Helluva commotion going on in Donegal over lovable little oysters

Oysters, those soft, jelly-like little creatures that are (to some people) delicious to eat and ingeniously produce glittering pearls, are causing some bother in Ireland, especially in Donegal – or at least the greedy corporations hunting them for profit are.

And it seems the partnership government of Fine Gael-Fianna Fail and its back-up civil service are doing their utmost to prevent concerned local communities from doing anything about it.

Sitting at a public meeting this week at Falcarragh Community Centre focusing on these issues, these were the thoughts that passed through my mind as I listened to speaker after speaker give their views on controversial shellfish farming practices at Ballyness Bay near the town of Falcarragh on the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ in the Donegal Gaeltacht they consider are polluting and defacing the lovely, pristine scenery.

John Conaghan, spokesperson for the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee, said four jobs would be created through aquaculture while more than 250 would be created via tourism, therefore “we should be protecting our area environmentally.” He also complained his committee had been denied inaccessibility to certain details, sometimes entire documents, pertaining to official comments made by both Donegal County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

“An official comment from Donegal County Council stated that there would be no visual impact, but the document was simply signed by a clerk,” he said. “I’ve spoken to many councillors and nobody seems to know who authorized the comments. No visual impact? Maybe, lads, you should go to Specsavers.”

Politician after politician, both local and national, including TDs, Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty and Fianna Fail’s Pat the Cope Gallagher, told around 200 concerned people that they were unable to access key information relevant to the situation.

John Shéamais Ó Fearraigh Sinn Fein local councillor and Údarás na Gaeltachta board member said he would try with whatever powers he had to obtain the information required from the council and the Irish language organization. “I will do whatever I can to help,” he said.

Fine Gael local councillor, Michael McClafferty, said he had submitted questions to the local council but had not received any answers. “It looks as if we are being thrown under the bus,” he added.

The proposed shellfish scheme could cover more than 46 hectares of sea coast in the scenic Gaeltacht region, with bags on steel trestles containing millions of oysters, with sediment accumulation beneath them and large-scale congregation of dead shells, committee members said. Licenses for 20 hectares of oyster beds have already been granted, with one site alone being over 10 hectares.

Committee member, Caitlin Ni Bhroin, said “no cost-benefit analysis has been produced for us to see” and licenses have been granted on “unsound scientific criteria, including the idea that oysters are healthy water filters, but they actually emit waste.”

Conaghan said there were many contradictions in the government’s approach. “While it granted licenses for shellfish farming, Ballyness Bay is not designated a shellfish area, but it is a special area of conservation.” He said Inland Fisheries Ireland declared the bay a valuable fishing asset.

“We are against all oyster harvesting in Ballyness Bay, such activity will damage eco-tourism, which could bring much-needed jobs,” he said. “Gaps, mistakes and assumptions sums up the government’s approach. If community concerns had been addressed properly, we’d not be standing here talking.”

He said the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee was being assisted by Belfast-based Pat Finucane Centre.

Commending the committee on its efforts, Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty stated clearly, “My firm belief is that this scheme is anti-community and the application process is not fit for purpose, they are not being given properly and there is a lack of clarity.” He said three years ago he had sent a letter to the relevant ministry and department questioning the decision process, adding “construction cannot begin until all appeals have been heard, which could take several years.”

Being a long time, staunch member of Fianna Fail, part the ‘partnership government,’ Pat the Cope Gallagher, was obviously in a bit of a conundrum. While he offered to find out more information and report back to committee members, he went into a bit of a tantrum when I asked him to say ‘yes or no’ whether he agreed with the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee’s views.

Now, credit being given, Pat is a wily politician, that comes with being forty years and more in politics. Maybe I spoke harshly when I said that his spiel was (to quote myself) “pure politics, filled with generalities and trivialities.” That he took offence was his right. That he tossed the microphone down (as someone said, “like a baby throwing out its dummy-tit”) is also his democratic right.

But he still didn’t answer my question.

Instead, he said previous situations had occurred near his home in Dungloe similar to the one at Ballyness but he “didn’t get involved in them,” but said he did pass on letters he had received from local people to the relevant minister.

At the meeting, two members of Aontú pledged their support, with one young member saying as the shellfish farms were adding to the carbon footprint, people had a right to know more.

Local resident, Mary Attenborough, said while a proper environmental impact study was required, so-called experts were all vetted by the government, and that bias might occur in their reporting.

Committee members were still unsure if licenses already granted were strictly non-transferrable.

One challenge facing the committee is the expense involved in appealing licenses. Each one must be appealed separately at a cost of 200 euro each, with a time limit for appeals being four weeks from date of the government’s decision on December 4.

Columbia Hillen, my wife who is from Romania but concerned about the environment, stood up and asked if those local people who had applied for licenses would show support for the local committee by refusing to accept them even if they were granted. None of those applicants in the hall – and there were some present – said anything. One of the applicants, Seamus O’ Donnell who owns Cluain Na d’Tor (Seaside Nursery Garden) in Falcarragh had gone as far as saying he is “having second thoughts” about his application for over 4.4 hectares of aquaculture if granted. But has he withdrawn his application?

For full information on all applications see HERE.

One speaker said Ballyness Bay was one of the best surfing areas, comparable to Hawaii and western Australia, creating strong tourism income. “Let’s try to keep it that way by not spoiling the scenery.”

Another speaker summed up feelings of many people present, “Governments that treat people with disdain, usually get their comeuppance.”

Sean Hillen is co-founder of Gaoth Dobhair based ‘Ireland Writing Retreat and author of the contemporary novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’  linking Donegal and the United States.

Ireland’s Falcarragh Jazz Festival helps dispel winter gloom

Quiet, unassuming and immensely talented.

That sums up Irish musical twins, Michael and Conor Murray, sax and double bass players respectively.

Not only but they are also architects of what must be one of the cosiest and intimate jazz festivals on the island of Ireland, in the small coastal north-western Gaeltacht town of Falcarragh in their native county, Donegal, which took place last weekend.

jazz music,Donegal festival, irish festivals

With international musicians such as sublime guitarist Lucian Gray from Canada, David Lyttle, a whiz on drums, Scot Steve Hamilton, a wonderful keyboardist, appreciative audiences were treated to some high-level performances in what was only the festival’s second year, in venues such as The Shamrock and Gweedore bars and the Batch restaurant. Excellent musicians also included Cleveland Watkiss and the Joseph Leighton Trio.

If austere members of the Catholic Church, which – just as they did with yoga – proclaimed jazz as Devil worship not so very many generations ago (as did Communist dictators), had seen how people were packed close together enjoying the melodies, they’d have tossed the infamous Irish Dance Hall Act at them, pages fluttering hither and thither.

The musical menu ranged from original compositions by Lyttle such as Summer Always Passes, After The Flood and Camels, the latter a gentle melodic homage to the humpy-backed animal, to standard jazz classics such as Misty, written in 1954 by pianist Erroll Garner; Someday My Prince Will Come written by Larry Morey with music by Frank Churchill for Walt Disney’s 1937 animated movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; These Foolish Things, about fleeting memories of young love with lyrics by Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey, and Body and Soul, written in New York in 1930 with music by Johnny Green and lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton, as well as works by Capitol Records co-founder and American Tin Pan Alley lyricist, songwriter, and singer, Johnny Mercer, such as Autumn Leaves.

“We put careful thought into this festival and are just delighted to be able to share the kind of music we love with you,” Conor told an appreciative audience at The Shamrock last Saturday night.

In paying tribute to the twins’ efforts in organising such a successful festival, friend and musical colleague, Lyttle, said “Once I said it would be a great idea to start a jazz festival here, but I was only joking, okay, half-joking. Sheer naivety or blind-faith, I’m not sure which was uppermost in Michael and Conor’s minds when they decided to bring a jazz festival to a little Donegal town such as this. They both deserve great credit and I’m certainly very happy to be here.”

For those who unfortunately missed the weekend’s concerts (death is the only acceptable excuse), here is a sample of what you could have heard had you risen, Lazarus-like.

Roll on next year!

Triumphant celebratory evening at Letterkenny’s An Grianan theatre

It’s always immense fun meeting highly creative people.

I know that’s saying the obvious.

But sometimes we overlook the obvious.

So it’s good to remember.

For without them, society loses its very soul.

Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh, a teacher from the Donegal coastal region of Gaoth Dobhair, now chairperson of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group (LMDG), is one such person.

So is the excellent actor, Eoghan MacGiolla Bhrighde, also from Gaoth Dobhair (is the overriding sense of creativity in that particular region in the air, or the water?)

Their efforts make life for hard-working, theatre-lovers like Letterkenny-based Anne and Simon Smith, former technician-cum-union leader and well-respected professor of nursing at the University of Ulster respectively, all the more enjoyable.

So here’s to creative people, both on and off the stage.

Here’s my tribute that was published in a recent edition of the ‘Donegal News’ on the latest creative event to emerge from the so-called ‘Forgotten County’ (who needs Dublin anyway, especially when creative people establish the Independent Republic of Donegal).

Fine singing, complex choreography, comedy skits, theatre, screen presentations, colourful costumes, skilful lighting, not forgetting the terrific orchestra – was there anything missing from the kaleidoscope of on-off-stage talent celebrating in grand style the 20th anniversary of An Grianán?

Not anything I noticed.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say if last weekend’s extravaganza wasn’t West End/Broadway quality it was certainly not far off it. And some acts by far surpassed it. And I say this with some degree of certitude as I’ve been to, and reviewed many, London and New York performances.

It’s no wonder, Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh, chairperson of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group (LMDG), founded in 1991, was so content afterwards sitting among his hardworking cast in the theatre lobby enjoying a well-deserved toast to the show’s success.

An Grianan anniversary, Donegal theatre, Letterkenny Music and Drama Society

Pluincéad Ó Fearraigh enjoys a post-show success with members of of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group (LMDG).

“I was delighted with the way the gala concert went,” he said. “The audience reaction every night was fantastic and made all the hard work very worthwhile. Everyone – cast and production team – have worked tirelessly since the beginning of September to make sure it was a concert to remember and worthy of celebrating 20 years of An Grianán being opened.”

He continued, “We were privileged to be the first group to perform in An Grianán when it opened on 16 October 1999 and delighted be given the opportunity to be part of its 20th anniversary celebrations this year. This was our 38th production in the theatre during those twenty years and we look forward to many more.”

The LMDG cast and crew of more than 40 people, plus the other acts, from towns Donegal-wide including Milford, Ballybofey, Gweedore and Letterkenny, and others outside the county, including Derry, Sligo and Strabane, put on a three-hour show that had audiences mesmerised, with many saying it far overshadowed the visiting Galway-based Druid Theatre which performed for the 10th anniversary.

The diverse musical repertoire stretched from naughty songs such as ‘How I Got The Calling’ from ‘Sister Act’ sung by ‘nuns’ in habits to the sexy, sensual ‘Cell Block Tango,’ with singers dressed in skimpy outfits, to the inspiring – as if that wasn’t inspiring enough – ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ from ‘Les Misérables.” There was also an extract from a play by Brian Friel, dynamic steps by children and teenagers from Alison Quigley’s School of Irish Dancing and comedy skits adapted from ‘Life Of Brian,’ ‘Monty Python’ and F.U.N.E.X. from the TV series, ‘The Two Ronnies.’

Among the happy show-goers were theatre lovers, Letterkenny couple, Anne and Simon Smith. “It was great night of entertainment,” said the former. “There were so many memorable performances from musical theatre shows that we all know so well. And so many talented performers from Donegal. A fantastic way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the theatre in Letterkenny. Well done to all for all the hard work in putting on such a great show.”

Theatre in Donegal, An Grianan theatre, Gweedore artists

Letterkenny-based theatre lovers, Simona and Anne Smith, enjoy an outing at An Grianan, helping celebrate its 20th anniversary.

Added Simon, “While there was lots of singing and dancing from the great musical theatre shows, I particularly loved the drama – a bit of Brian Friel, a bit of Monty Python. The famous argument sketch was hilarious. The celebratory show reminded me of the many great local drama productions enjoyed over the years, one in particular being ‘The 39 Steps.’ ”

Added Patricia McBride, the theatre’s director, “The Gala Concert marking the theatre’s 20th anniversary was a testament to the rich talent we have in Donegal. The performers royally entertained the audience. The atmosphere was very positive and the feeling of goodwill towards the theatre was palpable. It was a wonderful occasion.”

What's On Donegal, Live shows in Letterkenny

Enjoying convivial company at An Grianan Letterkenny.

Gaoth Dobhair born actor, Eoghan MacGiolla Bhrighde, who starred in several comedy sketches and was also a member of the Letterkenny Music and Drama Group that won the RTE All-Ireland Drama Festival with its production of ‘The 39 Steps,’ said he was “delighted” to be chosen to take part in the celebration. “it was great to be involved in such an occasion, especially among so many talented performers,” he said. “While some members of the music and drama group have changed, over the years their spirit still lives on in the magic of the musicals and other stage performances of all kinds.”

Nobel poet Seamus Heaney – spirituality and self-discovery

Irish Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney was a sublime wordsmith and a mystery.

And the veil still cloaking aspects of his life and views may be lifted Friday evening.

Seamus Heaney homeplace events, sean hillen author, seamus heaney bank of ireland

Enjoying a special exhibit on the Nobel winning poet at the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Centre in Dublin this week.

I’m delighted to be hosting a special event at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace at which three speakers with impressive credentials and diverse views on spirituality and religion will combine their thoughts to reveal more about the Derry man who made Ireland proud.

Committed Catholic Martin O’Brien long-time journalist with the Belfast Telegraph, former editor of The Irish News and award-winning producer with the BBC will be joined by poet Anne O’Reilly, performance poet and lecturer in religious studies and Noeleen Hartigan, Unitarian and human rights leader who has worked with Amnesty and the Simon Community.

anne o'reilly poet, martin o'brien, noeleen hartigan

Seamus Heaney and his devoted wife, Marie, organise his papers for the National Library of Ireland archives.

Their views, some similar, some in direct contrast with each other, should prove to be an exhilarating spectacle to behold.

Aside from his love of words, what can definitely be said of the Nobel laureate is that he was a peace-loving man.

While Heaney stayed away from blunt, outright side-taking on the situation in northern Ireland during ‘The Troubles,’ he was not averse to political commentating, Chris, his son, recalls a comment his father made, on television about Barack Obama: “He said something like, ‘I’m wary of too much uplift – though in Obama’s case I can pretty much get behind it.’ ”

sean hillen hosting events at seamus heaney homeplace

Accepting the Prize.

What we may hear Friday evening at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace is what else he may have become since his upbringing in a Catholic family in rural Derry.

To whet your whistle ahead of this event, here are some comments about Heaney –

Heaney, whose poems resonate with the rhythm of the lives of those he touched – casual reader, familiar student, his close-knit family.

Nobel laureate and beloved public figure; family man and generous friend. 

The event at the HomePlace is a perfect primer for anyone headed to Dublin to see, Seamus Heaney: Listen Now Again, the first exhibition at the new Cultural and Heritage Centre in Bank of Ireland’s former parliament building on College Green, Dublin. More than 100 people have worked on the show, wonderfully curated by Professor Geraldine Higgins, Director of the  Irish Studies Program at Emory University, Atlanta, for the National Library of Ireland, with the family included in the process. Exhibition Manager is the delightful Ann-Marie Smith.

seamus heaney homplace, sean hillen author,

The exhibition focuses on the poetry, its genesis and its process, with glimpses of the essayist, playwright, translator, professor, literary critic and family man. The aim is to create an intimate and immersive experience of the poet’s work, and the thought and care the National Library team have brought to the task shines through.

Friday’s event at HomePlace is also a primer for a lecture by Fintan O’Toole, an Irish Times columnist for nearly 30 years, on December 1st at the same venue. Faber announced O’Toole would write the official biography of Seamus Heaney.

Background Snippets on the Life of Seamus Heaney

Born rural Catholic at the family farmhouse called Mossbawn, one of ten children, he won a scholarship to St. Columb’s College in Derry, then attended Queen’s University , later becoming a lecturer at St. Joseph’s College in Belfast in the early 1960s.

In 1972, Heaney left a lectureship he had earned at Queens University Belfast, and moved with his lovely wife, Marie, to Wicklow. In the same year, he published Wintering Out.

He became Head of English at Carysfort College in Dublin in 1976, later moving to Sandymount.

sean hillen at seamus heaney bank of ireland

Proud to add my message to those of other Seamus Heaney admirers at the exhibition of his life at Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Center, College Green, Dublin.

His next volume, Field Work, was published in 1979. Selected Poems 1965-1975 and Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968–1978 were published in 1980. When Aosdána, the national Irish Arts Council, was established in 1981, Heaney was among those elected into its first group. (He was subsequently elected a Saoi, one of its five elders and its highest honour, in 1997).

In 1981, Heaney traveled to the United States as a visiting professor at Harvard, a relationship he maintained for many years, where he was affiliated with Adams House and delighted in teaching poetry in the hallowed halls there. He was awarded two honorary doctorates, from Queen’s University and from Fordham University in New York City (1982).

In 1989, Heaney was elected Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford, a post he held for a five-year term to 1994.

Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1995 for what the Nobel committee described as “works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past.”

Donegal festival spans many subjects, music, film, creative writing….

Living in the west Donegal Gaeltacht, an idyllic hideaway in itself plum, on the Wild Atlantic Way and home of the now world-famous  Ireland Writing Retreat I had the pleasure of meandering ‘down south’ to the Ballyshannon-Bundoran region of the ‘Forgotten Land’ county to host creative writing workshops for The Irish Gap organisation.

And what a pleasurable few days it turned out to be.

Not just working with very talented people on aspects of writing such as dialogue, ‘show, don’t tell’ techniques and book plot planning using ‘Pretty Ugly’ as an example, but also attending the annual Allingham Festival in Ballyshannon named after the 19th century Irish poet William Allingham who wrote about faeries.

Film, music, history, theatre, prose, poetry and children’s activities – the recent edition of the festival can’t be accused of lacking diversity.

Reflecting this, one popular event featured Donegal paramedic, Cathal Gallagher (48) explaining how being on TV show ‘Operation Transformation’ saved his life. Weighing over 26 stone with fitness levels of an 80-year-old, Gallagher said felt suicidal.

“Cathal spoke from the heart, freely sharing his frailties and ongoing struggle with mental health issues,” said Liz Adams, Bundoran. “His emphasis was on the need to seek out help and talk, and not be reluctant to access counselling. He is a wonderful role model, especially men, and the young students in attendance were clearly engrossed in his sharing. I was touched by his honesty and willingness to be so open. That takes courage.”

Falcarragh-born poetess, Anne Ní Churreáin (left), with poetry winner, Marah P. Curran.

Then there was poetry. Around 300 entries in the competition, read by a jury under filter judge Denise Blake with Falcarragh poetess, Anne Ní Churreáin, now writer-in-residence at Maynooth University, as final judge presenting awards with the words –

“The making of a poem is often a solitary pursuit, which takes place behind closed doors, in the in-between hours, and at moments that are in one way or another deeply private and personal. In the making, so much depends upon the poet’s willingness to commune with the unknown, to translate mystery, to go where during the ordinary course of language one does not dare to go.

In my own practice, I think of the poem as both instinctual and technical. At first there is a flowering of the poem, and then comes craft and perseverance against the odds. At the heart of poetry is the constant and dogged pursuit of alchemy. And in the end the poem is what survives on the page when all other words fall away…

Given the great voyages that poets go on it seems rather ironic—if not somewhat cruel—that so much of the poet’s labour is hidden to the world. It was Wallace Stevens who said ‘the poet is the priest of the invisible’. For all of these reasons and others, it is important that we make space in our lives to recognise, award and celebrate the making of a poem, and to honour the achievements of those who pursue mystery.”

Marah P. Curran (The Children of Lir) won the poetry award, second was Annette Skade (Harbour’s Mouth) and third, Sighle Meehan (Wishbone). Flash fiction first prize went to Conor Duggan for ‘A Drag Queen Named Lipstik,’ followed by Clodagh O’Brien (Boy A & Boy B) and Julian Wakeling (The Mating Call of the Accountant).

A panel event entitled ‘History Ireland Hedge School’ on ‘Art & Culture in the Irish Revolution’ at Abbey Arts Centre comprised film, music, song, theatre and art. Ciara Chambers, head of film and screen media, University College Cork, said, “Tommy Graham, editor of ‘History Ireland’ magazine, hosts a series of these unique talks nationwide which fuse community with academia and generate strong enthusiasm for key historical subjects. I discussed how well newsreels, the only form of source of non-fictional moving images in the revolutionary period 1913 and 1923, reflected reality. Often, they didn’t. Being British controlled, for example, they portrayed over-optimism on the Treaty and underplayed misdemeanours by the Black and Tans.”

allingham festival donegal

Film expert Ciara Chambers (far right), with ‘History Ireland’ editor Tommy Graham (centre), and other panellists at the Abbey Centre, Ballyshannon. Other speakers included Roisin Kennedy (visual arts), Paul Delaney (literature) and Fintan Vallely (music and song).

Ciara said “it is very difficult to cover Irish politics – probably any politics – in film,” adding that “film is entertainment and directors and producers are keenly aware that they may have to change truth to suit that purpose.” Illustrating this, Ciara spoke about a scene in the 1996 movie ‘Michael Collins’ directed by Irishman Neil Jordan in which British armored vehicles are on the Croke Park football field and machine-gunners fire  on a crowd of spectators. “That didn’t actually happen, but it was a dramatic scene in the movie,” she said.

My (author’s) view: while it is known that spectators were shot and killed at that football match but the armoured vehicles were outside the ground and the shooting was done by hand, which leads me to think ‘why change historical truth, especially when a scene of shooters coldly, clinically picking off innocent victims is equally, if not more, dramatic than gunners in an armoured cars doing so.’ Perhaps, it’s because I grew up on the Falls Road/Andersonstown neighbourhood of west Belfast during the worst of the ‘Troubles’ and saw such armoured vehicles (both inside and outside) more times than I care to remember that I don’t find that particular movie scene so impressive.

Film events also included screening of ‘Gaza,’ on life in Palestine, directed by Garry Keane and Andrew McConnell. The festival paid tribute to Frank Mc Guinness, Buncrana-born poet and playwright, with a production of ‘The Bread Man’ by the local drama society and a public interview with RTÉ’s Sean Rocks.

As for music, Dicey Reilly’s, one of the oldest pubs in Ballyshannon, and a brewery producing a wide range of craft lagers, stouts and ales, hosted eclectic folk-jazz group, Hatchlings as part of the festival. “On a shoestring budget, this festival is slowly, quietly growing legs, with top-class events,” said Brendan Reilly, the friendly pub owner and graduate of the University of Ulster (as was Ciara and myself). “The hard-working organisers have attracted excellent speakers. We’re proud to be part of it.”

Lisnamulligan Farm Produce, Thomas Hughes

Thomas Hughes serves up delicious burgers.

Someone else speaking highly of the festival was Thomas Hughes who served up gourmet burgers to participants at Dicey’s, with the pork and beef gleaned directly from his own herd at Lisnamullingan Farm Produce, served with locally sourced hand-cut chips.

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.’