Wish me luck – I’ve applied as the first county council Donegal Gaeltacht Tourism Officer

Using the magnificent panoramic backdrop of the Atlantic coastline on Ireland’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ people living around Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) in the Donegal Gaeltacht this weekend displayed not only a strong sense of community spirit but a classic example of cultural tourism.

The event was the annual Cnoc Fola Festival, which continued today (Sunday) with Mass at the old 19th century Mass Rock, all organized by a hard-working committee led by well-known former teacher and headmistress, Mary Nic Phaidin, whose family run the highly-successful Teac Jack boutique hotel, bar and restaurant.

It is a festival enjoyed by locals and visitors alike and it was uplifting to see so many people there yesterday (Saturday), not just from the surrounding region, but also from countries as far apart as Japan, Germany, France and the US, including a bus-full of young students and teachers from New Mexico.

cnoc fola festival, gaeltacht festivals

Well-known former teacher, headmistress and community leader, Mary Nic Phaidin (right) enjoying the festival with photographer and website designer, Columbia Hillen.

Living within walking distance, my wife, Columbia, from Transylvania, Romania, and I attended with acquaintances from Portland, Oregon, Paul and Kristin Newbry, who thought it was “a wonderful event that reflected deep-rooted Irish traditions, and was so much fun to experience.” Like everyone else there, Paul and Kristin enjoyed the famous traditional ‘brush dance’ (Damhsa na Scuaibe) and sean-nós steps performed by Proinsias Mhic Suibhne; experts in sheep shearing; a blacksmith working his anvil, shoeing a handsome horse; and basket weaving by artist and teacher, Ownie Diver.

Ownie Diver painter donegal, Gaeltacht Tourism Officer

Gola Island native, Ownie Diver, artist and teacher and basket weaver showcases his many skills.

Even the stalls set around the charming, 100-year-old thatched cottage, Teach Mhuiris, offered the kind of foods and drinks that have been eaten and drank for generations, such as dulse and carrageen moss handpicked and sold by friendly farmer, Pa MacPhaidin; health-giving, organic bog bean juice made by Margaret ‘Kitty’ Boyle from Shaskenbeg; delicious wheaten bread and scones with rhubarb, gooseberry, blackcurrant and strawberry jam made by local women, and a wide range of fresh seafood such as crab legs, a bumper harvest caught by local fishermen.

The festival took place as Donegal County Council announced the closure of applications for its first-ever Gaeltacht Tourism Officer, a post that will be decided within the next week or so.

Proinsias Mhic Suibhne dancing, Pat McFadden farmer, gaeltacht festivals,

Friendly farmer, Pa MacPhaidin, shares a joke with Paul Newbry, a visitor from Portland, Oregon.

Having lived in the area for over ten years, in Bun na Leaca, in the shadow of Cnoc Fola, and proudly possessing ‘O’ and ‘A’ level Irish with accompanying gold fáinne I consider this an excellent initiative, so much so I have applied for the position myself.

Creating employment and the economic benefits that accrue from that for cafes, hotels, bed and breakfast operations, bars, activity and leisure projects and community groups in this marginalized area of northwest Donegal should be the number one priority. In doing so, we can help stop the sad flow of young people out of the region to far-off countries through emigration, a movement that desiccates the entire social fabric, with communities barely able, and sometimes simply unable, to even field football teams for local leagues and tournaments.

Irish dancing Gweedore, Irish music Gweedore, Gaeltacht festivals,

Proinsias Mhic Suibhne prepares to perform a ‘duet’ with the floor-brush – the famous traditional Damhsa na Scuaibe.

Gone are the days when the manufacturing industry took care of our employment needs, when the local industrial estates in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and elsewhere in the Gaeltacht teemed with thousands of workers. While some smaller companies still exist, due in great part to the valiant efforts of local entrepreneurs, large spaces stand empty and forlorn. To an extent, English-speaking call centers have replaced factories. And even they generally last only a short time before leaving, often under controversial circumstances, with some obviously adopting a ‘let’s-take-local-funding-then-run’ attitude.

For a number of years, I have voiced my opinion through this blog and through newspaper articles that cultural, environment-friendly tourism initiatives should be expanded and strengthened, that they are a key avenue upon which jobs can be created, enabling families to remain living in the Gaeltacht and the native language to remain alive.

Otherwise, I feel – like many others do – that it will go the way of the dinosaurs – extinction.

The success of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ that I helped establish more than five years ago and where I teach creative writing is a modest example of what can be achieved through cultural tourism. We have succeeded in attracting almost 100 writers – novelists, short-story writers and poets – from all over the world to Gaoth Dobhair, many of whom have never been to Ireland, never mind Donegal, before. And after learning basic Irish phrases through our collaboration with Foras na Gaeilge, ceilidhe dancing at Teac Jack, where writing workshops are held, with tuition from members of community centre An Crannog; excursions to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ ferryboat with Captain Sabba Curran, and to Glenveagh National Park and Castle, they all leave loving the place and its people.

An Crannog Donegal, Gweedore festivals, summer festival donegal, traditions in Donegal

Great efforts by community leaders such as these two stalwarts (l to r) Cathal Ó Gallchóir and Caitlin Ui Dhuibhir – help make festivals and events of all kinds successful.

With 35 years of experience in international media and marketing, including branding, on print, broadcast and digital media platforms and the last ten years specializing in tourism, with a travel book to be published later this year, perhaps, if selected as the winning candidate, I can contribute to the regeneration of the Gaeltacht area. We will soon see.

Gaeltacht Tourism Officer, donegal gaeltacht, gaeltacht festivals

Traditional artists such as these abound in the Donegal Gaeltacht.


Celtic traditions highlight dynamic Cnoc Fola festival

Every community needs a ‘connector’ – even more so in a small rural area.

Someone who initiates, encourages, coaxes and cajoles to tease a fine idea along the often difficult passageway to reality.

Mary Nic Phaidin (Teac Jack) and Sinn Fein councillor John Sheamais ó Fearraigh share a moment of fun at the Cnoc Fola festival Saturday (All photos by Columbia Hillen)

Mary Nic Phaidin is such a person.

Ask anyone in the west Donegal Gaeltacht – and far beyond for that matter – and there’s nary a person who doesn’t know Mary from Teac Jack.

Cnoc Fola festival Donegal, celtic traditions

Crows gather Saturday at Teach Mhuiris for the start of the Cnoc Fola Festival.

Personally speaking, the former school principal is one of the prime reasons my wife, Columbia, and I have been happily ensconced on Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) for the last few years. It was my good fortune to meet Mary by chance on a house reconnaissance expedition from Bucharest via Belfast one fine day quite a few summers back, and the rest is history.

Sean Hillen writer, Donegal wild atlantic way

Who’s that woman taking photographs?

I saw her yesterday afternoon (Saturday) performing her accustomed leadership role at the delightful annual Féile Thraidisiúnta Chnoc Fola (Cnoc Fola Festival) at the thatched Teach Mhuiris (circa 1860) perched high on a bend in the road offering panoramic vistas over the wide Atlantic.

broom dance Donegal, Donegal Celtic traditions

Proinsias and Eibhlin and Mhic Suibhne display their fine dancing skills.

Joviality and good-naturedness were in generous abundance among the lively crowd gathered there – neighbors, family, friends and national and international visitors, all enjoying a lively community gathering under clear blue skies and bright sunshine.

Irish dancing, Donegal traditions, music in Donegal

Now it’s your turn! A fine dancing display by Eibhlin Mhic Suibhne before volunteers are called for.

One minute, Mary was introducing the singers and dancers and asking for volunteers to attempt the high-kicking ‘damsha na scuaibe’ (broom dance) on the makeshift wooden stage and the next, happily regaling the arrival of such and such persons to the proceedings – all done with sheer aplomb and warm sincerity.

Interestingly, the popular brush or broom traditional dance has its origins in ancient Celtic Pagan Ireland linked to the deeply-rooted mythology of free roaming spirits and separation of body and soul. The broom also symbolizes fertility – the higher and more graceful the leap presumably the greater and more creative one’s love-making ability (and agility). So, dear readers, no better time than right now to grab those brooms from your cupboards and start practicing.

Not that Mary was the only one involved in what was a most successful July festival. As she herself readily acknowledges, “it was a true community effort with many people working extremely hard together to thread all the various strings together.”

There was the bearded, bespectacled Sinn Fein local councilor, John Sheamais ó Fearraigh, who officially opened the festival on Friday evening; there was Tony McHugh who has spent many, many hours over the years compiling a comprehensive archive displayed on local history for all to access freely in the Crann Og community center in Bunbeg; and there was Cathal ó Gallchoir, the center’s manager, preparing Teac Mhuiris from early morning for the day’s rush of visitors.

John Sheamais ó Fearraigh, Sinn Fein councelor Donegal, Toni McHugh Crann Og, Cathal ó Gallchoir

Mussels galore to feed the hungry.

Even our neighbors, the helpful Ferry brothers up the road from us in Bun na Leaca who supply us with turf to keep biting winter winds and rains at bay, were there, hauling sacks of mussels around on their shoulders trying to keep hungry mouths occupied.

farming in Donegal, fresh farm produce,

Farmer Pat McFadden proudly shows his healthy produce.

And there was friendly farmer Pat McFadden with a table-full of produce including potatoes, organic eggs and rhubarb jam, as well as hand-picked carrageenan; and Rose Sweeney, who taught international participants at the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ how to dance the ‘sevens,’ with her sister, Marie Ferry, and her Welsh friend, Maureen O’Sullivan.

Rose Sweeney, Marie Ferry, Sean Hillen,

Sisters Rose Sweeney and Marie Ferry caught having a good time.

The Cnoc Fola festival, which has been an annual event for the past 30 years, reflected the rich traditions of the area, with the craft of horse-shoeing and basket weaving being amply demonstrated outside beside tables laden with fish, crab-legs, lobster and cockles, not to mention delicious-smelling scones and wheaten bread being served under the rafters inside.

Rose Sweeney, Maureen O’Sullivan, Cnoc Fola Festival Donegal

(l to r) Long-time friends, Welsh-born weaver Maureen O’Sullivan and Rose Sweeney, enjoy some time together (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

And with the sad reality of Ireland’s youth forced to seek new lives abroad due to an inept and greedy Fianna Fail government, it was heartening to see so many young people involved – the pupils of Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, directed by Suzanne Ui Ghallchóir in association with Campa Drámaíochta Tuismitheoirí, performing the drama ‘Peire Speacloidi;’ and the excellent music of An Crann Óg group, tutored by Caitlín Joe Jack and her brother PJ, accompanying the dancers.

Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair, Suzanne Ui Ghallchóir , Campa Drámaíochta Tuismitheoirí, An Crann Óg

An Chrann Og entertain the crowd with lively rousing music.

On behalf of all those who reveled in the day’s activities, none less than Columbia and myself, heartiest congratulations to Mary and the entire community team. A project well accomplished.

lobster in Donegal, Bloody Foreland Donegal

Fresh lobster for a tasty dinner (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

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Free seafood table attracted no shortage of takers.

local crafts Donegal, Cnoc Fola festival

Cnoc Fola festival highlighted traditional skills such as rope making.

horse-shoeing Donegal, Cnoc Fola festival

The art of making horse shoes.

fishing in Donegal, fresh fish Donegal

Fresh fish of all kinds straight from the sea (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

Toni McHugh, Sean Hillen, Donegal archives

(l to r) Tony McHugh talks about census documents and the comprehensive historical archive that has been collated.

baking Donegal, scones and bread

Freshly-baked breads were a big hit at the Cnoc Fola festival (All photos by Columbia Hillen).

basket weaving Donegal, creel making Donegal

Creel making demonstrations at the festival.

Brigid cross, crafts in Donegal

Crosses in honor of Brigid, an ancient Celtic Goddess who was symbol of fertility, healing and new beginnings.