Vampire season approacheth

A strange invitation popped into my mailbox this week – and it being October, with Halloween approaching fast – perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised whom it came from: that most infamous of blood-thirsty vampires, Dracula.

Or at least from some people close to him, those at Fáilte Ireland and on Dublin City Council who together next week are organizing a special international Bram Stoker Festival in honor of the Long-Toothed Count and his maker, Dublin author Bram Stoker.

Quite right too: after all, ‘Dracula’ is believed to be the most printed book after the Bible, making Bram Ireland’s all-time, best-selling author.

Ever since I penned a tongue-in-cheek (note I didn’t say teeth-in-neck) travel book entitled “Digging for Dracula” almost 20 years ago while a foreign correspondent in eastern Europe, I’ve receive periodic invitations to speak at events focusing on Man’s fascination with blood-sucking immortals (‘strigoi’ as they’re known in the deepest, darkest Carpathians).

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But the invitation that popped into my mailbox this time was stranger than most – to speak next Saturday at no less prestigious a residence than the Mansion House, official home of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Why there – no idea? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s certainly a sign from on high that we’ve long passed the era when a classic novel such as this was not even acknowledged as part of our literary heritage nor studied in school, for fear it might make us feel a little  too erotic, Catholic and all, as we are.

who is dracula

But go I will and enjoy a nostalgic journey back in time – to Bram Stoker at the turn of the 19th century, a time when a general obsession about a shadowy, little-known region of eastern Europe called Transylvania and gory, bloody deaths (Jack the Ripper was alive and well and doing his stuff in Whitechapel) combined to focus peoples’ minds on all things dark and macabre.

Thus, Bram, then manager of prominent actor Henry Irving’s London theater, the Lyceum (having earlier eloped with Oscar Wilde’s former girlfriend – yes, Oscar was bisexual once), dusted up his research at the British Library (Bram never actually went to Transylvania) and penned his blood-riddled masterpiece. While his tale has been made into a zillion movies (the first being the German-made ‘Nosferatu’) and lots of TV series, poor old Bram barely made a penny from his work. When he died, his obituaries barely mentioned he was even a novelist.

After his death, the German company tried to avoid paying copyright by changing Dracula’s name to Count Orlok. Bram’s widow, Florence, sued, the court ordered all copies of the movie burned but one copy had already been distributed around the world and this was duplicated, making it an example of an early cult film.

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For me, writing ‘Digging for Dracula’ was a quirky idea that emerged from an even quirkier fax received one morning at my Bucharest apartment from The Times foreign news desk in London asking me to cover a rather bizarre event – the ‘First-Ever World Congress of Dracula’ in Romania. Initially I thought it a joke (foreign newsroom editors have a black sense of humor akin to those in hospital emergency rooms, it helps in dealing with everyday catastrophes).

whitch trial

A much younger version of yours-truly stepped forward chivalrously (or, more likely, was pushed from behind) and ever since has been bound in wedlock to a woman from Transylvania for all eternity.

With hundreds of participants attending from many different countries including Japan, the US, England, France and Germany (strangely, aside from myself, none from Ireland, home of the author) and many different professions – doctors, nurses, academics, writers, psychologists, teachers – the week-long affair proved to be quite an eye-opener. Some people admitted to having coffins in their living rooms and slept soundly there when the notion took them; others had paid a hefty sum to their dentists to have their teeth sharpened.

Many of the speakers at the conference proved interesting, ranging from a psychologist’s view on what he termed ‘energy vampires, ’ those people whose company we sometimes share who leave us drained of energy; to a colorful history of the medieval warlord (‘voivod’ in Romanian), Vlad the Impaler, who some say was the model for Bram’s lead character.

vlad

While mysterious places in Romania such as Snagov Island and the Transylvanian village of Arefu, the ancient site of Vlad’s castle, proved intriguing for me to visit on my travels for the book, so did the mummies of Saint Michan’s in Dublin and Whitby (where Dracula’s ship arrives in a storm) – all major influences on Bram, the dramatic storyteller.

But seeing crooner Bing Crosby of ‘White Christmas’ fame laid out alongside the world’s most famous vampire in a Los Angeles graveyard proved more than anything that fact can indeed be stranger than fiction.

Fangs for stopping by and, in the words of the Count, “Come freely, go safely and leave some of the happiness you bring.”

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‘Stirring up a Hornet’s Nest?’ Or open public debate on a key issue?

I’ve just finished a radio discussion today on the Shaun Doherty Show on Highland Radio with Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran, on the proposed drug and alcohol addiction clinic in Falcarragh in west Donegal.

While I meet with John frequently – and admire what he is accomplishing in the voluntary sector and wish him every success in his upcoming political campaign for local council elections on behalf of Fine Gael – his describing me as “stirring up a hornet’s nest” by bringing to public attention an important project near the main crossroads in Falcarragh was disappointing, especially coming from someone who stated on his Facebook a day ago when launching his campaign, “I have pledged to make no empty promises, all I will say to anyone who has an issue or a suggestion is thank you and that I will try to address your issue if and when I am elected.

After all, this clinic, which is expected to cost hundreds of thousands – perhaps over a million euro – in public money, has important long-term repercussions for the local community in west Donegal, socially, culturally and economically, including:

  • restricted future access to this lovely area for members of the public;
  • perhaps (no guarantee), decent paying jobs;
  • far less money for tourism projects, cultural, arts or others, as promised by John and his fellow board members when appointed two years ago (in a beautiful and inspiring area as west Donegal such clean, environment-enhancing development could be enriching if funded is on a serious scale);
  • added trauma for local clerical abuse victims (unfortunately, the highest rate of such abuse per population is west Donegal) due to the involvement of Catholic Church-operated Cuan Mhuire, the company who will run the clinic, and which is alleged to have allowed such offending priests to say Mass at their centres.

For all of the above reasons, and more, the proposal for this clinic and its ramifications on the local community should be discussed openly. And as often as possible.

Unfortunately, the term ‘stirring up a hornet’s nest’ stated by John seems to echo a sentiment prevailing at Udaras – namely that the less the public knows about how its money is being used the better. A public body, using citizens’ hard-earned money, this economic group still refuses to reveal specific job-creation figures on a company-by-company breakdown of the ones it funds. Or the amount of money paid out from the public purse to its present and former top executives, locally and nationally, in pensions and other benefits.

John mentioned on the Shaun Doherty Show Highland Radio programme less than an hour ago that public information meetings have been held regarding the addiction clinic project. According to people who approached me, this is an erroneous comment and should be withdrawn. If such meetings had taken place, such a project – costing so much money and with such important social ramifications – would have made its way into the public arena, via media reports. Instead, the idea has remained in the realm of rumor and counter rumor and, until the story broke last week with details, might have remained there.

As a journalist and concerned social commentator, I can only do so much to highlight key issues affecting our community. It is important that others speak out (otherwise we cannot completely blame politicians for making bad decisions).

Therefore, if anyone wishes to comment, please do so – either for or against the project – on my blog or on that of other local media such as Donegal Daily, which published the story yesterday), or Highland Radio, which aired the debate today. Or directly to John Curran.

Only by voicing opinions strongly along whichever pathways open to us, can we influence what is happening in our own community. And with local elections coming up soon and campaigns well underway, there seems no better time.

 

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Living in Gaoth Dobhair, the heart of the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area of Donegal in northwest Ireland, I take a strong interest in how this beautiful region – arguably the most scenic part of the entire country – is governed and develops, both economically and socially.

As such, I have vested considerable investigative journalistic experience, gained after 30 years in the media sector, in analyzing the workings of the largest economic development organization here – namely Údarás na Gaeltachta, an organization that has benefited from a spending budget of around one billion euro, mainly for job creation, since it was first established in 1980.

I have penned many news and feature articles on the organization over the last five years, the latest (below) published today (Friday) in the largest circulation newspaper in Donegal, the Donegal News.

For context, it’s probably worth reading the much more comprehensive, three-part series on Údarás that I wrote for the same newspaper. You’ll find it in the earlier posts below.

Pulling the ropes

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Like Br’er Rabbit, west Donegal’s largest economic development group is captive.

Captive to the belief that call centres and large manufacturing companies are the only way to create jobs – and to a golden circle that benefits from such thinking.

As such, Údarás na Gaeltachta is a Tar-baby, ever-more entangled in a sticky situation.

With the recent announcement that Largo Foods in the Gaoth Dobhair industrial estate will now close, with the loss of over 140 jobs, and after spending more than two million euro in the Donegal Gaeltacht over the last year, the Irish-language organisation has suffered a net loss of 78 jobs, according to its own figures, the worst record for many years.

So what has gone wrong? Seemingly, plenty!

Remoteness, poor infrastructure and a narrow skills’ set are the reasons most often given for few companies coming to the rural Gaeltacht of west Donegal. But does this excuse Údarás’ poor performance and lack of transparency as a public body?

After announcing recently it created 220 jobs in Donegal last year, Údarás promptly declined to give a breakdown of the figure. Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made earlier this year seeking a list of funded companies and their job numbers, as well as pension payments, it replied, “For data protection and commercial sensitivity reasons. We do not release specific information collated for the purposes of the Údarás employment survey to the general public,” adding that pensions, while funded by the taxpayer, were private matters.

I asked Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of the Oireachtas Joint Committee, which revealed Údarás pays half its annual budget in pensions for 136 former executives, to follow-up. His party leader, Gerry Adams TD, submitted Dail question Nr. 127, as well as Questions 416 and 417, asking the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to “detail final salaries levels, lump sum or additional payments and the pension payments made to each chief executive officer or regional executive of Údarás who retired in the past three years.” Minister Jimmy Deenihan answered: “I have been advised by Údarás na Gaeltachta it considers the payments referred to are covered under the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003. Accordingly, it is not in a position to supply the information requested.”

Mary Lou Nolan, TD, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on public expenditure and reform, then submitted yet another Parliamentary question, Nr. 148, asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts to which he refers; the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public, details of public service pension arrangements.” A full answer is still awaited.

Such lack of co-operation by Údarás is disconcerting and leads inevitably to suspicion, making the words of its Arranmore Island-born chairperson Anna Ní Ghallchóir to me – “utter transparency is a given” – seem pale.

About one billion euro has poured into the Donegal Gaeltacht since Údarás was founded – for a population of 24,000. Result: the highest unemployment rate nationally, ugly, empty, ghost-like industrial estates blighting a rural landscape and a horrendously under-developed tourism sector.

Two years ago, under the Fine Gael-Labour ruling coalition, a new board promised change, with both ni Ghallchoir and fellow board member John Curran saying to me in separate interviews that widespread funding for ‘cultural tourism’ projects would be given to create sustainability by attracting more visitors to west Donegal. Two years later, less than five per cent of Údarás’ budget has gone to such projects, leading people at a recent EU-backed cultural tourism CeangalG (ConnectG) conference at An Chuirt Hotel in Gaoth Dobhair to complain of dwindling support.

In the case of Largo Foods, where is the sustainability that Údarás grants totaling 6.2 million euro to it (over 43,000 euro per job) should have created, and what business-sense does it make for Údarás to allocate half a million euro for two years for this company, which didn’t even bother to draw it down? With call centers and large manufacturing units merely band-aids for local unemployment problems, why has Údarás shown so little trust in small businesses forming the backbone of the local area’s economy? Especially so when a national economist who completed her Doctorate on Údarás operations, concluded, “on supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will continue to be, insane.” Could the fixation with short-term job numbers be linked to retention of Údarás’ own staff jobs, whose salaries average 80,000 euro annually, excluding expenses?

Instead of cultural tourism being expanded with serious money, Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the organisation’s tourism officer, said in a recent public forum that “discussions are well-advanced” on building an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the coastal town of Falcarragh, beside an existing golf course in the Ballyconnell House estate. It is believed Údarás, having already turned down several tourism ideas for the area, will allocate between several hundred thousand and one million euro to the project, which will be run by an arm of the Catholic Church.

Ultimately, decent Donegal people deserve better. How many more millions of euro must be wasted, how many more years lost, before Údarás changes its vision, and for transparency and accountability to be achieved? Perhaps only then will the ceaseless brain-drain halt and our native language escape from withering on the vine.

Published in Donegal News