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.’

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 –

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.

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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?

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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

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He almost ‘missed the boat’ 

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