Praise and prise

As one year ends and another begins I look back at the privilege I’ve had of writing in this blog about exceptional individuals who – through skill, initiative, invention, passion and sheer persistence – deserve great praise.

They’ve brought added color and a refreshing sense of diversity to Donegal, one of the most remote parts of Ireland straddling its most northwesterly Atlantic seaboard.

Consider Sabba Curran from Dore, who some years ago, without knowing much about boats drove down through England at exactly this time of year and returned with one in tow. Now he owns ‘The Cricket’ one of the largest passenger boats in the area and brings people for enjoyable excursions to Gola Island and much farther out on leisure fishing trips.

The Cricket boat to Gola Island, ferry to Gola Island, Donegal islands

Or Gareth Doherty, whose boat-trips with his grandfather unwittingly launched him on a series of sea-loving escapades. Now, with a plethora of certificates to his name as master of different crafts, Gareth takes visitors, young and old alike, on sailing and canoeing adventures, teaching them the skills he himself has learned over the years and showing them the beauty of the bird and sea-life population all around us.

Selkie Sailing, Gareth Doherty

Then there’s Pól Ó Muireasáin, one of the most refined Irish speakers in the entire Donegal Gaeltacht, or indeed any Gaeltacht for that matter. Having taught as Gaeilge at university and worked as a translator in Brussels on complex European issues, there’s very little Pól doesn’t know about our native language, grammar, linguistic or etymology.

Brimming with civic spirit, there’s few challenges Pól won’t try, including line-dancing as a nun and a cowboy, then imitating that most famous of seasonal characters, Santa, thus bringing untold pleasure to young and old alike.

fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Photo by Sean Hillen

Trips with these three men over the last few years has filled me with the kind of exhilaration and child-like exuberance one rarely finds in the bland concrete-and-glass urban settings I’ve often lived in.

But it’s not just lovers of the sea that help restore one’s faith in humanity. There’s also lovers of the land. Such people as Seamus Doohan, walking guide and lover of all things Celtic.

Seamus Doohan walking guide, walking Donegal

Having had the pleasure of experiencing his tours for an article in ‘The Irish Times’ as well as for this blog, I can guarantee a right-royal good time in his company, meandering among the hills of Donegal while learning about the colorful history of the area – including flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles and Pagan wishing stones.

Treading a different terrain altogether is Kathleen Gallagher.

Kathleen Gallagher Falcarragh,

Standing at Falcarragh crossroads just before sunset one year, I – like hundreds of others – was astounded to see a dramatic spectacle unfold before our eyes. At the edge of the hazy horizon, slowly coming into view, appeared wave upon wave of grisly, shapeless, blood-spattered zombies, horrible-looking members of the UnDead who, as they drew near, suddenly burst into a frenzy of brilliantly-choreographed dance moves to the pounding music of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Such a mesmerizing event, part of a community festival, is but one example of the sheer creativity of this lively, zesty individual who’s probably the envy of Galway’s ‘Macnas.’

Kathleen’s artistic talent brings me conveniently to another transplant to Donegal, this time from the heart of Scotland – a man who has brought Kings, Queens, medieval murderers and even ‘Cold War’ spies to this small part of the world. From James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ to Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man,’ Murray Learmont is a stage supremo directing members of the Cloughaneely Players to theatrical success.

Murray Learmont theatre director, theatre in Donegal

‘Toss a stone and you’ll hit a musician on the head.’ Such were the memorable words I recall hearing from someone after first setting up home in Bun na Leaca fifteen years ago. It’s an understatement. ‘Toss a stone and it’ll bounce from the head of one musician to another, to another, to another….’ is a more accurate depiction of the situation.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing so many performing, it would be impossible to name them all here, but two whose lives I’ve written about deserve mention.

Few around here, nor in places beyond Ireland, don’t remember ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ and its founding member, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Pat Gallagher, who penned the immortal tribute, ‘Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal’ that became an instant national hit. Such is his musical prowess Pat can meander effortlessly from one genre to another, from ballads and blues to folk rock and country. Listen to ‘A Returning Islander,’ ‘Turfman’s Blues,’ ‘Children of the Highways,’ and ‘Let the World Keep on Turning’ and you’ll understand just what I mean.

Pat Gallagher musician, Goats don't Shave

Then there’s Ian Smith. Not managing to become a native of west Donegal, he did the next best thing – married beann álainn, Breda, from here. Formerly a guitarist and singer with a rock band in England, Ian left thousands of groupies broken-hearted and settled near Burtonport – and has never looked back, well, hardly ever. During that time he has played with some of the best musicians in the world and has cut not one but three full CDs, one of which ‘Restless Heart’ showcases his immense song-writing talent, with many of the titles his own work.

Ian Smith musician, folk music Donegal

That’s the praise bit of the headline. What about the prising bit?

Such talented people as mentioned have not received the kind of support they deserve from those with their hands on the cash that is meant to enrich the cultural, social and economic soil of west Donegal.

Instead of providing generous funding for touristic and artistic initiatives that help attract welcome visitors to the area and create jobs, the powers-that-be at the Gaeltacht’s leading funder, Údarás na Gaeltachta have either repeatedly fed the billion euro they’ve received to well-known, rich elites; to themselves or acquaintances; to developers to build now derelict, deserted industrial estates; and to companies which have gladly accepted the hand-outs, then promptly left the area, leaving out-of-work unfortunates in their wake.

Perturbed by the stories I’ve been told by local people about such discrimination and the wall of informational silence constructed by Údarás – I began prising apart, bit-by-bit, snippets of information through the Freedom of Information Act about the spending policies of aforesaid economic development organization.

To say I was surprised and disappointed at what I found is a distinct understatement. Astonishment would be a more suitable word. Lack of strategy, absence of clarity, cases of cronyism and nepotism – in fact, all the dubious goings-on that continue to bedevil Ireland and prevent its healthy development.

With the New Year approaching, I’ll continue to praise and prise. Perhaps, in doing so, I’ll help create a bit more transparency as well as highlighting some more of the real heroes of the area and thus contribute something to the area where I live.

I hope so cos’ I’m a terrible singer, can’t play a musical instrument if my life depended on it. As for gardening, what’s the difference between a parsnip and the tail of a donkey? Don’t even mention boating.

In the meantime, have a happy and contented New Year, wherever you are, whatever you do!

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Banned in the US and UK, but coming to Donegal soon – sex, profanity and fireworks

Ever tried reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’?
Only 800 pages, more or less, a quarter of a million words, characterised by convoluted, stream-of-consciousness prose, meaning some sentences aren’t really sentences and those that are seem like they’re not.
Not to mention every chapter relates to an organ of the human body and also that while it’s about a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, it’s also about the Mediterranean Sea adventures of the ancient Greek hero in Homer’s epic poem.
Like me, you probably stopped reading after 10 pages or so.
Now try imagining not only reading all 800, often unpunctuated, pages but transforming it into a captivating play entitled ‘Extracts from Ulysses,’ then coaching a large group of amateur actors in the backroom of a community center in a rural west Donegal Gaeltacht to deliver a delightful 90-minute theatrical production.

Roy Orbison-like, Learmont Murray stirs his coffee, the way he stirs life – in ever-widening circles (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Enter stage left, Murray Learmont, thespian extraordinaire who turned 69 a few days ago and has not only directed a plethora of theatrical productions during his 20-plus years in the drama field, but has himself played roles as diverse as Captain Renault in ‘Casablanca,’ Polonius in ‘Hamlet,’ a preacher in ‘High Noon’ and Simon Dedalus, father of Stephen Dedalus, the hero in ‘A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man.’
On Bloomsday (Tuesday, June 16), Learmont and his enthusiastic, skilled troupe, the Cloughaneely Players, will perform their unique production before a hoped-for capacity audience in Arnold’s Hotel, Dunfanaghy Donegal, at 9pm. Don’t miss it. It’s a rare dramatic treat.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Together as One. (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

So why tackle such a complex literary challenge?
It’s such a wonderful story of human experience, with such powerful dialogue,” says Murray, sitting over a coffee and a huge chunk of chocolate cake (mine, he was much more disciplined) at ‘Moonshine Café’ in Letterkenny last week. “It contains so many worlds within it, being the classic tale of Ulysses in a colourful turn-of-the-20th century Dublin setting with even a biscuit-tossing scene in the bar in the first chapter relating to Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant, hurling a huge rock at Ulysses.
Photo by Columbia Hillen

Ever-passionate about matters of the stage (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Speaking passionately, he adds, “In Joyce’s novel you never lose the sense of surprise. While scenes fit into nicely one another, he surprises your expectations. The pitiful blind boy swearing at someone who accidently bumps into him – “God’s curse on you, whoever you are! You’re blinder nor I am, you bitch’s bastard!” being but one example. The author also makes no concessions, leaving it up to the reader to find things out. It is a modern piece both in thoughts and ideas, about relationships, and many of its themes are still very much relevant today.
ulysses 9

Production even features risque bedroom scenes (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

As for the task of reducing 800 hefty pages into theater form? “ I must say, the cut-and-paste capabilities of a modern-day computer really helped,” says Murray modestly, smiling. “But what I was really looking for was memorable dialogue and there’s just so much of that it wasn’t too difficult. Joyce captures exactly the way people speak. Of course, there were certain scenes I definitely wanted in like the bar scene where the one-eyed citizen abuses bloom in an anti-Semitic rant and the scene in the Ormond Hotel with the two barmaids laughing, saying ‘ “Aren’t men frightful idiots,’ which relates to the song of the Sirens in the classic myth.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

What’s that you say? (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

With a previous performance several weeks ago having met with strong positive reaction and the next due soon, how does he feel? “Very happy. It has been great fun doing what is, in effect, an ensemble production. Around 20 people, with everyone putting in their ideas. It has been a labour of love and, of course, I’m delighted it has been received so well.

Photo by Columbia Hillen

Murray Learmont: Serious about the stage, but with a ready laugh  (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Murray, who first read ‘Ulysses’ while in his 20s studying English literature at Glasgow University, had particular praise for lead actor, Pearse McGee, who plays Bloom and is on-stage throughout and for Maggie McKinney, who plays his wife, and has a challenging soliloquy at the end.  Aside from the actors, Murray also praises Robert Shields, owner of Clady Media in Crolly, who supervised the sound system and Joanne Lindsay-Butler for set design.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Whatever you do, don’t look the other way! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

Speaking about Joyce’s work and his role in the production, McGee said, “The novel deserves its reputation. It is a law onto itself. While it is, granted, a dense, multi-layered and hard-to-handle beast of a book, the sheer exuberance of the language can carry you through it, if you let it.
On playing Bloom, he added, “It was a tough ask to get into the head of one of the great everyman characters, especially then having to portray him as the public man without showing the audience his inner thinking. Murray’s patience and boundless enthusiasm were invaluable to me in getting there and his sheer love of the source material clearly shone through at rehearsal, which helped to take a tough job and make it fun.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Pretty as a picture, but what’s that in your hand? (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

McKinney, whose previous diverse roles have included Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Helena in the Shakespearian classics “Macbeth,’ ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and a chorus girl in ‘Some Like It Hot,’ said she “loved” playing Molly Bloom. “I had not read the book, so it was interesting to learn about it. To begin with, the soliloquy was a little challenging, as it is Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness and James Joyce left it unpunctuated and her thinking often flits from one memory to another, so it took a while to decipher this. Also, some of my lines were a bit risqué and I was a little concerned I might be shunned in the local community for using such improper language, but in context of everything else I had to say it worked and wasn’t too shocking, thankfully!
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Honestly, hand on heart – if I can but find it, I know it’s here somewhere! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

‘Ulysses’ takes place at Arnold’s Hotel in Dunfanaghy, west Donegal, on Tuesday evening, June 16, commencing at 9pm. Book your tickets early by calling 00353 74 913 6208 as venue room capacity is 60 people. A second performance will take place on Thursday evening, June 25, at the Church of Ireland hall in Dunfanaghy.

Photo by Moses Alcorn

You’re sooooo serious, you make me smile! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

Maybe, upon advance request, they might even serve up the traditional ‘Bloomsday Irish breakfast’ of kidneys and gizzards.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Well-behaved angels all in a row! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

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Who’s that dapper, fashion guru (Photo by Moses Alcorn)