Using the magnificent panoramic backdrop of the Atlantic coastline on Ireland’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ people living around Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) in the Donegal Gaeltacht this weekend displayed not only a strong sense of community spirit but a classic example of cultural tourism.
The event was the annual Cnoc Fola Festival, which continued today (Sunday) with Mass at the old 19th century Mass Rock, all organized by a hard-working committee led by well-known former teacher and headmistress, Mary Nic Phaidin, whose family run the highly-successful Teac Jack boutique hotel, bar and restaurant.
It is a festival enjoyed by locals and visitors alike and it was uplifting to see so many people there yesterday (Saturday), not just from the surrounding region, but also from countries as far apart as Japan, Germany, France and the US, including a bus-full of young students and teachers from New Mexico.
Living within walking distance, my wife, Columbia, from Transylvania, Romania, and I attended with acquaintances from Portland, Oregon, Paul and Kristin Newbry, who thought it was “a wonderful event that reflected deep-rooted Irish traditions, and was so much fun to experience.” Like everyone else there, Paul and Kristin enjoyed the famous traditional ‘brush dance’ (Damhsa na Scuaibe) and sean-nós steps performed by Proinsias Mhic Suibhne; experts in sheep shearing; a blacksmith working his anvil, shoeing a handsome horse; and basket weaving by artist and teacher, Ownie Diver.
Even the stalls set around the charming, 100-year-old thatched cottage, Teach Mhuiris, offered the kind of foods and drinks that have been eaten and drank for generations, such as dulse and carrageen moss handpicked and sold by friendly farmer, Pa MacPhaidin; health-giving, organic bog bean juice made by Margaret ‘Kitty’ Boyle from Shaskenbeg; delicious wheaten bread and scones with rhubarb, gooseberry, blackcurrant and strawberry jam made by local women, and a wide range of fresh seafood such as crab legs, a bumper harvest caught by local fishermen.
The festival took place as Donegal County Council announced the closure of applications for its first-ever Gaeltacht Tourism Officer, a post that will be decided within the next week or so.
Having lived in the area for over ten years, in Bun na Leaca, in the shadow of Cnoc Fola, and proudly possessing ‘O’ and ‘A’ level Irish with accompanying gold fáinne I consider this an excellent initiative, so much so I have applied for the position myself.
Creating employment and the economic benefits that accrue from that for cafes, hotels, bed and breakfast operations, bars, activity and leisure projects and community groups in this marginalized area of northwest Donegal should be the number one priority. In doing so, we can help stop the sad flow of young people out of the region to far-off countries through emigration, a movement that desiccates the entire social fabric, with communities barely able, and sometimes simply unable, to even field football teams for local leagues and tournaments.
Gone are the days when the manufacturing industry took care of our employment needs, when the local industrial estates in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and elsewhere in the Gaeltacht teemed with thousands of workers. While some smaller companies still exist, due in great part to the valiant efforts of local entrepreneurs, large spaces stand empty and forlorn. To an extent, English-speaking call centers have replaced factories. And even they generally last only a short time before leaving, often under controversial circumstances, with some obviously adopting a ‘let’s-take-local-funding-then-run’ attitude.
For a number of years, I have voiced my opinion through this blog and through newspaper articles that cultural, environment-friendly tourism initiatives should be expanded and strengthened, that they are a key avenue upon which jobs can be created, enabling families to remain living in the Gaeltacht and the native language to remain alive.
Otherwise, I feel – like many others do – that it will go the way of the dinosaurs – extinction.
The success of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ that I helped establish more than five years ago and where I teach creative writing is a modest example of what can be achieved through cultural tourism. We have succeeded in attracting almost 100 writers – novelists, short-story writers and poets – from all over the world to Gaoth Dobhair, many of whom have never been to Ireland, never mind Donegal, before. And after learning basic Irish phrases through our collaboration with Foras na Gaeilge, ceilidhe dancing at Teac Jack, where writing workshops are held, with tuition from members of community centre An Crannog; excursions to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ ferryboat with Captain Sabba Curran, and to Glenveagh National Park and Castle, they all leave loving the place and its people.
With 35 years of experience in international media and marketing, including branding, on print, broadcast and digital media platforms and the last ten years specializing in tourism, with a travel book to be published later this year, perhaps, if selected as the winning candidate, I can contribute to the regeneration of the Gaeltacht area. We will soon see.