Festive tribute to the creative, artistic people of Donegal

Getting kissing techniques just right for on-stage credibility, takes practice.

Ask director-cum-teacher Máire Ioannidis.

She’s taught loads of people how to do it, her latest challenge being in the recent production of the musical ‘Hairspray’ by students at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola at Amharclann theatre in Bunbeg recently.

“Where do you put your hands, your arms,” she explained to me during a conversation after the Donegal Gaeltacht’s school’s triumphant, four-show run attended by more than a thousand people. “What side do turn your head to kiss, if you both turn the same way heads, noses may bump together, hardly an authentic and romantic sight to behold.”

That was only one of many challenges facing Máire and her team in the ambitious production. Capacity crowds and standing ovations are testament to the fact that they got them all right, including directing sixty-six teenagers.

Tickets for all productions were like gold-dust, with friendly Amharclann general manager, Manus O’Domhnaill, saying the shows provided a record attendance for the historic theatre, which was established in 1961 and reopened after major renovation more than a year ago.

Speaking about ‘Hairspray,’ Máire said proudly, “This particular musical holds a special place in my heart, a story about an amazing opportunity that turns a vision into reality. And I thoroughly enjoyed working with our talented students who showed commitment, energy and enthusiasm throughout. Unlocking their confidence, seeing them grow and perform on stage each night along with watching their joyous celebrations and a shared team attitude of ‘we did it!’ at the end of each show made this whole experience very worthwhile.”

‘Hairspray’ is an American musical with score by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman based on John Waters’ 1988 film. Winner of eight Tony Awards, including best musical, it focuses on efforts by a dance-loving teenager to bring racial integration to a popular TV show in 1960s Baltimore.

Having gone to watch several productions of ‘Hairspray,’ in other theaters, Máire and her team then created several unique extras to their production. These included performers surprising audiences by entering from different doorways at Amharclann and a scene in which a chorus of singers walk through the aisles holding candles singing, then sitting on the floor among the audience.

Set changes were accomplished professionally with the aid of lighting, for example, from an ordinary living-room scene complete with ironing-board and TV to that of a prison cell, in which the lead performer, Róisín Doogan, playing Tracy Turnblad, has been incarcerated.

From the get-go, the opening song and dance routine ‘Good Morning Baltimore,’ this production leaped along in vibrant bounds with other complex choreography and songs including a powerful renditions of ‘Big, Blond and Beautiful,’ ‘Mama, I’m A Big Girl Now’ and ‘It Takes Two’ spiced with comedy and sentiment.

“PCC’s production of ‘Hairspray’ was full of energy from beginning to end,” said Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde, a well-known actor who was in charge of lighting for this show. “Their singing was lively and it was excellently choreographed. It was well cast and they all portrayed their character effortlessly. Their drive and enthusiasm was palpable, students and teachers alike. “

Máire herself is no stranger to the arts, being a member of local acting group, Aisteori Ghaoth Dobhair, and an accomplished flute player. She also directed a school production of ‘Grease’ for two consecutive years. Of Gweedorean-Greek parentage, Máire has worked at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola for the last four years teaching a mix of Irish language, IT and business.

Aside from the versatile student actors and singers, full credit goes to crew, some of whom were also students, and senior production members including producer Donna Coll; choral director, Siún McDermott-Lyng; choreographer, Maureen Byrne; audio Noel Boylan; set construction, Joe Coll, Christopher Symth and Manus Gallagher; costumes, Mairead Harkin McGee and Siobhan Doogan. School principal, Maeve Sweeney and her deputy, Donna McFadden, said they were “over the moon about the show’s success.” Profits went towards various school expenses.

Coming up soon at Amharclann is its annual pantomime, this one entitled, ‘Leipreachán an Phota Mhóir.’ With Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde involved, both on and off-stage, it’s bound to be a beauty. Don’t miss it! January 24-26 and January 30 to February 1.

The Amharclann and student actors and production crew at Pobalscoil Chloich Cheann Fhaola are only the tip of the iceberg of creativity throughout the Donegal Gaeltacht. Throw a stone and you’re likely to hit a painter, a musician, a sculptor, a yoga teacher, a hypnotherapist, a novelist, a poet, a psychotherapist on the head.

Consider the wondrous wealth of talent coming up beginning tomorrow at the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair, the Gweedore Winter School beginning tomorrow (Friday) –  http://scoilgheimhridh.com/

Also, please read previous blog on this site on an issue vitally important for everyone living in Donegal.

And check out ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ https://www.irelandwritingretreat.com/ and my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal and the United States https://www.amazon.co.uk/Pretty-Ugly-Sean-Hillen/dp/1523361158

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).

seafood wild atlantic way, Donegal seafood

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.