Cultural tourism – its time is nigh

There are some among us (either through ignorance or greed) who consider Donegal unfit for cultural tourism – but a quick glance at what’s happening right now in the area proves them wrong.

Take, for example, the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project.

As I started writing this, many people – tourism and community leaders, teachers, retired air-force pilots, sociologists, photographers, authors, solicitors, doctors and academics – were gathered at Óstán Loch Altan, Gortahork, in the scenic northwest of the county, talking enthusiastically about developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful cultural tourism pilgrimage project that could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

Speakers at the conference air their views as to how the proposed pilgrimage trail could be developed.

Organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall and ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba and supported by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Foras na Gaeilge, this three-day conference which ended today (Sunday) aims to develop a heritage trail based on the travels and travails of the Celtic mystic, Columba. Such a project could not only inform Irish and foreign visitors about local history, archaeology, folklore and heritage but also create employment and business for hotels, B&Bs, cafes, restaurants, museums and bars alike in the two regions.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to expand our learning and to attract visitors on a significant historical route from south-west Donegal to the Isle of Lewis in north-west Scotland,” said Randall, chairman of the Islands Book Trust.

This united effort is supported by renown authors-cum-academics such as University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

Renown University of Cork researcher and author Máire Herbert beside the old stone cross on Tory Island with her groundbreaking book on the mystic monk Columba (Colmcille).

With additional speakers such as University of Galway’s Mícheál Ó Dónaill, Calum MacGilleain, Tristan ap Rheinallt and Aidan O’Hara from Scotland, Noel O’Gallchoir from Gaoth Dobhair, Noleen Ni Cholla, Moira Ni Ghallchoir, Maolcholaim Scott, Liam O’Cuinneagain and even the King of Tory Island himself, Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri, the conference comprehensively analyzed the tantalizing persona of Columba from the sociological, archaeological, historical, religious and mythological perspectives. And, more importantly, how interest in the fellow can be turned into a dollars and cents/euros and pennies booster for local tourism.

Brian Lacey, medieval historian and author, informs guests at the Sli Cholmcille conference about Pagan and druidic practices in and around Errigal and Muckish mountains.

The only drawback to an otherwise excellent symposium of speakers was the often poor technics, the out-of-focus projection of some otherwise well-researched multi-media presentations.

But the development of Sli Cholmcille is just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick glance at the local newspapers – the Donegal News and the Donegal Democrat – this weekend alone, shows a rich vein of cultural tourism – including the weekly music seisúns and this summer’s ‘Gaelturas’ initiative at Teach Hiudai Beag; the year-long programme of music and dance at Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern; the ‘Goitse Gaoth Dobhair’ events in Bunbeg this coming weekend, which emerged from the ‘Dearg le Fearg’ language equality campaign, as well as ‘Luinneog Lunasa’ in the same area; the ‘Swell Festival’ on Arranmore; and ‘FestiFál’ and ‘Evil Eye Festival’ in Falcarragh to name but a few. Other local diverse activities with strong potential range from rock-climbing, wind-surfing and kayaking with Rock agus Roam; horse and pony riding at the Dunlewey Trekking Centre and elsewhere; the craft demonstrations at Ionad Cois Locha; and the educational Walking Donegal, the hill, coast and lake hikes with informed guide, Seamus Doohan; as well as specialty walks such as the ‘Tullaghbegley Heritage Walking Weekend.’

The list is endless.

And that’s not to mention the many literary tourism opportunities based on the art of creative writing.

Antonia Leitner from Carinthia in Austria is not shy to show her love of books and learning at Magheroarty Beach.

The idyllic landscapes and seascapes of Donegal have been an inspiration to many best-selling novelists and short story authors who have set their plots within or around the county, in genres ranging from sci-fi to literary fiction and fantasy, as well as plays. These writers include Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, Sophia Hillan, Kenneth Gregory, Emma Heatherington, Michael Harding and Laurence Donaghy, some of whom will speak at Ireland’s newest writing retreat ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Words’ from June 28th to July 4th in Gaoth Dobhair.

With the national initiative ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ now well underway and Donegal an integral part of it, there’s only one thing stopping the cultural tourism momentum that’s building up – a continued reluctance by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the primary economic development organisation in the Gaeltacht – to fund the many projects with serious money not just the few pennies it has been doling out until now to stave off a rising tide of protest.

‘Acupuncture of the body, acupuncture of the earth’ – author Brian Lacey describes a theory he learned from a Slovenian artist.

As many people are now saying, this organisation must host regular, open, community meetings and really listen to what local people – the very people they are there to serve – want in terms of more innovative community development; provide much greater transparency in its spending of an estimated 1.2 billion euro in public money, than it has to date; and an end to kow-towing to political parties and their funders (first Fianna Fail and now Fine Gael) which has resulted in far too much money going into the pockets of a rich elite of developers/builders who make easy profits from building simplistic, unneeded, industrial estates.

A new direction is required and a Catholic Church-run sex, drugs and alcohol addiction center in Falcarragh, with no guarantee of decent local jobs – especially as such a centre already exists in Donegal and research indicates this is sufficient for need – is hardly the panacea for high unemployment and emigration from the area. Some say real investment in local cultural tourism means shelving the proposed investment of three million euro by Údarás in the addiction centre and putting those euro millions into local tourism projects, the one sector a beautiful region like Donegal can benefit widely from, now and in the long-term (if that three million euro is spent on the proposed addiction centre, it spells the end for any real investment in anything else – no other board members of Údarás in other Gaeltachts will vote for any further significant monies for Donegal).

In this regard, it is quite sad to see how much Tory Island has fallen below its full potential – far behind many other attractive island retreats dotted around Ireland. The dismissive attitude of relevant funding authorities – and perhaps the disunity and lack of concerted lobbying and effort by local people (full burden cannot rest solely on the shoulders of one man, King Patsy Dan) – has meant its tourism income has suffered greatly, with accompanying lack of promotion (not even a regular newsletter on events or significant signage on the mainland and on the island itself).

“I am tired of trying to persuade Udaras na Gaeltachta officials to properly fund projects here on Tory Island, their ears are deaf, they simply don’t understand,” said King Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri. “The people here deserve such support. Our ancient and colourful history calls out for it.”

Befriending Royalty. Modern version of the horse-drawn carriage?

It’s make-or-break time for northwest Donegal.

Let’s put an end to the notion that cultural tourism is an unimportant, peripheral activity, the kind of mind-think that Údarás officials are stuck on, and have been for decades. This specialized sector has the potential to provide immense, long-term economic benefits for this hard-hit, hard-pressed part of the county and country, but it requires serious commitment and financial support.

In a future post I will give specific examples from my extensive sojourns in other parts of the world as an international travel writer where cultural tourism has transformed and enlivened a local and often paralyzed economy.

Meanwhile the next post will focus on what precisely various speakers at the conference said about Columba, this larger-than-life monk who seems to defy description, someone about whose background we know very little, either because documents were destroyed by marauding, book-burning Vikings, or were deftly confiscated by church abbots on a precise propaganda campaign.

To read more of Sean’s work, check these sites:

Digging for Dracula

World Itineraries

Examiner

JustLuxe

Ireland Writing Retreat

Fios Training and Coaching Organization

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Emperor’s clothes – convenient concealment

John Curran seems to have some of the attributes of an upstanding local county council member – so why is it the Falcarragh man failed to win one of the positions in last months’ elections in Donegal?

Especially as anyone with a snippet of local knowledge knows that at least one other candidate – Terence Slowey – by virtue of being found guilty of ‘double dipping’ on expenses, may be less deserving of a seat.

Could it be that John’s failure reflects the ordinary person’s displeasure with the lack of transparency by public bodies in Ireland and manipulation of public money to benefit the already well-to-do?

John Curran

John is a married man and father, a qualified solicitor and has experience within the county council, as well as in the voluntary sector – indeed he is now director of Donegal Volunteer Centre. More than that – he avows to be deeply interested in community affairs.

Okay, John has deep political ambitions but, hey, what’s wrong with that?  I would hope all of the candidates – the successful and the less so – had this in abundance. Otherwise they’re not worth voting for.

So what went wrong?

How is it others, with – in my view – much less integrity – won out over John? To some readers of this blog, these words may come as a surprise. After all, John lambasted me personally over the last month or so in the print media, on the Highland Radio airwaves (see A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal) and in his own Facebook, for daring to call for greater transparency on the proposed three million euro spending on an addiction clinic in John’s hometown.

Ironically, that was John’s big mistake.

Did John feel – as a government candidate, with money and party behind him, as well as being a board member of Údarás  na Gaeltachta – that he’d be a shoe-in? Perhaps. I’m not sure. What I am sure about, however, is what he didn’t realize – that people – young and old alike – in this rural area of northwest Ireland are, as one native-born Donegal man put it so poetically, ‘cute hoors.’ In more diplomatic language – they know a maverick when they see one. As Gaeilge, ‘amadáin’ they’re certainly not. Not a one of ‘em.

Running on a Fine Gael ticket probably didn’t help (John could have run as an Independent but, offered a chance to speak at the party’s pre-election Ard Fheis, he decided not to). But his failure to win a council seat amounted to much more than that. After all, Fine Gael candidate, Jimmy Kavanagh, was elected.

By heeding the advice of the golden circle who support him in the Donegal Gaeltacht and who are making big money off the public purse in northwest Donegal, mainly through the goings-on at Údarás, and by attempting to turn a simple call for greater transparency – which in other democratic societies would be considered a normal request (in fact, one that should have been led by John himself) – into a ‘personal’ issue, he – with unfortunate consequences for himself – overstepped the mark.

People in the Donegal Gaeltacht may sometimes be blindsided, but they’re not blind. They may be silent sometimes in face of authority (it’s inherent in our Irish nature, conditioned over generations) but they aren’t voiceless.

And at the recent elections they made their voices heard.

Though only a brave few – among them, Owen Curran, Theresa and Caroline Woods, Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods; Gerard Gallagher and Martin McEhlinny – take to the streets regularly in northwest Donegal to protest injustices – deep down (maybe not so deep), many people are upset. They saw that somebody, some people, some institutions  – including the Catholic Church and Údarás  – were trying to pull the wool over their eyes over the addiction center. They noticed clearly that not enough open discussion was taking place over a major proposal that not only would cost the public around three million euro, but would leave very little, perhaps nothing, for other projects in Falcarragh and other areas of the Donegal Gaeltacht (do you really think other Gaeltachts in Ireland are going to readily vote even more money for Donegal over the three million euro, and from a dwindling public purse?….please).

So what exactly is it that is so sensitive about this proposed addiction centre that it needs be kept so tightly under wraps?

Ballyconnell House

With no answers forthcoming from Údarás na Gaeltachta itself about costs and benefits (see Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer), I offered the opportunity directly to Cuan Mhuire – the Catholic Church group of nuns that badly wants this public money for the centre (the second such one in Donegal, a very unusual situation for a county with such a small population). The questions were sent to it before the news broke nationally and internationally about the dumping the bodies of around 800 dead infants in and around a septic tank in Tuam by nuns.

An interpretation of this organisation’s response, or lack thereof, indicates the clinic may focus on sex addiction treatments for convicted clergy, as well as for abusers of drugs and alcohol and that Cuan Mhuire may indeed – as earlier media reports suggest – be guilty of allowing convicted paedophile priests to conduct religious services inside its other addiction clinics in Ireland. And may do so again in Falcarragh if the proposal goes through. And perhaps it’s quite convenient for it to do so – treat convicted clerics, both nuns and priests, for sex addiction and have them conduct religious services inside the centre – in the northwest corner of Donegal. Such nefariousness would thus be far from the glare of the national media.

If Cuan Mhuire were a responsible organization, with nothing to hide, it would have answered, perhaps not every question, perhaps not in the detail that would be reasonably expected, but answer it would. If a responsible organization with the concerns of the local community at heart, it would have realized how sensitive this addiction centre proposal is and deal with the concerns in an open manner.

Instead, Cuan Mhuire, a fully-controlled arm of the Catholic Church, acts as if it’s above the societal norms we others must adhere to – and therein lies a great danger. In the past, and still now – while ordinary people, ordinary community groups, follow rules and regulations that make for a stable, secure world – the church considers itself above the law. That is a frightening path.

In conclusion, if John Curran really wants to be considered a serious candidate for future public office (remember, he was appointed to the board of Údarás by the Government, not elected by the people), he cannot be simply a toadie for a political party or an institution such as the Catholic Church or Údarás. He must do what any decent board member is supposed to do – something, unfortunately, we have NOT seen successive board members at Údarás and most other Irish institutions from FAS to the Central Remedial Clinic do: take his responsibilities seriously and both oversee public spending and the overall health of the community properly.

Openness and transparency required: Udaras still has questions to answer

Fueled by community concerns about lack of transparency and a concerted campaign by Udaras na Gaeltachta to squash attempts to extract information on its spending of public money (see related posts Udaras na Gaeltachta a secret society? and Catholic church-linked addiction clinic in Falcaragh, is this the best use of tax payers job creation money?) and, specifically its proposed spending of between one and three million euro on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh, questions were posed to the four Donegal national board members, including the organisation’s Aranmore-born chairperson, as well as Udaras’ communications and marketing manager, Siubhan Nic Grianna (see: Public accountability? Or continued secrecy?)

In addition, having been invited to speak at a two-day international conference at UNESCO headquarters in Paris this week on access to public information, good governance, protection of journalists and whistle-blowers and media diversity, the overwhelming message was, as UNESCO officials clearly stated, “openness, transparency, access to information and freedom of expression, including press freedom, are essential to good governance.” See short video clip from UNESCO conference here.

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Professor Rosental Alves, UNESCO Chair in Communication, and I display media solidarity.

With this in mind, please find below a set of responses received from Ms. Nic Grianna at Udaras HQ in Galway to the specific questions put to her by me on the proposed addiction clinic in Ballyconnell House, Falcarragh.

You will notice frequent use of the term “confidential” to avoid giving pertinent information, and also some vital details missing from her responses (see list below). Her response, for example, to Question Nr. 8 is evasive (to accurately ascertain potential conflicts of interest, one needs to know who is conducting direct negotiations involving public money on the public’s behalf). If you notice other such attempts to avoid answering directly, please inform me. Your identity will remain anonymous if so desired.

  • Who or what group was paid 225,000 Irish Punts by Udaras for Ballyconnell House?
  • What other grants were given in relation to Ballyconnell House since 1988 and to whom – all financial details in questions 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 12 are either referred to a FOI request or stated as confidential. If this project is to benefit the community, as stated in Ms. Nic Grianna’s answers, why is Udaras so keen on keeping important information confidential?
  • As I have not been able to find a person who was invited and/or participated at the meeting described in point 9 yet, or find any document related to such a meeting, I hereby issue an open invitation to anyone to help provide such details. It would help shed light on what issues were presumably discussed then. If so desired, the identity of all responders will remain confidential.
  • It is also interesting to note that while Gearoid O’Smaolain, Udaras tourism officer (see post here: Fair or unfair? A nettlesome question of censorship) demanded an apology from Stephen Maguire owner of ‘Donegal Daily’ news service for a article I wrote for the service, saying ‘no proposals’ were ever made for Ballyconnell House, Ms. Nic Grianna states clearly that proposals were indeed received. She doesn’t, however, explain why these proposals were rejected in favor of the proposed clinic. (This contradiction to Mr. O’Smaolain regarding proposals was also made by Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran). Their disagreements with each other beg the question: who is being economical with the truth? And for what reason? Or is it that communication is so poor among Udaras executives and board members that they literally don’t know what is happening inside the organisation? If so, then – absolutely and without delay – greater transparency about the spending of millions of euro every year by it, scarce public money, is more than necessary.

Upon reading any of the above outstanding questions, if others come to mind, please send them to me by e-mail. Anonymity will be given if so requested.

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Getting ready to speak at the international UNESCO HQ conference in Paris, attended by several hundred journalists, editors, community leaders, diplomats and UN officials.

1. QUESTION: Please provide all documentation related to investment and/or financial payments by Udaras to groups or individuals involved in the operation of Ballyconnell House over the years (from the date of first Udaras involvement in development of this property until present). Please include names and details of the groups and individuals as well as exact amounts.

ANSWER: Background to Eastait Bhaile Chonaill In 1985 Udaras na Gaeltachta was approached by a local community group that were interested in purchasing Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for the purposes of developing the property as a facility/resource for the local community. In 1988 An Udaras purchased Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for 225,000 Irish Punts for community development purposes and with the agreement that the property would be leased to the local community group.  In 1988, a co-op – Comharchumann Eastait Bhaile Chonaill Teo was established by the local community, with 240 shareholders, for the purposes of leasing Eastait Bhaile Chonaill from Udaras and redeveloping the property as a community resource. 120,000 Irish Punts was approved by Udaras to the Comharchumann for restoration and development works. A 35 year lease was agreed.

By 1994 the Comharchumann was in debt due to being unable to sustain the running costs of Baile Chonaill.   The Comharchumann and Udaras agreed to set up a management company – Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo, (with directors nominated by the Comharchumann and Udaras)  in an effort to develop Baile Chonaill as a sustainable cultural tourism business. A manager and administrator were employed. For a number of years Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo managed the property as a tourism business, mainly providing hostel type accommodation and facilities for group bookings. Given the extensive space available, Baile Chonaill also housed tenants during that time, such as Foinn Chonallacha Teo (which ran accredited traditional music courses and boarded the students in Baile Chonaill) , Cumann Staire agus Seanchais Chloich Cheann Fhaola, which ran exhibitions of the local history/culture/heritage, and was open to tourists and the general public alike,  Teleteach Teo which provided IT training facilities/services to the local community and Eagras Failte Thar Chonaill, which operated a tourist information office and managed other tourist offices throughout the county.

During that period, various parts of the building were continuously deteriorating, the extensive size of the building meant that any refurbishment/restoration works were very costly.  The lack of financial resources required to carry out the necessary repair-works became a constant draw on any profits made.

A number of studies were carried out to assess potential development opportunities for Baile Chonaill. All proposals involved substantial investment.

In 2000, arising from an assessment by Peter Quinn & Associates, it was recommended that Forbairt Bhaile Chonaill Teo would cease trading, clear its debts and hand the property back to Udaras na Gaeltachta.  At that time, a number of open days were organised and members of the public were invited to submit applications in relation to possible projects for Baile Chonaill. No submission was received for the overall use of the property.

Also in 2004, and again in 2007 Udaras na Gaeltachta sought tenders from parties interested in acquiring Eastait Bhaile Chonaill for commercial use based on one, or a mix of uses. No proposals were approved by its Board arising from these open invitation processes. Expression of interest and submissions made by the parties are confidential.

In early 2009 An Udaras received enquiries from Cuan Mhuire in relation to Baile Chonaill.

Is it is matter of public record that Cuan Mhuire has expressed an interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill, with the aim of developing the property as a rehabilitation and treatment centre.  Please see http://www.cuanmhuire.ie for further information in relation to the charity.

At a meeting in 2012 (see answer to question 9 below), Cuan Mhuire representatives gave information about Cuan Mhuire, described what its general project proposal for Baile Chonaill was, informed that an in-depth feasibility study was underway, and gave an open invitation to any interested party to visit other Cuan Mhuire centres throughout the country and/or give their opinions on the proposal.

Talks are ongoing between Udaras and Cuan Mhuire in relation to their interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill. If you require copies of all documentation and other information in relation to this project, you are welcome to request such under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003.

2. QUESTION: Please provide all documentation related to grants by Udaras to groups or individuals involved in the operation of Ballyconnell House over the years (from the date of first Udaras involvement in development of this property until present). Please include names and details of the groups and individuals as well as exact amounts.

ANSWER: Please see answers to question 1 above.

3. QUESTION: How much investment is to be made in Ballyconnell House to convert it into a proposed addiction clinic? I consider an absolute accurately figure may not be possible at this stage, but an estimation should be, as such a figure must obviously be an important part of budget discussions taking place now.

ANSWER: Any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.  Udaras’ decision to support any project is based on a full analysis and assessment of a detailed business plan/proposal. The decision to support such projects is made by the Board of Udaras na Gaeltachta.

4. QUESTION: To whom is Udaras directly involved with in these negotiations, meaning what named organisations or individuals?

ANSWER: Is it is matter of public record that Cuan Mhuire has expressed an interest in Eastait Bhaile Chonaill. Please see http://www.cuanmhuire.ie for further information in relation to the charity. As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

5. QUESTION: I understand from what John Curran said on Highland Radio last week that he has already visited three times, the Cuan Mhuire center in Newry. How many other board or executive members have visited Cuan Mhuire centres with respect to the proposed center in Falcarrgh, Donegal? And what centres have they visited? Has Mr. Curran visited other centres or met representatives, individuals or groups, of organsiations regarding the proposed clinic? Which ones?

ANSWER from Ms. nic Grianna: This is a question directed at the Board members.

(Please note while Ms. nic Grianna gave the above answer, board member Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin – the only one the four board members approached to answer in any way – wrote: In response to an invitation from Cuan Mhuire to Údarás na Gaeltachta, I visited the Cuan Mhuire centre in Newry on one occasion.)

6. QUESTION: What other organisations or individuals will be funding the proposed addiction clinic in Falcarragh? And how much will they be contributing (an estimate is fine)?

ANSWER: As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

7. QUESTION: What other organisations or individuals will be involved in the proposed addiction clinic project? And in what capacity?

ANSWER: As stated above, any discussions between Udaras and any of its clients are confidential.

8. QUESTION: Please name the person at the Donegal Udaras office who is spearheading the addiction clinic proposal.

ANSWER: The Regional Manager of the Udaras na Gaeltachta office in Pairc Ghno Ghaoth Dobhair is Micheal Mac Giolla Easbuig.

9. QUESTION: Have any open, public discussion forums been organised by Udaras regarding the proposed addiction clinic where the community can contribute its input? If so, where and when? Please provide evidence of this.

ANSWER: On the 22nd of March 2012 a meeting was held in An tSean Bheairic, An Fal Carrach to which representatives of the local community groups/organisations were invited, including An tSean Bheairic Teo, Cumann Trachtala an Fhal Charraigh,  Pobal Eascarrach, CLG Chloich CheannFhaola, Cumann Gailf Chloich Cheann Fhaola, Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola, Scoil Naomh Fionnan, Togra Solas, and Ionad na Seandaoine. The meeting was organised by Cuan Mhuire and Udaras na Gaeltachta and at the meeting the representatives were informed of the plans that Cuan Mhuire have for Eastait Bhaile Chonaill.

12. QUESTION: Has there been any other project proposals put forward to Udaras for the Ballyconnell House estate? If so, please provide details.

ANSWER: In 2000, 2004, and again in 2007 Udaras na Gaeltachta sought submissions from parties interested in redeveloping Baile Chonaill as a sustainable business. No proposals were approved by its Board arising from these open invitation processes. Such submissions are made in confidence.

A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal

Finally, greater public debate has begun about the financial operations of Udaras na Gaeltachta, an organization rapidly acquiring the sobriquet ‘the secret society,’ and more specifically about spending on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh.

Udaras, having managed to keep the lid on potential spending of between one and three million euro on the centre at Ballyconnell House, had board member and Fine Gael political candidate, John Curran go on the local airwaves over the last few days.

Instead, however, of presenting relevant information on the proposed project’s costing and benefits, he used valuable airtime on Highland Radio to personalize what is a legitimate community issue and attempt to tarnish it as an isolated ‘Sean Hillen‘ one.

Let me make it perfectly clear, if I have not done so already: I am not against or for an addiction clinic in Falcarragh. I have no implication, financial or otherwise in this project (can pro-addiction clinic supporters say this, hand on heart?). Golden axiom in journalism: ‘follow the money.’

ripples

Ripples of democracy begin to spread.

Another axiom for journalists, ‘if they cannot deal with the story, they will try to deal with the story-teller,’ seems more than obvious in this rather unsavory situation. I have heard myself referred to on Highland Radio by Mr. Curran as someone ‘stirring the hornet’s nest’ and as ‘an agitator’ (I have complained formally in writing to the station’s managing director, Shaun Doherty, whose daily news and chat show and Friday morning ‘press round-up’ I have appeared on several occasions, about these personal attacks). In a strange twist to the tale, there was also a reference (a cross between Harry Potter, Star Wars and superhero comic books) on Mr. Curran’s Facebook page to ‘dark forces’ behind me. All in all, it seems spin-doctoring is the unfortunate path Mr. Curran and his political advisers – and those faceless men with most to gain from the addiction clinic – have taken. That’s their prerogative, but it is unprincipled. And utterly untrue.

Owen Curran (no relation to the above), a well-respected community leader in the vanguard of the four-year long Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against household and water charges, told me this week Udaras na Gaeltachta should release immediately costs and benefits information on the proposed church-run addiction clinic and was in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ saying so again (page 17 – by the way, the story headline says 90 people, but I could only count 35 in photo, can’t believe someone would be left out; see also letters page 18, ‘Abused while on the canvas’). “Unfortunately,” he told me. “We live in a time of austerity, a time when there is not a lot of money around, we also live in a time when there has been a severe lack of transparency and accountability in Irish state and semi-state bodies. As such, and with the local Udaras office in Donegal receiving millions of euro every year, it is only fair that ordinary people – whom this proposed project will affect dramatically – be given as much information on the size of the investment and the benefits, including what guarantees there are for what of jobs. Open forums are obvious avenues for discussions to which all members of the community should be able to attend and voice their opinions.

Not only.

Sinn Fein local council candidate, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, who appeared on national television (TG4 ‘An Nuacht’ last Saturday evening) on the addiction centre issue and is quoted in the ‘Donegal Democrat’ today, also called for greater transparency from Udaras. “I have been reliably informed this project will cost between one and three million euro,” the local Gaoth Dobhair-based youth worker told me. “This is yet another example of a very costly project that has not been fully considered, with a marked absence of open public debate involving local people. A lot of money will be spent on this one, single project. As there is not a lot of funding around nowadays, local people have the right to know how much public money exactly will be involved, if this money is being well spent and how many other projects will suffer funding loss as a result. Also what affect it will have on the image of the community. They also need to know what guarantee, if any, there is for local people and what quality and pay-scale these jobs will be.

spring

Spring at Ballyconnell House

Not only.

Fianna Fail local councillor, Seamus O’Domhnaill, has now also called for Udaras to hold a public meeting to discuss the Cuan Mhuire addiction project. As the Donegal Gaeltacht is much more than just Falcarragh, it is important that ‘meetings’ not ‘meeting’ be held, to give the 16,000 people in other parts of the county’s Irish-speaking region (including its three main areas, Na, Rosa, Gaoth Dobhair and Cloich Cheann Fhaola), a chance to air their views on such a costly venture.

Last Friday afternoon, an open-air petition-signing took place at Falcarragh crossroads calling for more funding for cultural tourism projects in the area and greater public debate over the proposed addiction clinic to be run by Cuan Mhuire, a church-run company, drew open, lively debate. Among concerns voiced were the project’s impact on the safety of local children; future restricted access to the estate’s grounds, the location for a series of annual community events and festivals; and resulting reduced funding for other projects, including those for cultural tourism.

Mary McGarvey, who claimed she owns property on Falcarragh’s Main Street, said at the petition-signing table that the centre would be good for the town’s business while a mother and local festival committee member said while she would “prefer a well-considered leisure facility, especially one for children, something should be done about that derelict house.” Cloughaneely Golf Club members at the petition table complained of reduced funding from Udaras and feared for the club’s survival.

It was, to use an ancient Greek term, ‘agora’ day in Falcarragh and in the classic Greek version of democracy, it was ‘agora’ in terms of open debate and exchange of views.  Why could Udaras not have done this? Why not now in open forums, especially as the seal of secrecy has been prized open?

Sadly also, people on Friday afternoon said they would like to sign the petition but were afraid to do so – including someone (whose identity will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) representing a local arts and cultural project – saying she feared being punished by Udaras and receive no funding in future from it for projects she might put forward. One person even called me after signing the petition (adding that he thought Udaras should “be disbanded”) saying some people had “approached” him and that he feared he might lose business (he asked me for his name not to be mentioned here).

Is this the kind of society we want – one where people are afraid to present their opinions openly, and be listened to; prevented, indirectly or directly, from doing so by a powerful, economic group such as Udaras? I thought, especially since we gained national independence, that the days of humiliating people by making them tug their forelocks was over.

As for Udaras and its spokesperson, Mr. Curran. Instead of presenting specific answers to specific questions on the project’s costings and benefits, all he would say on numerous Highland Radio sound-bites was that he supported the project and that it would not detract from Udaras’s overall budget spend locally (hard to believe when the budget has already been slashed and that other Gaeltachts in Ireland will hardly be so generous as to give Donegal much more money over the addiction centre’s high cost).

Mr. Curran also declined to give investment figures saying, “To date, no contracts have been signed, no budgets have been agreed, so there really isn’t any really figures to be spoken about.” Yet he was adamant forty-five jobs – note the figure is an exact one (for what reason?) – would be created. He also did not know how many of these jobs would be local and what kind of jobs they would be.

spring

Flowers and forest at Ballyconnell House

And finally, to Udaras HQ in Galway, and communications and marketing manager Siubhán Nic Grianna. Some readers may remember I sent 12 formal, written questions a couple of weeks ago, with a set deadline, to her and to all Donegal members of the group’s national board, namely John Curran, Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin and Daithí Alcorn, as well as its Arranmore-born chairperson, Anna Ní Ghallachair (see post here). Of all the board members and chairperson, only Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin had the professional courtesy of responding in person.

As Ms. Nic Grianna’s provision of relevant information on Udaras’ use of public money has been less than co-operative in the past, I am sad to say her responses show that position has remained unaltered, with no details on the investment (estimated or otherwise) or the true benefits, including jobs, of the proposed addiction clinic. Nor other key details on other aspects of Udaras’ financial operations. I will detail each response to the 12 questions in a future blog.

It is worth noting here that prominent leaders in the addiction field say two such clinics in a rural area such as Donegal is most unusual and, as such, detailed market research would be required to justify it (the other center in Donegal is in Muff). Even in Ireland, there is no such situation.

In conclusion, I believe an important step has been made to open discussions about this proposed addiction clinic – but as well respected community leaders have now said –  release of pertinent information is necessary for a more agreeable and equitable outcome for all concerned.

Questions still unanswered –

  • How can Udaras promise so categorically 45 jobs if, as its spokesman, Mr. Curran, says, no budgets have been agreed, no contracts signed?
  • How can Udaras guarantee more funds will be allocated for other projects (as Mr. Curran states on Highland Radio) when the organisation’s budget has already been severely cut?
  • How exactly will this project impact on the Donegal Gaeltacht-Cloughaneely-Falcarragh community at large?
  • What kind of addictions will be treated within the proposed clinic – drug, alcohol or/and sexual addictions?
  • What other proposals have been put forward for Ballyconnell House as stated by an Udaras spokesperson in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ (after Udaras tourism officer, Gearoid O’Smaolain, said previously ‘no’ proposals were put forward)?
  • What are the reasons these proposals for Ballyconnell House were rejected in favor of an addiction clinic?
  • Which company conducted the feasibility study?

Happy “May Day’ Weekend to Everyone!

Stark racism rears its ugly head in west Donegal

Sadly, an ugly racist incident took place Friday afternoon that brings the notion of ‘Ireland of the Welcomes’ and the reputation of the Donegal Gaeltacht into severe disrepute.

In trying to encourage more open public debate on what she considers is a serious community issue – Údarás spending of what is believed to be between one and three million euro on a proposed drug addiction clinic in Falcarragh and the need for greater funding for cultural tourism projects in west Donegal – my wife, Columbia – an emigrant to Ireland, now a proud Irish citizen and happy living in the Gaeltacht – was racially abused and told to “Go back where you come from. We don’t want you here.”

The person who shouted the abuse was a man, driver of a car with the registration plate 08DL5251 who stopped as he passed by a petition-signing table my wife was manning as a volunteer at Falcarragh crossroads around 3.30 pm this Friday.

This man’s distressing contribution to what he might well call ‘community development’ is all the worse considering how so many men and women from Ireland down through the generations, including the present one – and unfortunately, many from west Donegal – are emigrants themselves, in search of a new life in other countries, including England, Australia and the US. In this context, isn’t it sad such attitudes of discrimination as this man’s still exist here? Not only were his cutting and insulting remarks an example of stark racism right here in the heart of the Gaeltacht, but also utter hypocrisy.

My wife, Columbia, is a well-educated woman, a former secondary-school language teacher, one of two sisters from an ordinary working-class family in Vișeu de Sus, Maramureş, northern Romania, a small town very similar to Falcarragh itself  – both in terms of population size, pretty, rural location and indeed, economic difficulties it faces. Like many others, Columbia and her family suffered severely under Communism there until dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted from power in December 1989. Such suffering included lack of basic freedoms and constant food shortages – reminders in themselves of what our ancestors right here in west Donegal suffered.

Columbia raised herself from humble beginnings, won a scholarship to university and finished not just one degree but a number of qualifications in journalism, teaching and business, finally becoming for a number of years managing director of a company employing more than 30 full-time people. Not only do I love this lady very much, I am also extremely proud of what she has achieved in her life thus far.

If anyone should know the identity of the person driving car registered 08DL5251 on Friday afternoon through the centre of Falcarragh, please tell him an apology is in order. Doing so is the mark of a real man.

Alternatively, if he happens to pass you on the road, sound your horn – it might just act as reminder to him of the reputational damage he has done to the people around him and the place where he lives.

In defending spending on the Falcarragh addiction clinic, an apparent platform for his political career – and instead of dealing with the issue at hand – Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran, labeled myself and my wife on Highland Radio as ‘agitators’ and as people ‘stirring the hornet’s nest,’ rather than as concerned citizens.

Personalizing an issue in this way and using such incendiary terms often lights dangerous fuses in people. Ugly things – such as outright racism and violence – can occur as a result. Whether he meant to or not, Mr. Curran should now take steps to avoid such words for fear they are taken on board by such people as the racist car driver. In fact, perhaps, he should devote his attentions to dealing with such racial outbreaks, isolated though they may be.  And, of course making sure as a government-appointed Udaras board member that there is greater transparency and accountability when it comes to the organisation’s operations, and this addiction clinic specifically.

Sadly Yours,

Concerned Husband and Citizen

Bun na Leaca, Gaoth Dobhair