Festive tribute to the creative, artistic people of Donegal

Getting kissing techniques just right for on-stage credibility, takes practice.

Ask director-cum-teacher Máire Ioannidis.

She’s taught loads of people how to do it, her latest challenge being in the recent production of the musical ‘Hairspray’ by students at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola at Amharclann theatre in Bunbeg recently.

“Where do you put your hands, your arms,” she explained to me during a conversation after the Donegal Gaeltacht’s school’s triumphant, four-show run attended by more than a thousand people. “What side do turn your head to kiss, if you both turn the same way heads, noses may bump together, hardly an authentic and romantic sight to behold.”

That was only one of many challenges facing Máire and her team in the ambitious production. Capacity crowds and standing ovations are testament to the fact that they got them all right, including directing sixty-six teenagers.

Tickets for all productions were like gold-dust, with friendly Amharclann general manager, Manus O’Domhnaill, saying the shows provided a record attendance for the historic theatre, which was established in 1961 and reopened after major renovation more than a year ago.

Speaking about ‘Hairspray,’ Máire said proudly, “This particular musical holds a special place in my heart, a story about an amazing opportunity that turns a vision into reality. And I thoroughly enjoyed working with our talented students who showed commitment, energy and enthusiasm throughout. Unlocking their confidence, seeing them grow and perform on stage each night along with watching their joyous celebrations and a shared team attitude of ‘we did it!’ at the end of each show made this whole experience very worthwhile.”

‘Hairspray’ is an American musical with score by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman based on John Waters’ 1988 film. Winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical, it focuses on efforts by a dance-loving teenager to bring racial integration to a popular TV show in 1960s Baltimore.

Having gone to watch several productions of ‘Hairspray,’ in other theaters, Máire and her team then created several unique extras to their production. These included performers surprising audiences by entering from different doorways at Amharclann and a scene in which a chorus of singers walk through the aisles holding candles singing, then sitting on the floor among the audience.

Set changes were accomplished professionally with the aid of lighting, for example, from an ordinary living-room scene complete with ironing-board and TV to that of a prison cell, in which the lead performer, Róisín Doogan, playing Tracy Turnblad, has been incarcerated.

From the get-go, the opening song and dance routine ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ this production leaped along in vibrant bounds with other complex choreography and songs including a powerful renditions of ‘Big, Blond and Beautiful,’ ‘Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now’ and ‘It Takes Two’ spiced with comedy and sentiment.

“PCC’s production of ‘Hairspray’ was full of energy from beginning to end,” said Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde, a well-known actor who was in charge of lighting for this show. “Their singing was lively and it was excellently choreographed. It was well cast and they all portrayed their character effortlessly. Their drive and enthusiasm was palpable, students and teachers alike. “

Máire herself is no stranger to the arts, being a member of local acting group, Aisteori Ghaoth Dobhair, and an accomplished flute player. She also directed a school production of ‘Grease’ for two consecutive years. Of Gweedorean-Greek parentage, Máire has worked at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola for the last four years teaching a mix of Irish language, IT and business.

Aside from the versatile student actors and singers, full credit goes to crew, some of whom were also students, and senior production members including producer Donna Coll; choral director, Siún McDermott-Lyng; choreographer, Maureen Byrne; audio Noel Boylan; set construction, Joe Coll, Christopher Symth and Manus Gallagher; costumes, Mairead Harkin McGee and Siobhan Doogan. School principal, Maeve Sweeney and her deputy, Donna McFadden, said they were “over the moon about the show’s success.” Profits went towards various school expenses.

Coming up soon at Amharclann is its annual pantomime, this one entitled, ‘Leipreachán an Phota Mhóir.’ With Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde involved, both on and off-stage, it’s bound to be a beauty. Don’t miss it! January 24-26 and January 30 to February 1.

The Amharclann and student actors and production crew at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola are only the tip of the iceberg of creativity throughout the Donegal Gaeltacht. Throw a stone and you’re likely to hit a painter, a musician, a sculptor, a yoga teacher, a hypnotherapist, a novelist, a poet, a psychotherapist on the head.

Consider the wondrous wealth of talent coming up beginning tomorrow at the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair, the Gweedore Winter School beginning tomorrow (Friday) –  http://scoilgheimhridh.com/

Also, please read previous blog on this site on an issue vitally important for everyone living in Donegal.

And check out ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ https://www.irelandwritingretreat.com/ and my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal and the United States https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pretty-Ugly-Sean-Hillen/dp/1523361158

Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rides high

I was delighted to write this feature piece for the ‘Donegal News’ recently supporting the hard-work, communal spirit and creativity of people in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and the Rosses in hosting their respective festivals.

For such a small rural area, often there are more diverse cultural activities – dance, theatre, sporting events, concerts, to be name but a few – than in major urban areas.

Delightfully, making choices as to which to attend can be the biggest challenge.

Sean Hillen Donegal gaeltacht, donegal gaeltacht,

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Another cultural entertainment success for Amharclann

What a terrific cultural contribution this historic theatre provides not just for Bunbeg, not just for the Gaeltacht, not just for Donegal but for all-Ireland, north and south.

world itineraries

by Sean Hillen

Six musicians-singers-songwriters with such a wealth of talent it seems blatantly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals – that sums up Irish-group, Arcanadh, which played to an enthusiastic audience at historic Amharclann theater, Bunbeg, northwest Donegal, Ireland this week.

Here I must admit my bias.

In a rare moment of wisdom, I invited this terrific group to tour Romania when I launched the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in that former-Communist country. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

The result more than 10 years ago was the same as that at Amharclann 72-hours ago – a boisterous appeal for more at the end and an appreciative standing ovation after their final encore.

Members of Arcanadh have known each other for more than twenty years and this is reflected in their smooth light-hearted banter off-song and their seamless harmonies on-song. Their passion for their…

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Clannad create colorful tapestry of Celtic music

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

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

Amharclann theater, Gweedore theater

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pagan-colors for a leading Druidic Celtic music group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clannad in Gweedore, Clannad music, live music in Donegal

Multi-talented musical trio.

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

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

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