Island, it’s a place they’re never likely to forget.

This was also a first for Captain Sabba and ‘The Cricket.’ Never before have they brought anyone across the waters to be engaged.

“I’m delighted and thrilled and wish Donal and Rosie a long and happy life together,” said the generous captain, granting the young couple free passage – to the shores of happiness.

Now word around the Gaeltacht is that ‘The Cricket’ may soon be renamed – ‘The Love Boat.’

Gola Island is one of the locations chosen as an inspiration for participants at the annual international ‘Ireland Writing Retreat.’ It is also a place that features in recently-published novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking this area of Donegal with the United States.

Whirlwind US ‘Pretty Ugly’ book tour: Tucson, New York, Kansas City, Fredericksburg…

Speaking recently before audiences of high-level academics, medical leaders and journalists and editors in diverse settings across the United States about my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ has been a most exhilarating and gratifying experience.

Even more gratifying was the positive response from Americans about Donegal. Most – including those who had been to Ireland almost every year for decades – had never been to the ‘Forgotten County.’ Hearing about northwest Ireland’s key location role in my novel’s drama, many said they were intrigued to visit the region. One up for literary tourism.

Now back in the quiet, bucolic landscape of Bloody Foreland right behind my house, I find myself remembering many of the enjoyable and challenging moments during those pivotal weeks, from Kansas cornfields to Big Apple skyscrapers, while of course, internally evaluating what I consider I did right and what I could have done better.

And ultimately, thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity to embark on such a whirlwind tour that took me from Tucson, Arizona to Kansas City, Missouri to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with Florida and New York sandwiched between.

In Tucson, I had the privilege to talk before an august gathering of some of the best women doctors in Arizona in an event organized by Dr. Sandra Katz, three-term president of the of the Tucson Society of Women Physicians. Ranging from cardiologists and gynecologists to neurologists and orthopedic surgeons, they were all deeply interested in the potential dangers from nanoparticles in everyday cosmetics and discussed openly during question time and among their peers beside them afterwards over dinner, what health problems such tiny particles could cause within the human body. Most of the doctors were intrigued and delighted that such a real-life, and somewhat controversial medical theme, could be the central thread of a novel.

Dr. Katz thanked me on behalf of the medical society for what she described as “an enlightening and fascinating presentation,” adding, “You had a room full of physicians of every specialty- from family practice, anesthesia, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, general surgery, orthopedics, oncology – and we were all spellbound by the facts you presented about the dangers of toxins in cosmetics.  Hopefully, your book will have an impact on the regulation of the cosmetic industry and will educate the public on the health risks.”

Meanwhile, my talk in Missouri allowed me the chance to re-visit the place where I had lived for ten years working as the medical and science correspondent for the main morning newspaper, The Kansas City Times. Warm memories flooded back of wonderful people I had met, including highly-skilled journalists such as Pulitzer-prize winning Dunstan ‘Dusty’ McNichol (now sadly departed and for whom I offer a dedication in ‘Pretty Ugly’) and Chicago-born Mike Kennedy who still plies his trade skillfully there and who, to me delightful, was able to attend my presentation.

The event itself also give me the chance to honor two other highly-regarded individuals who have had a marked effect on me during my life. The evening took place in the Diastole International Scholar’s Center beside the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, which like Diastole, was established by Dr. E. Grey Dimond, a most astute man that I had the great pleasure of meeting while I was a newly-emigrated, 20-something reporter.  Such was E. Grey’s influence on me as both a close personal friend and an educator, I used his persona for one of the lead characters in my novel – a kind-hearted doctor concerned about the health and well-being of ordinary people.

The second person is Cuban-born Felix Sabates, a leading ophthalmologist who founded the Eye Department at the medical school, the Eye Foundation and also the Sabates Eye Centers. I knew very little about the complex internal workings of that most important of human organs until I interviewed Felix many years ago. The valuable knowledge I gained then came in very useful as I began to write ‘Pretty Ugly’ and decided the eye would be the crucial organ that is badly affected by toxic nanoparticles in cosmetics in a key female character.

Warm thanks must also be given to Nancy Hill, the center’s president, without whose tireless organizational skills the whole evening soiree could not have taken place and to Phil and Kathy Chaney for being such kind and generous hosts.

As for Fredericksburg, full credit there goes to Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, journalist, political commentator, Fulbright professor, author of multiple books and founder of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, who arranged my talk before students, staff and member of the local community. I was delighted that so many of them wanted more details from me after the lecture about this ongoing healthcare controversy and were puzzled and concerned that US politicians hadn’t done more to protect peoples’ health from such potential dangers as nanoparticles about which few clinical efficacy tests have been conducted.

All in all, my three-week US tour was not only a most gratifying one but one that helped me as an author strengthen my skills in presenting my novel in an interesting and attention-grabbing way, a challenging task for any author and one I hope to talk more about at this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ in west Donegal, the very place where much of the action of ‘Pretty Ugly’ happens.

Also, I’m delighted to announce that I have been asked to teach a practical workshop – IQ (I Question) for Creative Writersat this year’s Belfast Book Festival linking techniques in journalism to creative writing, particularly the art of asking questions

I hope to see you there.

Falcarragh parkrun celebrates record-breaking turnout on Easter holiday Saturday

Enjoying the excellent organization and enthusiasm of volunteers, the Falcarragh parkrun continues to go from strength to strength.

Under friendly Spring Easter Saturday sunshine, a whopping 221 runners and walkers – the highest number yet since this particular parkrun was first established just over a year ago – turned out, with 14 terrific volunteers guiding everyone around the course and then serving coffee, tea and fresh baked treats afterwards.

Such was the buoyant sense of community spirit at this, the 67th event, many people ended up beating their own long-time personal bests over the five-kilometer course at the Ballyconnell Estate including Eddie Curran (see his comments in Is Féidir Linn – Donegal success story)

Eddie, who claims to be “55 and getting younger” finished in 22 minutes 44 seconds and is well on target to tackle next month’s Wild Atlantic Adventure Race (WAAR) in good time. Other runners from this morning’s outing are also set to complete the extremely challenging WAAR event alongside him. The event includes a 10K run, a 42.5K cycle, a 2k hike and a 1K kayak.

Well behind ‘Eddie the Eagle’ but still happy, Yours Truly crossed the line – albeit panting for breath and gasping for an cupán tae – in 29 minutes 35 seconds. To finish first in my age category, 99 to 145, was a bonus Easter present, the best performance I’ve had in at least 80 years.

The animated buzz of community spirit was enlivened even more after the run with the long-awaited announcement by Paul McFadden of the winners of the special Easter raffle. Warm smiles marked the faces of those leaving the local Cloughaneely GAA grounds with food hampers and chocolate Easter eggs tucked under their arms. Fair reward for hard physical effort. Volunteer Paul and colleague, Tom Feeney, also presented a special prize, a framed photograph of happy parkrun participants, to 80-years-young grandfather, Packie Doohan from Drumnatinney, just outside Falcarragh, for selling most raffle sheets.

Thanking all the sponsors and the volunteers, Paul also praised the runners and walkers themselves, saying “without you, coming here, week in, week out, there would be no parkrun in Falcarragh, so give yourselves a very big round of applause.”

So, that’s all from me on this extended holiday weekend. I don’t know about you but I’ll be enjoying succulent slow-roasted lamb and an EXTRA BIG chocolate egg.

I wish you a very enjoyable weekend dear reader with your family and friends. As you relax, spare a thought for Ēostre, the ancient Goddess of fertility and light, to whom we owe the honor of this fine holiday.

Is Féidir Linn – Donegal success story

It’s a wonder what focused, positive, down-to-earth community spirit can achieve especially in face of institutional apathy and paralysis – parkrun in Falcarragh in rural west Donegal being a prime example.

For years, the charming, bucolic grounds around the historic Ballyconnell Estate near the town center were left to wither, unused, disused, and pretty much forgotten by most, except for the odd few curious walkers. Talk of a Catholic church-run addiction center died a slow death, as did a thousand and one other ideas.

Then in stepped a group of local volunteers, with a fiery passion, an innovative idea and an unstoppable ‘can-do’ attitude.

Last Saturday morning under Spring sunshine (yes, it did happen in Donegal), I witnessed first-hand what such admirable leaders can achieve when they unite in the right place at the right time: an overwhelming wave of heartfelt enthusiasm from people of all ages, women, men and children, from eight months to eighty years old, all enjoying a self-supporting, self-perpetuating, united community get-together – with individual mental and physical health being the ultimate achievement.

In many ways, the strong-willed volunteers who kick-started the parkrun project – the first in Donegal – echoed the words of that Hawaii-born, basketball-playing, first African-American President, Barack Obama, when he uttered those immortal words outside Trinity College Dublin.

In many ways, perhaps those same volunteers were simply on the same wavelength as Obama when he said – “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

As a result, this happened. And I was proud to be among the very people who made it happen…

parkrun Falcarragh

Yours Truly (second from left) with parkrun Falcarragh volunteers and a Derry-based veteran of parkruns dressed in black, with more than 170 runs under his belt. 

They’ve come in their thousands – chimney-sweeps, farmers, van-drivers, landscape gardeners, shopkeepers, bartenders and students; top-notch athletes racing through five kilometres in under 20 minutes; young mothers pushing prams, septuagenarian grandmothers and grandfathers – all encouraging each other in the interests of better health.

Such has been the overwhelming enthusiasm for Donegal’s first-ever ‘parkrun’ that organisers in Falcarragh are now discussing how their year-old, volunteer-based community effort – which transformed a few acres of unused land tucked between the second and third holes of the local golf club into a scenic forest running circuit that has attracted more users than anyone anticipated – can be further improved and expanded.

parkrun Falcarragh, Ballyconnell Estate

Men and women of all ages take to the pathways – smilingly.

And they’re expecting a strong turnout this Saturday morning at 9.30, a holiday weekend, while preparing for a special ‘Darkness Into Light’ charity event on Saturday, May 6 on behalf of Pieta House, a suicide prevention service.

Paul McFadden, one of the volunteers, said the Falcarragh parkrun project began as a modest ‘Men On The Move’ event supported by Donegal Sports Partnership “where a few local men got together for a short walk and a cup of tea.” The group then contacted Údarás na Gaeltachta, caretakers of the grounds of Ballyconnell Estate, and raised funds through activities such as pub quizzes, as well as a ‘big breakfast’ sponsorship by McClafferty’s Eurospar in Gortahork for 120 runners, to buy construction materials and rent equipment.

parkrun Falcarragh, Sean Hillen journalist

Hard-working volunteers who made parkrun Falcarragh a reality.

Examples of individual generosity included that of Damian O’Donnell who donated 500 pounds sterling to the community cause.

Another volunteer, Tom Feeney, said generous local people also sponsored summer seats. McFadden, Feeney and colleagues met several times with Údarás officials and now community group, Falcarragh Parish Development, has signed a license to operate the parkrun grounds. Such has been the project’s success, RTE recently sent out a team to produce an ‘Operation Transformation’ programme and local doctors are prescribing participation as a ‘green’ remedy for some ailments. There are now hundreds of parkruns worldwide and two more in Donegal – in Letterkenny and Dungloe.

Ballyconnell Estate, parkrun Donegal

Cheering for success.

Hugh McGarvey, 35 from Bun na Leaca, a tour bus driver with John McGinley Coaches, has completed the circuit six or seven times in preparation for the Wild Atlantic Adventure Race (WAAR) in Donegal next month comprising a combination of sports including running, cycling and kayaking. “Parkrun Falcarragh is a very well organized event, one that I enjoy very much. It is even more impressive when you consider it’s an all-voluntary effort,” he said. Displaying strong family support, Hugh’s partner, Siobhain, has also participated, with their 14-month old infant, Maggie Mae.

Packie Doohan, aged 80, from Drumnatinney, just outside Falcarragh, husband of Creeslough woman, Veronica, with 16 grandchildren and retired after 43 years as a linesman for the ESB, has run the five-kilometre circuit 66 times already. “I started at the very beginning. It’s great exercise. It gets you out of bed on a Saturday morning. And you meet lots of people. And I’m among some very pretty ladies. What could be better?”

Also, preparing for WAAR, Falcarragh man, Eddie Curran, 55, said, “The Park Run is one of the most positive things to happen in this wee community. I see people who were walking the route last year, now running it, such has been the effect on everyone’s health and fitness.”

Ballyconnell House, Darkness Into Light

Hand of triumph. One of many happy finishers.

Support for the Falcarragh project has risen dramatically with many local social workers, teachers and medical personnel becoming involved. Carers at the nearby St. Martin’s House bring people with disabilities to the circuit for leisurely outings as does the local branch of Solas, a HSE project designed to engage people involved with the mental health system in outdoor activities.

St. Finian’s School use the route and have conducted a clean-up of the entire area while raising money for costs involved in its upkeep. Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola also regularly use it for training purposes. “Parkrun was developed by the people of the community for the people of the community and like the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ it works because it’s for everyone and it’s free,” said McFadden. “If there is praise to be given it should be to the people who walk, run and turn up every Saturday morning, from Mary who makes the tea to Maureen who processes the results.”

Turn out this Saturday morning at 9.30 and make Falcarragh proud!