Good writing gives me goose-bumps

Having arrived in picturesque west Donegal – Bun na Leaca to be precise – over six years ago and recognizing it for the artists’ haven that it is, my wife, Columbia, and I thought about establishing a creative writers’ retreat.
After all, surely such a pristine and bucolic landscape could inspire great prose. 

Ireland Writing Retreat participants enjoy a special Celtic legend coastal walk with guide, Seamus Doohan.

Not that such an idea hadn’t been done before.  Poet partners, Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late departed husband, James, had done so many years previous, setting up a ‘Poet’s House’ in a refurbished cottage at Clonbarra, outside Falcarragh.

Then funding was more generous and tens of thousands of euro annually wasn’t much of a problem for Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council, Donegal County Council, LEADER, and other sources.
Times have changed, however, and the public funding pump is dripping slowly, a mere trickle at best. Seanie FitzPatrick and Co. and Fianna Fail made sure of that.

Rose Sweeney teaches future members of the ‘Riverdance’ cast the basic ‘sevens’ of Irish ceilidhe dancing.

County Librarian and Divisional Manager of Cultural Services, Eileen Burgess, a keen supporter of our idea, issued warnings: “It’s a wonderful project but there’s simply no money in the kitty. You’d pretty much be on your own.”

But you know how it is – an intriguing idea comes along, sticks to you like furze in a meadow and simply won’t fall away no matter how hard you try.
So, even though there are more than one hundred creative writing conferences and book festivals throughout Ireland – many in the much-publicized, tourist-centric counties of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kerry – we took the plunge.
After all, isn’t Donegal the prettiest of them all?

Washington-based triple book author and former CNN editor, John DeDakis, enjoys a leisurely trip on ‘The Cricket’ to Gola Island with other writing retreat participants.

Of course, wisdom told us to delay until better economic times were upon us. But passion drove us forward, screaming, ‘tempus fugit.’ We swayed for a while between the two.

We’re going into our third year now and have managed to attract participants from far off fields, many of whom had never been to Ireland before never mind the back-roads of the Donegal Gaeltacht – Wyoming, Sydney, Utah, Perth, Stoke-on-Trent, New Jersey to name but a few.
Not bad for a project without public funding of any kind.

Guest speakers at the Ireland Writing Retreat held at Teac Jack, Gaoth Dobhair. (l to r) Singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith; Mark Gregory, forensic editor; actor/director Murray Learmont.

Imagine where it could go with a bit of financial support – but perhaps only if it’s located in one of the aforementioned counties.

As for this year, international stars of the week-long retreat included John DeDakis, triple book author and former senior editor at CNN for 25 years who flew directly from Washington to be at Teac Jack’s, the retreat location; Anthony Quinn, experienced author of crime fiction with a crafty literary twist; and Mark Gregory, a much-heralded forensic editor (the person who reads book manuscripts minutely word by word, syllable by syllable).

Plot, character, suspense – (l to r) Authors John DeDakis and Anthony Quinn discuss the challenging task of writing novels.

But committed locals also loaned their weight enthusiastically to the endeavor – actor and drama group director, Murray Learmont, guided participants on improving their public reading skills; singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith granted insights into the challenging task of lyric writing; Rose Sweeney taught participants their ‘sevens’ in preparation for a ceilidhe in the backroom of the popular Glassagh venue; Pól Ó Muireasáin gave an enlightening tour of Gola Island; and Seamus Doohan led participants on a Celtic legend coastal walk – all of which was grist to the mill for writers’ creativity.

Eddie, the uncrowned King of Gola Island (in blue) with walking guide, Pol O’Muiresean, (r) talk about life on the west Donegal island many years ago.

The ‘Donegal News’ considered this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ which ended last week, worthy of an article in today’s edition.
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Onward to 2016.
 
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Brewing up a storm

A wheelbarrow and a pair of boots painted proudly in Donegal GAA colors perched atop a house roof in Falcarragh.

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A sexy, full-size female mannequin dressed in nifty sporting gear posing roadside in Glassagh, Gaoth Dobhair.

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And goodness knows how many rusted carcasses of cars suddenly transformed into brightly-colored, eye-catching street decorations.

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Sporting success has brought out the best in Donegal creativity – both on and off the field.

With less than seven days to go before ‘the Grande Finale’ at Croke Park, the county is awash with an artistic spirit that Jimmy, Declan and their respective teams have inspired.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such genuine outpouring of community solidarity could be harnessed into sustained cultural tourism projects that would provide much needed long-term employment and economic benefits?

If some of the recently erected ‘altars’ to the success of Donegal GAA are anything to go by, there is no shortage of ideas, but funding is sadly missing. Not because the money isn’t there, it is. But because those holding the purse strings don’t have the confidence that proposed projects are anything more than short-term hobbies. Consequently, those with excellent cultural tourism ideas continue to live a hand-to-mouth existence, spending much of their brilliant creativity, not on artistic endeavor, but on scrounging for pennies, with long-term sustainability a mere pipe-dream.

An earlier post cited Udaras’ rejection of funding this year for the excellent ‘Evil Eye’ festival in Falcarragh. Now, a recent report shows a paltry 48,250 euro has been shoe-horned for 17 festivals throughout the county by Failte Ireland. Work out the math. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Meanwhile, there is a peculiar notion out there that beer will be consumed in considerable quantities in the county if Donegal ride victorious over the Holy Ground this weekend.

The bad news is that beverage choice for such a celebration in the county is among the most limited in the nation. Seemingly, more publicans in Donegal have kowtowed to multinationals such as the British-owned company, Guinness, and Heineken because they offer their products wholesale for as little as 50 cents a pint rather than offer their customers a wider choice of beers and ales to imbibe as is happening in other parts of Ireland.

Attending the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival a week ago at the RDS in Dublin, I was delighted to see how many micro-breweries had been launched nationwide – Galway Bay Brewery, The White Hag in Sligo and 9 White Deer in Cork to name but a few. While Ireland is still well behind England and the US in terms of micro-beer choice, mainly due to consumer acquiescence, Donegal is well behind other counties.

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Only Kinnegar Brewing and Muckish Mountain Brewery keep Donegal from being bottom of the national micro-brewery league table. The latter is named after nearby Kinnegar Beach 
just north of Rathmullan and produces around 4,000 liters per week with funky brands such as Limeburner, Scraggy Bay, Rustbucket, Devil’s Backbone and Yannaroddy. The latter, based in Creeslough, produces Miner’s Red Ale made with dark crystal malt.

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It is the same narrative when it comes to cider. Check any pub in Donegal and the likelihood is the label says ‘Bulmers.’ For the record, most of what goes into this particular drink is concentrate, usually brought in from Poland by the truckload. Every day they’re lined up at the plant waiting to unload. ‘Tree slurry,’ as as one cider aficionado quipped less than affectionately. In contrast, Irish apples represent a tiny percentage, less than five percent of content, insiders say. That’s why information on bottles and cans is so vague and limited. Yet, there’s choice aplenty – if we push publicans to provide it – with scores of other Irish cider producers that use freshly-squeezed apples, such as ‘Tempted? outside Lisburn, the ‘Armagh Cider Company’ and ‘Craigies Irish Cider’ in Wicklow. But most Donegal pubs ignore them – for the sake of greater profit.

Good news is that a crop with a long tradition in Donegal but one long forgotten is again being planted – something that gives a faint glimmer of hope to real beer drinkers. Hops are now growing in Conwal outside Letterkenny near the site of an old monastic settlement, whose caped inhabitants once prided themselves on their beer-making skills (those monks had their priorities right).

So when you rush to the bar this Sunday evening celebrating the latest Ryan McHugh goal, forgo the usual sulphite-laden, chemical-ridden liquids and ask for a local brew. Then watch closely the bemused expression on the barman’s face (as per below).

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Udaras na Gaeltachta consider challenges of creating new jobs

Meeting for the first time this morning (Friday), members of the new board of Udaras na Gaeltachta face the challenging tasks of analysing the organisation’s performance and brainstorming on ways to accomplish the goals for which the Irish-language body was established.

One priority is employment in Gaeltacht areas. “Job creation and language promotion go hand-in-hand,” Anna Ni Ghallchoir, 55, the new chairperson, told the Donegal News. “With my new board colleagues, I will be examining very closely if past strategies have been successful and come up with innovative ones to help us move forward.”

Depending on whom you speak to, Udaras has either an acceptable record on job creation, or a very poor one, reflecting the age-old comment that statistics are like sausages – they look good but you’re never quite sure what’s in them.

New jobs versus lost jobs

With total funding of around one billion euro so far, Udaras reported it had created 6,970 jobs as of last year in what it terms ‘client companies,’ defined as any company receiving support. When examined in the context of unemployment in Gaeltacht regions, this represents 7.75 per cent of the population there. As of last year, Udaras’ website shows it supported 1,876 jobs in the Donegal Gaeltacht, which represents 7.89 per cent of almost 24,000 people. Donegal Gaeltacht has the second largest number of Irish speakers, but ranks fifth in jobs created among the seven Gaeltacht regions.

Liam O‘Cuinneagain, Udaras chairperson for the last ten years, told the Donegal News he is “satisfied with our job creation performance,” adding, “It’s not easy to get companies to locate to rural Ireland, in part because of its remoteness and lack of transport links and limited skill-sets there.” As evidence in Donegal, he points to sectors Udaras has invested in – seafood processing, call centres (VHI), IT, sea angling, boat repair, even potato-crisp/fast food manufacturing (Largo Foods).

Other business analysts, however, are less satisfied with Udaras’ performance, including Tom Fitzgerald, fluent Irish speaker and business owner employing 50 people at Bard na nGleann, his information-management company in Béal Átha’n Ghaorthaidh in the Cork Gaeltacht. “A strong, well-run economic development organisation is important for the preservation and promotion of the Irish-language and for job creation in marginalized areas such as the Gaeltachts, including Donegal, but there’s no shying away from facts, Udaras is an extraordinarily expensive organisation,” Fitzgerald, whose company has an annual turnover of between one and two million euro, told the Donegal News. “There is little evidence of effectiveness in the statistics. By normal business practice standards, Udaras’ record so far is very poor.”

Expenditure

Fitzgerald points to the fact that the total number of jobs Údarás says it created was lower in 2010 than in 1996. “Furthermore, there’s no indication that the amount of money spent by Údarás in a single year has any impact on job creation in the Gaeltacht.  For example: Údarás spent more than 84 million euro in 2002 according to its own annual report. Yet there is no corresponding spike in jobs either in that year or following years.”

O‘Cuinneagain says during his tenure as chairperson, “cost per job was around eight thousand euro.” However, a simple look at Udaras’s total expenditure for the last ten years (613.5 million euro) relative to the number of jobs it reports creating by the end of last year (6,970) equates to 88,000 euro cost per job. As only around 10 per cent of budget goes to language-cultural activities, the final cost per job figure may be as much as ten times higher than stated. In Donegal, a case study in job costs is Largo Foods, headquartered in Ashbourne, Meath, but with facilities in the Gaoth Dobhair Industrial Estate. According to Udaras, it has received over 6.2 million euro in funding between 1999 and 2011 – with another half-million euro to be paid soon for automated equipment. Udaras said last year the company employed 120 people. Taking those figures, that works out to be over 55,000 euro investment per job created, not considering funding from other bodies for Largo. Ironically, following the installation of the automated equipment earlier this year, media reported 36 jobs were lost at Largo.

As some of Udaras’s ‘client companies’ are also the ‘client companies’ of other organisations, foreign and domestic, from whom they receive additional support, it is difficult to evaluate what specific job numbers Udaras contributions amount to. “The term ‘client companies’ is a loose one, easily manipulated to suit purpose,” said Fitzgerald. “Some organisations that partly support companies in the Gaeltachts often claim all the jobs as their own making, which is quite misleading.”

O’Cuinneagain acknowledges that criticisms of Udaras for not supporting enough micro companies – entrepreneurs wishing to hire a handful of people – are valid. “We’re not getting what we should be getting – smaller businesses,” he said. “We’ve focused too much trying to get big companies that might employ hundreds. Even though the finance and support system is there, Udaras has not been welcoming enough. Staff have not been as pro-active as they should be, have not scoured their Gaeltacht communities to find such entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, we have remained in a culture of factory jobs.”

Asked why, the director of Oideas Gael, a language group in Glencolmcille, lay the blame on factors outside Udaras ranging from lack of business teaching in education “Greek and Latin instead of entrepreneurialism” to lack of bank finance. But he did not rule out the possibility that as funding a small company with thousands of euro amounted to nearly as much paperwork for Udaras staff as funding large companies with millions of euro, there may have be a Udaras propensity for avoiding small business applications. Asked if the push for larger companies could have been simply a strategy to keep employment figures up and for Udaras to retain its all-important job-creation remit, which accounts for most of its annual budget, he said, “That’s ridiculous, sounds more like a conspiracy theory to me.”

Fitzgerald’s opinion differs, “About the only goal that Údarás is measured on is the creation of 800 or so new jobs per year, so they focus on doing just that. The problem is that this strategy doesn’t take into account what kind of jobs they are. In theory, Údarás is better off creating jobs that disappear quickly so they can place the same people again in a year or two.”

Analysts also say the Udaras board members may not have had enough business experience to spearhead a successful jobs-creation strategy. Of the Donegal members on the previous board, none could be identified as having long-time corporate management experience. O’Cuinneagain waved aside concerns that the previous national board was too large, numbering twenty, which some analysts said made it unwieldy to manage and hampered decision-making. “I did not find our board meetings too difficult to manage, but then again my experience as a teacher in inner city Dublin for many years helped a lot,” he said.

Lack of fiscal clarity within Udaras concerns some observers.

“I spent several years studying the organisation and found its finances extremely difficult to understand,” one leading business researcher told the Donegal News. “I also found frequent errors in its calculations. Some figures on spending simply did not add up. There’s really no excuse for that when we have so many accounting software programs such as Excel at our disposal.”

When the Donegal News requested a breakdown of Udaras spending for the seven Gaeltacht regions, particularly Donegal, for the last three years, Siubhán Nic Grianna, national communications and marketing manager, responded, “The distribution of total monies is not segregated on a county by county or Gaeltacht by Gaeltacht basis therefore I cannot provide breakdown for Donegal for this period.”

Bernard Allen, former TD and head of the multi-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which oversees the proper spending of public money, told the Donegal News that lack of transparency at Udaras may have hindered job-creation efforts. “We found its expenses system to be incomprehensible and could not understand how it was spending so much money on trips for so-called job creation efforts.”  Referring to the scandal over misspending by another state body, he added, “Udaras’ expenses read like a mini-FAS and it seemed to stymy our efforts to find out the truth and avoid disclosing pertinent facts and figures to us, especially related to board member, staff and associated expenses. With better accounting practices, perhaps its job creation efforts could have been more effective. ”

Some questions concerning expenses, including 30,000 euro over two years on trips to Halifax, Canada, to look at seaweed projects, costly business-class flights, trips to many international cities including Las Vegas, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Chicago, and expenses for spouses – which is counter to existing regulations – have still not been fully answered, Allen said.

Nic Grianna said such concerns lack basis. Describing the first story in this newspaper series as, “a slanted view, full of insinuations,” she added, “There was no reprimand from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). We are very open and transparent and explained everything. There has been no abuse of public money.” In response, Allen said simply, “We did not get all our questions answered satisfactorily and a national election was called and the PAC disbanded before we could investigate fully.” Even though the information is in the public domain, Nic Grianna declined a request for a breakdown of pensions for 136 Udaras former executives costing around 4.3 million euro this year, half of this year’s current budget. Efforts to contact retired executives Cathal MacSuibhne in Donegal and CEO Padraig O’hAolain through Udaras for comment, were unsuccessful.

With allegations of cronyism and clintelism tainting many public bodies, O’Cuinneagain said he did not experience conflicts of interest while Udaras chairperson. “My organisation, Oideas Gael, did not receive any money from Udaras so I certainly did not feel the need to excuse myself from board discussions on funding, nor did any of the other board members as they did not receive any money either.”

As the Udaras board meeting gets underway this morning, Sean O’Cuirean, a new member from Falcarragh, remains optimistic. “A good thing about this board is that there are a new set of eyes looking at the situation. Such fresh perspectives often result in greater success and money well spent.”

Published in Donegal News