Are yoga, thai chai and reiki dreaded Druidic distractions? Is the anti-cervical cancer vaccine, HPV, the Devil’s poison?

Glancing through last Friday’s edition of the ‘Donegal News,’ I was dazzled by the sheer creativity of people from Ireland, (see a particularly interesting article on page 47 focusing on a man who lasted 70 days in prison without food and is now a Doctor in Sociology and a well-known Irish playwright and film and documentary script writer).

It’s as if the artists of every shade throughout Ireland and particularly in my resident county, Donegal – musicians, actors, painters, dancers et al – feel they have a deep, abiding, age-old responsibility to uphold our ancient rich Gael culture, and in doing so, prevent its dilution.

And I don’t mean – wonderful though it is – simply the native folk music and song of the lauded, award-winning Frosses-native Rita Gallagher and Gaoth Dobhair’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (who play this Thursday at the Balor Arts Centre as part of the Bluestacks Festival).

rita Gallagher, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh

Winners of TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards.

I mean our vast spread of artistic talent, first brought here to these shores when definitive Celtic traditions arrived from places such as Romania and Gaul (Gallia) in the fourth century B.C.

Then, unlike all other islands, Alice Stopford Green tells us in her work ‘Irish Nationality,’ Ireland, “was circled round with mountains, whose precipitous cliffs rose sheer above the water standing as bulwarks against the immeasurable sea, providing a bulwark – though sadly not an invincible one – against invaders of all kinds. And certainly, helping far-flung places such as Donegal escape foreign domination.” (unlike the Pale of Dublin which followed a completely different tract).

Irish chroniclers tell of a vast Celtic antiquity, with a shadowy line of monarchs reaching back some two thousand years before Christ: legends of lakes springing forth; of lowlands cleared of wood; the appearance of rivers, the making of roads and causeways, the first digging of wells: the making of forts; invasions and battles and plagues.

The Celts or Gaels exalted and encouraged learning in national life. Professors of every school roamed freely here and the warrior’s duty was to protect them. There were periodical exhibitions of everything the people esteemed—democracy, literature, tradition, art, commerce, law, sport, the Druid religion, even rustic buffoonery. The years between one festival and another were spent in serious preparation for the next.

Innovative arts programme at the Balor Arts Center, Ballybofey, Donegal.

The law of the Celts was the law of the people. They never lost their trust in it. They never followed a central authority, for their law needed no such sanction. A multitude of maxims were drawn up to direct the conduct of the people.

While the code was one for the whole race, the administration on the other hand was divided into the widest possible range of self-governing communities, which were bound together in a willing federation. The forces of union were not material but spiritual, and the life of the people consisted not in its military cohesion but in its joint spiritual inheritance—in the union of those who shared the same tradition, the same glorious memory of heroes, the same unquestioned law, and the same pride of literature.

So deeply was their importance felt, the Irish have kept these tradition diligently, and even in the darkest times of our history, down to the 17th century, still gathered to ‘meetings on hills’ to exercise their law and hear their learned men.

Not-to-be-missed performer.

So please think of this rich vein of cultural tradition that we’ve inherited when you read this week about the wealth of artistic talent on display here in Donegal and throughout Ireland – the multi-talented Pat Kinevane from Temple Bar-based Fishamble enacting not one but three separate one-man plays beginning this Friday with ‘Forgotten,’ at An Grianan in Letterkenny, a fine venue under the organization of Patricia McBride, Helene McMenamin, Daithi Ramsay and other staff members; Fishamble’s literary officer, Gavin Kostick, hosting playwriting masterclasses this Saturday there; the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny, under the direction of Shaun Hannigan, presenting a feast of autumn concerts, kicking-off with the duet of Eliza Carty and Tim Eriksen this Friday evening; and ‘The Ghostlight Sessions’ at the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey tonight, an evening of original music curated by Nikki Pollock (Mojo Gogo) and Dean Maywood and featuring ‘In Their Thousands’ and ‘Without Willow.’

Not to mention ‘The Donegal Voices’ this Friday in Ballyshannon performing Handel’s magnificent ‘Coronation Anthems’ and the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ Many of the performances are funded by the Donegal County Council/An Comhairle Ealaion.

First Lady of Celtic music – Donegal-born Moya Brennan.

And if you missed Moya Brennan of Clannad performing a few days ago with her husband, Tim, daughter Aisling and son Paul, in Teac Leo in Crolly, in support of the Inishowen Floods Fund, you’ll surely get the chance again to hear this brilliantly talented family in the future. The same goes for ‘Shoot The Gear,’ a fine piece of theater with a fishing-community based theme facilitated by the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organization, written by An Grianan Theatre artist-in-residence, Guy Le Jeune, and performed by a cast of local actors, singers and musicians including Fionn Robinson, Louise Conaghan, Orlaith Gilchreest and Ronan Carr.

Speaking of music, what a terrific accomplishment by Donegal Music Education Partnership (DMEP) manager, Martin McGinley, and his team, including tutor and pianist, Ellen Quinn, Maureen Fryer-Kelsey and James Sarsteiner , with help from Marianne Lynch of Donegal County Council Library Services in putting together a new online library of more than 1,500 musical items that the public can easily access.

Martin McGinley (left) – Journalist, editor, fiddle player par excellence, now manager of Donegal Music Education Partnership.

However, as we rightly attempt to emulate our rich, multi-layered Celtic past, I would issue a sharp warning. While the keystone of our proud ancestors’ beliefs was based on the premise of democracy, each individual having a fair say, let us beware.

The Catholic Church – so long dominant in Irish society after vanquishing Druidic life, more so in rural Irish society – must now learn to accept – in turn – its rapidly changing place. And that place is no longer its own self-styled, unquestioning right to direct all community groups, especially on sensitive matters of finance. Too often have I heard complaints here in the Donegal Gaeltacht and elsewhere in Ireland about frocked priests and bishops sitting at the heads of tables, making vital decisions, often cunningly in an underhand way ahead of the formal committee meetings, on where vital monies should go. And not always to the benefit of the community as a whole – but to the church in particular.

My own area, Cnoc Fola, has just received a grant of 40,000 euro from Fine Gael Minister Joe McHugh. Considering the rather incestuous relationship between the Catholic Church and successive ruling political parties in Ireland – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – is it reasonable for me to expect there is no payback expected, from both church and state, for this money, in terms of votes and support?

Is it also reasonable for me to trust the word of men in long black coats who describe yoga, thai chai and reiki as activities that ‘endanger our souls’ and who also discourage women from taking the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer, saying it simply encourages widespread promiscuity and immorality? And who move child abusing clergy from parish to parish?

Some months ago in a previous blog, I invited a well-known, rather affable west Donegal Gaeltacht priest, Brian O’Fearraigh, to join community members in our weekly yoga sessions at An Crann Og in Gaoth Dobhair. He hasn’t made an appearance yet. My offer is still open. He’d receive a warm ‘Cead Mile Failte’ from very friendly people there.

What do these seemingly unrelated issues – yoga, thai chai, reiki and the HPV vaccine – have in common, anyway? Freedom of mind and body, of course. And such displays of individual identity are perceived as hot, red-light dangers by most major corporation and institutions, especially the more conservative ones.
Wait for it, it’ll be swimming, cycling, swing dancing and jazz next. Oh, I forgot, the latter was already forbidden by the Church to all God-fearing people some years ago.

Does that mean God-loving people can enjoy such relaxing music? Even if they are Druids, Pagans, atheists, agnostics or pantheists and their God is Mother Nature herself?

Notes 

Hope you like my latest published novel, the suspense Pretty Ugly, linking Donegal and other parts of Ireland, including Belfast, with the US cities of Boston, New York, Kansas City and Washington DC.

Interested in creative writing? A novel? Biographical memoir? Play or movie script? See Ireland Writing Retreat

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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.