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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A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal

Finally, greater public debate has begun about the financial operations of Udaras na Gaeltachta, an organization rapidly acquiring the sobriquet ‘the secret society,’ and more specifically about spending on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh.

Udaras, having managed to keep the lid on potential spending of between one and three million euro on the centre at Ballyconnell House, had board member and Fine Gael political candidate, John Curran go on the local airwaves over the last few days.

Instead, however, of presenting relevant information on the proposed project’s costing and benefits, he used valuable airtime on Highland Radio to personalize what is a legitimate community issue and attempt to tarnish it as an isolated ‘Sean Hillen‘ one.

Let me make it perfectly clear, if I have not done so already: I am not against or for an addiction clinic in Falcarragh. I have no implication, financial or otherwise in this project (can pro-addiction clinic supporters say this, hand on heart?). Golden axiom in journalism: ‘follow the money.’

ripples

Ripples of democracy begin to spread.

Another axiom for journalists, ‘if they cannot deal with the story, they will try to deal with the story-teller,’ seems more than obvious in this rather unsavory situation. I have heard myself referred to on Highland Radio by Mr. Curran as someone ‘stirring the hornet’s nest’ and as ‘an agitator’ (I have complained formally in writing to the station’s managing director, Shaun Doherty, whose daily news and chat show and Friday morning ‘press round-up’ I have appeared on several occasions, about these personal attacks). In a strange twist to the tale, there was also a reference (a cross between Harry Potter, Star Wars and superhero comic books) on Mr. Curran’s Facebook page to ‘dark forces’ behind me. All in all, it seems spin-doctoring is the unfortunate path Mr. Curran and his political advisers – and those faceless men with most to gain from the addiction clinic – have taken. That’s their prerogative, but it is unprincipled. And utterly untrue.

Owen Curran (no relation to the above), a well-respected community leader in the vanguard of the four-year long Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against household and water charges, told me this week Udaras na Gaeltachta should release immediately costs and benefits information on the proposed church-run addiction clinic and was in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ saying so again (page 17 – by the way, the story headline says 90 people, but I could only count 35 in photo, can’t believe someone would be left out; see also letters page 18, ‘Abused while on the canvas’). “Unfortunately,” he told me. “We live in a time of austerity, a time when there is not a lot of money around, we also live in a time when there has been a severe lack of transparency and accountability in Irish state and semi-state bodies. As such, and with the local Udaras office in Donegal receiving millions of euro every year, it is only fair that ordinary people – whom this proposed project will affect dramatically – be given as much information on the size of the investment and the benefits, including what guarantees there are for what of jobs. Open forums are obvious avenues for discussions to which all members of the community should be able to attend and voice their opinions.

Not only.

Sinn Fein local council candidate, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, who appeared on national television (TG4 ‘An Nuacht’ last Saturday evening) on the addiction centre issue and is quoted in the ‘Donegal Democrat’ today, also called for greater transparency from Udaras. “I have been reliably informed this project will cost between one and three million euro,” the local Gaoth Dobhair-based youth worker told me. “This is yet another example of a very costly project that has not been fully considered, with a marked absence of open public debate involving local people. A lot of money will be spent on this one, single project. As there is not a lot of funding around nowadays, local people have the right to know how much public money exactly will be involved, if this money is being well spent and how many other projects will suffer funding loss as a result. Also what affect it will have on the image of the community. They also need to know what guarantee, if any, there is for local people and what quality and pay-scale these jobs will be.

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Spring at Ballyconnell House

Not only.

Fianna Fail local councillor, Seamus O’Domhnaill, has now also called for Udaras to hold a public meeting to discuss the Cuan Mhuire addiction project. As the Donegal Gaeltacht is much more than just Falcarragh, it is important that ‘meetings’ not ‘meeting’ be held, to give the 16,000 people in other parts of the county’s Irish-speaking region (including its three main areas, Na, Rosa, Gaoth Dobhair and Cloich Cheann Fhaola), a chance to air their views on such a costly venture.

Last Friday afternoon, an open-air petition-signing took place at Falcarragh crossroads calling for more funding for cultural tourism projects in the area and greater public debate over the proposed addiction clinic to be run by Cuan Mhuire, a church-run company, drew open, lively debate. Among concerns voiced were the project’s impact on the safety of local children; future restricted access to the estate’s grounds, the location for a series of annual community events and festivals; and resulting reduced funding for other projects, including those for cultural tourism.

Mary McGarvey, who claimed she owns property on Falcarragh’s Main Street, said at the petition-signing table that the centre would be good for the town’s business while a mother and local festival committee member said while she would “prefer a well-considered leisure facility, especially one for children, something should be done about that derelict house.” Cloughaneely Golf Club members at the petition table complained of reduced funding from Udaras and feared for the club’s survival.

It was, to use an ancient Greek term, ‘agora’ day in Falcarragh and in the classic Greek version of democracy, it was ‘agora’ in terms of open debate and exchange of views.  Why could Udaras not have done this? Why not now in open forums, especially as the seal of secrecy has been prized open?

Sadly also, people on Friday afternoon said they would like to sign the petition but were afraid to do so – including someone (whose identity will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) representing a local arts and cultural project – saying she feared being punished by Udaras and receive no funding in future from it for projects she might put forward. One person even called me after signing the petition (adding that he thought Udaras should “be disbanded”) saying some people had “approached” him and that he feared he might lose business (he asked me for his name not to be mentioned here).

Is this the kind of society we want – one where people are afraid to present their opinions openly, and be listened to; prevented, indirectly or directly, from doing so by a powerful, economic group such as Udaras? I thought, especially since we gained national independence, that the days of humiliating people by making them tug their forelocks was over.

As for Udaras and its spokesperson, Mr. Curran. Instead of presenting specific answers to specific questions on the project’s costings and benefits, all he would say on numerous Highland Radio sound-bites was that he supported the project and that it would not detract from Udaras’s overall budget spend locally (hard to believe when the budget has already been slashed and that other Gaeltachts in Ireland will hardly be so generous as to give Donegal much more money over the addiction centre’s high cost).

Mr. Curran also declined to give investment figures saying, “To date, no contracts have been signed, no budgets have been agreed, so there really isn’t any really figures to be spoken about.” Yet he was adamant forty-five jobs – note the figure is an exact one (for what reason?) – would be created. He also did not know how many of these jobs would be local and what kind of jobs they would be.

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Flowers and forest at Ballyconnell House

And finally, to Udaras HQ in Galway, and communications and marketing manager Siubhán Nic Grianna. Some readers may remember I sent 12 formal, written questions a couple of weeks ago, with a set deadline, to her and to all Donegal members of the group’s national board, namely John Curran, Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin and Daithí Alcorn, as well as its Arranmore-born chairperson, Anna Ní Ghallachair (see post here). Of all the board members and chairperson, only Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin had the professional courtesy of responding in person.

As Ms. Nic Grianna’s provision of relevant information on Udaras’ use of public money has been less than co-operative in the past, I am sad to say her responses show that position has remained unaltered, with no details on the investment (estimated or otherwise) or the true benefits, including jobs, of the proposed addiction clinic. Nor other key details on other aspects of Udaras’ financial operations. I will detail each response to the 12 questions in a future blog.

It is worth noting here that prominent leaders in the addiction field say two such clinics in a rural area such as Donegal is most unusual and, as such, detailed market research would be required to justify it (the other center in Donegal is in Muff). Even in Ireland, there is no such situation.

In conclusion, I believe an important step has been made to open discussions about this proposed addiction clinic – but as well respected community leaders have now said –  release of pertinent information is necessary for a more agreeable and equitable outcome for all concerned.

Questions still unanswered –

  • How can Udaras promise so categorically 45 jobs if, as its spokesman, Mr. Curran, says, no budgets have been agreed, no contracts signed?
  • How can Udaras guarantee more funds will be allocated for other projects (as Mr. Curran states on Highland Radio) when the organisation’s budget has already been severely cut?
  • How exactly will this project impact on the Donegal Gaeltacht-Cloughaneely-Falcarragh community at large?
  • What kind of addictions will be treated within the proposed clinic – drug, alcohol or/and sexual addictions?
  • What other proposals have been put forward for Ballyconnell House as stated by an Udaras spokesperson in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ (after Udaras tourism officer, Gearoid O’Smaolain, said previously ‘no’ proposals were put forward)?
  • What are the reasons these proposals for Ballyconnell House were rejected in favor of an addiction clinic?
  • Which company conducted the feasibility study?

Happy “May Day’ Weekend to Everyone!