Crooks, citizens or celebrities?

Ethics, or lack thereof, has been the raging catchphrase in Donegal recently with county councilor John O’Donnell  caught on RTE camera allegedly offering lobbying services for cash and Bunbeg-based, EU-funded former school principal, Finbarr Boyle, stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for childrens’ food.

But what’s all the commotion about? Hasn’t there been such unsavory goings-on right here in Donegal for years? Why the shock? Or is there any, really?

In last weekend’s edition of ‘The Irish Times,’ columnist Fintan O’Toole, painted a scary scenario, a malaise spreading nationwide.

…other cultures criminalise the things they find unacceptable; we find unacceptable only the things that have been criminalized. If you can get away with it, we reckon, it can’t be all that bad.” He then quoted Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan on white-collar crime, saying, “It is remarkable, first of all, how long it takes, how heavy the procedures are and how light the consequences.

Back in Donegal.

Ardara-born Finbarr Boyle’s story is well-publicized “School principal pleads guilty to 7 counts of theft and forgery.”

As a journalist and editor for over thirty years, I thought sharpened instincts had made me a good judge of character – boy, was I ever wrong.

Sitting at a lunch prepared by my wife in my home with Mr. Boyle as guest some time ago, I would never have guessed the man across from me would stoop to such lows as using a village school’s money where he was principal to treat himself royally to holidays in England, Spain and other fine places, car and house payments and expensive golf equipment.

Finbarr Boyle Donegal, CeangalG,

(l to r): Concubhar Ó LIatháin, CeangalG Marketing Manager, Claire Nic Neacail, Alasdair Morrison CeangalG Director, Dinny McGinley Fine Gael TD and Fionbar Ó Baoill – CeangalG Training Manager.

Mr. Boyle was given space inside the headquarters of Údarás na Gaeltachta in the Gweedore Industrial Estate, Bunbeg as a training manager – surprising, as that particular organisation has refused to gave any free space to small, local entrepreneurs in that same estate, a situation local Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, has consistently taken issue with.

I must admit, Mr. Boyle impressed me then, a fast talker, assertive and supremely confident. Yes, I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘Sounds like a conman to me.’ As things turned out, you are absolutely right. But I was left sad and disillusioned after learning of his multiple theft. He struck me then as the kind of person who could be a positive force for change, especially as we discussed the importance of ethics and the need for the Donegal Gaeltacht to rid itself of its historic cronyism and nepotism which have warped normal economic development of the region.

Yet this is the same person found guilty of seven counts of theft over a number of years (he admitted to many more as part of his plea bargain), for whom Judge John Aymler may not impose a custodial sentence because, in part, 25,000 euro of the money taken may be paid back within a year. That’s around a tenth of what was stolen.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

A key question, however, still remains unanswered: Mr. Boyle was caught red-handed several years ago (the investigation has been ongoing for at least seven (7) years), so how did he obtain a well-paying position as training manager of a lucrative, multi-million euro, tax-payer supported EU funded project – ironically, one aimed at helping economically disadvantaged people? Was this , in itself, a classic case of nepotism and cronyism? Regardless of the multiple thefts, people have asked, “Does a school principal have the business credentials to train entrepreneurs?”

When contacted by me this week on the issue, Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Scotland, e-mailed back, saying, “Mr. Boyle’s actual contract of employment, for the post of Training Officer, with the wider CeangalG Project, was formally and directly managed through our Project Partners, Údarás na Gaeltachta.” He added that Mr. Boyle was “employed by the project between 9th Sept 2013 and 31st March 2015.” The Gardai investigation began as late as 2008 and Mr. Boyle, according to media reports, admitted his thefts almost two years ago (January last year).

Mr. Munro added, “At no stage in either the recruitment process or during his subsequent period of employment, was CeangalG ever made aware of there being any on-going police investigation.” Mr. Munro cc his email to the law company of Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie and to the University of the Highlands. Have I touched a red button?

Entitled CeangalG (ConenctG), this project is funded by the EU’s INTERREG IVA, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, MG ALBA, the Scottish Government, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and focuses on the Gaeltachts of Donegal, Scotland and Belfast. On it’s website, it states:

CeangalG Donegal, INTERREG IVAAs for independent councilor John O’Donnell, the ball is largely in his court. He can do the dignified thing and bow out. If he stays, he places the entire council under a shadow. Independent councillor Frank McBrearty says he should be removed from all committees. But it seems resigning is the last thing O’Donnell will do. Another Independent councillor, Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuic, is right in asking fellow councilors to walk out of the chamber at the next meeting in protest. Someone has to stand up, otherwise – due to blatant impunity – it will get much worse. Let’s see if that happens. If not, then Fintan O’Toole’s words ring frighteningly true.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

Independent councilor John O Donnell: will he do the right thing?

But questionable dealings are nothing new in Donegal, as many local people have told me.

Under the auspices of the former Fianna Fáil government, Liam Cunningham (Liam Ó Cuinneagáin), was paid substantial sums for his services as member and long-time chairperson of Údarás na Gaeltachta – more than a quarter of a million euro. Between 2002 to 2012, his travel expenses alone amounted to 131,730 euro. His fees amounted to 206,962 euro.

More than that, documents requested by me under the Freedom of Information Act also now show that at least one company he established, Oideas Gael, received generous amounts of money – more than 350,000 euro in a series of payments – from the very same organization he chaired for so long. Mr. Cunningham said Oideas Gael was a hobby. With a financial return like that, that’s quite a hobby.

In stock market terms, is this not a case of insider trading, and therefore unethical? After all, no better-placed person to access money from a group than the person who’s on the inside track of that very same group, knowing intimately its budgets, its strategy and its key staff. When called by me about this situation in a phone interview, Liam said, “Sean, things were different then. I don’t see it as a conflict of interest.” Different then? How is it different? The question was never answered.

Oideas Gael, Liam Cunningham Donegal

Liam Cunningham: is it wrong to lobby for money from the very funding organisation that you chair?

Some readers might say, ‘Liam hosts Irish-language classes.’ That’s true, but so do many others and they don’t benefit from the rich financial backing Oideas Gael received so handily. Still others could do so – if they had that kind of money. Is such treatment fair and ethical? Is the playing ground a level one? How many times has Údarás said there’s not enough money for your project?

The particular situation of Mr. Cunningham also raises an inevitable question: was it linked to an ongoing quid pro quo agreement among local Údarás board members then? And has anything changed since? Interested to find out? You have the right to know, and here’s how. (See below).

Mr. Cunningham has since been named, ‘Donegal Person of the Year.’ Considering the dire economic development of the Gaeltacht, where I live, under his watch, the question must be asked, ‘Is this how we want the term ‘model citizen’ to be defined?”

Michael Heaney, formerly a director of services with Donegal County Council, has recently been appointed director of Enterprise & Investment with Údarás. Will his leadership change the way Údarás doles out money, how it selects projects to fund? Or will the same old cadre of elites be the recipients? Time will tell.

As Údarás is helping DLDC select projects for funding under the EU’s upcoming LEADER programme, it will be operating under much tighter European regulations than the rather loose Irish ones it has been working under thus far. It will be interesting to monitor the quality of their project selection process for LEADER.

As O’Toole writes in last Saturday’s column, “If corruption is very low on the list of priorities for criminal justice, it is little higher on the list of political priorities…. So long as impunity reigns, the rare eejit who gets caught will always evoke sympathy… What marks out (Ireland) is the breathtaking degree of impunity for all white-collar crimes.

Isn’t it long past time this situation changed? The upcoming election gives us the chance to affect such change. In  ofthis regard, it is worth noting the words  ‘Donegal News’ columnist Martin McGinley’s in Friday’s edition, “We get what we accept.”

You have the right to know:

You can find out additional information on the dealings of Údarás by e-mailing Judy Ní Dhubháin at judy(at)udaras.ie. Quoting the FOI Act 2014, you can ask for any information you like, financial or otherwise. The service is free.

Anyone wanting answers from CeangalG, can contact Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group at dm.smo(at)uhi.ac.uk or +44 (0) 1471 888352. Claire Nicolson is the organisation’s administrator claire(at)ceangalg.net Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, is its director. Or through Údarás na Gaeltachta, Donegal. Tel: 074-9560100. Fax: 074-9560101. Email: dnag(at)udaras.ie

Be sure to tell me what you find out. I’d be curious to know.

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Columba: saint, soldier or New Age Pagan?

Columba, considered saintly by some, charismatic by others, was a bit of a ‘cute whore,’ a caustic and cantankerous character, a male chauvinist, thrifty to the point of miserliness and perhaps a non-entity who did diddly squat except be a pawn for powerful war lords vying over territory in early Ireland.

Such are the colorful views of some leading historians, archaeologists and writers gathered recently in what is considered the Celtic mystic’s ‘home place’ of west Donegal to deconstruct aspects of the legendary fellow’s life. The three-day conference at Loch Altan Hotel, Gortahork, was organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall, ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba.

Photo by Alan Sproull

Rural west Donegal – the area is considered the ‘home place’ of the legendary Columba. Photo by Alan Sproull

So who then was responsible for some of the magnanimous stories about this larger-than-life character and his supposedly ‘unEarthly’ powers and their ultimate adoption as mainstream belief? A new, ambitious group hell-bent on making sure it rose to the top of the ‘Champions League of Religions’ table, that’s who. Not an easy task, mind you, for developing Christianity faced well-established teams of equally high calibre, many with loyal fan bases, catchy club anthems, ambient arenas and good-looking kits – all well-suited to the emotional needs and superstitions of Irish people around 2,000 years ago.

To compete with the Red Devils, Gunners, Barças, Reals, Inters and Juves of the religious world, Christianity had to go on the transfer market to strengthen its position. And it didn’t much waste time about doing so either, quickly transferring a bunch of Pagan symbols – wells, crosses, incense, wreaths, bells, chants, ceremonies – even wedding rings – under its spreading angelic wings.

But that wasn’t enough. With solid defensive work and fine attacking play, opposing teams held out well against them.

Then leaders of the new movement put their collective heads together and in an illuminated moment of intellectual brilliance (in lingo religiosa ‘the Holy Spirit came upon them’) realized the one vital ingredient missing from their strategy – the persuasive power of an ancient, as well as modern, condition known commonly as ‘celebratitis.’

picts

Using Pagan symbols such as the cross, Columba may have persuaded tribes-people to a different way of thinking.

So, as one does when one has rising aspirations of political greatness, they created a sub-committee. A subcommittee with the sole purpose of weaving together stories on selected individuals, stories so grandiose and wondrous they’d make celebrities out of any plain Peter, Paul and Mary, alive or dead. In fact, their preferred choice was the latter, for among all the beliefs abounding – then and now – there’s one you can be pretty damn sure of –- it’s difficult to argue with a corpse.

Thus was born the legend of Columba – about whom, conveniently for his ‘handlers,’ conjecture heavily outweighs fact.

Hell-bent on their mission, monks of the newly-fashioned Christian organization created a carefully-crafted chronology of the fellow’s life that they entitled ‘Chronicles of Iona’ but while others mention a library in Kilmacrennan where it might have been housed, no-one has found a single shred of evidence of it (or such evidence, for reasons of strategy, has been craftily shifted to location unknown). A censored part of it is in the ‘Annals of Ulster.’ In it is included details of what they purport to be miracles (seemingly the head gaffer put around a memo to his fellow brethren asking for submissions as they were a bit short on anecdotes) and other material supporting their cause, including their anti-woman crusade (all contributions welcome as to the origin of this particular stance). For example, Columba is supposed to have banished all women from Iona, warning others to be wary of them, not to give them too much power, or – interestingly – too much water, one conference speaker claimed.

As for his alleged saintliness, historians indicate Columba – like many other monks of the time – often believed the secular to be more sacred than the spiritual and were mere ciphers for rival, warring factions, at a time when churches were placed on territorial borders as symbolic deterrents or markers. It is believed Dai Riada, the king of the area associated with Columba, might have wanted to expand his holdings and used our fellow solely for that reason.

Fired up by his missionary zeal, Columba also supposedly skedaddled hither and thither all over Europe. But, just as in the case of saints’ relics, he’d have to have been cloned to be in all the places he is supposed to have been, doing the things he is supposed to have been doing. Some believers, for example, say he was not only involved in discovering the holy wells of Derry but was the actual founder of that particular northern Irish city. There’s little contemporary evidence of this. Due to the gap of years between his death (around 593) and the city’s founding, he’d have to have been a time-travelling vampire to have accomplished the task. Another monk, Augustine, is more central to Derry, having established a church there since the 600s AD. At best, Columba’s favorite Uncle Fiachra was Derry’s founder but again evidence even of this is severely lacking.

According to Christian slant, Columba is also thought to have brought back the so-called Gospel of Martin from Tours in France. Please don’t ask me to accept this on ‘blind faith.’ That’s like the blind leading the blind, and there’s no easier way to go astray than that. More likely, with spelling in those days being less than precise and Tory Island known in documents as Toraigh, Toirinis and Tourensis, it was a case of geographical misplacement (or story enhancement).

iona

Iona – a windswept Scottish island that reflects the heritage of the legendary Celtic mystic.

Even the much talked about Battle of Cúl Dreimne near Ben Bulben in Sligo – allegedly fought over Columba’s illegal copying of a book (‘to every cow its calf and to every book its copy’) and his banishment to Iona – this may simply have been the workings of an over-imaginative scribe in a cloistered scriptorium. Instead, the battle may have been over the killing of man, who was under Columba’s protection, by Diarmait mac Cerbaill, High King of Tara. Some say the leader of a monastic settlement in Inismurray Island, Sligo, then told Columba bluntly it would be‘better’ to high-tail it out of town and across the water (others say he may have left out of guilt at causing so much bloodshed).

Regardless, what seems to be true is that there was no love lost between Columba and Diarmait. Diarmait, the last High King to worship in the Pagan manner and who celebrated the Feast of Tara, the pagan inauguration ceremony, was not keen on this new Christian doctrine, seeing it as an opportunistic usurper. The Irish annals include a reference to him even building druid fences on the battlefield.

As for Columba being caustic and cantankerous, word has it that he’d simply curse people he didn’t like. One man who pretended he was asleep to avoid talking to him ended up snoozing for a year and a day. Poked in the eye by a reed while tying his shoe, Columba cursed all reeds, thus the reason they’re brown and no longer sharp. After slipping on a salmon…… well, I’ll let you conjure up for yourself what curse Columba might have bestowed upon those innocent little creatures.

Amidst all the fact, fiction and propaganda, what emerges is that Pagan leaders and Christian monks and their supportive warring chieftains battled each other for territorial advantage and the spoils of victory that came with it.

Whether you believe Columba was your average Joe Blow or a saint, a term open to so many interpretations (one speaker at the Gortahork conference referred to him as “a bit of a James Bond character”), the cult that grew around him makes for fascinating anthropological and sociological discussion.

That is why the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project, a partnership between Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, could be a boon for cultural tourism. After hundreds of years, wouldn’t it be nice for communities, and not only the church, to benefit from such a legendary figure? Developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful pilgrimage project could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

For further information, see the book by University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey’s (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

A note of caution: when reading about Columba and his exploits it is probably helpful to keep in mind the old adage – History is written by the victors.

A poem attributed to Columba is also worth musing upon –

“If poet’s verses be but fables

So be food and garments fables

So is all the world a fable

So is man of dust a fable.”