Lion-tamers, nude concert-goers, the Rolling Stones, one-clawed lobsters and terrific Irish music

How can small boxes of air that fit neatly between one’s hands create the haunting rhythm of a heartbeat, the roar of an angry sea and the chanting of cloistered monks at prayer?

Ask the talented, five-member ‘Irish Concertina Ensemble’ who captivated a packed audience earlier this week at Teach Hiudái Beag, a popular traditional music venue on the main street of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht (a region that features prominently in new suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ (Easons, Gallaghers/Matt Bonners Bunbeg, Amazon) and where the Irish Writing Retreat takes place every year).

Such wondrous music left me bemused about how such a rich diversity of melodies can emerge from such a tiny bellows-buttons-reed instrument. The ensemble, with members from different Irish counties, was one of many performances at this week’s ongoing annual ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ (Winter School) in Gaoth Dobhair (the festival continues right through Sunday, so buy your show tickets now).

Composed of Tim Collins, Padraig Rynne, Micheal O’Raghallaigh, Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Edel Fox – the musicians brought this popular, cozy pub to a hushed and appreciative silence. So exhilarated were affable pub manger and owner, also himself a fine musician, Hugh Gallagher, my wife, Columbia, myself and others, we gave them a hearty and well-deserved standing ovation.

Irish Concertina Ensemble, Scoil Gheimhridh

Boxes of air that produce mellifluous music.

Drawing on a wealth of melodies, some old, some new, some composed for other instruments such as the fiddle, flute and uilleann pipe, the group displayed the surprising and immense versatility of the concertina.

Not only were there versions of tunes by such iconic instrumentalists as Turlough O’Carolan, (1670–1738), a blind Irish harper and composer, but also their own compositions. Highlights among the latter were a series of mellifluous waltzes in honor of Kathy, a friend and admired social activist who died from cancer, and also a dreamy melody inspired by watching the sunrise with Oisin, the young child of one of the group members.

The opening night of the festival was a veritable cabaret of myriad talents at Ionad Cois Locha in memory of well-respected community and media leader, Seamus Mac Géidigh, broadcaster and manager of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta‘s northwest service in Donegal, who recently passed away.

Such is the interest in preserving local Irish heritage, fiddle player and teacher Róisín McGrory who is also co-founder of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project established in 1999 to preserve the music of the region, also performed at the festival.

Another highlight of this week’s festival and music school so far has been the double-bill of Carlow-based brothers Diarmuid and Brian Mac Gloinn who perform as ‘Ye Vagabonds’ and star fiddle-player and ‘Hobbit-lookalike’ Frankie Gavin, who played alongside bouzouki-mandolin player, Brendan O’Regan. The former, resembling young, bearded troubadours, moved effortlessly from ballad to toe-tapping melodies, from the ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ a soft air about a man lost at sea, which they learned from Donegal-native Paddy Tunney, the same county their mother hails from – Arranmore Island – to a lively finale that included ‘The Lark In The Morning.’ They sang songs in both English and Irish.

While he strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of my heroes, the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the affable Gavin’s blinding bursts of speed reminded me more of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney,’ the character in the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name whose fiddle playing ‘made folks dance like a wave of the sea.’

Frankie Gavin, Brendan O’Regan, Donegal Irish music

(l to r) Frankie ‘Bilbo Baggins’ Gavin and Brendan ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan display their ample talents at Teac Jack.

To say Gavin’s bow tripped lightly over the strings would be a severe understatement. Skipping, dancing, somersaulting even, would be much more appropriate descriptions – from hornpipes and reels to jigs and highlands; from Donegal composition, ‘Strike the Gay Harp’ to ‘The Old Grey Goose;’ from tunes by well-known Irish musical ambassadors such as fiddler Tommy Peoples and music collector and uilleann pipe player, Séamus Ennis; to others learned from fellow musician, Dermot Byrne; and still others he performed previously with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in a ‘Jigs and Jazz’ show.

Gavin’s ludicrously fast fiddle-playing may have seemed eye-to brain-to-fingers neurologically impossible but when he picked up the flute he really put the emotional brakes on his packed audience at Teac Jack in Glassagh (which also features prominently in ‘Pretty Ugly‘), leaving them glassy-eyed with his version of the classic slow air, ‘Boolavogue,’ about Father John Murphy and the Wexford uprising during the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Not only, but the founder of the well-known group, DeDannan, is also a natural raconteur and effortlessly entertained his listeners with an assortment of jokes, ranging from lion-tamers to one-clawed lobsters. Alongside him, ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan displayed his musical virtuosity with a simply brilliant solo of his own competition on mandolin.

The festival’s energetic and committed organizers deserve great praise.

They include Conor Byrne, accomplished flute player who was mentored by west Belfast musician Frankie Kennedy (who tragically died from cancer at a young age and for whom the festival was originally named after); Cathal Ó Gallchóir, who is also manager of local community center, An Crannog in nearby Derrybeg, where varied activities ranging from yoga to Irish language and music classes take place; their excellent, friendly support team; and special guests such as fiddle player, music teacher and journalist, Martin McGinley, who opened the festival this year and who conducted a most interesting, light-hearted and insightful  afternoon interview with Gavin at PobalScoil Gaoth Dobhair (more on that, including naked Danish concert-goers and sessions with Jagger and Co. of The Rolling Stones in an enlarged festival review on World Itineraries later this weekend).

Scoil Gheimridh, Irish music festivals, live Irish music

Cathal Ó Gallchóir introduces festival musical performers.

‘Scoil Gheimridh’ has now rightly become a prominent feature of national Irish cultural life. Students and teachers, men and women, schoolchildren and retirees, both national and international, lovers of instruments ranging from the bodhrán, an Irish hand drum, to fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina and even traditional sean-nós singing and dancing, gather every year in this beautiful north-western region known as the ‘Forgotten County’ to attend classes taught by leading musicians and to enjoy the many concerts and seisún.

Here, in this most northerly region of Ireland, interest and pride in the native Irish language, Gaeilge, and the rich cultural heritage of their forebearers remains impressively strong, especially in the face of the fickleness and superficiality of modern-day life.

The festival ends this weekend with a concert tonight (Friday, 8.30pm) by Dublin four-piece band, Lynched, at Teac Jack; an exhuberant New Year’s Eve celebration at Club CLG Gaoth Dobhair with Kerry-based Polca4 and local band, An Crann Óg; and two seisiún mór (big informal music/dance sessions) at Teach Hiúdaí Beag Saturday and Sunday, plus the classes.

Sponsors of the annual winter school include The Arts Council of Ireland.

Donegal entrepreneur Moira Ní Ghallachóir pushes for local tourism diversity

With no particular experience in tourism and no specific agenda, Edinburgh-born Moira Ní Ghallachóir bravely packed up her bags in London four years ago and returned to west Donegal where she grew up, to re-invent herself – and says she has never looked back.

Moira Ní Ghallachóir Donegal,

Back home, and lovin’ it! Photo by Philip Mulligan

Living in her grandmother’s home in Derryconnor just outside Gortahork in the Gaeltacht, she noticed the large number of local people with outdoors skills such as Iain Miller, an experienced mountaineer, and Gareth Doherty, a sailing instructor, so she launched mng Ventures to organize outdoor adventures linking their skills to clients.

mng Ventures, Donegal outdoor activities

Iain Miller puts Moira ‘through the ropes.’

“I looked at my life in London, the work-week, then partying all weekend, and asked myself, ‘Is this it?’ ” said the petite, short-haired 39-year-old woman sitting in An Crannog, a community-based complex in the coastal town of Bunbeg under the management of Cathal Ó Gallchóir, where she was given free office space for a year to help develop her business. “If someone had told me I’d be earning as little as I have over the last three years, however, I’d have said, ‘You must be joking.’ But, honestly, I feel more fulfilled, happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. With islands, mountains, lakes and the Atlantic Ocean right beside us, this place is truly world class. That’s what inspired me to set up a business.”

While Moira is armed with plenty of enthusiasm and networking links gained from living in Ranafast from age 8 to 18, she is concerned at what some describe as ‘generational grant dependency,’ the over-reliance on public hand-outs for projects rather than sheer entrepreneurial spirit.

mng Ventures, Rock agus Roam

Ready to ‘Rock agus Roam, a project organised by mng Ventures!

“Many people feel they have to be supported by government grants and if there is none, then ‘game over’ it cannot be done,” she said forthrightly. “We need to realize what we have and build on it. Some people say, ‘We need an adventure centre,’ not realizing that the adventure centre is all around them. Many also don’t appreciate what a beautiful landscape they have here. How can they then expect tourists to appreciate it? They’ve got to believe in their business and tell it as it is, get the word out there, with honesty and an authentic voice. Why be quiet about generating jobs or being environmentally-friendly? With today’s technology we can promote ourselves at the click of a button.”

Moira also believes greater co-operation among local people is required for group success. “We need to work together more closely, we’re still not doing enough of that. We need to start clustering.”

activities in Donegal, Donegal people,

Captivating seascapes around the northwest coast of Donegal.

Taking language as a cultural issue, she adds, “There is a lot of fear here in the Gaeltacht around the Irish language issue. Yet it can be our greatest strength, an important part of our cultural landscape. I have never viewed the Irish language as central to the growth of my business, but I embrace it with respect, with ‘meas.’”

In fact, Moira says having a bilingual business is “a challenge, double the effort as it’s often difficult to marry English and Irish,” with even announcements having to be written, edited and designed in both languages.

rock-climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, island hopping, whale watching

Speaker Finbarr Bradley captures his audience on Saturday.

Her statement inadvertently raises an important issue for Gaeltacht areas. Is too much precedence given to Irish-speaking-only entrepreneurs for funding from grant-awarding bodies such as Údarás na Gaeltachta, than local non-Irish speaking applicants or ‘blow-ins’ as they are referred to locally? In terms of larger grants, language doesn’t seem to be a barrier, with English-speaking call centers having received millions of euro over the years from Údarás. With smaller entrepreneurs, however, ‘blow-ins’ report having very little success accessing grants from the organization for projects that they say could create badly needed employment.

While Moira admits to it being, “hard to make a decent living here,” she is optimistic things will get better. “About three hundred are already booked for outdoor pursuits next year,” she says proudly. While she says success so far has been ‘built on my own investment and initiative,” she adds that she has accessed grant funding from Foras na Gaeilge for the Colmcille Trail (Colmcille Eirinn is Alba) project launched recently and from Údarás for a three-month pilot programme, which ends in January.

entrepreneurs Donegal, outdoor activities Donegal

She also says she will probably apply for the upcoming EU-funded LEADER programme aimed at economically regenerating rural areas.

Though mng Ventures organizes a wide variety of activities including rock-climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, island hopping, whale watching and hill walking, Moira believes there is still not enough diversity of tourism offer in west Donegal. “We need more choice and we need to work from the inside out to achieve that.”

where to eat in Gweedore Donegal, Donegal cafes

Caitlin Gallagher, owner of Caife Kitty, and her daughter served up delicious food and drinks to everyone Saturday.

Her words were echoed by Finbarr Bradley, professor and co-author of ‘The Irish Edge’ and a mentor to Moira’s fledgling company. At an event Saturday organized by Moira at Sean Teach Niall O’Domhnaill Loch an Iúir where fine food was prepared by Caitlin Gallagher of Caife Kitty in Bunbeg, he said, “This area of Donegal is rich in landscape and culture and that’s what many people are searching for now, something experiential, something spiritual, something authentic. Building upon all that you already have here so naturally is the best way forward.”

Finbarr Bradley author, University College Dublin

Watched by excellent singer Noeleen Ni Cholla (centre), Finbarr Bradley talks about the importance of ‘cultural authenticity’ in tourism development.