Finding Nature Right Before Your Very Eyes

Was asked to write a short essay for ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ on its latest ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ offering 1,000 euro in prize money, 500 words maximum, flash fiction and creative non fiction, deadline December 10, with Nature as a central theme.

Before discussing the important role Nature can play in setting scene, mood and suspense in creative writing, let me confess a couple of things.

First and foremost, I’m married to someone who in a previous not-too-long-ago era might have been accused of witchcraft, perhaps even tied to a stake and burned on a pyre for her beliefs and her potions – basically for her comprehensive understanding of Nature.

My wife is a medical herbalist. Here is a video of her beloved garden.

Secondly, I am one of those lucky people who happens to live in what I modestly describe – to plagiarise the Carlsberg beer commercial (which was probably plagiarised from somewhere else) – as ‘probably the most beautiful place in the world,’ plum on the picturesque ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ on the northwestern coast of Ireland. A place known as ‘the Forgotten Land.’

As such, it is easier for me than for many other writers to access relevant information on Nature either through what I’ll lovingly call ‘pillow talk.’ Or simply by gazing out my front living-room window across to the forest, over the turf bogs, past the mountains and down to the ocean and the basket of islands that nestle snugly quietly below (what, you don’t believe me – well then, have a look at this.

So, integrating Nature into my novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ was less due to the power of my imagination than the power of my senses, mainly seeing, hearing and smelling. And to a great extent, feeling, using my heart-brain.

That being so, I’d like to share with you some of the instances in which I relied on Nature to help me encourage a certain mood or expectation in my readers.

I hope this will encourage you to enter this edition of the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA). It’s a lovely autumn writing challenge. And remember: deadline is coming soon, midnight, Thursday, December 10th.

CURIOSITY AND INTRIGUE

“Ernie turned, moving upwind towards the abandoned houses, the bog moss soft underfoot, brown water oozing out from under his heavy boots with every step. He felt strange, as if he was trespassing on sacred ground, walking a place he didn’t belong to anymore. In the distance, he could see fog approaching, a fluffy gray pillow rolling gently along the sky. He watched it creep silently landward. It was as if the floating mists carried wisps of memory curled in their spidery nets. As if ghosts were coming ashore. Out at sea, in the caesura between waves, an eerie lull lurked. He remembered the wailing winds and the loneliness. He shrugged off the thought. He wouldn’t stay long. A quick check things were fine. He’d promised. Then he’d be gone. He took a folded sheet of paper from his coat and opened it. Two lists were typed neatly on it, one on each side. He scanned the first – ‘Arthropoda – cockroaches, millipedes, termites, earwigs, crab-spiders, grasshoppers, dragonflies.’ He flipped the paper over. ‘Lower Invertebrates – ribbon worms, mussels, anemones, hydra, jellyfish, slugs, limpets, cockles, moss animals, abalone.’

Above him lay a menacing sky. He had to be up at the house before dark. He’d promised Patricia. He fingered the keys in his pocket. He felt trusted but an inexplicable sense of apprehension rushed over him, of events out of his control. Secrets were hard to keep around here.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

SUSPENSE/FEAR OF THE UNKNOWN

“Below, a band of mist stretched across her vision etched with tiny lights blinking like stars indicating the whereabouts of scattered homes among the hills. The silhouetted slopes of Errigal and Muckish mountains loomed around her, their respective pyramid and bread-loaf shapes barely recognizable in the gloom. Beyond lay the endless sea, its constant ebb and flow the sound of a slumbering giant snoring softly, each rhythmic breath, she imagined, blowing a ripple of surf along the surface of the water. The dark humps of Gabhla, Inis Oirthir and Inis Meain islands lay in a disheveled cluster, mismatched jigsaw pieces, their jagged edges like fingers reaching valiantly out to each other.

Trees swayed beside her, their branches waving to and fro maniacally as if delivering a dire warning, ‘Stop, go no further, go back, go back…before…’ She felt goose pimples form on her arms and started to shiver, the damp seeming to enter her very bones. She felt a sudden urge to rush back to the house but when she turned the house had melted into the fog, which had grown denser and was billowing all around her. It seemed as if she had stepped into a limbo, a non-man’s land between the living and the dead. She stopped nervously in her tracks listening, sensing a presence nearby. But there was only the groan of the wind, the smack of raindrops splashing against leaves. She started walking again but felt ever more disoriented in the fog and was forced to stop every few minutes to avoid sliding into the deep ditch that ran along the side of the road.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

IMPENDING DOOM/TRAGEDY

“He raised his hand slowly to the thing stretched across his cheek. It felt spongy, string-like. He brushed it off then tried moving his other hand but jolts of excruciating pain shot through him almost making him black out. With sheer willpower he remained conscious staring into the gloom. Within minutes, his eyes began to decipher vague shapes and forms. Stones, rocks, weeds. A desolate terrain bereft of bushes or trees. To his fevered mind, it seemed a futuristic, post-Armageddon world. His eyes fell upon the spongy substance, recognizing it for what it was – a clump of sphagnum moss.

Then realization dawned: he was lying in the middle of a bog. He could feel it under him, soft as if alive, clasping him closer. Thinking back as to how he had got here his mind conjured up a series of fast-moving images as if on a film spool. A woman’s sad face; raised voices; a slammed door; heavy rain; tendrils of fog; screeching brakes; the world turning upside down; pain. Then nothing. Feelings rushed at him snarling like rabid dogs foaming at the mouth – guilt, fear, loneliness, an abject sense of failure.

Feeling a tugging sensation from behind, he turned his head slightly. A thick swathe of mud had encased itself around his legs, just below his waist. It clung to him tenaciously like wet cement. Then he felt the tug again. Was there a reptile below the surface pulling at the cloth of his pants? The sinking sensation made him stiffen but he couldn’t muster the strength to pull himself out. The more movement he made, the more pain he endured, the more he was being sucked in. The viscous mud itself was dragging him slowly downwards into it.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

ACTION

“Yanking open the door, he strode purposefully outside, the sudden chill making him shiver.

The storm had gotten worse, matching his mood. Clouds as black as ink. Rain pelting down as if heavens’ drains had opened. Fog as thick as cement draped the coastline, blotting out buildings, fields, islands. He could scarcely see his car standing in the driveway. A blustery wind howled around him, plastering his hair in a wet mess against his forehead. Impatient to put miles between him and this brooding place, he twisted the ignition key sharply, stamping down hard on the pedal. The tires squealed, tossing up gravel. He didn’t care. There wasn’t too much he cared for anymore. Past memories, present frustrations, they made for a potent cocktail. He careened out of the driveway, the car slipping and sliding on the muddy ground. Then he was on the steep slope leading down between the bogs, Patricia fading into his past with each passing second.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

INTROSPECTION/GUILT

“A line of hefty oak trees bordered the road, a battalion of soldiers keeping intruders out of the ancient turf bogs beyond, but these gradually gave way in the glare of the headlights to straggly bushes like war-weary remnants of a bedraggled army in retreat, then to stunted patches of grass and reed. Sturdy drywalls that had defied a thousand storms and the bone-chilling winds sweeping across the Atlantic seemed to retreat now in the glare of his headlight, leaving behind a sullen emptiness, a bitter, forlorn landscape that matched his mood.

Questions rushed at him, tormenting him, reminding him of feelings he thought he’d buried deep inside. It was as if his heart had been ripped from his chest and tossed raw and bleeding into the cold, wetlands around him where it lay inert and shapeless. The mask of hope he’d dared to wear upon entering her home had been torn asunder and cast into the billowing waves below. And the awful, gut-wrenching truth that whatever he’d tried, whatever efforts he’d made, he’d failed, rushed at him, drowning him, sucking his emotions in a downward spiral. Then a sudden realization dawned. It wasn’t Patricia he was hearing. It was the ghost of Maria. Taunting him, blaming him, accusing him of not caring enough to believe in anything. Or was it just himself, refusing to forgive himself for not being there for her? And now, here he was. Running away yet again.”

excerpt from ‘Pretty Ugly

Biden Versus Trump – a heavyweight battle for democracy and leadership

Expect ‘O’Biden’s Bistro and Pub’ and ‘Folksy Joe’s Café’ to open soon in Mayo and Louth, with both Irish counties vying for the ultimate prize as the US President-Elect’s favourite ancestral home.

But don’t expect an end to the disputed US elections any time soon – at least, that’s what my favorite American TV news channel, CNN, is telling me.

I’ve never been one for daytime television, but I have to admit, I’ve been pretty much glued to the box over the last week. One of the reasons has been a heightened sense of professional responsibility. My local radio station, Highland, here in northwestern Ireland, asked me to offer my insights into what is happening across the Pond so I needed to stock up on info for my 15-minute stints with friendly host Greg Hughes.

Here’s my latest thoughts on Monday morning’s show –

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. If my sense of professional responsibility is so keen, why didn’t I watch Fox News? Suffice it to say, while I may not be the most upright of citizens, hardly the salt of the earth type (though my dearest wife might disagree, I hope), I do have some shreds of dignity left, even when no-one’s looking. And CNN is so colourful, dynamic and ‘with it.’ In culinary terms, it makes our paltry Irish national TV channel, RTE, seem as flouncy as a flat soufflé, with presenters this side of the Atlantic, like Miriam O’Callaghan, paid twice as much as their more talented counterparts across the Atlantic.

Anyway, simply put, Donald Trump doesn’t like losing, indeed is a pretty sore loser, and he won’t stop until he’s scoured every avenue to turn last week’s election result on its head, including a slew of lawsuits. Don’t be surprised if it becomes a re-run of the controversial saga of ‘Bush V Gore’ twenty years ago.

Reminds me of one of the many election jokes I’ve been sent. No, not the one – what does the end of World War Two and end of the US elections have in common? Both ended with Fascists in a bunker.

The one I mean is the one below.

While Trump won’t win back the White House, (he needs to roll back tens of thousands of votes in several different states to do so), his misguided efforts are rousing the ire of Republican voters – no doubt part of his political strategy ahead of the two all-important Senate run-off elections in Georgia on January 5.

Whichever party wins those key seats will shape the future of the US and to a certain extent the EU and Ireland. If Democrats win, the party will control all three power centres – White House, House of Representatives and Senate – and can pass legislation easily, including strengthening environmental protection measures and Obamacare, as well as re-joining organisations such as the World Health Organisation. Not to mention dealing with the frightening spectre of racism in the US.

If Republicans win, they’ll embark on a strategic policy of obstructionism that will frustrate President-Elect Joe Biden, just as it did Barack Obama for the last six years of his two-term presidency.

While Biden has called for “unity and an end to partisanship and demonization,” his calls have gone unheeded. Backed by Mitch McConnell, Republican Senate majority leader, Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State and Bill Barr, Attorney General, who told the Justice Department to investigate alleged voting fraud, partisanship has reared its ugly head even higher.

Biden nor his staff can even access their new home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue nor highly-classified intelligence documents that normally losing presidents hand over as part of a smooth transition. The General Administration Agency just won’t hand over the keys.

This leaves the US in a state of semi-paralysis.

With no peaceful transition of power for the foreseeable future, the consequences are enormous. Failure to recognise the result of the Presidential election stops, or at the very least, slows down all legislative action. This bodes badly for the US as the country grapples with over 100,000 new coronavirus cases every day, 10 million cases already with a quarter of a million dead, and a struggling economy.

But there’s worse to come. A Trump lame duck firing spree has begun with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper the first to see the back door. Rumor has it the CIA and FBI directors are next. Trump has 60 days or so to install ‘yes’ people, to help him in his ludicrous mission to overturn the election. This will destabilize the country.

I’m sure Vladimir Putin is saying a decade of the Rosary in gratitude, rubbing his hands with glee. Or, more likely, checking the progress of his Internet hackers.

But there is some good news for Ireland. One of the reasons, I’m hoisting my favorite cocktail here.

As Joe Biden’s ancestors are from here, he will favor us not just with a visit or two but he’ll help protect the Good Friday Peace Agreement and use Ireland as a conduit to Brussels, with obvious political benefits, not to mention strong prestige.

An added bonus for Donegal, a pristine place from where I write this, is that Philadelphia Congressman Brendan Boyle, whose father, Frank, emigrated from Glencolmcille, less than an hour from my house, could be promoted as advisor to Biden’s White House.

And, of course, there’s always the new O’Biden pubs, clubs and cafes in Mayo and Louth to look forward to – when that pesky coronavirus goes away and allows us, that is.

Writer receives heartfelt news. On her hospital bed

One minute she’s updating friends on Facebook about preparations for a dream 50-day hiking and camping trip around Donegal, the next lying in a hospital bed having metal stents inserted in her arteries to help her heart do what it’s supposed to do – keep her alive.

That’s the transformative experience musician and teacher, Donna Harkin, has undergone over the last few days at two separate hospitals either end of Ireland as her life turned topsy-turvy after suddenly feeling sick last week.

Donna Harkin musician donegal, wild atlantic writing awards

Donna, a model creative writer hard at work.

That’s why it was such a pleasure for me to call her yesterday in the hospital and tell her a short story she wrote had been selected by international judges among the top ten out of several hundred by writers worldwide including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

Sadly, Donna, 50, was forced to cancel her longed-for trip but the good news that she was the only Donegal person to achieve this literary goal in the inaugural ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ hosted by ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ helped lift her spirits.

Donna Harkin, donegal musicians, ireland writing retreat

Help! I’m being attacked from behind by an Alien.

“My head was in a bad place when I got the good news but it couldn’t have come at a better time, I’m delighted,” said the friendly Letterkenny ‘Mistress of the Button Box’ who has produced a CD entitled, Tell It Like It Is.

Donna’s achievement is all the greater considering the award’s distinguished panel of judges included Dublin-based crime writer Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, founder of writing.ie and publishing consultancy Inkwell Group, as well as Irish and American authors and writing tutors such as Anthony J. Quinn, who has nine books to his name, John DeDakis, formerly with CNN in Washington, Danny Morrison, Bradley Harper, Anne O’Reilly and myself.

irish writers, writers in ireland

Donna Harkin – Mistress of Music.

In her story, ‘To Be A Writer,’ submitted for the creative nonfiction category of the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ (WAWA), Donna describes in a witty way her struggle to overcome what every writer has to overcome – procrastination.  

The story begins, ‘To be a writer, one must write, and therein lays the problem.’ Then she proceeds to tell how she ‘paints the kitchen, plants the garden, re-tiles the downstairs bathroom, rearranges the furniture in the living room and watches six seasons of ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ all to avoid sitting down at her laptop.

Donna Harkin donegal, wild atlantic writing awards finalists

Ok, I’m ready. Now show me where the bank is.

In the morning, I avoid eye contact with the door that leads to my creation station and it sticks like a splinter in my mind as I move through the day,’ she continues. ‘I grieve for words I haven’t written before I even write them, and in some reality, this realisation is enough. Opening the word document, I gently turn down the volume on scorn and rancour, and getting out of my own way I remove my I and write – simply because I must.’

“I’ve been writing for my own joy and amusement for about fifteen years,” said Donna, who writes mostly prose poetry but has been experimenting with other forms. “I love the way words can be used to create visceral experiences in the reader.”

Donna Harkin, Ian Smith, Stephen Campbell, donegal musicians

(l to r) Guitarist-singer-songwriter Ian Smith, box player Donna and fiddle maestro, Steven Campbell enjoy a relaxing moment together.

Thank you Donna for your good humor and your immense creativity. The world needs more spirited souls like you, especially in the particularly strange times we all live in right now.

For anyone interested in reading Donna’s original and delightfully quirky views on everyday life, do yourself a favour and check out her Facebook. It’ll make even Donegal’s dreariest rainy day seem that little bit brighter. 

If you are interested in creative writing, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ will host a second awards competition over the next few months. For information become a Friend. It’s free.

New writing competition – almost 3,000 euro worth of awards

If you like writing, please take note – a new competition in northwestern Ireland offers around 3,000 euro worth of awards, for just 500 words.

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing many of us to stay home, Donegal-based ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ at which I am co-founder and tutor, decided this was a good time to launch its first-ever competition, with key prizes for winners.

Welcome to the inaugural ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ (WAWA), a competition that we hope will provide challenge, diversion and enjoyment for you as a wordsmith in the strange times we live in right now.

After much brainstorming, it was decided the competition should reflect the nature of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ itself and what it has focused on over the last five years of operation.

The conclusion: not one, but two, separate competitions: fiction and creative nonfiction.

woman in gray sweater sitting on wooden floor typing on portable computer

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

Flash Fiction Award

The fiction writing competition is open to all genres – sci-fi, crime, romance, horror, humor, thriller, mystery, whatever tickles you and your Muse’s fancy. And it is in the form of flash fiction, a field growing rapidly in popularity.

To add spice to the idea, there is a single theme.

After many hours of debate, we realised the perfect one was staring us right in the face.

Writing itself.

In other words, upon reading competition entries, judges are left in no doubt that a key element in your story is linked in some way to writing itself. For example, one of the characters, human or non-human, could be a writer. Or a piece of writing could play a key role in the story. Let your imagination be your guide.

All you have to do is pen a flash fiction story in any style or genre focusing on the act of writing, in any way, shape or form, up to a maximum of 500 words.

PRIZE

The winning entry will receive 500 euro in cash.

And more.

An added bonus of 990 euro in value in the form of free participation* – including all excursions, by land and sea, food and drinks tastings, concerts and dance performances, and all writing workshops and author talks – at one of our retreats of your choice, either this autumn in either Paris or Donegal, or one of our retreats next year.

In effect, a total prize equal to almost 1,500 euro.

Plus, with the writer’s permission, the winning entry will be published on the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ website, with short bio and photograph. The writer retains all copyright to her or his work.

sad elderly man writing on brown notebook

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Creative Nonfiction Award

As for our creative nonfiction competition, we offer you a similar challenge.

To write a story of not more than 500 words on any subject – whether it be in the form of memoir, profile, literary journalism, personal essay, travel (and remember, award-winning travel articles don’t have to be about exotic destinations, it could be about your own hometown), food, or any creative nonfiction category you prefer.

PRIZE

The winner will receive 500 euro in cash.

And more.

An added bonus of 990 euro in value in the form of free participation* – including all excursions, by land and sea, food and drinks tastings, concerts and dance performances, and all writing workshops and author talks – at one of our retreats of your choice, either this autumn in either Paris or Donegal, or one of our retreats next year.

In effect, a total prize equal to almost 1,500 euro.

Again, with the writer’s permission, the winning entry will be published on the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ website, with short bio and photograph. The writer retains all copyrights to her or his work.

Grab this golden opportunity to unleash your creative abilities during this period of restrictive ‘social distancing’ and emerge a happy winner.

Enter now the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.

*See full terms and conditions.

New Irish Government was decided BEFORE the elections

Weeks before the recent Irish election was even announced and long before the first votes were cast, representatives of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael met behind closed doors to cut a deal, with one solitary aim in mind – to keep Sinn Fein out of government.

At the same time, generously funded by major corporations, banks and developers, highly-paid public relations specialists in the pockets of these two same political parties were instructed to create what’s known as a ‘news camouflage.’

To avoid any fall-out from someone learning about these secret meetings, they spun a story through a web of overly acquiescent Irish media that these two political parties would instead discuss forming a coalition with other minor parties.

irish elections, elections in ireland

Coalition terms were discussed on behalf of these two men by their representatives BEFORE the Irish election was even announced.

It is a well-planned and co-ordinated charade to create a facade of democratic fairness.

Among those most wanting Sinn Fein side-lined at all costs was Jim O’Callaghan, wealthy Dublin barrister, senior counsel and Fianna Fail’s justice minister, a man who only managed to get elected on the eighth (8th) count, beaten by Sinn Fein candidate, Chris Andrews.

O’Callaghan is brother of millionairess and RTE presenter Miriam O’Callaghan who infamously grilled Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, on a pre-election ‘Leader’s TV Debate’ on – guess what – justice issues.

In doing so, she used an archaic 13-year-old audio report excavated from deep within the archives of the BBC as a weapon. It may come as no surprise to many whom Miriam’s husband, Steve, works for.

Yes, you guessed right. The BBC.

The O’Callaghans, like many wealthy people in Ireland today, would be required to pay a little more in taxes under a Sinn Fein led government, with loose tax avoidance loopholes used by many rich people closed. These taxes would help close the gap between rich and poor and ease the housing, health and education crises mainly affecting working-class people.

Reflecting growing popular interest in the economic inequalities in Ireland, a blog I wrote before the elections on the O’Callaghans attracted a massive 20,348 views from readers in just one week. More than 2,000 readers every single day.

 That being said, here is my prediction.

Within the next two weeks – after demonising Sinn Fein as a ‘cult’ through a slick and expensive media campaign (thus demonising half a million Irish people who voted for that party), Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will announce a new Centre Right government.

The word ‘change’ will be sprinkled liberally throughout their joint manifesto and media interviews and they will announce they ‘have put aside their differences —- in the interests of the country,’ thus positioning themselves as some kind of ‘national saviours.’ 

Sinn Fein President, Mary Lou McDonald, won more votes for Prime Minister than both existing PM Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin.

I predict this development with sadness, but with confidence gleaned from 40 years of journalism experience in Ireland, the US and mainland Europe. 

And on this election issue, I’ve got things right so far.

I predicted Sinn Fein would get more than 30 seats.

I predicted the five politicians who would be elected in my own constituency of Donegal

I predicted Pat the Cope Gallagher, a Fianna Fail member of parliament for 40 years, a man with whom I had a public run-in would lose his seat, with many people telling me such a prediction was like Manchester United being relegated from the Premiership.

With the Cheltenham races coming up, perhaps I should make a few big bets for I even predicted the following two weeks ago in my blog –

“… on voting day tomorrow (Saturday), will the final outcome be any different from that over the last 100 years? Sadly, regardless of Sinn Fein receiving a well-deserved boost, hopefully above the 30 mark, I don’t think so.

If past results are anything to go by, we will remain with a Centre Right majority that kowtows to wealthy individuals, major corporations, banks, vulture funds and major land developers offering tax breaks and other incentives. A coalition that steadfastly fails to rectify the growing, severe inequalities in social life here.”

The truth is simple. Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin wants to be Taoiseach, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar still wants to be in Government. And they both need to pay back their rich sponsors, both individuals and corporations.

Such was the huge turnout for this week’s Sinn Fein public meeting at Dublin’s Liberty Hall, site of many famous events hosted by socialist leaders such as 1916 Revolution leader James Connolly, people were addressed both inside and outside the Hall.

As they prepare to announce their Government, it is important to point out the following for context: 

*Sinn Fein elected 37 TD’s, out of 42 candidates;

*10 Sinn Fein candidates topped the polls;

*27 Sinn Fein candidates were elected in the first count.

*Sinn Fein doubled their vote in Dublin;

*Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald won more votes last week for Prime Minister than both the present PM Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin; 

*Sinn Fein’s Dublin West candidate, Paul Donnelly, elected in the first count, beat Leo Varadkar, who only got elected in the fifth count, the first time in Irish history a Prime Minister has lost his own constituency;

* Sinn Fein candidates in my constituency, Donegal, were both elected on first counts – Pearse Doherty with 21,044 votes, 8,000 over the quota, and Pádraig MacLochlainn, with 13,891 votes, a massive 45% of the total vote;

*Sinn Fein’s candidate in Clare Violet-Anne Wynne who received just 385 in the local elections, won over 10,000 votes in the national ones;

*Sinn Fein candidate Johnny Mythen won in Wexford, the first time in 100 years the party has won a seat there;

*Sinn Fein won 45,614 votes, a mere 2.5% of the total in the 1997 election. In 2020, that transformed into 535,595 or 24.5%;

Is it any wonder the O’Callaghan’s and wealthy people like them are fearful.

And so sadly it seems are the Irish media which, displaying its Right-wing bias, has failed miserably to fulfil its role as the Fourth Estate, to serve and protect the public interest.

It refused to report on the emerging banking crisis under Fianna Fail’s watch that left Ireland bankrupt and at the mercy of the IMF and it is now refusing to report the real reasons Sinn Fein is being excluded from Government.

Gifted Donegal women host music concert for worthy cause

Death is rarely asked to sing.

But a group of immensely talented women Friday night at Amharclann theatre in the Donegal Gaeltacht invited it to join them – transforming it into a celebration of life, community spirit and artistic triumph.

Devoted to Fiona Carr, popular singer and dancer who fell victim to cancer at the young age of 30 and others like her who bid their last farewells under tender care at the Donegal Hospice, local performers known as the ‘Wild Atlantic Women’ gathered together for a heartfelt musical tribute.

wild atlantic women concert, live music donegal, donegal women singers

And what an uplifting evening it turned out to be.

Regardless of your favorite musical genre, this special concert seemed to have it all – soul and folk, traditional and country, the popular and the newly-penned.

Lead organiser, teacher-multi-instrumentalist-singer-cum-songwriter Brí (Brighdin) Carr with many local female musicians have already raised more than 15,000 euro for Donegal Hospice and the Oncology Department in Letterkenny University Hospital through such events and a double CD.

Few better ways to open such a concert than this admirable group of women together in harmony led by Emma Ní Fhioruisce, Maria McCormack and Bernie Doherty on the haunting folk ballad ‘Caledonia, the unofficial anthem of Scotland written by singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean.

And few better ways to end it than their touching interpretation of ‘Grace,’ written by Frank and Seán O’Meara, telling the tragic story of Grace Gifford who married Irish rebel leader Joseph Mary Plunkett, in Dublin’s notorious Kilmainham Gaol shortly before his execution by firing squad in 1916.

Between these songs, an appreciative audience enjoyed two hours of inspiring entertainment by women, young and old, who displayed remarkable vocal range and musical prowess, drawing a standing ovation for their efforts.

With so many highlights, it’s impossible to describe them all, but here’s a flavour of the evening –

Noeleen Ní Cholla, Gaoth Dobhair-based award-winning sean nos singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, whose angelic voice can be heard on her album ‘An Mhaighdean Mara,’ performed pitch-perfect the Irish-language version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ the ever-popular song written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. How she managed to reach those high notes is beyond me.

 

Glasgow-born singer, guitarist and lawyer, Jacqui Sharkey, with three albums already to her name, sang ‘Never Be The Sun’ by Donagh Long from Cork. Recorded with her friend and fellow singer Caitlin Murtagh from county Down, and produced by Pat Gallagher of ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ fame who also plays guitar backing. This song will be officially released on February 28 and a video aired on Sky TV this week.

On keyboards, Brí Carr, who founded Blue Ribbon, a performing arts group for children, sang a song she wrote, simply entitled ‘Home,’ as well as a duet with Claire Ward called ‘Second Violin,’ by Irish band, Bagatelle, one Fiona Carr herself recorded aged 14 for Blue Ribbon.

‘H.o.m.e,’ Brí’s next album will be released in May. Her song, ‘Árainn Mhór,’ was the first iTunes chart song as Gaeilge in the Top 200 in Ireland, peaking at number 3. Bubbly Brí, who keeps a ‘big blue book’ of songs she has composed over the past 25 years, also participated in ‘South Of The Border’ festival in Ardara this past weekend. Her first album, ‘Full Circle/Rotha an tSaoil,’ is on iTunes and Spotify. Bernie Doherty sang a beautiful rendition of the wistful ballad, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ by English folk-rock singer Sandy Denny. Bernie is now involved in the formation of the ‘Choir of Ages’ its members ranging in age from 5 to 80.

Accomplished pianist and keyboardist, Kelli Nic Ruaidhri,  from Fanad who teaches in Ballinamore and supported many of the songs on the evening, also sang ‘Sanctuary,’ which she translated into ‘Beidh mé Ann.’

 

Maria Mc Cormack’s contributed to the evening’s success with a song about her own personal experience of lost love. Entitled ‘Stratford to Stansted,’ about someone moving away to London for work, it will feature on her second album, her first being, ‘I Choose To Love.’ Aside from gigs this year in Slane (Purple Sessions), Drogheda (Fireside Festival), and even a St. Patrick’s Day festival in Germany, Maria will also play at the Letterkenny Jazz and Blues Festival on July 4th Maria has set up a fundit page to help support her upcoming recording.

Looking like a sultry Marilyn Monroe in black silk on stage, Rachel Akkoç, actress, singer and member of the Letterkenny Musical Society, transported listeners to a smoky uptown New York nightclub with her soft, seductive interpretation of soul song ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ from the musical ‘Hairspray.’

Highlighting the difficulty of ‘letting go,’ and having special meaning for me as my mother died last week, Clare Ward sang ‘Reflections’ in remembrance of her friend Manus Kelly, killed tragically last year in the Donegal International Car Rally. Claire’s album is called ‘Bite the Bullet,’ an eclectic mix of folk, Celtic and easy rock music. Recent solo recordings include ‘Eye of the Storm,’ and ‘Remember,’ about a friend’s journey with Alzheimer’s.

Last but certainly not least were what could best be described as ‘the Little (Wild Atlantic) Women’ – girls, aged six and upwards, namely Caela Carr, Siofra Harvey, Clodagh Mooney, Mia Clarke, and Hannah NicPhaidín, all award-winning singers and musicians. They drew enthusiastic applause from the audience with a rousing medley that included ‘I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me,’ ‘Rós na Seirce,’ “Christmas Letter,’ ‘Fear a’Bhata,’ ‘Angels Among Us,’ ‘Liom Féin’ and finally, ‘Home To Donegal.’

Other excellent singers included –

Trish Rodgers, whose albums include ‘This Is My Island,’ ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘The Gold Collection’ – singing, ‘Donal Óg.’

Deirdre Bonner, whose albums include ‘Remember When’ and ‘Atlantic Bridges’ – singing, ‘Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies.’

Maria McCool, whose albums include ‘Ailleog, ‘Doagh and ‘Shenandoah’ – singing ‘Teddy O’Neill.’

Gearóidín Breathnach, a leading sean-nós singer, whose album is ‘Ar Fhoscadh na gCnoc‘ – singing ‘Anseo I lár an ghleanna.’

and the velvety-voiced Emma Ní fhioruisce from Gaoth Dobhair – singing ‘Ar Ais go Gaoth Dobhair.’

 

Kudos to Áine Ní Churrain (Barrscéalta Raidio na Gaeltachta) and Karen Gallinagh (Speech and Drama Federation Ireland) who acted as excellent MCs and to Serenity Hair & Beauty Salon Gweedore which donated a 200 euro voucher to a lucky raffle winner.

Appreciation poured in for the artists –

A great night had by all at the Valentine’s night concert by the ‘Wild Atlantic Women.’ We had a fantastic time. Such a talented group of singers and for such a worthy cause as the Donegal Hospice.” Simon Smith, Letterkenny, professor of nursing.

wild atlantic women, live music donegal,

Friends obviously having a good time at Amharclann.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Wild Atlantic Women’ concert in the Amharclann, Gaoth Dobhair. It was an eclectic mix of musical genres, excellent song-writing and inventive reworking of older songs. A great night’s entertainment.” David McNally, librarian and researcher.

A great mix of talents, and all age groups, both languages, and the modern and the traditional. Agus neart craic! I particularly enjoyed the translated songs such as Maria Nic Cumhaill’s ‘Grace’ and Noleen Ní Cholla’s ‘Thar an Tuar Ceatha’(Somewhere Over The Rainbow). Given the night that was in it, we had love-songs and songs of unrequited love such as the haunting and ancient Dónal Óg, Thíos i Lár a’Ghleanna and a new song about love lost to modern day emigration.
Well done ‘Young and Tender Ladies’ of Donegal (one of ballads sung on the night) for sharing St Valentine’s evening and helping an important cause. Having the CD, I can now enjoy it all again.
Reuben Ó Conluain, retired teacher Dún Laoghaire and Machaire Rabhartaigh

Sabba Curran, gola boat ferry, gola island ferry

Sabba and Patricia Curran getting settled for an evening of music and song.

A wonderful night of entertainment, so many talented singers and musicians on stage at one time. Truly memorable.” Sabba Curran, Captain of ‘The Cricket,’ Gola Island ferryboat.

My predictions: Irish election Saturday

My observations of us Irish since returning to live in my native country 10 years ago is that far from the reputation we have in the eyes of other nationalities as an almost swashbuckling tribe of adventurers, we are in fact the most boring, banal and predictable of people when it comes to voting habits.

We, sheep-like, have voted into government mainly one of only two parties since the nation was founded a century ago, our warped sense of ‘change’ being simply to switch from Fianna Fail to Fine Gael and vice-versa now and then.

In doing so, we fail to realize – or worse, realize but lack the courage to accept – that there is simply no difference between these two parties.

What greater evidence do we need of this, if we needed more, than the last five years of Government: these two parties having been in what is strangely termed a ‘confidence and supply’ relationship. In effect, a coalition government under a different guise.

elections 2020 ireland, vote in 2020 ireland,

My advice: take a chance on change. It’s long past time and no less than what you deserve.

Consequently, shocking ongoing crises in key sectors such as health, housing and social welfare have occurred under the watch of both parties. They are both equally guilty of neglect and disservice to the people of Ireland. And Fianna Fail bankrupted Ireland not so long ago, leaving teachers, nurses and others on the scrap heap, and some of its TDs then are running again, including its leader.

So, on voting day tomorrow (Saturday), will the final outcome be any different from that over the last 100 years?

Sadly, regardless of Sinn Fein receiving a well-deserved boost, hopefully above the 30 mark,  I don’t think so.

If past result are anything to go by, we will remain with a Centre Right majority that kowtows to wealthy individuals, major corporations, banks, vulture funds and major land developers offering tax breaks and other incentives. A coalition that steadfastly fails to rectify the growing, severe inequalities in social life here.

Through the election campaign, I continue to be deeply disillusioned by the media in Ireland and their bias. For example, do many people really believe there was a dead-heat between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, 24-24 percent, in the Red C poll for the Business Post? What decent, well-organized poll ends up in a draw? It is not even mathematically possible as you poll an odd number of people, not an even number, to make sure there is an outright winner.

A caveat to this is that my wife, Columbia from Romania, who will, I believe like many emigrants, vote Sinn Fein, received a call from Red C. But when she said she lived in Donegal, they refused to take her details, telling her they had enough people from Donegal.

Surprising to say the least, as Red C had boasted its poll was a ‘random’ one. This simple incident proves it was far, far from that. It is no coincidence that, with Sinn Fein poised through Pearse Doherty and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn to attract more votes than any other party in Donegal, Red C pollsters were told not to take anyone from Donegal in the so-called ‘random’ poll.

I feel Sinn Fein was probably the winner in that poll but a national business newspaper handing this particular party the lead in such a crucial election would have been tantamount to treachery in the eyes of the newspaper’s owners and its well-to-do readers.

vote in 2020 ireland, irish elections 2020

Let a woman take the lead. (image from first-ever Irish elections)

Or take The Irish Times, for whom I worked as a foreign correspondent. At least, they had the decency to portray their poll results honestly. Sinn Fein as outright winners.

But then a strange thing happened, the newspaper started spinning the numbers in an effort to reduce the prestigious victory of Sinn Fein, mixing in other numbers to the point of confusion.

There was even a bizarre moment during its live election debate from Trinity College earlier this week for subscribers when event host, Hugh Linehan, the newspaper’s arts and culture editor, said the poll might have created ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy’ and encouraged other journalistic colleagues on the panel to agree with him, which political correspondent, Pat Leahy (formerly of the Business Post) gleefully did.

How can a poll be ‘a self-fulfilling prophecy’? It’s as if a poll is an unseen power outside in the ether controlling the minds of people. Simply ludicrous. A completely irrational attempt at spin.

Keep in mind also that election podcasts by The Irish Times since the campaign began featured four men in key intro voiceover sound-bites, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin, another Fine Gaeler and an Independent. No mention of Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald, who won the newspaper’s own poll as most popular person for Taoiseach and Sinn Fein as most popular party.

Not until I pointed this out to the newspaper in several e-mails did they decide to include Mary Lou’s voice.

Beware of Subliminal Election Messages

PREDICTIONS

My predictions for the five-seater in Donegal where I live: two Sinn Fein, one Fine Gael, one Fianna Fail and one Independent.

Pearse Doherty and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn of Sinn Fein and Joe McHugh of Fine Gael will be the first past the post.

Then there’ll be a battle for the last two seats with Fianna Fail’s Charlie McConalogue sweating it out next to get over the line.

Then the Battle Royale for the final seat – between Fianna Fail’s Pat the Cope Gallagher and hard-working Independent, Thomas Pringle.

vote sinn fein, elections ireland

It’ll be a rainy day for some candidates.

It’s past time multi-pensioned Pat, and his brand of old-style politics, retired from the ring. While once a shoo-in, he’s now panic canvassing door-to-door, but I’m hoping Pringle, younger, more progressive, more passionate, will receive his just reward.

Whether you agree with me or not, don’t waste your right to express your opinion. Call me a dreamer, but I still believe voting has as much meaning as we give it, so use it.

Perhaps this will turn out to be ‘the election of the young,’ the one that changes the usual political landscape of Ireland.

Miriam O’Callaghan: the discriminating face of RTE bias?

Miriam O’Callaghan, the wealthy Irish RTE TV presenter (average total annual earnings estimated at over 500,000 euro) came under the hammer today after her appalling hosting of the ‘Leaders Debate’ Tuesday evening – and rightly so.

Her bias in favour of parties such as Fianna Fail, and her severe anti-Sinn Fein stand, is well-known. After all, her brother, Jim, is the Fianna Fail spokesperson on justice.

TV presenter Miriam O’Callaghan’s ‘fitness for office’ is being called into question. Even her co-presenter on the ‘Leaders Debate’ Tuesday evening, David McCullough, seems aghast by her blatant on-air bias.

It’s no wonder then that Miriam gave Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin an easy ride during the state-owned, 90-minute TV debate than the other two leaders – Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald.

And why she spent so much time criticising Mary Lou McDonald on justice issues. Even her co-presenter, David McCullough, seems shocked by her blatant bias as seen by his expression in the photo above.

For Miriam, I daresay, knows full well not only could her brother’s political career be in danger but also her own massive pay and expenses contract with RTE, a publicly-owned national station, if Sinn Fein gets into power after Saturday’s voting.

I’m referring not just about her huge salary, but also the lucrative contracts production company, Mint Productions, once owned by Miriam and her husband, Steve Carson, who himself worked for RTE, gained from RTE, thus providing even more generous amounts of income and well-paid jobs for their children.

And with Carson now working for the BBC, who could possibly have obtained in such a timely manner a verbatim transcript of an interview with Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy on Paul Quinn from deep within the archives of the BBC 13 years ago to help Miriam grill Mary Lou with? Even more, who says that is a key issue in this national election, anyhow?

The entire set-up Tuesday evening certainly seems like a complete family affair. Starring the O’Callaghans.

My own run-in with Miriam took place in a television studio when as a journalist I was invited to attend a conference.

Miriam started the day’s proceedings with a few generalities on media and later I asked her about the generous contracts, Mint Productions, gained from RTE.

“Do you or your husband not think these might be a conflict of interest as you worked for RTE in a senior position, as did he?” I asked her.

Her answer: “I don’t know anything about those things. My husband and I don’t discuss professional matters.”

Mary Lou McDonald, elections 2020

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald out canvassing with friends and supporters.

Tuesday evening’s unprofessional performance by Miriam, I’m afraid, was par for the course.

Four years ago, I wrote this blog on a ‘Election Leaders Debate’ that took place then, at which O’Callaghan was again less than shy about showing her bias.

‘Time for change – real lasting change – time to grow up, we Irish have prevaricated enough’

By the way, here’s a very short excerpt of Miriam talking to ‘Her’ magazine some time ago: The presenter is one of RTÉ’s biggest earners, raking in €300,000 per year but she said money is not a draw for her. “It’s not about the money, it really isn’t. 

My fervent hope is that the Irish electorate has learned over the last few years that certain influential, well-to-do people with much to lose if the old political duality changes will not hesitate to use whatever means necessary to prevent that happening.

Be careful whom you choose as your preferences on Saturday (and put it in pen, not pencil – just in case).

UPDATE: Payback Time

Following Tuesday’s election, debate Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin wasn’t slow to return the favor to RTE’s Miriam O’Callaghan

Martin promises a household media charge to boost RTÉ

 

Festive tribute to the creative, artistic people of Donegal

Getting kissing techniques just right for on-stage credibility, takes practice.

Ask director-cum-teacher Máire Ioannidis.

She’s taught loads of people how to do it, her latest challenge being in the recent production of the musical ‘Hairspray’ by students at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola at Amharclann theatre in Bunbeg recently.

“Where do you put your hands, your arms,” she explained to me during a conversation after the Donegal Gaeltacht’s school’s triumphant, four-show run attended by more than a thousand people. “What side do turn your head to kiss, if you both turn the same way heads, noses may bump together, hardly an authentic and romantic sight to behold.”

That was only one of many challenges facing Máire and her team in the ambitious production. Capacity crowds and standing ovations are testament to the fact that they got them all right, including directing sixty-six teenagers.

Tickets for all productions were like gold-dust, with friendly Amharclann general manager, Manus O’Domhnaill, saying the shows provided a record attendance for the historic theatre, which was established in 1961 and reopened after major renovation more than a year ago.

Speaking about ‘Hairspray,’ Máire said proudly, “This particular musical holds a special place in my heart, a story about an amazing opportunity that turns a vision into reality. And I thoroughly enjoyed working with our talented students who showed commitment, energy and enthusiasm throughout. Unlocking their confidence, seeing them grow and perform on stage each night along with watching their joyous celebrations and a shared team attitude of ‘we did it!’ at the end of each show made this whole experience very worthwhile.”

‘Hairspray’ is an American musical with score by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman based on John Waters’ 1988 film. Winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical, it focuses on efforts by a dance-loving teenager to bring racial integration to a popular TV show in 1960s Baltimore.

Having gone to watch several productions of ‘Hairspray,’ in other theaters, Máire and her team then created several unique extras to their production. These included performers surprising audiences by entering from different doorways at Amharclann and a scene in which a chorus of singers walk through the aisles holding candles singing, then sitting on the floor among the audience.

Set changes were accomplished professionally with the aid of lighting, for example, from an ordinary living-room scene complete with ironing-board and TV to that of a prison cell, in which the lead performer, Róisín Doogan, playing Tracy Turnblad, has been incarcerated.

From the get-go, the opening song and dance routine ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ this production leaped along in vibrant bounds with other complex choreography and songs including a powerful renditions of ‘Big, Blond and Beautiful,’ ‘Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now’ and ‘It Takes Two’ spiced with comedy and sentiment.

“PCC’s production of ‘Hairspray’ was full of energy from beginning to end,” said Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde, a well-known actor who was in charge of lighting for this show. “Their singing was lively and it was excellently choreographed. It was well cast and they all portrayed their character effortlessly. Their drive and enthusiasm was palpable, students and teachers alike. “

Máire herself is no stranger to the arts, being a member of local acting group, Aisteori Ghaoth Dobhair, and an accomplished flute player. She also directed a school production of ‘Grease’ for two consecutive years. Of Gweedorean-Greek parentage, Máire has worked at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola for the last four years teaching a mix of Irish language, IT and business.

Aside from the versatile student actors and singers, full credit goes to crew, some of whom were also students, and senior production members including producer Donna Coll; choral director, Siún McDermott-Lyng; choreographer, Maureen Byrne; audio Noel Boylan; set construction, Joe Coll, Christopher Symth and Manus Gallagher; costumes, Mairead Harkin McGee and Siobhan Doogan. School principal, Maeve Sweeney and her deputy, Donna McFadden, said they were “over the moon about the show’s success.” Profits went towards various school expenses.

Coming up soon at Amharclann is its annual pantomime, this one entitled, ‘Leipreachán an Phota Mhóir.’ With Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde involved, both on and off-stage, it’s bound to be a beauty. Don’t miss it! January 24-26 and January 30 to February 1.

The Amharclann and student actors and production crew at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola are only the tip of the iceberg of creativity throughout the Donegal Gaeltacht. Throw a stone and you’re likely to hit a painter, a musician, a sculptor, a yoga teacher, a hypnotherapist, a novelist, a poet, a psychotherapist on the head.

Consider the wondrous wealth of talent coming up beginning tomorrow at the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair, the Gweedore Winter School beginning tomorrow (Friday) –  http://scoilgheimhridh.com/

Also, please read previous blog on this site on an issue vitally important for everyone living in Donegal.

And check out ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ https://www.irelandwritingretreat.com/ and my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal and the United States https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pretty-Ugly-Sean-Hillen/dp/1523361158