‘Whatever you say, say nothing!’ – motto of Údarás na Gaeltachta

‘People have no right to ask how we spend their money.’

That’s the attitude of Údarás na Gaeltachta, which has once again refused to release key information about how it spends public funds.

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A Senate committee revealed that Údarás pays millions of euro every year in pensions to former executives, some of whom were local Donegal employees including Cathal MacSuibhne, former regional manager based in Gaoth Dobhair.

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Sinn Fein’s Trevor Ó Clochartaigh, a member of that Senate committee, exclaimed, “I nearly fell off the chair when I heard that almost half the current expenditure goes on pension payments to 136 people who are no longer employed by the organisation. Small wonder Údarás is not able to function more effectively.

He added, “This raises serious concerns regarding the levels of monies being paid and who is receiving them.”

Under transparency rules, other public bodies have made a breakdown of such pension figures available for examination, but in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made, Údarás refused to do so, citing gobbledegook about data protection.

As a result, having brought the matter to the attention of a number of TDs, the Údarás pension issue has risen to the highest levels of national government, to the office of Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure.

I can reveal in this blog that on my behalf various leading politicians including Public Accounts Committee (PAC) member, Mary Lou McDonald, have attempted to find out the individual pension figures but Údarás has stonewalled every request, preventing their release.

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How it happened

Údarás responded to my initial FOI request last year seeking details on pension and lump sum payments to former executives in a letter signed by Padraic O’Conghaile – a ‘cinnteoir’ at the organisation’s headquarters in Galway.

In the letter, he wrote, “I am refusing these records as they relate to the pension of an individual under Section 28.1 (Personal Information). The FOI Act defines personal information as information about an identifiable individual that: ‘would, in the ordinary course of events, be known only to individuals or members of the family or friends, of the individual.’ I believe that the right to privacy of these persons with regard to such information far outweighs any public interest there may be in this matter.

The fact, that all the pensions and payments are publicly-funded and thus not “known only to individuals or members of the family or friends, of the individual” as he asserts – did not seem to enter Mr. O’Conghaile’s thinking. Or, perhaps, did, but he refused to acknowledge it.

Following this response, I requested several TD’s to present formal written parliamentary questions in the Dail on the same issue.

For example, Mary Lou McDonald, a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), submitted her parliamentary question to the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003 to which he referred (supporting Údarás’ denial of information); the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike in the case of all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public the details of public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior management.

Dinny McGinley, then junior minister, wrote back in a vague response saying simply that Údarás had informed him it was “a data controller, defined under the Acts as a person who either alone or with others controls the contents and use of personal data.

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Put in simple words, it means Údarás, while deriving all its funding from public money, considers ‘People have no right to ask how we spend their money.’ McGinley’s response also has no logical meaning whatsoever under present Irish law. Instead it is a classic delaying tactic. The former Minister did not bother to question it or seek elaboration.

That response led McDonald to submit a follow-up question, this time to Minister Howlin, reading, “given the Minister’s stated commitment to transparency and accountability in the spending of public monies, whether in his view it is acceptable for a public body fully funded by the exchequer to withhold from the public record details of public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers; and if he is prepared to legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open government.

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It is most disappointing that a simple request to a fully publicly funded body about its spending has led to such a reactionary response from an organisation such as Údarás, which is responsible for the economic, social and cultural development of the Gaeltacht.

Such utter lack of transparency and disregard for public concerns has already led to such widespread corruptive practices as those at FAS when it was discovered hundreds of thousands of euro went on lavish holidays including first-class travel and expensive rounds of golf for executives and their wives. Údarás itself has yet to account for trips paid out of public funds for board members, executives and wives to visit attractive international destinations, including Las Vegas.

Public money is a precious thing and every penny of it ought to be properly accounted for and judiciously spent.

I will reprint Minister Howlin’s response on this blog when it is received. It should provide a most interesting read.

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Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rises: but where’s the money?

Some years ago, displaying immense creativity and skill, a local team of hard-working people in Galway created ‘Macnas,’ an organisation that produces a series of exciting, colourful outdoor parades and indoor shows filled with magnificent costumes and performers.
With generous funding from the Arts Council, Údarás na Gaeltachta, Culture Ireland and Galway Council, the company expanded rapidly; exciting and inspiring audiences worldwide with performances as diverse as U2’s Zooropa Tour; the Millennium parade in New York City; WOMADelaide, South Australia; Chaoyang Spring Carnival, Beijing; the President’s Garden Party, Áras an Uachtaráin; and in a host of festivals, towns and cities throughout Ireland and across Europe.

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Macnas, Galway – an estimated 40,000 euro cost per festival show. (photo courtesy Macnas)

This weekend in the west Donegal town of Falcarragh, a similar group of local hard-working people, under the leadership of festival director, Kathleen Gallagher, and Sean Fitzgerald, will recreate a similar dazzlingly entertaining costume and culture filled show entitled ‘Evil Eye’ (Féile na Súile Nimhe). Featuring large-scale puppet characters, a samba band with Formorian soldiers (ancient sea-farers) and stilt walkers, it will highlight unforgettable Celtic legendary characters such as Balor of the Evil Eye and Lugh, the Sun God (thus ‘Lugh’s Mountain’ now known as Errigal) and the history of the Cloch Cheann Fhaola area.

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‘Evil Eye’ Festival Falcarragh, Donegal – organised on a budget of around 4,000 euro. A whopping ten times less than Galway’s Macnas (photo courtesy Eddie McFadden).

But there’s one major difference between the two festivals: while the Galway team hosts its show with pockets bulging with euro (an estimated 40,000 euro per festival, according to national news reports) – the Falcarragh one has a few pennies. And most of that was raised through its own activities, including determined people who tackled their first adventure race – the 23-kilometer combined run, kayak and cycling Mulroy Bay competition– and, later, the even more challenging 44-kilometer ‘Gael Force’ race.
So how does Údarás na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council and Donegal County Council view this admirable cultural tourism project?
Representatives of the above organisations came to enjoy the Falcarragh festival last year, full of praise for the creators of the extravaganza, a highlight in the west Donegal social calendar. But when asked for money, they all suddenly shied away. While more than 500,000 euro has been given to Macnas in Galway, the Arts Council finally granted a paltry 600 euro for ‘Evil Eye’ and around 1,250 euro is supposed to be donated from the council’s ‘The Gathering’ fund (money not received as of blog posting – two day before event begins).
In its turn, Údarás Donegal contacted the organisers earlier this year, but not to offer financial support. Instead, it called only to inform the team that the application deadline had passed (would it not have been more constructive to have contacted them before, not after, the deadline, especially has it had moved the date forward?).
Later, when approached for some space in one of its industrial estates in which to construct the festival’s giant puppets and store equipment and costumes, Udaras demanded 50 per cent of the commercial rate, which obviously – on such a tiny budget – the community group could not afford. Ironically, Údarás has thousands of square meters of space lying empty and unused in its industrial estates throughout the Gaeltacht for which it is already paying utilities, spaces that are supposed to be used for ‘community development.’ In the end, it was the generosity of local Falcarragh man, John ‘the Rake’ McFadden, that helped save the annual ‘Evil Eye’ festival. He donated his large agricultural shed to organisers.

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‘Evil Eye’ festival combines entertainment with education on Celtic history for both adults and children.

Faced with a severe lack of funding assistance, the hardworking festival team were forced to borrow and beg – costumes from the Northwest Carnival Initiative in Derry for 30 members of the Cloughaneely Marching Band who will act as seahorses in the historical re-enactment and other costumes from the Inishowen Carnival Group for 12 volunteer samba dancers. They also had to rely on the efforts of organisers of a childrens’ summer camp in Ballina Resource Centre at which local kids made shields and swords, 10 of whom will march in the festival. Nine members of the Curragh Club of Magheraroarty, as well as local plasterers, who will walk on stilts, are also helping out.
If this kind of creativity and community spirit had been displayed in other countries such as the US or Australia, it would probably be recognized immediately as such and funding made readily available (as indeed it is in other Irish counties such as Galway).
Yet Údarás in Donegal, with Fine Gael national board member, John Curran, living nearby, continue to ignore such culture tourism projects, projects with the potential for economic development through tourism, while at the same time wasting public money on generous expenses and junkets for its staff members (including a large delegation who traveled, with their spouses, on an all-expenses paid trip to Las Vegas – to meet officials of Dublin-based Enterprise Ireland).

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Údarás Donegal refused to give ‘Evil Eye’ organisers free space in its empty industrial estates for the construction and storage of giant puppets.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Gallagher voiced her frustration: “It seems to me that Údarás either has no interest whatsoever in tourism development or simply doesn’t understand its potential,” she said. “The tourism officer for Údarás, Gearoid O’Smaolain who lives in Falcarragh, has never even approached us to see if we needed help of any kind. He doesn’t belong on any of the local community committees or attend meetings to find out what is happening on the ground.”
She added, “I carried out comprehensive research into possible funding from Údarás and on which individual staff members I should approach, something that is not very clear from its materials. Many of their job descriptions certainly include the word ‘community,’ such as ‘community enterprise’ and ‘community development and marketing’ yet strangely, there doesn’t seem to be much community development going on at all.”
As multi award-winning actor Diarmuid de Faoite said of the festival: “The ‘Evil Eye’ is our ancient past and living present in all its wild beauty.”
It’s a shame the Arts Council, Donegal County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta don’t seem to agree.

While misguided policies, cronyism and wastage of public money has been an unfortunate hallmark of Údarás almost since its inception, the good news in this instance is that due to the sterling efforts of Falcarragh volunteers, the ‘Evil Eye’ festival is going ahead.
So why not treat yourself, family and friends to a wonderful spectacle of colour, culture and heritage and pop along to Falcarragh between August 22nd and 24th.
A festival highlight will be a medieval banquet in St Ann’s Church Killult, the 1900’s structure providing an excellent setting for a magical evening of song, dance and drama. The festival will also pay tribute to the history of Muckish Mountain’s mining legacy with guided walks on the old Miners Path and disused railway tracks. It will also feature birds of prey and weaponry displays, complete with a pig on a spit in a ‘medieval field’ while skills of strength and agility will be tested in a range of quest games to find one of the story’s main characters, Lugh Lámhfhada.
For further information, see Evil Eye Festival site.

Cultural tourism – its time is nigh

There are some among us (either through ignorance or greed) who consider Donegal unfit for cultural tourism – but a quick glance at what’s happening right now in the area proves them wrong.

Take, for example, the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project.

As I started writing this, many people – tourism and community leaders, teachers, retired air-force pilots, sociologists, photographers, authors, solicitors, doctors and academics – were gathered at Óstán Loch Altan, Gortahork, in the scenic northwest of the county, talking enthusiastically about developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful cultural tourism pilgrimage project that could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

Speakers at the conference air their views as to how the proposed pilgrimage trail could be developed.

Organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall and ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba and supported by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Foras na Gaeilge, this three-day conference which ended today (Sunday) aims to develop a heritage trail based on the travels and travails of the Celtic mystic, Columba. Such a project could not only inform Irish and foreign visitors about local history, archaeology, folklore and heritage but also create employment and business for hotels, B&Bs, cafes, restaurants, museums and bars alike in the two regions.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to expand our learning and to attract visitors on a significant historical route from south-west Donegal to the Isle of Lewis in north-west Scotland,” said Randall, chairman of the Islands Book Trust.

This united effort is supported by renown authors-cum-academics such as University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

Renown University of Cork researcher and author Máire Herbert beside the old stone cross on Tory Island with her groundbreaking book on the mystic monk Columba (Colmcille).

With additional speakers such as University of Galway’s Mícheál Ó Dónaill, Calum MacGilleain, Tristan ap Rheinallt and Aidan O’Hara from Scotland, Noel O’Gallchoir from Gaoth Dobhair, Noleen Ni Cholla, Moira Ni Ghallchoir, Maolcholaim Scott, Liam O’Cuinneagain and even the King of Tory Island himself, Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri, the conference comprehensively analyzed the tantalizing persona of Columba from the sociological, archaeological, historical, religious and mythological perspectives. And, more importantly, how interest in the fellow can be turned into a dollars and cents/euros and pennies booster for local tourism.

Brian Lacey, medieval historian and author, informs guests at the Sli Cholmcille conference about Pagan and druidic practices in and around Errigal and Muckish mountains.

The only drawback to an otherwise excellent symposium of speakers was the often poor technics, the out-of-focus projection of some otherwise well-researched multi-media presentations.

But the development of Sli Cholmcille is just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick glance at the local newspapers – the Donegal News and the Donegal Democrat – this weekend alone, shows a rich vein of cultural tourism – including the weekly music seisúns and this summer’s ‘Gaelturas’ initiative at Teach Hiudai Beag; the year-long programme of music and dance at Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern; the ‘Goitse Gaoth Dobhair’ events in Bunbeg this coming weekend, which emerged from the ‘Dearg le Fearg’ language equality campaign, as well as ‘Luinneog Lunasa’ in the same area; the ‘Swell Festival’ on Arranmore; and ‘FestiFál’ and ‘Evil Eye Festival’ in Falcarragh to name but a few. Other local diverse activities with strong potential range from rock-climbing, wind-surfing and kayaking with Rock agus Roam; horse and pony riding at the Dunlewey Trekking Centre and elsewhere; the craft demonstrations at Ionad Cois Locha; and the educational Walking Donegal, the hill, coast and lake hikes with informed guide, Seamus Doohan; as well as specialty walks such as the ‘Tullaghbegley Heritage Walking Weekend.’

The list is endless.

And that’s not to mention the many literary tourism opportunities based on the art of creative writing.

Antonia Leitner from Carinthia in Austria is not shy to show her love of books and learning at Magheroarty Beach.

The idyllic landscapes and seascapes of Donegal have been an inspiration to many best-selling novelists and short story authors who have set their plots within or around the county, in genres ranging from sci-fi to literary fiction and fantasy, as well as plays. These writers include Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, Sophia Hillan, Kenneth Gregory, Emma Heatherington, Michael Harding and Laurence Donaghy, some of whom will speak at Ireland’s newest writing retreat ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Words’ from June 28th to July 4th in Gaoth Dobhair.

With the national initiative ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ now well underway and Donegal an integral part of it, there’s only one thing stopping the cultural tourism momentum that’s building up – a continued reluctance by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the primary economic development organisation in the Gaeltacht – to fund the many projects with serious money not just the few pennies it has been doling out until now to stave off a rising tide of protest.

‘Acupuncture of the body, acupuncture of the earth’ – author Brian Lacey describes a theory he learned from a Slovenian artist.

As many people are now saying, this organisation must host regular, open, community meetings and really listen to what local people – the very people they are there to serve – want in terms of more innovative community development; provide much greater transparency in its spending of an estimated 1.2 billion euro in public money, than it has to date; and an end to kow-towing to political parties and their funders (first Fianna Fail and now Fine Gael) which has resulted in far too much money going into the pockets of a rich elite of developers/builders who make easy profits from building simplistic, unneeded, industrial estates.

A new direction is required and a Catholic Church-run sex, drugs and alcohol addiction center in Falcarragh, with no guarantee of decent local jobs – especially as such a centre already exists in Donegal and research indicates this is sufficient for need – is hardly the panacea for high unemployment and emigration from the area. Some say real investment in local cultural tourism means shelving the proposed investment of three million euro by Údarás in the addiction centre and putting those euro millions into local tourism projects, the one sector a beautiful region like Donegal can benefit widely from, now and in the long-term (if that three million euro is spent on the proposed addiction centre, it spells the end for any real investment in anything else – no other board members of Údarás in other Gaeltachts will vote for any further significant monies for Donegal).

In this regard, it is quite sad to see how much Tory Island has fallen below its full potential – far behind many other attractive island retreats dotted around Ireland. The dismissive attitude of relevant funding authorities – and perhaps the disunity and lack of concerted lobbying and effort by local people (full burden cannot rest solely on the shoulders of one man, King Patsy Dan) – has meant its tourism income has suffered greatly, with accompanying lack of promotion (not even a regular newsletter on events or significant signage on the mainland and on the island itself).

“I am tired of trying to persuade Udaras na Gaeltachta officials to properly fund projects here on Tory Island, their ears are deaf, they simply don’t understand,” said King Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri. “The people here deserve such support. Our ancient and colourful history calls out for it.”

Befriending Royalty. Modern version of the horse-drawn carriage?

It’s make-or-break time for northwest Donegal.

Let’s put an end to the notion that cultural tourism is an unimportant, peripheral activity, the kind of mind-think that Údarás officials are stuck on, and have been for decades. This specialized sector has the potential to provide immense, long-term economic benefits for this hard-hit, hard-pressed part of the county and country, but it requires serious commitment and financial support.

In a future post I will give specific examples from my extensive sojourns in other parts of the world as an international travel writer where cultural tourism has transformed and enlivened a local and often paralyzed economy.

Meanwhile the next post will focus on what precisely various speakers at the conference said about Columba, this larger-than-life monk who seems to defy description, someone about whose background we know very little, either because documents were destroyed by marauding, book-burning Vikings, or were deftly confiscated by church abbots on a precise propaganda campaign.

To read more of Sean’s work, check these sites:

Digging for Dracula

World Itineraries

Examiner

JustLuxe

Ireland Writing Retreat

Fios Training and Coaching Organization

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Owen Curran: well-respected Donegal community activist speaks out

Names his choices for local elections in the Glenties

Watching as stone cottages in England were leveled to make way for a nuclear power plant and seeing protestors trying to stop it being mistreated by police was the beginning of Owen Curran’s political awakening.

I was nineteen, living in England, but that planted a seed in me,” the 51-year-old explains simply during a recent two-hour interview at Lough Altan Hotel in Gortahork.

Owen, first from the left, looking at camera, displays his solidarity with protestors seeking greater equality and social justice.

In the intervening thirty-two years, that seed has grown into a sturdy tree, its branches used in the protection of basic civil and community rights and furtherance of a more equitable society. That’s why Curran, who was born in Glasgow but who grew up in Ray, west Donegal, and has lived the last 12 years in nearby Derryconnor, came to be one of the canvassers for a then aspiring Dublin political leader named Joe Higgins in the 1990s. That’s how he also ended up in the vanguard of the Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against the household and water taxes; among 15,000 people protesting outside the Fine Gael Ard Fheis two years ago in Dublin; and one of a small group of people behind the emergence of ‘May Day’ celebrations earlier this month in Falcarragh.

I suppose you could say I’ve always been involved in fighting for peoples’ rights and social fairness,” says the well-read, quiet-spoken Donegal county council employee. “These rights were hard-fought to get and keeping them is even more difficult, especially in times of economic crisis.

With the local elections but a few weeks away, Owen, who like many Irishmen before him has travelled to many places seeking work, including Neasden, Edinburgh, Bermondsey, Dunbar, Haddington and Port Seton, is eyeing the candidates with that view very much in mind. “I’m looking for people with genuine beliefs about social justice, the kind who get involved and don’t waver when things get tough, people like Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein, the best politician we’ve ever had in Donegal,” he says, before adding philosophically, “democracy is a living, breathing, thing and should be borne out to its fullest. We’ve been told there is an economic upturn, but we don’t see it. Most of our working people have emigrated or are simply unemployed. How can we talk about rural Ireland if we don’t put people back to work? We need to get back to basics, back to looking at agriculture, tourism, the environment. We need open public forums where people can have the right to their say in how the community in which they live should move forward. We’re not going to come out of this crisis automatically. That requires serious, long-term spending.

So why hasn’t that happened already? Why has there been so little protest from Irish people who have undergone such dire difficulties over the last five years?

There are many reasons,” he explains. “With our colonial past, including landlordism, there has been a ‘do-what-you-have-to’ attitude to survive. Also, the Catholic Church, while it has done much good, has left us over-deferential to authority. Further, emigration has always been Ireland’s safety valve. It lets pressure off. Those who would traditionally stand up are gone away.

Owen also believes history went amiss for the people of Ireland. “After the so-called revolution here, the wrong people grasped power, not the people who did most of the fighting, but larger farmers and those who were better off. Some people like to make a devil out of Éamon de Valera but he wasn’t alone. Some of what he and others beside him did was progressive but there has been an absence of social change. Ireland is a Republic in name only and even though the phrase annoys me, we are a ‘class conscious’ nation. In a country in which we felt we were in it together, resisting the might of the British Empire, we found we were no better, no worse, than them. The green flag is still waiting to be raised. There are still things to do.

That includes, according to Owen, “all people being given choices.” “People are not given their rightful place. Minorities should be able to voice their opinion. That is vitally important. Cutting them off is dangerous and we have to be ever vigilant that does not happen. We also need to relearn a lot of stuff, things we knew in the past, like solidarity and standing up for each other. Irish people like to say they didn’t like Margaret Thatcher yet we’ve taken many of her policies and applied them, thus the Celtic Tiger and the Charlie McCreevy’s of this world. Unions ‘in partnership’ with government? What does that mean? We cannot sit on both sides of the fence. It’s as if we are delighted to be allowed to ‘join the club,’ join the ruling classes. We have become so deferential to authority we let off those clearly guilty of white-collar crime. It has just become too easy for them.

Locally, Owen is passionate about the unfortunate situation at Largo Foods in Gaoth Dobhair. “This is a case where skills were honed over forty years, yet now, it’s all gone. Crocodile tears were shed by many politicians, but it took eleven days for Udaras na Gaeltachta to host a first meeting on the factory’s closure. It should have organized a special task force back in the 1980s when manufacturing was going down. I mean, has there ever been an audit of skills in the Gaeltacht community, not to mention a series of public meetings to find job-creation ideas or special training seminars on how to apply properly for funding? Udaras has spent hundreds of millions of euro of public money over the years and much of it has been wasted. It is long past time for greater transparency and much more public scrutiny of the way this organisation operates.

To whom does Owen owe such thoughtful and mature political thinking? “In Ireland, the lives and writings of people like James Connolly and Jim Larkin, and, of course, Joe Higgins, which is why I canvassed for him all those years ago, but others outside Ireland who were very influential during their time,” he says. Among these, Owen adds, are James Cannon in the United States, whom he sees as “an early stalwart of American socialism in the 1930s and who wrote ‘Socialism on Trial,’ which Owen considers “a masterful explanation of the ‘red scare,’ and even the writer, Jack London, who wrote ‘The Iron Heel,’ about the strength of the individual and the collective. Owen also greatly admires Barack Obama, who, he says, “has made a tremendous difference.”

With local elections up ahead, how does the local activist – with two brothers and two sisters and now married to Sheila – feel about the future?

I remain optimistic. I believe in people, in the human spirit. But we need to build peoples’ confidence, to encourage them to get involved in making their communities better. They will find they are well able but it’s a long process. However, it can work. There is not simply dark and light. There’s rarely an outright victory. The ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, for example, made a number of people active. We all learned how to debate issues. In many ways, it was a model for local democracy within a group. I saw people who were too shy to speak, get up and chair a public meeting.

Regarding the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign, Curran gives great credit to a number of people who he says “have been pioneers in the struggle for greater equality as well as anti-austerity stalwarts, including Theresa and Caroline Woods, founders of the group; Mary Bridget Sharkey; Mary Attenborough; Moire McCarry; R.J. McLean; James Woods;  Gerard Gallagher; and Martin McEhlinny.”

He continues, “Back to the issue of deference – some people on the left wasted an opportunity this economic crisis presented. They disengaged over spurious reasons. The landscape changed but they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity it presented. Forcing Fine Gael and Fianna Fail together would have made way for a stronger Left alliance….. but maybe it’s not too late.

Owen’s choices in the upcoming local elections for the Glenties area are –

  1. Michael McClafferty – “a decent, hardworking person who got involved in this election because he believes change can only come about if people go into politics and fight for it.”
  2. Cllr. Marie Therese Gallagher and John Sheamais O’Fearraigh of Sinn Fein “because that party has shown consistent loyalty to its principles, as well as strong discipline, especially at last year’s council budget meeting.”
  3. Seamus Rogers – “a genuine community activist, and a decent man.”

Support funding of cultural tourism projects in west Donegal

Protest and petition signing at Falcarragh crossroads today (Saturday) at 2pm

With west Donegal’s natural beauty, inspiring landscapes and rich heritage, this area is in an extremely favorable position to create jobs and a strong economy based on cultural tourism.
Such initiatives – of which there are plenty by local people – have the potential to attract tens of thousands of visitors to the area every year, creating a ‘clean’ industry as strong as in other parts of Ireland, including Cork and Galway.
Nowadays many tourists, national and international, are seeking greater ‘authentic’ experiences when they travel for leisure whether those experiences be based on natural scenery, history, archaeology, language, music or dance.
West Donegal offers these elements in abundance including being part of the ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ What is lacking, however, is a committed long-term strategy incorporating generous funding to get these ideas off the ground and strengthen them.
Until now, funding has amounted in effect to ‘mere pennies’ when considered within the overall size of annual multi-million euro budgets of organizations such as Udaras, the largest economic group in the area (for the last two years, cultural tourism spend has amounted to less than three (3) percent of its budget). It is also interesting to examine the projects funded by the multi-million euro, EU-backed Donegal Local Development Company Ltd (DLDC).
In contrast, most Udaras funding has poured into industrial estates that now lie derelict and almost empty, yet still cost lots of money every year simply to maintain; largely outsider-owned manufacturing units, which simply pack-up and leave when free grants finish (Largo Foods); and call centers, many of which are short-lived before they move off to other cheaper places such as India.
While other areas of Ireland are creating strong environmentally-friendly economies and many jobs for their people within the hospitality industry based on cultural tourism – in cafes, museums, hotels, bars and bed and breakfast operations – west Donegal is lagging far behind.
It’s time we – all of us living here, wanting ourselves and our children to have decent, well-paying long-term ‘non-cabbage’ jobs – stood up and aired our views to the policy makers, including Udaras and DLDC officials as well as those standing for the upcoming County Council elections.
If we don’t speak out, we have less basis for blaming them for making decisions on economic development we disagree with.

Come to Falcarragh today between 2 and 4 pm to hear more about this subject or sign the online petition here.

This petition will be presented to our local political representatives as well as to leaders of key economic organizations such as Udaras and the DLDC.

Druids, faeries and a giant with a hole in his head – a witch’s brew of a carnival in Falcarragh

Possessing creative flair and organizational ability in abundance Kathleen Gallagher wanted to utilize her multi-faceted talents to support cultural and tourism development in Falcarragh – hey presto, some of the most colorful carnivals ever to grace the environs of this small, west Donegal Gaeltacht town.

Born in the tiny district of Carrowcannon, Kathleen (44), a teacher of early school leavers in Letterkenny, was a member of the Cosa Meata ‘Funky Feet’ Carnival Group and the more informal, self-named, tongue-in-cheek, ‘Creative Creaturs.’

Kathleen

As such, she was plum full of innovative ideas. And anyone who had the honor of witnessing the dramatic scenes as around 90 people dressed as zombies, vampires and creatures that go ‘boo’ in the night (with Kathleen as a zombie bride) emerged over the hill from the direction of the Bridge of Tears in the Muckish Gap, slouching into Falcarragh crossroads to the pulsating sounds of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ a few years ago know exactly what the term ‘innovative idea’ means. That particular event in 2010 raised more than 14,000 euro for the victims of the Haiti earthquake and also gained national recognition by featuring in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin watched by tens of thousands.

Haiti

Then there was the ‘Great Ball Race’ event on October 30, 2011, at which 4,000 numbered balls were released at the top of Falcarragh hill rolling down towards Gortahork and captured in a specially-designed collection chute, made by Dutchman, Rein de Groot. The event raised 4,230 euro for Concern to help reduce drought in Africa.

leprachaun

That brings us to the inaugural and intriguingly-entitled ‘Evil Eye Festival’ (Féile na Súile Nimhe) last year, which Kathleen and colleagues shaped to fit the national tourism campaign ‘The Gathering,’ and which will be repeated this year. Starring five impressive, 7-foot high puppets, two so complex they had to be operated by three people, a large cow structure made of timber and wire designed and made by Kerry Law and her partner Roger O’Shea and a 16-person squad of dynamic samba drummers representing the evil Balor’s army, as well as the assistance of the Cloughaneely Drama Group under the direction of Manus Diver and Joanne Butler and three of the area’s Irish schools of dancing (McCafferty, Maureen Byrne and Kavanagh), Kathleen and her team made local legendary history come to dynamic life. In the environs of Ballyconnell House estate (a verdant community preserve that may soon be turned into a Catholic Church-run drug addiction clinic), the story of the battle between Balor and his grandson, Lugh, son of Eithne, and the stealing of ‘An Glas Gaibleann’ (Cow of Plenty) from Mac Aneely, came to multi-colored life. Narration was in English and dialogue between characters ‘as Gaeilge,’ all replete with witches, faeries and a druidess (Biróg).

pupets 3

“It’s such a fantastic story, just waiting to be told in a multi-art form way,” is how Kathleen described the genesis of the event. “I knew we had a core of very creative people here who were well able to deliver a great spectacle. It was a case of building social capital in the area. We have plenty of local talent here. We just need the resources.”

The response to the festival last year was terrific, Kathleen recalls. “It worked out brilliantly. First of all, the weather stayed kind. And so many people – many of them locals, some of whom didn’t know the details of the legendary story of Balor and Lugh or the story about the stone behind the GAA field – came to enjoy the spectacle. Also, many people volunteered to help, even a plasterer, Martin Whoriskey from Gortahork, who saw us rehearsing at The Yard where he was working and happened to mention that he used stilts in his job to reach high spots. Immediately, we begged him to join us, which he did, playing the role of Balor – on stilts, of course. Aisling Friel from Gortahork, a former member of Cosa Meata Carnival Group, played the role of Eithne, daughter of Balor.”

headless man

For their efforts, the ‘Balor team’ was runners-up in the National Heritage Council award for ‘Most Innovative’ event, as well as the Me2U Donegal Volunteers Award.

Challenges, of course, were many, as they tend to be when launching such an ambitious idea. “It was a brand new project so people were initially a bit bewildered about it at the start. We also needed to find available space, both for the equipment and our life-size puppets, as well as for workshops such as the samba drumming training led by Roger. We were very thankful to Paul Kernan (coordinator) and his team at The Yard, who helped us very much. Sean Fitzpatrick, a wonderful designer, produced our posters and brochures.”

evil eye 1

With this year’s event due to take place between August 22 to 24, Kathleen and her committee – Sarah de Groot (treasurer), Angela Boyle (administrator), Finola Early (costume design), Kerry Law and Roger O’Shea (artistic design), Sean Fitzgerald (graphic design), and Moira Gallagher (public relations), are now focusing their minds on fund-raising, not an easy matter in these recessionary times we live in. Last year, they  raised €3,500 in fundraising for the three-day festival by organizing a ‘couch to circuit’ 5km training programme, a 9-week regime of three sessions of jogging a week; a “Santa spin,’ in which people dressed as the chubby fellow in red and chose any means of transport to move around the Falcarragh area (including ‘suitcases on wheels’ and go-karts); and a leprechaun hunt in the Ballyconnell House estate.

summer

Kathleen would like to develop her team’s ideas further and expand the yearly events’ calendar both to entertain members of the local rural community and attract more tourists to the area but urgently requires greater, guaranteed funds to do so. “So much effort goes into fund-raising before we even begin to embark on our ideas and there’s only so many times you can ask someone to volunteer their time and effort,” she said during an interview at An tSean Bheairic this week. “It would be so much easier if we were financially well supported and could focus our efforts more on creating great entertainment, with strong educational value, for young and old alike.”

Kathleen and her merry band of entertainers launch their fund-raising campaign soon. They deserve our full support. Delve deep into your pocket and give generously.

Fair or unfair? A nettlesome question of censorship

Sitting in the front row at a CeangalG (ConnectG) conference on cultural tourism at An Chuirt Hotel a few weeks back I took the opportunity to ask Udaras representative, Gearoid O’Smaolain, about his organization’s plans for a drug addiction clinic in Falcarragh.

As seems traditional policy with Udaras (a characteristic that has led to its acquiring the sobriquet ‘the Secret Society’), the organization’s local tourism official was reluctant to talk, but I persevered and asked him three separate questions on an issue that I consider is of strong importance to the local community. Ultimately, the response I eased out was that Udaras had received no decent proposals over the years for Ballyconnell House near the crossroads of the west Donegal town and was in advanced negotiations to turn it into a drug addiction clinic. This information was included in one of my stories, “Catholic church linked addiction clinic in Falcarragh – Is this the best use of tax payers job creation money?

Imagine my surprise when I received a phone call from Stephen Maguire, who established the ‘Donegal Daily’ news service with Brenda O’Neill, where my story on the addiction clinic had been published, saying he had received the following email from Mr. O’Smaolain:

email 1

Until Mr. Maguire’s phone call and even though my name was clearly on the article, I had not received any communication from Mr. O’Smaolain about any alleged misquote, not even after I asked Mr. Maguire to have him contact me to discuss the matter (Having once been the beneficiary of my dear wife’s delicious ‘Columbian’ cooking as a guest at my home for lunch, there didn’t seem any valid reason for Mr. O’Smaolain to have been too shy about contacting me).

After many years in journalism, including working for The Irish Times, Time magazine and the Daily Telegraph, the United Nations Media Centre in New York, as well as founder and publisher of a national media and events company in Eastern Europe for ten years, I hope I have developed the right skills to compile an accurate story from an event. However, we are human, mistakes happen, so I asked Mr. Maguire what Mr. O’Smaolain said he had said.

This is where things began to take on a veneer of surrealism.

Mr. Maguire received from Mr. O’Smaolain what was alleged to be a ‘transcript’ of the Q&A we had at the conference and a private conversation I had with Mr. O’Smaolain afterwards. I found this to be surprising as I had been informed by the event organisers that there was no official transcript of the conference. And certainly, nobody tape-recorded the private conversation between us both, immediately afterwards. Also, as I was in the front row not ten yards away, directly facing Mr. O’Smaolain, I doubt very much if I misheard what he said, and I told Mr. Maguire as much (My Teeline shorthand learned at postgraduate journalism school at City University, London, is also pretty darn good. I may even proudly have reached the magic 100 words per minute back then).

When Mr. Maguire called me I was in Sicily (ironically visiting a cultural tourism project) so I asked him to e-mail me the so-called ‘transcript’ and I would respond when I got back to my hotel that evening. The ‘transcript’ is alleged to have been written by Mrs. Cathy MacDonald, the person who chaired the panel meeting Mr. O’Smaolain was on.

email 2

But the so-called ‘transcript’ of the Q&A is quite porous indeed, not surprising, considering the fact that it is never easy to do ‘double duty,’ meaning take comprehensive notes while chairing a four-person, panel discussion (for example, it is truly amazing to read above that while she is speaking at the event, she is writing at the same time). And, as I had learned a week or so earlier from Udaras HQ Galway that  it had spent around 2.2 million euro last year in Donegal, I would hardly have used the term “millions and millions” in relation to one project (it also strikes me as simplistic ‘baby talk’).

Stranger still, while I had quoted Mr. O’Smaolain saying there had been no “decent proposals” for Ballyconnell House since Udaras took it over many years ago, his so-called ‘transcript’ shows him saying there had categorically been “no” applications at all. Coincidently, a week or so before the CeangalG conference, on a bus journey to Letterkenny, a well-respected Gortahork-based businessman, Milo Butler, in the seat beside me, told me he had submitted a comprehensive proposal for a tourism complex including an equestrian centre to Udaras for Ballyconnell House, a statement he reiterated with much anger when we met in Falcarragh later and I told him what Mr. O’Smaolain had said. Anger is a natural, indeed justifiable, response from anyone who has, in effect, being called a liar. Even stranger still, in an e-mail I received yesterday from Siubhan Nic Grianna, national communications and marketing manager for Udaras, she indicates there indeed were some proposals submitted for Ballyconnell House to her organisation. But more on this in a future post.

After e-mailing both myself and Mr. O’Smaolain saying:

maguire's letter

‘Donegal Daily’ then removed the article on the addiction clinic from its news site, as well as more than 240 ‘shares’ from readers.

I was not pleased, of course, as by doing so, Mr. Maguire was leaving himself open to criticisms of infringing on freedom of expression, but as a former publisher, I also could picture the kind of pressure Mr. Maguire might be under from the powers that be.

Imagine my utter anger, however, when I woke next morning, without any further communication from Mr. Maguire, to read the following on the ‘Donegal Daily’ news site:

donegal daily retraction

I, of course, tried to reach Mr. Maguire by phone and e-mail from Sicily seeking a full explanation, asking what, if any, new information had come to light. There was no response. I contacted him again several days later, sending him another e-mail. As of the time of publishing this blog article, more than a full week later, I still have not received any response from him addressing any of my questions regarding the reasons for his actions – be that legal, editorial or simply financial, meaning Udaras or bodies/individuals associated with Udaras either threatening tacitly or overtly him as an individual or Donegal Daily Ltd. as a company to withdraw advertising, or promised future revenue such as grants. (I note that Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran, ran an advertising campaign on ‘Donegal Daily’ plus stories but I would be severely disappointed if he had interfered in freedom of the press or freedom of expression issues in any way – two avenues, I notice, he himself availed of when he promptly favorited the ‘Donegal Daily’ clarification on social media outlets).

Confusing matters further is the fact that the ‘Donegal Daily’ statement was headlined ‘clarification’ not ‘correction,’ so in an effort to clarify matters for readers and respond to the retraction published without my consent, I submitted the comment below to ‘Donegal Daily.’

sean's reply

It declined to publish it and even deleted it from its Facebook. Hardly an action supporting freedom of expression.

Note

After more than 30 years in journalism, some spent in the tough world of investigative journalism, I have learned there is one sure-fire rule: if the people/institution you are writing about cannot ‘deal’ with a particular story (due to its veracity and its controversial nature), they will inevitably attempt to ‘deal’ with the storyteller, usually through accusations of bias or/and professional ineptness.

Ultimately it is sad this episode has come to pass. For more than a year, I have tried through the normal accepted means open to citizens to obtain information from Udaras, locally and nationally, and indeed directly from Mr. O’Smaolain, through phone calls, e-mails and FOI requests, without receiving sometimes as much as the professional courtesy of a response, never mind the information I’ve requested. If I had, there would have been no need to ask Mr. O’Smaolain at a CeangalG public forum.

It must be remembered, Udaras is a public body, supported by your money, the national purse. As such, it should share openly – not hide secretively – details about how it is spending what is a very precious commodity these days. As the most recent scandal at Rehab and others before it have shown, ordinary people in Ireland have already suffered enough from lack of transparency and proper accountability in public and semi-public bodies.

I welcome your views, either through comments below or the contact page.