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.

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Cults, sects and mindless mayhem?

Before the elections, in a FRONT page editorial in the Irish Independent (a most unsuited and unprofessional place – see explanation at bottom of article), Fionnan Sheahan, group political editor of Independent Newspapers, described Sinn Fein as a ‘cult’ and a ‘sect’ whose followers were mindless.

Seeing that this particular political party has just won 157 local council seats nationwide in the Republic with 15.2% of the national vote (not to mention 105 council seats in northern Ireland with 24% of the vote), that’s a helluva lot of mindless people.

Will Mr. Sheahan now apologise to such people publicly in the same manner that he attacked them? Or will arrogance and pride prevent him and pave the way for a continued drop in circulation and quality of a once decent newspaper (one I proudly worked for at the start of my career 30 years ago)? Or is Fionnan’s job so dependent on the blatant bias of the media group’s dominant figures – Denis O’Brien (who was shown by the Moriarty Tribunal to have bribed former Fianna Fail Communications Minister, Michael Lowry, to win a mobile phone license), and Tony O’Reilly (who, after recently announcing bankruptcy, owes you and I more than four million euro after buying a luxurious holiday home in Glandore, west Cork with a loan he can’t now pay back) – that he will continue doffing his cap as a D4/ establishment spin-doctor and apologist?

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Can some political commentators not see the forest for the trees?

And not only.

A few weeks ago on Highland Radio’s Friday morning ‘Press Round-up,’ one of the so-called experts – a woman – said Gerry Adams should resign as Sinn Fein party president – and this was after Mr. Adams had just been voted in an ‘Irish Times’ opinion poll as the nation’s most popular party leader. Consider this unwarranted barb in view of the massive gains Sinn Fein has just won across the nation in this weekend’s local, national and European elections under this man’s leadership.

Will that particular woman now apologize? Not simply for a poorly-informed broadside but what is, in effect, blatantly obvious bias. Surely, Highland Radio, a station fighting for license renewal, can find more objective commentators than this person. As both chat-show program host and station managing director, Shaun should pay closer attention to what emerged from the ‘Media Freedom‘ conference I attended at UNESCO headquarters in Paris recently. Can anyone guess the identity of the woman in question?

But back to the recent elections.

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Turning of the tide?

Some commentators would have us believe they were astonishing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. They were quite the opposite – predictable – based on the trend already set three years ago when Sinn Fein went from four TD slots to 14. Of course, Sinn Fein and Independent generous gains in this week’s elections were accelerated this time round by the abject failures and litany of broken promises by Labour and Fine Gael. With the smell of Fianna Fail corruption still rank in our nostrils, and the ‘old guard’ still there in abundance, it hardly provided an alternative, indicated by its abject failure to have anyone elected in the two by-elections and Pat the Cope ‘(the Pope’ as RTE miswrote in a news Twitter) Gallagher’s failure to hold his MEP seat.

A quick glance at some of the specific results indicates the extent of the triumphs of Sinn Fein and the Independents:

  • Four Sinn Fein MEP candidates – four MEPs elected: Liadh Ní Riada; Lynn Boylan; Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy.
  • Independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan topping the poll in the Midlands–North-West constituency;
  • Sinn Fein trebling its local council tally by winning 157 seats nationwide, and in the process becoming the largest single party on the Dublin city council;
  • Independent Marian Harkin defeating sitting MEP Pat the Cope in Midlands–North-West;
  • Sinn Fein securing the single biggest number of first preference votes in northern Ireland’s local government elections while winning 105 council seats;
  • Independents (including the Socialist Party, the Greens, and People Before Profit Alliance) won around 30 per cent of council seats, up from 18 per cent at the last local elections in 2009;

The list just keeps going on, including Sinn Fein winning local council seats it has not held since the foundation of the state, an incredible historic feat. It is something Donegal-based Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein’s electoral director should be extremely proud of, especially in the run-up to the 1916 centenary commemoration celebrations.

So what happens now? Well-paid Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour spin-doctors – Charlie Flanagan, Pat Rabbitte and Timmy Dooley respectively – have already been out in force on RTE, and other media, this week. They allege – conveniently forgetting that this particular political party has governed alongside its arch-rival, the DUP, for 15 years in northern Ireland – that Sinn Fein cannot govern because it has not learned the art of compromise. In fact, it is one of the very skills Sinn Fein has learned and in the toughest classroom there is – the boiling cauldron of politics across the border. Maybe the faux pas made by Jan O’Sullivan, Labour’s junior minister, on RTE Radio 1 show last Sunday that her party ‘is a mudguard for Sinn Fein’ is more accurate than she cares to believe.

The spin-doctors also say the Independents are a motley group of disparate individuals, again conveniently forgetting that they all, in effect, stood together in unity against harsh austerity and for social justice and fairness – hardly irrelevant issues. Theirs is also a highly pompous and condescending comment to make about ordinary citizens who voted en masse for this so-called ‘motley’ group.

No doubt, Sinn Fein and the Independents will be in the crosshairs of examination over the next two years as the next general election approaches but their strength is that they are bonded by a common purpose. Watch carefully as they come together in unity and forge a partnership to create a more equitable society within Ireland. As they attempt to avoid being the victims of their own success, maintaining organization and structure will be a challenge.

It was also extremely heartening to see so many women win council and MEP seats. Four of Ireland’s 11 elected MEPs being female Sinn Fein candidates while in the two by-elections, Ruth Coppinger won Dublin West for Joe Higgins’ Socialist Party and Gabrielle McFadden of Fine Gael won the Longford/Westmeath seat previously held by her sister, Nicky. Well over 20 per cent of councillors elected are women; 32 per cent of votes cast in Dublin were for female candidates and in some areas 4 out of six councillors are now women. Over 30 per cent of Sinn Fein council candidates were women. Women won 197 out of 943 local seats with campaign group ‘Women for Election’ saying this represented a 33 per cent increase. However, even with this improvement, Ireland remains about 90th in world rankings in terms of women in politics.

However, at last, as this week’s election results show, Ireland is beginning to wake up to reality. We Irish may lack the passion, initiative and courage to go on the streets as did the Greeks and French but we are fortunate to have been given a second chance following our poor voting performance two years ago (echoes – as happened after the 1916 debacle) and have made our voices heard in the polling booths. Rejection of establishment politics and the obvious economic disparities between poor and rich here, has meant Ireland has finally, to a large extent, grown up, matured and begun to shrug off out-dated, horse-blinkered generational politics.

As for Lugh’s choices for my area of the Glenties here in northwest Donegal, I am delighted to say that the little Celtic hero predicted not just the winners, but also the exact order in which they came past the post, viz-a-viz

Marie Therese Gallagher, Sinn Fein

John Sheamuis O’Fearraigh, Sinn Fein

Micheal Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig, Independent

Ireland’s future suddenly seems brighter!

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A new dawn is upon us.

NB: Explanation as promised

In journalism, as a mark of respect to the intelligence of its readers, quality newspapers reserve their opinion columns and editorials for inside pages, designating the front page specifically for informed and – as much as possible considering we have human frailties – objective news upon which readers make up their own minds on key issues. Thus Independent Newspapers broke a golden, nay sacrosanct, rule of journalism, ignoring the fact that only idiots need to be spoon-fed like infants. That may have worked in the past. Not anymore.

Next week’s blog – Remaining on the subject of local elections: how is it a candidate, such as John Curran, failed to get elected in the Glenties to the Donegal council? Was it linked to the severe lack of transparency that has corrupted Irish politics for so long and that still hovers over the workings of Udaras na Gaeltachta of which Mr. Curran is a board member? Or simply that he was the Fine Gael candidate? Next week, I publish the responses from Udaras to questions regarding payments for executive pensions, a breakdown of job creation figures for the Donegal Gaeltacht and total investment in a proposed church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh. As well as responses from Cuan Mhuire as to whether it shelters convicted clerical child abusers and will provide sex therapy as well as other treatments at the proposed centre.