Donegal: take the cue from Catalonia

So – fed up with Spain’s lack of support – Catalonia has voted for independence.

And even if it doesn’t achieve that, it will at the very least get a much better economic deal from lawmakers in Madrid.

Meanwhile in Ireland, Donegal is shown this week once again why it’s still – even more than ever – the ‘Forgotten County.’

A glossy, 151-page recently-released ‘National Development Framework’ report states categorically that spending much effort on helping the county and the Northwest in general will “demand some level of constraint on Dublin,” adding, that this “could result in diminishing the scale of overall national development.”

Not one single urban center earmarked for future development in the plan lies anywhere near Donegal. And there’s no mention of linking Letterkenny, Derry and Strabane in a much-heralded economic hub.

Is it not time to shove off the shackles and go the way of Catalonia?

Is it not time to revisit my idea from several years ago as published in a series of full-page articles in the ‘Donegal News’ for the establishment of an Independent Republic of Donegal?

Sounds like the work of a depraved mind? Of a man standing too long in the rain?

I ask you: hold off on that view until you’ve first read the articles:

Democratic Republic of Donegal

Donegal: the ‘Remembered County’

Then see if perhaps you don’t agree that it might actually be a well-considered and pragmatic approach to solving all of Donegal’s long-time economic and employment woes.

Indeed, rapidly – though not quite overnight – it perhaps might even transform the county of Donegal into the richest per capita region in the entire nation, north and south.

Fond reading.

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Clannad create colorful tapestry of Celtic music

With suitable Pagan-purple stage backdrop curtains and lead singer and harpist Máire (Moya) Brennan dressed Priestess-like in long black silk dress and green lace shawl with bracelet and amulet glimmering in the footlights, Druidic-sounding Celtic group Clannad returned to their old hunting grounds this weekend to rapturous applause from packed audiences at the Donegal Gaeltacht’s Amharclann theater.

It has been 41 years since the Gaoth Dobhair band last played at this historic theater in the heart of Ireland’s northwest Irish speaking region – a venue opened only seven months ago after being closed for many years – and they proudly announced upon stepping on stage, “We’re so very glad to be back where it all started.”

Amharclann theater, Gweedore theater

Packed audience at Amharclann prepare for an evening of high-level entertainment.

Moya, together with her brother, Pól, an impressive multi-instrumentalist; a second brother, Ciarán, on double bass and synthesizer; her uncle Noel on guitar and synthesizer; her daughter, Aisling, and guitar, bouzouki and bodhrán, and son Paul on cajon (a native Peruvian instrument) and bodhrán, captivated their packed audience with a unique blend of ethereal Celtic music with modern New Age eclectic fusions and intricate harmonies that have made them famous far beyond Irish shores.

Such was the high quality of the weekend’s two performances, well-known cultural enthusiast and Irish-language teacher, Reuben Ó Conluain, attended both shows. When we happened to meet for post-show drinks afterwards at Leo’s Tavern in Meenaleck, home pub of Clannad and their parents, Reuben, who was involved in designing the new Junior Cycle Specification for Irish, introduced to post-primary schools last August and has also brought over hundreds of Irish musicians to the annual Festival Interceltique in Lorient, Brittany, told me enthusiastically, “I went to the first performance on Friday and it was just so good, I had to go again on Saturday.”

Another welcome audience member was Linda Ervine from Belfast, sister-in-law of the late unionist politician David Ervine. Linda introduced ‘teanga Gaeilge’ to the capital by setting up Irish language classes in loyalist parts of east Belfast.

Kudos to acting theater director, Pól McCool, a teacher at Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair (Gweedore Community School), and all the volunteers and board members at Amharclann for making the first seven months of the theater so successful, with such diverse performances such as Laurence McKeown writer of play ‘Green & Blue’ has led an intriguing life and ‘AON’ – an exhilarating dance performance that teases out meanings.

For those not overly familiar with Clannad, especially people from other countries – the Saturday’s audience reflected a multi-national flavor, with Germans, Dutch, English, Americans and Romanians in attendance – special images and text on the screen in the theater’s café explained the group’s evolution from a local singing family to mega-stars.

Clannad live in concert, Moya Brennan in concert, Donegal musicians

Pagan-colors for a leading Druidic Celtic music group.

In short, as explained there, Clannad won a competition at a Letterkenny folk festival in 1973, with ‘Liza,’ a song written by Pádraig Duggan (uncle of Moya and siblings who sadly died last year), who described it as “a pop song in Gaelic that I wrote sitting on the rooftop of Leo’s Tavern.” The prize was a record deal with Philips, and thus the band turned professional.

With strong musical influences from such well-known groups of the time as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, Clannad translated pop songs as Gaeilge, a pioneering accomplishment back then. In 1982, a major breakthrough occurred when the group’s album ‘Magical Ring’ was released with the song ‘Theme from Harry’s Game’ on it, written by Pól for the Yorkshire Television series ‘Harry’s Game,’ set during the Northern Ireland conflict. The song reached Nr. 5 in the UK singles chart and Nr. 2 in Ireland. The group’s later 1985 album ‘Macalla’ included a duet between Moya and Bono of U2 on ‘In A Lifetime.’ In 1997, their ‘Landmarks’ album won them a Grammy.

Saturday’s musical evening, wonderfully hosted by Áine Ní Churráin, kicked-off with an excellent 30-minute performance from ‘home-grown’ guitarist-singer-songwriter, Emma Ní Fhíoruisce, one of a number of young local people taught their musical prowess by Caitlin and PJ Joe Jack Curran at An Crann Óg community center in Bunbeg, and now working on her debut album.

Emma’s impressive repertoire ranged from a doleful ‘as Gaeilge’ rendition of a classic Bob Dylan song about (naturally) heartbreak; a composition of her own – in effect, a musical eulogy – on the death of a close friend and its effect on her; a mellifluous ballad about her beloved native Gaoth Dobhair; and an ‘as Gaeilge’ version of the Marvin Gaye hit ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine.’ The fact that Emma had audience members clicking their fingers and joining in on the choruses attest to her on-stage talent.

Stroking the harp strings beautifully, Moya introduced the first Clannad song of the evening – ‘Crann Úll’ (Apple Tree), from the group’s fifth album of the same name, released in 1980, about the ‘Tree of Life’ and the need for people to support each other. Other traditional tunes followed including the waulking song ‘Mòrag’s na hóro èile.’ Such songs were chanted by people as they beat newly woven tweed rhythmically against a table or similar surface to soften it. A waulking session often begins with slow-paced songs, with the tempo increasing as the cloth becomes softer.

Two songs from Tory Island enlivened the proceedings even further, ‘Na Buachaillí Alainn’ (The Beautiful Boys), with an angelic harp intro, and the tribute to drinking ‘Níl ‘na Lá’ (It’s Not Day Yet).

Not all songs were ‘as Gaeilge,’ with a melodic rendering of the musical version of the immortal W.B. Yeats poem ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’ and the naughty, mischievous ‘Two Sisters,’ about the unforeseen complications of wayward love, including death by hanging and being boiled in lead.

Clannad in Gweedore, Clannad music, live music in Donegal

Multi-talented musical trio.

While Moya held center stage through her mesmerizing voice (no more so than on the haunting ‘I Will Find You’ which featured in the movie ‘Last Of The Mohicans’) and her delicate harpist skills, each member of the group played their role skillfully in the success of the evening. Aside from being a lively on-stage presence, Pól seems at ease on any instrument – picking up tin whistle, guitar, bodhrán, synthesizer and flute at will, not to mention having a fine singing voice.

Being a Pagan-like evening of music, ‘Newgrange,’ a song about the ancient Druidic site in County Meath, written by Ciarán and released in 1982 on the album ‘Magical Ring’ and in 1983 as a single, seemed more than appropriate. The quiet guitarist’s musical flare also shone through in his take on ‘Liza,’ the encore, written by the late Padraig. Launching into the melody with verve and looking all the while like a cross between an aging Elvis, Johnny Cash and Van Morrison, with a Mr. Pickwick hairstyle, Ciarán rocked the venue with his nifty country lickin’ guitar work.

‘Téir Abhaile Riú’ (Go Home With You) provided a grand sweeping finale to a most agreeable harmonious evening. With two days of packed audiences, some from different countries, to say Clannad will be welcomed back soon to their old hunting grounds is a severe understatement.

Are yoga, thai chai and reiki dreaded Druidic distractions? Is the anti-cervical cancer vaccine, HPV, the Devil’s poison?

Glancing through last Friday’s edition of the ‘Donegal News,’ I was dazzled by the sheer creativity of people from Ireland, (see a particularly interesting article on page 47 focusing on a man who lasted 70 days in prison without food and is now a Doctor in Sociology and a well-known Irish playwright and film and documentary script writer).

It’s as if the artists of every shade throughout Ireland and particularly in my resident county, Donegal – musicians, actors, painters, dancers et al – feel they have a deep, abiding, age-old responsibility to uphold our ancient rich Gael culture, and in doing so, prevent its dilution.

And I don’t mean – wonderful though it is – simply the native folk music and song of the lauded, award-winning Frosses-native Rita Gallagher and Gaoth Dobhair’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (who play this Thursday at the Balor Arts Centre as part of the Bluestacks Festival).

rita Gallagher, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh

Winners of TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards.

I mean our vast spread of artistic talent, first brought here to these shores when definitive Celtic traditions arrived from places such as Romania and Gaul (Gallia) in the fourth century B.C.

Then, unlike all other islands, Alice Stopford Green tells us in her work ‘Irish Nationality,’ Ireland, “was circled round with mountains, whose precipitous cliffs rose sheer above the water standing as bulwarks against the immeasurable sea, providing a bulwark – though sadly not an invincible one – against invaders of all kinds. And certainly, helping far-flung places such as Donegal escape foreign domination.” (unlike the Pale of Dublin which followed a completely different tract).

Irish chroniclers tell of a vast Celtic antiquity, with a shadowy line of monarchs reaching back some two thousand years before Christ: legends of lakes springing forth; of lowlands cleared of wood; the appearance of rivers, the making of roads and causeways, the first digging of wells: the making of forts; invasions and battles and plagues.

The Celts or Gaels exalted and encouraged learning in national life. Professors of every school roamed freely here and the warrior’s duty was to protect them. There were periodical exhibitions of everything the people esteemed—democracy, literature, tradition, art, commerce, law, sport, the Druid religion, even rustic buffoonery. The years between one festival and another were spent in serious preparation for the next.

Innovative arts programme at the Balor Arts Center, Ballybofey, Donegal.

The law of the Celts was the law of the people. They never lost their trust in it. They never followed a central authority, for their law needed no such sanction. A multitude of maxims were drawn up to direct the conduct of the people.

While the code was one for the whole race, the administration on the other hand was divided into the widest possible range of self-governing communities, which were bound together in a willing federation. The forces of union were not material but spiritual, and the life of the people consisted not in its military cohesion but in its joint spiritual inheritance—in the union of those who shared the same tradition, the same glorious memory of heroes, the same unquestioned law, and the same pride of literature.

So deeply was their importance felt, the Irish have kept these tradition diligently, and even in the darkest times of our history, down to the 17th century, still gathered to ‘meetings on hills’ to exercise their law and hear their learned men.

Not-to-be-missed performer.

So please think of this rich vein of cultural tradition that we’ve inherited when you read this week about the wealth of artistic talent on display here in Donegal and throughout Ireland – the multi-talented Pat Kinevane from Temple Bar-based Fishamble enacting not one but three separate one-man plays beginning this Friday with ‘Forgotten,’ at An Grianan in Letterkenny, a fine venue under the organization of Patricia McBride, Helene McMenamin, Daithi Ramsay and other staff members; Fishamble’s literary officer, Gavin Kostick, hosting playwriting masterclasses this Saturday there; the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny, under the direction of Shaun Hannigan, presenting a feast of autumn concerts, kicking-off with the duet of Eliza Carty and Tim Eriksen this Friday evening; and ‘The Ghostlight Sessions’ at the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey tonight, an evening of original music curated by Nikki Pollock (Mojo Gogo) and Dean Maywood and featuring ‘In Their Thousands’ and ‘Without Willow.’

Not to mention ‘The Donegal Voices’ this Friday in Ballyshannon performing Handel’s magnificent ‘Coronation Anthems’ and the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ Many of the performances are funded by the Donegal County Council/An Comhairle Ealaion.

First Lady of Celtic music – Donegal-born Moya Brennan.

And if you missed Moya Brennan of Clannad performing a few days ago with her husband, Tim, daughter Aisling and son Paul, in Teac Leo in Crolly, in support of the Inishowen Floods Fund, you’ll surely get the chance again to hear this brilliantly talented family in the future. The same goes for ‘Shoot The Gear,’ a fine piece of theater with a fishing-community based theme facilitated by the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organization, written by An Grianan Theatre artist-in-residence, Guy Le Jeune, and performed by a cast of local actors, singers and musicians including Fionn Robinson, Louise Conaghan, Orlaith Gilchreest and Ronan Carr.

Speaking of music, what a terrific accomplishment by Donegal Music Education Partnership (DMEP) manager, Martin McGinley, and his team, including tutor and pianist, Ellen Quinn, Maureen Fryer-Kelsey and James Sarsteiner , with help from Marianne Lynch of Donegal County Council Library Services in putting together a new online library of more than 1,500 musical items that the public can easily access.

Martin McGinley (left) – Journalist, editor, fiddle player par excellence, now manager of Donegal Music Education Partnership.

However, as we rightly attempt to emulate our rich, multi-layered Celtic past, I would issue a sharp warning. While the keystone of our proud ancestors’ beliefs was based on the premise of democracy, each individual having a fair say, let us beware.

The Catholic Church – so long dominant in Irish society after vanquishing Druidic life, more so in rural Irish society – must now learn to accept – in turn – its rapidly changing place. And that place is no longer its own self-styled, unquestioning right to direct all community groups, especially on sensitive matters of finance. Too often have I heard complaints here in the Donegal Gaeltacht and elsewhere in Ireland about frocked priests and bishops sitting at the heads of tables, making vital decisions, often cunningly in an underhand way ahead of the formal committee meetings, on where vital monies should go. And not always to the benefit of the community as a whole – but to the church in particular.

My own area, Cnoc Fola, has just received a grant of 40,000 euro from Fine Gael Minister Joe McHugh. Considering the rather incestuous relationship between the Catholic Church and successive ruling political parties in Ireland – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – is it reasonable for me to expect there is no payback expected, from both church and state, for this money, in terms of votes and support?

Is it also reasonable for me to trust the word of men in long black coats who describe yoga, thai chai and reiki as activities that ‘endanger our souls’ and who also discourage women from taking the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer, saying it simply encourages widespread promiscuity and immorality? And who move child abusing clergy from parish to parish?

Some months ago in a previous blog, I invited a well-known, rather affable west Donegal Gaeltacht priest, Brian O’Fearraigh, to join community members in our weekly yoga sessions at An Crann Og in Gaoth Dobhair. He hasn’t made an appearance yet. My offer is still open. He’d receive a warm ‘Cead Mile Failte’ from very friendly people there.

What do these seemingly unrelated issues – yoga, thai chai, reiki and the HPV vaccine – have in common, anyway? Freedom of mind and body, of course. And such displays of individual identity are perceived as hot, red-light dangers by most major corporation and institutions, especially the more conservative ones.
Wait for it, it’ll be swimming, cycling, swing dancing and jazz next. Oh, I forgot, the latter was already forbidden by the Church to all God-fearing people some years ago.

Does that mean God-loving people can enjoy such relaxing music? Even if they are Druids, Pagans, atheists, agnostics or pantheists and their God is Mother Nature herself?

Notes 

Hope you like my latest published novel, the suspense Pretty Ugly, linking Donegal and other parts of Ireland, including Belfast, with the US cities of Boston, New York, Kansas City and Washington DC.

Interested in creative writing? A novel? Biographical memoir? Play or movie script? See Ireland Writing Retreat

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.

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.