Feeling the pulse of the community

They say a picture tells a thousand words so, following this credo, here are some for you to peruse –

They’re from last Friday evening’s funky ‘Dracula & Friends’ event at the Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair in Bunbeg, Donegal, enjoyed by all who attended.

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The event featured a funny skit, a Houdini-like escape from a coffin by a vampire, played most credibly by talented actor, Tomás Mac Giolla Bhríde; a comedy drama entitled ‘He Is/He Isn’t’ adapted by Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde and performed brilliantly by members of Aisteoirí Ghaoth Dobhair; and an on-screen multi-media presentation by yours truly entitled ‘Dracula: Legend Versus Truth’ based on my memoir ‘Digging for Dracula,’ with selected movie clips.

There were also make-up artists, a lobby transformed into a vampire’s den, as well as vampire-themed snacks and drinks.

The entire evening was devoted to two important causes – fund-raising for the community theatre itself, a key element of entertainment and education for the entire Gaeltacht region, and beyond, and promotion of the fine work being done by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service.

Preparations by everyone, the on-stage performers, and the hard-working off-stage staff, including chairperson Pól Mac Cumhaill and theatre manager, Manus O’Domhnaill, were superb.

It is important we all realize that the very life-blood (pardon the pun) of community theatre is ourselves, those living within easy reach of the venue.

It is fine for former Minister of the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh, in face of stern opposition by some civil servants, to push through almost half a million euro for the resurrection of a theatre that lay dead for ten years. But for it to be sustainable in the long-run, people must recognize its value and attend, not one but as many events there as possible when possible.

Donegal is often accused of always having a ‘hand out’ for grants. Whether that is true or not depends on who you talk to and what statistics are presented. There is no doubt, however, that Donegal, especially the western part of the county, is largely ignored.

Political truth means any area with fewer voters will receive less attention. And less funding.

That means, for good or ill, we simply have to do it ourselves. To pull together.

Sustainability cannot rely simply on public money – and rightly so. Ultimately, a community must take care of itself. And there are many fine examples of that around Donegal. 

In essence, true sustainability means that venues, community centres or otherwise, must operate as if they were in the private sector. Basically, that they have products to sell, whether they be classes, concerts or cinema showings, and that they promote them in the right manner in the right place at the right price.

Tickets for ‘Dracula & Friends’ were priced at 8 euro for children and 12 for adults, with hefty discounts for parents with children. Is that too much to ask to support a local community theatre and promote blood donations, especially considering many of us may need both of them to flourish in mind and body? 

Fang-tastic show Friday at Amharclann Gaoth Dobhair starring Dracula

With the spine-chilling howls of Halloween approaching and the door between the living and the dead opening ever so slightly, I’m reminded of midnight hours cutting my teeth on research for a proposed book later published under the title ‘DIGGING FOR DRACULA.

This week I’m delighted to be involved in the organisation of what should be an intriguing, titillating,  even frightening, cabaret this Friday evening at the Amharclann theatre in Bunbeg starting at 7.30 pm, enticingly entitled Dracula & Friends.’

Dracula event Donegal, Sean Hillen author Digging for Dracula, Amharclan theater Gweedore, halloween show gweedore

The event, complete with coffins and cobwebs in the lobby, tasty vampire foods and drinks and make-up artists ready to transform people into Immortals, has already garnered immense publicity, not just locally in the Donegal News (above) and Donegal Democrat, but also national attention, on RTE1 and in ‘The Irish Times.’

And the ghoulish fun is all in aid of good causes – fund-raising for the community theatre itself and promotion of the excellent work being done by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service.

My main role is hosting an on-screen, multi-media presentation called ‘Dracula: Legend versus Truth’ based on my memoir ‘Digging for Dracula’ about my search for the elusive Long-Toothed Count from the castles of Transylvania to Bram Stoker’s home city, Dublin, to Hollywood USA.

My presentation will also include short film clips illustrating how the famous vampire has gone from near obscurity to movie stardom, from the silent era to the present day.

But first some background…

I had been living in Romania for several years, wearing two hats – professor of journalism at the University of Bucharest and foreign correspondent for The Times – when a fax came through from the news desk in London (those were the days before emails).

Halloween gift, book in a coffin

Funky Christmas gift for vampire-lovers! A book-in-a-coffin.

Under the headline ‘First-ever World Congress of Dracula’ were details of an upcoming, week long international event focusing on those strange Long-Toothed creatures that simply refuse to die.

Being from Ireland, the homeland of the famous vampire’s maker, Bram Stoker, I was intrigued, so much so I promptly set off on an adventure – to find out why his classic character created more than a century ago could attract such global fame.

Whitch trial, Transylvania vampires stories

Daily Telegraph, London. I ended up marrying this sexy witch. It was the only way to save her from being burned at the stake. Or worse.

That adventure brought me through the breathtaking landscapes of Transylvania to the princely lair of Vlad the Impaler within the craggy peaks of the Carpathian Mountains; to a seat beside Bram on a cliff-edge in the eastern port of Whitby, England, a place pivotal in the unfolding vampire drama; and to ‘Tinseltown’ Hollywood where Stoker’s creation won immortality on stage and screen.

Along the way, I visited the Mummies of Dublin; the ‘Agony Aunt’ of vampire lovers in New York; voodoo artists in New Orleans; a Los Angeles graveyard filled with larger than life characters; and the world’s largest garlic festival.

On a search for literary truths and the meanings of centuries-old myths, I learned that Celticism might just explain the elusive meaning of the word ‘Dracula’ – ‘droch fhola’ (pronounced ‘druc ula’) meaning ‘bad blood’ in Gaeilge, the native language of Ireland.

Forrest Ackerman science fiction, Los Angeles science fiction museum

Hollywood, California. Forrest Ackerman (left), known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction,’ famous collector of vampire books and movie memorabilia, shows me how vampires trap their prey.

As for the ‘First–ever World Congress of Dracula,’ it attracted many idiosyncratic people from all walks of life – professors, psychologists, writers, historians and teachers from many countries including Japan, France, Canada, Germany and the USA.

Some had their teeth artificially sharpened. Some slept in coffins. One man offered 10,000 dollars for anyone who could bring him a vampire, having arranged doctors in California to verify the find.

Digging for Dracula book, Vincent Hilliard Los Banos

Vincent Hillyer (left) offered 10,000 dollars to anyone who’d bring him a vampire. He lined up some doctors to verify the find. Here he poses in his home in Los Banos California, with Columbia, a Transylvanian visitor.

Those were just some of my experiences. So grasp your garlic and join me on a journey. Prepare to enter the ‘Lovable House of Horror’ and the ‘Land of the Living Dead.’

Bzzz… our saviours, the bees, fly to Donegal this weekend

In a previous life in America, landscape designer Anthony Gallagher took care of gangster Al Capone’s former hideaway estate in New Jersey – after the gangster, known as Scarface, was long gone.

Now the friendly Donegal man is one of the most respected beekeepers in Ireland, raising around one million bees a year plus about 100 all-important virgin queens at ‘An Earagail Apiary’ in the picturesque village of Dunlewey in the shadow of legendary Errigal Mountain.

Dunlewey honey, Anthony Gallagher

Father and son, Anthony and John, stand proudly together in their apiary in the shadow of Errigal Mountain in Donegal, northwestern Ireland.

Such is his devotion to his hobby, one that dates back to ancient Egypt and Greece, Anthony (54) is also a member of The Federation of Irish Beekeepers’ Associations, and secretary of ‘Three Rivers Beekeepers Association,’ a group with about 110 members spread across Donegal and over the border area into Derry.

Anthony and his colleagues are organising the ‘North West Honey Show and Conference’ starting this Sunday at 1pm at the CPI Centre in Castlefinn in Donegal.

Not only will there be expert speakers including Suzie Hill, Jim Loughrey and Lyndon Wortley, but also a panel of honey judges including Tom Canning, Hugh McBride and Lorraine, together with honey show manager, Gary McConnell. There will also be a wide range of products on display, from beeswax candles to honey cakes and biscuits, as well as artistic exhibits and miscellaneous classes ranging from photography to needlecraft, painting and pottery.

Anthony himself became enamoured of the flying insects after learning about their complex communities accidently while attending workshops in apple grafting in Leitrim some years ago when a specialist talked about the subject.

An Earagail Apiary, donegal honey, three rivers beekeepers

Anthony checks all is well with his flying friends.

“Beekeeping should be for everyone,” an enthusiastic Anthony told me as he and his teenage son, John (17), showed me around their aviary recently. “It’s not rocket science and the huge benefit is that you have your own steady supply of honey which has a multitude of health benefits and a shelf life of up to five years or so.”

Anthony nurtures between 20 and 30 hives every year, with all-year six breeding stations, and hopes to double that number next year. While there are over 16,000 known species of bees, the species Anthony breeds is known as the black bee. It can adapt best to Donegal’s long winters and its dampness and lack of sunshine.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers worldwide are analysing the beneficial properties of honey. It has already been proven that this sweet everyday substance is rich in antioxidants, helps lower blood pressure, improves cholesterol levels and lower triglycerides, a risk factor for heart disease. It can also suppress coughs in children. Topical honey treatments have also been used to heal wounds and burns.

sean hillen journalist, donegal honey, beekeepers donegal, donegal beekeepers,

Learning from the Master.

As a result, even though the law in certain countries, including Ireland, restricts publicising the medical benefits honey offers, peoples’ interest in beekeeping has soared.

“Interest has gone through the roof,” says Anthony, who only started beekeeping five years ago. “And you only need three things – shelter, water and sunshine.” This accounts for the fact that Anthony now raises around 250,000 bees every year for other people’s colonies.

Anthony’s aviary is on a 5-acre stretch of lands but he hopes to expand to seven next year.

“The bees feed on a range of trees and plants, they pull sap from everything,” he said. “Willow, pine, heather, Japanese knotweed, hawthorn, Himalayan balsam, phycia, bramble, windbushes and blackberry, to name but a few.”

An Earagail Apiary, anthony gallagher honey, donegal honey

Well-protected, just in case, John lifts the lid on things.

Anthony, who works six days a week from April to July, the busiest time of the year for beekeepers, was also involved with ‘Three Rivers’ in a special environmental awareness day in January in Glenveagh linked to beekeeping. “Illustrating the increasing level of interest, more than three hundred people came to that event,” he said proudly. “Among our speakers were master beekeeper, Mark Wallace, university professor Doctor Saorla Kavanagh, who has conducted well-respected research in heather honey, Duncan Stewart, environmentalist and TV personality, as well as Joanne Butler from OURganic Gardens, Gortahork, Juanita Browne from Pollinator Ireland and Cepa Giblin, a wildlife film maker.”

Anthony’s teenage son, John, also heavily involved in the family operation, with marketing his main focus, said, “We’re selling honey directly from our home now, but hope to sell from some shops in the area next year.” The Gallaghers also make their own mead.

john gallagher donegal honey, three rivers beekeepers, donegal beekeepers

Satisfied faces – Anthony and John with what is considered among the best honey in Ireland.

Interestingly, while the work done by bees is crucial for Man and the Earth’s very survival, and because their mission is such hard work, the lifespan of a female bee is only between four and five months.

An average hive has about 40 to 60,000 bees with the all-important queen bee capable of laying around two thousand eggs per day. All worker bees are female while the males (drones) are only used for mating. The bees will forage up to three miles from the hive and the queen will fly up to seven miles to mate.

So, for an intriguing outing, head to Castlefinn this Sunday. With an entry fee of just five (5) euro, it’s a gift as sweet as pure honey.

NB – There’s another vital reason why it’s worth going to Castlefinn tomorrow, it could be your last chance to see these important insects up-close. Bees, now considered the most important living beings on Earth, have entered into extinction risk – https://science-andinfo.blogspot.com/2019/07/the-bee-is-declared-most-important.html?m=1

Gaoth Dobhair aim for historic glory

Irish football madness is fast approaching.

‪Within a few hours, sporting history could be written in the record books.

gweedore gaa, gweedore football club

Donegal’s Gaoth Dobhair club – the Leicester City of the GAA – could be reveling in celebrations and on their way to their first-ever All-Ireland senior club final at Dublin’s national stadium on St. Patrick’s Day.

gweedore wins game gaa, sean hillen writer

Following their thrilling, nerve-tingling extra-time victory a while a back over Monaghan champions Scotstown to claim their Ulster club championship, I wrote this fun article for the ‘Donegal News.’

Gaoth Dobhair – Leicester City of the GAA

If the boys from Ireland’s most northerly Gaeltacht win again this afternoon (KO 1.30 pm), against defending champions Corofin of Galway, goodness knows what I may write.

gweedore winners of ulster championship

But I’ll certainly be eating my fair share of scones.

Did you get the job?

Many people have asked me this question repeatedly over the last few months.

The job referred to being the first-ever Tourism Officer for the Donegal Gaeltacht which I applied for.

The answer is, sadly: no.

I put my best foot forward, especially after a bewildering, indeed intriguing, start to the whole saga.

Realizing I had a chance to contribute to local economic development using my 30 years of experience in international journalism, public relations and tourism, I checked the website of Donegal County Council, the main funder of the job.

The application form was there – but only in Irish.

While having ‘A’ level Irish, I’m not fluent enough to complete such an important document accurately. So, I contacted the council asking for the English-language version.

That’s when the saga began.

Gaeltacht tourism officer, tourism in donegal gaeltacht

Donegal gaeltacht tourism, visit gaeltacht donegal, gaeltacht tourism officer

I called back and informed the lady that, as Ireland has two official languages, the post must be advertised in both Irish and English (even EU documents are translated in both languages).

I then phoned my local councillor, Sinn Fein’s John Sheamais O’Fhearraigh. He called the county council offices.

Please check your e-mails, Sean,” he said, calling me back.

I already have,” I replied. “There’s one from the council saying there’s no English-language application form.”

Check again.”

I did so.

To my great surprise, there was another e-mail from the council. From a different lady to the first one I had spoken to, perhaps her supervisor.

Surprise, surprise, it contained the supposedly non-existing English-language application form.

tourism in donegal gaeltacht, visit donegal gaeltacht

But a short time later, I received yet another e-mail – from the same lady, this time recalling the previous e-mail. Had someone in the council administration pressured her to stop English-language application forms being sent in?

donegal county council, jobs at donegal county council,

By now,  utterly confused – and suspicious – I decide to ignore the ‘recall’ and send in the English-language application form anyway.

An inside-job, attempts at cronyism? Bureaucratic mix-up?

Both are inexcusable for both harm development of the Gaeltacht where I am proud to live.

What really matters is that with no English-language application form on the council website and different Donegal council staff members saying the application must be completed as Gaeilge, people not fluent in Irish but perhaps well-qualified for the job were being overlooked (some might say, discriminated against).

Ultimately, the Tourism Officer’s main role is to re-brand and promote the Gaeltacht to attract more tourists, both international and Irish, to help increase business for local hotels, cafes, bars and Airbnb and bed-and-breakfast operations so they can hire more people. And to help the Irish-language stay alive by keeping people here rather than forcing them to seek their livelihoods elsewhere. The main target therefore is not the small minority of Irish-language speakers, most of whom already know this part of Donegal.

For such a key role then, is fluency in the Irish language the most important criteria?

What is even more bewildering is that while I received my rejection letter on August 16, the winning candidate was not named until recently. Why did it take the selection committee almost a full six months to decide, when they already knew way back last summer whom they didn’t want as all interview took place during the same time period?

I congratulate Máire ní Fhearraigh as the new Gaeltacht Tourism Officer. She will need everyone’s help and support to make tourism in the Gaeltacht a resounding success.

Gaoth Dobhair – Leicester City of the GAA

It’s not just the historic football win, brilliant though it is. It’s the wonderful lifting of community spirit it will create.”

Such were the words of Bun na Leaca based Sinn Fein county councilor John Sheamais O’Fearraigh after Gaoth Dobhair’s exciting, extra-time Ulster club football final win over Monaghan’s Scotstown this week.

And events since have proved him right.

Gweedore win in Irish Examiner

Upon returning to Donegal with the coveted trophy, the entire squad have generously given of their free time to share their celebrations, bringing the silver cup to all corners of the community, including the Ionad Lae Gaoth Dobhair local daycare centre, Siopa Mhicí, the ‘Happy Days’ store, Teach Mhicí, and local schools and medical centers.

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Seniors at Ionad Lae Gaoth Dobhair Daycare Centre share celebrations with their gallant footballing heroes.

Support for the team has been terrific, and rising, with the GAA club brimming with celebrations until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

Thousands of people, both here and abroad in other countries, who couldn’t attend the tight, nail-biting game, watched and listened to it on TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta, Highland Radio. Or any other media outlet they could find on the dial.

Take Sabba Curran, for example.

Crossing the Irish Sea didn’t stop the long-distance, truck-driving Dore man – captain of ‘The Cricket,’ the ferryboat that brings people back and forth from Gola Island – from tuning in.

I was lying in my lorry on the top deck of the Belfast-Cairnryan ferry and had the radio on RnaG in one hand and my app on Highland Radio on the other,” he said. “There was a five second delay so that added even more to the tension.  What a game, eh. Brilliant. The victory has done wonders for the morale of the parish. Everyone’s behind them. They deserve every credit for what they’ve achieved.”

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(photos – left to right) Danielle Ni Earlaigh (Sraith Mairtin), Brendan O’Baoill (Machaire Chlochair), Pat McGarvey (Glassagh), Myra Siddique (Bun na Leaca), Brendan O’Baoill, Jimmy Mhici O’Gallachoir (Sraith Mairtin) and John Ivors (Cnoc Fola) – all helping celebrate historic Gaoth Dobhair’s footballing victory.

Meanwhile, Brendan O’Baoill, whose son, Daire, the hat-trick hero against Crossmaglen in the semi-final, has been doing an outstanding job all week photographing members of the community, be they old, young, male or female, hoisting the cup high. I met him at several places and I could see plainly he was clearly delighted and proud. And rightly so.

Monday morning all talk at the check-out counters at Siopa Mhicí in Gaoth Dobhair – little wonder – focused on THE sporting event.

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Siopa Mhicí manager, Brendan Gallagher with members of his staff stand proudly with the victorious Gaoth Dobhair football players. Family trio. (l to r) Joe, who travelled all the way from New York for the Ulster final, with Paul and Ciara McFadden.

As blonde-haired Jackie Harris, the helpful check-out lady, listened intently, Fanny McGee, a gray-haired woman spoke as expertly as Pat Spillane, Joe Brolly, or any of the other well-paid RTE pundits. “The going was tough, there was no bounce in the ball at all,’ she said, reliving key moments of the game. A man beside her chimed in enthusiastically, “It was nail-biting stuff alright. Some people haven’t recovered yet.”

Baker Miriam Campbell from Meenaniller was checking her freshly-baked scones. Mid-morning and most of the daily supply of 170-plus coconut, raisin, blueberry, raspberry and white chocolate ones gone. “Good absorption material for the liquid celebrations last night at the club,” someone somewhere quipped. Colleague, Anne-Marie McGee from Arduns, glanced over, smiling.

John Sheamais O’Fearraigh Sinn Fein

Councillor John Sheamais O’Fhearraigh from Bun na Leaca shows his support for his local team, proudly wearing the Gaoth Dobhair jersey.

Suddenly, quiet banter rose to a lively buzz. Eyes turned to the front door. Standing there, dressed casually, looking relaxed, were the footballing heroes of Gaoth Dobhair, their prized trophy, the Ulster club championship, held proudly aloft – in Donegal for the first time in 43 years. Quiet-spoken, good-humoured, jostling each other. You’d never have believed they’d battled the day before through a pulsating, extra-time victory in wretched, wet, muddy conditions.

Word spread quickly. A table was set up for the silverware, three gleaming silver trophies – the Ulster Senior Club Cup, the Donegal Division One and the Championship. Mobile phones popped out of pockets. Selfies, family groups, a free-for-all. Players, customers, staff, intermingling, all in rousing celebratory mood.

Store manager, Brendan Gallagher, whose family-owned supermarket is a lynchpin in the community, summed up everyone’s feelings, “It’s a fantastic achievement for all the players, coaches and backroom management. They’ve put a lot of pride back in the parish winning in such a brilliant way. We’re all now hoping we’ll be enjoying a wonderful occasion at Croke Park on Saint Patrick’s Day for the All-Ireland final.

gweedore wins game gaa, sean hillen writer

If football followers be truthful, many wouldn’t have given the team a hope in hell last year of making it to the Ulster final. “But isn’t it great when a team defies the odds, especially when it’s your home team?” someone chipped in. “Gaoth Dobhair’s the Leicester City of the GAA.”

Gearoid McFadden, owner-manager of Teac Jack in Glassagh, was doubly delighted. Two of his bartenders, Seaghan Ferry and Gavin McBride, are in the squad, with the former scoring the winning point. “Absolutely delighted,” he said. “The bar was packed, a huge buzz about the place. It was a riveting game, very tense. This team’s got huge potential.

Máire Graham, 60, from Corveen, recently elected chairperson of Gaoth Dobhair club, one of the few women in such a position within the GAA, said the team’s “incredible performance has brought tremendous positivity to our club in all the multi-faceted activities we do in promoting traditional Irish culture, from football, hurling, camogie, handball and rounders to singing, set dancing, recitation, drama and of, course, the Irish language itself.”

gweedore winners of ulster championship

Can Gaoth Dobhair now become the first-ever Donegal club team to reach the All-Ireland final? “It won’t be for lack of trying,” says county councillor, Sinn Fein’s John Sheamais O’Fearraigh who lives in Bun na Leaca and has been a football coach for many years. “Come mid-February there’ll be a lot of voices hoarse from shouting for them. What has been achieved already is a credit to everyone, manager, coaches and players. There has been a huge drought over the last few years in terms of championships and league wins, so all these people are true history-makers.”

The team’s most devoted young trio –  Paul Joe McFadden, Declan Sailor and Eamon Sweeney – all three an integral part of backroom support, don’t doubt the team will be number one in the nation on March 17. Their motto, ‘We’ll be there!’

And so will many, many more. Cheering wildly. And maybe eating scones by the thousand afterwards.

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