Wizards of Lies, or nightmare accountancy?

Would you approve almost one million euro in public money for a company with liabilities of half a million and a cash shortfall of around 200,000?

Hardly.

Strangely, that’s what seems to have happened in the case of SLM, the English call center that closed several weeks ago without warning in the Donegal Gaeltacht leaving many local people still owed a big chunk of back salaries.

Helluva Christmas gift Mr. Scrooge!

And here’s something even more intriguing…

Michael Gallagher, from the coastal village of Falcarragh, is an intelligent and likeable fellow, a man deeply concerned about social justice.

Sensing something amiss, Michael decided to carry out his civic duty and promptly investigated the financials of the Manchester-based company in the official register. Shocked by what he unearthed, he quickly warned two senior staff members at the economic group, Údarás na Gaeltachta, which intended to hand the company close to a million euro of scarce public money.

Michael Gallagher letter about SLM, Udaras and SLM

Alas, Michael’s timely and crucially important information seemed to have been promptly ignored as Údarás went full-steam ahead with its earlier decision to pour 842,000 euro into the company – strongly supported, maybe even led, by Minister of the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh.

The award was announced with fancy fanfare, with screaming national and local newspaper headlines. Written by Greg Harkin, now a spin doctor for Minister McHugh, an article in ‘The Irish Independent’ read, ‘125 new jobs announced at SLM Éire Teo in Donegal.’  Not surprisingly, McHugh – who seemingly went to school with SLM manager James Moran and flew to Manchester to seal the deal – was given a pretty quote about being ‘delighted.’

The Údarás website blasted, ‘UK Digital Marketing company to create 125 jobs in Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal,’ with its then CEO  Steve Ó Cúláin saying, “Today’s announcement is the result of Údarás’ enterprise strategy for this vibrant Gaeltacht region. I wish the promoters of SLM Éire every success and wish to thank the Údarás employees whose dedication is helping to make this jobs announcement become a reality.”

Cupán Tae

Meanwhile, quite separately, my interest in SLM began in the most innocent of ways – over a welcome cup of tea shared with a fellow jogger after a challenging morning run. The person worked at the call centre and complained training was lax, pay was the legal minimum, bonus targets were pretty much unreachable and on-the-floor Manchester managers were as scarce as a prickly cactus growing in the turf bogs. Adding that only around 30 people worked there, a far cry from the 125 promised more than a year before.

Two weeks later, on December 3, an article appeared in the ‘Donegal News,’ with the surprising headline ‘SLM Eire Teo Plans To Increase Its Workforce.

Strangely – considering the company closed its doors permanently in Donegal a few short weeks later, barely one year into operations – local SLM manager, James Moran and Paid O’ NeachtainÚdarás public relations director, both said the company would employ more people.

Sheer ignorance? Spin doctoring? Who knows?

Out of the quagmire that has resulted, a key question remains: why did a supposedly experienced, national economic organization such as Údarás award such a formidable grant to a company obviously struggling to make ends meet?

Michael Gallagher discovered SLM Manchester at end financial year 2015 had liabilities of 556,400 pounds sterling and a cash shortfall of 171,600. My Freedom of Information request showed Údarás approved an employment grant for SLM of 614,000 euro, plus a 60,000 employment grant for managers, a training grant of 100,000 and rent subsidy of 68,000.

budget for SLM Donegal, Udaras funding SLM Donegal

Is no-one at Údarás trained in simple analytical accountancy? Did they simply choose to ignore SLM’s shaky financial situation? Or did Minister McHugh – for political kudos through positive media coverage – override concerns that may have been raised by Údarás staff? Or indeed, did everyone involved truly believe this was an employment bonanza for the Donegal Gaeltacht but were duped by SLM owners?

The answer my friend – to use the words of a well-known song ‘…is blowin’ in the wind.’ And, as usual in modern Ireland, no-one’s taking responsibility for failings.

Isn’t this exactly what got Ireland into economic quicksand? Isn’t this why the World Bank and the IMF own us? Isn’t this why health and education are underfunded, why sick people with IVs in their arms are sleeping on chairs in hospital corridors?

If you want to know more about how Údarás spends scarce public money, simply e-mail Cathal O Gallachóir c.ogall (at) udaras.ie and ask for information under FOI. With what you find out, you might even be encouraged to do what Michael Gallagher did, write a letter to the editor Údarás challenged on SLM dealings thus placing important information in the public arena, or notifying concerned councilors such as new Údarás board member, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh.

John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, Udaras Donegal

Curious to know how many SLM jobs that Údarás included in its annual summary, I have requested the much-delayed 2016 report, which 13 months later has still not been published.

It’s still blowin’ in the wind…

Advertisements

Clannad create colorful tapestry of Celtic music

With suitable Pagan-purple stage backdrop curtains and lead singer and harpist Máire (Moya) Brennan dressed Priestess-like in long black silk dress and green lace shawl with bracelet and amulet glimmering in the footlights, Druidic-sounding Celtic group Clannad returned to their old hunting grounds this weekend to rapturous applause from packed audiences at the Donegal Gaeltacht’s Amharclann theater.

It has been 41 years since the Gaoth Dobhair band last played at this historic theater in the heart of Ireland’s northwest Irish speaking region – a venue opened only seven months ago after being closed for many years – and they proudly announced upon stepping on stage, “We’re so very glad to be back where it all started.”

Amharclann theater, Gweedore theater

Packed audience at Amharclann prepare for an evening of high-level entertainment.

Moya, together with her brother, Pól, an impressive multi-instrumentalist; a second brother, Ciarán, on double bass and synthesizer; her uncle Noel on guitar and synthesizer; her daughter, Aisling, and guitar, bouzouki and bodhrán, and son Paul on cajon (a native Peruvian instrument) and bodhrán, captivated their packed audience with a unique blend of ethereal Celtic music with modern New Age eclectic fusions and intricate harmonies that have made them famous far beyond Irish shores.

Such was the high quality of the weekend’s two performances, well-known cultural enthusiast and Irish-language teacher, Reuben Ó Conluain, attended both shows. When we happened to meet for post-show drinks afterwards at Leo’s Tavern in Meenaleck, home pub of Clannad and their parents, Reuben, who was involved in designing the new Junior Cycle Specification for Irish, introduced to post-primary schools last August and has also brought over hundreds of Irish musicians to the annual Festival Interceltique in Lorient, Brittany, told me enthusiastically, “I went to the first performance on Friday and it was just so good, I had to go again on Saturday.”

Another welcome audience member was Linda Ervine from Belfast, sister-in-law of the late unionist politician David Ervine. Linda introduced ‘teanga Gaeilge’ to the capital by setting up Irish language classes in loyalist parts of east Belfast.

Kudos to acting theater director, Pól McCool, a teacher at Pobalscoil Ghaoth Dobhair (Gweedore Community School), and all the volunteers and board members at Amharclann for making the first seven months of the theater so successful, with such diverse performances such as Laurence McKeown writer of play ‘Green & Blue’ has led an intriguing life and ‘AON’ – an exhilarating dance performance that teases out meanings.

For those not overly familiar with Clannad, especially people from other countries – the Saturday’s audience reflected a multi-national flavor, with Germans, Dutch, English, Americans and Romanians in attendance – special images and text on the screen in the theater’s café explained the group’s evolution from a local singing family to mega-stars.

Clannad live in concert, Moya Brennan in concert, Donegal musicians

Pagan-colors for a leading Druidic Celtic music group.

In short, as explained there, Clannad won a competition at a Letterkenny folk festival in 1973, with ‘Liza,’ a song written by Pádraig Duggan (uncle of Moya and siblings who sadly died last year), who described it as “a pop song in Gaelic that I wrote sitting on the rooftop of Leo’s Tavern.” The prize was a record deal with Philips, and thus the band turned professional.

With strong musical influences from such well-known groups of the time as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, Clannad translated pop songs as Gaeilge, a pioneering accomplishment back then. In 1982, a major breakthrough occurred when the group’s album ‘Magical Ring’ was released with the song ‘Theme from Harry’s Game’ on it, written by Pól for the Yorkshire Television series ‘Harry’s Game,’ set during the Northern Ireland conflict. The song reached Nr. 5 in the UK singles chart and Nr. 2 in Ireland. The group’s later 1985 album ‘Macalla’ included a duet between Moya and Bono of U2 on ‘In A Lifetime.’ In 1997, their ‘Landmarks’ album won them a Grammy.

Saturday’s musical evening, wonderfully hosted by Áine Ní Churráin, kicked-off with an excellent 30-minute performance from ‘home-grown’ guitarist-singer-songwriter, Emma Ní Fhíoruisce, one of a number of young local people taught their musical prowess by Caitlin and PJ Joe Jack Curran at An Crann Óg community center in Bunbeg, and now working on her debut album.

Emma’s impressive repertoire ranged from a doleful ‘as Gaeilge’ rendition of a classic Bob Dylan song about (naturally) heartbreak; a composition of her own – in effect, a musical eulogy – on the death of a close friend and its effect on her; a mellifluous ballad about her beloved native Gaoth Dobhair; and an ‘as Gaeilge’ version of the Marvin Gaye hit ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine.’ The fact that Emma had audience members clicking their fingers and joining in on the choruses attest to her on-stage talent.

Stroking the harp strings beautifully, Moya introduced the first Clannad song of the evening – ‘Crann Úll’ (Apple Tree), from the group’s fifth album of the same name, released in 1980, about the ‘Tree of Life’ and the need for people to support each other. Other traditional tunes followed including the waulking song ‘Mòrag’s na hóro èile.’ Such songs were chanted by people as they beat newly woven tweed rhythmically against a table or similar surface to soften it. A waulking session often begins with slow-paced songs, with the tempo increasing as the cloth becomes softer.

Two songs from Tory Island enlivened the proceedings even further, ‘Na Buachaillí Alainn’ (The Beautiful Boys), with an angelic harp intro, and the tribute to drinking ‘Níl ‘na Lá’ (It’s Not Day Yet).

Not all songs were ‘as Gaeilge,’ with a melodic rendering of the musical version of the immortal W.B. Yeats poem ‘Down By The Sally Gardens’ and the naughty, mischievous ‘Two Sisters,’ about the unforeseen complications of wayward love, including death by hanging and being boiled in lead.

Clannad in Gweedore, Clannad music, live music in Donegal

Multi-talented musical trio.

While Moya held center stage through her mesmerizing voice (no more so than on the haunting ‘I Will Find You’ which featured in the movie ‘Last Of The Mohicans’) and her delicate harpist skills, each member of the group played their role skillfully in the success of the evening. Aside from being a lively on-stage presence, Pól seems at ease on any instrument – picking up tin whistle, guitar, bodhrán, synthesizer and flute at will, not to mention having a fine singing voice.

Being a Pagan-like evening of music, ‘Newgrange,’ a song about the ancient Druidic site in County Meath, written by Ciarán and released in 1982 on the album ‘Magical Ring’ and in 1983 as a single, seemed more than appropriate. The quiet guitarist’s musical flare also shone through in his take on ‘Liza,’ the encore, written by the late Padraig. Launching into the melody with verve and looking all the while like a cross between an aging Elvis, Johnny Cash and Van Morrison, with a Mr. Pickwick hairstyle, Ciarán rocked the venue with his nifty country lickin’ guitar work.

‘Téir Abhaile Riú’ (Go Home With You) provided a grand sweeping finale to a most agreeable harmonious evening. With two days of packed audiences, some from different countries, to say Clannad will be welcomed back soon to their old hunting grounds is a severe understatement.

Are yoga, thai chai and reiki dreaded Druidic distractions? Is the anti-cervical cancer vaccine, HPV, the Devil’s poison?

Glancing through last Friday’s edition of the ‘Donegal News,’ I was dazzled by the sheer creativity of people from Ireland, (see a particularly interesting article on page 47 focusing on a man who lasted 70 days in prison without food and is now a Doctor in Sociology and a well-known Irish playwright and film and documentary script writer).

It’s as if the artists of every shade throughout Ireland and particularly in my resident county, Donegal – musicians, actors, painters, dancers et al – feel they have a deep, abiding, age-old responsibility to uphold our ancient rich Gael culture, and in doing so, prevent its dilution.

And I don’t mean – wonderful though it is – simply the native folk music and song of the lauded, award-winning Frosses-native Rita Gallagher and Gaoth Dobhair’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (who play this Thursday at the Balor Arts Centre as part of the Bluestacks Festival).

rita Gallagher, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh

Winners of TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards.

I mean our vast spread of artistic talent, first brought here to these shores when definitive Celtic traditions arrived from places such as Romania and Gaul (Gallia) in the fourth century B.C.

Then, unlike all other islands, Alice Stopford Green tells us in her work ‘Irish Nationality,’ Ireland, “was circled round with mountains, whose precipitous cliffs rose sheer above the water standing as bulwarks against the immeasurable sea, providing a bulwark – though sadly not an invincible one – against invaders of all kinds. And certainly, helping far-flung places such as Donegal escape foreign domination.” (unlike the Pale of Dublin which followed a completely different tract).

Irish chroniclers tell of a vast Celtic antiquity, with a shadowy line of monarchs reaching back some two thousand years before Christ: legends of lakes springing forth; of lowlands cleared of wood; the appearance of rivers, the making of roads and causeways, the first digging of wells: the making of forts; invasions and battles and plagues.

The Celts or Gaels exalted and encouraged learning in national life. Professors of every school roamed freely here and the warrior’s duty was to protect them. There were periodical exhibitions of everything the people esteemed—democracy, literature, tradition, art, commerce, law, sport, the Druid religion, even rustic buffoonery. The years between one festival and another were spent in serious preparation for the next.

Innovative arts programme at the Balor Arts Center, Ballybofey, Donegal.

The law of the Celts was the law of the people. They never lost their trust in it. They never followed a central authority, for their law needed no such sanction. A multitude of maxims were drawn up to direct the conduct of the people.

While the code was one for the whole race, the administration on the other hand was divided into the widest possible range of self-governing communities, which were bound together in a willing federation. The forces of union were not material but spiritual, and the life of the people consisted not in its military cohesion but in its joint spiritual inheritance—in the union of those who shared the same tradition, the same glorious memory of heroes, the same unquestioned law, and the same pride of literature.

So deeply was their importance felt, the Irish have kept these tradition diligently, and even in the darkest times of our history, down to the 17th century, still gathered to ‘meetings on hills’ to exercise their law and hear their learned men.

Not-to-be-missed performer.

So please think of this rich vein of cultural tradition that we’ve inherited when you read this week about the wealth of artistic talent on display here in Donegal and throughout Ireland – the multi-talented Pat Kinevane from Temple Bar-based Fishamble enacting not one but three separate one-man plays beginning this Friday with ‘Forgotten,’ at An Grianan in Letterkenny, a fine venue under the organization of Patricia McBride, Helene McMenamin, Daithi Ramsay and other staff members; Fishamble’s literary officer, Gavin Kostick, hosting playwriting masterclasses this Saturday there; the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny, under the direction of Shaun Hannigan, presenting a feast of autumn concerts, kicking-off with the duet of Eliza Carty and Tim Eriksen this Friday evening; and ‘The Ghostlight Sessions’ at the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey tonight, an evening of original music curated by Nikki Pollock (Mojo Gogo) and Dean Maywood and featuring ‘In Their Thousands’ and ‘Without Willow.’

Not to mention ‘The Donegal Voices’ this Friday in Ballyshannon performing Handel’s magnificent ‘Coronation Anthems’ and the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ Many of the performances are funded by the Donegal County Council/An Comhairle Ealaion.

First Lady of Celtic music – Donegal-born Moya Brennan.

And if you missed Moya Brennan of Clannad performing a few days ago with her husband, Tim, daughter Aisling and son Paul, in Teac Leo in Crolly, in support of the Inishowen Floods Fund, you’ll surely get the chance again to hear this brilliantly talented family in the future. The same goes for ‘Shoot The Gear,’ a fine piece of theater with a fishing-community based theme facilitated by the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organization, written by An Grianan Theatre artist-in-residence, Guy Le Jeune, and performed by a cast of local actors, singers and musicians including Fionn Robinson, Louise Conaghan, Orlaith Gilchreest and Ronan Carr.

Speaking of music, what a terrific accomplishment by Donegal Music Education Partnership (DMEP) manager, Martin McGinley, and his team, including tutor and pianist, Ellen Quinn, Maureen Fryer-Kelsey and James Sarsteiner , with help from Marianne Lynch of Donegal County Council Library Services in putting together a new online library of more than 1,500 musical items that the public can easily access.

Martin McGinley (left) – Journalist, editor, fiddle player par excellence, now manager of Donegal Music Education Partnership.

However, as we rightly attempt to emulate our rich, multi-layered Celtic past, I would issue a sharp warning. While the keystone of our proud ancestors’ beliefs was based on the premise of democracy, each individual having a fair say, let us beware.

The Catholic Church – so long dominant in Irish society after vanquishing Druidic life, more so in rural Irish society – must now learn to accept – in turn – its rapidly changing place. And that place is no longer its own self-styled, unquestioning right to direct all community groups, especially on sensitive matters of finance. Too often have I heard complaints here in the Donegal Gaeltacht and elsewhere in Ireland about frocked priests and bishops sitting at the heads of tables, making vital decisions, often cunningly in an underhand way ahead of the formal committee meetings, on where vital monies should go. And not always to the benefit of the community as a whole – but to the church in particular.

My own area, Cnoc Fola, has just received a grant of 40,000 euro from Fine Gael Minister Joe McHugh. Considering the rather incestuous relationship between the Catholic Church and successive ruling political parties in Ireland – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – is it reasonable for me to expect there is no payback expected, from both church and state, for this money, in terms of votes and support?

Is it also reasonable for me to trust the word of men in long black coats who describe yoga, thai chai and reiki as activities that ‘endanger our souls’ and who also discourage women from taking the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer, saying it simply encourages widespread promiscuity and immorality? And who move child abusing clergy from parish to parish?

Some months ago in a previous blog, I invited a well-known, rather affable west Donegal Gaeltacht priest, Brian O’Fearraigh, to join community members in our weekly yoga sessions at An Crann Og in Gaoth Dobhair. He hasn’t made an appearance yet. My offer is still open. He’d receive a warm ‘Cead Mile Failte’ from very friendly people there.

What do these seemingly unrelated issues – yoga, thai chai, reiki and the HPV vaccine – have in common, anyway? Freedom of mind and body, of course. And such displays of individual identity are perceived as hot, red-light dangers by most major corporation and institutions, especially the more conservative ones.
Wait for it, it’ll be swimming, cycling, swing dancing and jazz next. Oh, I forgot, the latter was already forbidden by the Church to all God-fearing people some years ago.

Does that mean God-loving people can enjoy such relaxing music? Even if they are Druids, Pagans, atheists, agnostics or pantheists and their God is Mother Nature herself?

Notes 

Hope you like my latest published novel, the suspense Pretty Ugly, linking Donegal and other parts of Ireland, including Belfast, with the US cities of Boston, New York, Kansas City and Washington DC.

Interested in creative writing? A novel? Biographical memoir? Play or movie script? See Ireland Writing Retreat

Giant rhubarbs, faeries and other enchanted species on ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Invasion by giant rhubarb plants throughout Donegal’s Gaoth Dobhair region captured the imagination of international writers during this summer’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – with intriguing stories involving faeries and magical creatures emerging onto blank pages. Some of the stories are soon to be published on the Ireland Writing Retreat Blog.

And such far-fetched tales weren’t due to the influence of the whiskey, poitín and pálinka served up at various events throughout the enjoyable week-long event, even though such potent liquids have been Muse for generations of great novelists and playwrights including James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Ian Fleming and Mark Twain.

wild rhubarb Donegal, faeries in Donegal

Faeries and other magical creatures hide among the giant rhubarb leaves.

Call it a combination of fresh sea-air along the ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ excellent writing guidance from published authors and a wee drop or two of uisce beatha, some of the inventive stories focused on faeries planting the giant rhubarb to warn humans about how they are polluting and destroying the natural environment around us,” said one of the retreat organizers, delighted with the week’s success. “The writings were really fun to read and bringing such a diverse group of fine international writers here also helps promote this lovely area through literary tourism. One participant summed it up brilliantly when she said, ‘I came to Donegal searching for inspiration, and instead found magic.’  That makes me proud. I know we’ve achieved our goal.

The stories also included a mysterious faerie named after the gigantic rhubarb, called Rhu, who can produce a flame by simply cupping her hands together and a secret, white-washed faery-home hidden among the plants themselves.

Sliabh Liag Distillery, Donegal whiskey

Ian Smith plays his own composition ‘The Holy Hour’ as Sliabh Liag Distillery managing director, James Doherty, and international writers listen intently.

With Donegal having its first distillery for more almost 200 years, the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – at which I’m proud to be one of the tutors – collaborated with the Sliabh Liag Distillery to create a hearty ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ for participants.

Taking place at Teac Jack, a popular boutique hotel in Glassagh, and with the distillery’s chief executive James Doherty at the helm, writers from places as diverse as Wyoming, Alaska, Newfoundland, California, Ohio, Wisconsin, Belfast and Ballybofey sipped whiskey cocktails with the surprising flavors of rhubarb (not the infamous rhubarus gigantus variety) and orange.

We want to reclaim part of the lost heritage of Donegal, to replicate the uniqueness of whiskey-making, a skill that was an integral part of life here two centuries ago,” Doherty said, as he described the subtle taste of his company’s ‘Silkie’ brand to his attentive audience.

Not only but guitarist-singer-songwriter Ian Smith entertained guests with some of his very own compositions, one appropriately entitled ‘The Holy Hour,’ about whiskey, that will feature next year in a special musical show he stars in that will tour Germany, entitled ‘Whiskey, You’re The Devil.’

Teac Mhuiris Donegal, An Crann Óg Donegal

Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg serves up a tasty feast for international poets and novelists at the Ireland Writing Retreat.

Bringing even more good cheer, writing retreat participants – most of whom had never been to Donegal before – also enjoyed traditional foods ranging from delicious home-baked breads and scones to carrageen moss and dulse in the traditional thatched cottage ‘Teac Mhuiris’ with panoramic views over Bloody Foreland and the islands of Gola, Inismeain and Umfin. Here, local people, Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg, the Bunbeg community center, her daughter Alanna, experienced seanchaí-historian Antoin MacAodha, Anna Ní Bhroin from Foras na Gaeilge and music teacher, Caitlín Joe Jack, related the history of the cottage, taught basic Irish words and phrases including the meaning of place-names, as well as Irish dance steps in advance of a lively cèilidh that evening at Teac Jack.

The week-long writing retreat also featured a host of other activities including nightly music concerts, a boat trip to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat’ captained by Sabba Curran and a talk by uncrowned King Eddie Joe McGee, as well as a tour of Glenveagh National Park and Castle.

boat to Gola Donegal, Gola Island Donegal

Captain Sabba Curran of ferry-boat, ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat,’ at Magheragallon Pier with international writers headed for Gola Island.

As for classes, participants completed assignments on many of the excursions they experienced during the week which were then critiqued by published authors and editors, including Anthony Quinn, author of five books, ‘Disappeared,’ ‘Border Angels,’ ‘The Blood Dimmed Tide,’ ‘Blind Arrows,’ and ‘Silence’; Mark Gregory, a forensic word editor, and yours truly. Tuition focused on strengthening key writing skills such as character development, dialogue and importance of landscape.

I was delighted to host a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ highlighting the importance of questions (thus IQ meaning ‘I Question’) and the five journalism Ws – ‘who, what, why, where, when’ with the all-important sixth W, ‘what if,’ in the development of strong plot and character. And to use my recently-published novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal with New York, Washington and Kansas City, as an illustration of that.

Pretty Ugly a novel, Sean Hillen author, IQ for Creative Writing

No greater joy than being surrounded by friendly, talented writers – except maybe winning the national lottery.

Without public funding of any kind, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ now in its fourth consecutive year, has gone from success to success, with a second Autumn Writing Retreat taking place late this September.

First suspense novel links Donegal ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ with America 

Readers have asked me in reference to my recently-published suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ focusing on deadly cosmetics and political and corporate corruption, linking Ireland with America, how I describe Donegal in the book.

Of course, as an author, I should respond “well, might I suggest you go out and buy the book and the mystery will be revealed.” (‘Pretty Ugly’ can be purchased at Easons Letterkenny, Gallaghers Bunbeg, or direct from Amazon).

But as this is the season of goodwill and the ‘Forgotten County’ plays such a key location role in the unfolding drama of the novel, I’m including two videos of readings from the novel that focus on Donegal that I made recently at a Berlin bookstore .

The context is that Colm Heaney, an investigative reporter, is on a plane over the Atlantic en route to Ireland, chasing after a world exclusive. He’s hoping to find a beauty queen, a former Miss USA, who is hiding from the paparazzi – in, of all places – the hills of the west Donegal Gaeltacht, in the shadow of Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) in Gaoth Dobhair.

Dare I be immodest and say it? Okay, okay, if you think I really should: ‘Pretty Ugly’ makes for a pretty good Christmas gift, with a pretty stunning cover and at a pretty decent price.

Looking forward to your comments and feedback on Facebook, directly on the book’s website or on Amazon.

I wish you and your family and friends a most contented and relaxed holiday season. The perfect time to settle yourself in a comfy armchair with a glass of something strong and an interesting book to delve into.

Soap-opera style farce diminishes Údarás promotion of EU LEADER scheme

For a well-paid state official to sit down in a childlike huff in an open public meeting and refuse to speak because someone is recording information on a key issue – funding under the EU LEADER scheme for community and entrepreneurial projects for Donegal – borders on ‘Coronation Street’ soap-opera style farce.

That’s exactly what happened at Áislann Ghaoth Dobhair this past week when Gearóid Ó Smoláin, a staff member of Údarás na Gaeltachta, refused to continue speaking to local people on how they could best access money under the EU rural development programme – one for which the local office of Údarás is entitled to a whopping 600,000 euro out of a project budget of 2.3 million for the Donegal Gaeltacht alone, as regional manager, Mícheál Mac Giolla Easbuig, told me in private when asked.

Not only, but while the meeting was billed as a bilingual one, Mac Giolla Easbuig spoke only in Irish until I asked if he would also please speak in English as there were some people in the room who were not fluent ‘as Gaeilge’ and would not understand what he was saying.

Initially, when asked to do so, Mac Giolla Easbuig declined, saying words to the effect of ‘well, we’ll just go on and see how things go.’ When I reminded him that EU regulations indicate such meetings should be conducted so that everyone understood (and indeed, reading later, that Article 8 of the Irish Constitution states both Irish and English as official languages of Ireland), he relented and nodded to his colleague, Ó Smoláin, to do so.

Such attitudes can easily lead to accusations of discrimination and racism by language.

Udaras Donegal Leader program

On the issue of recording (I was taping on my mobile phone some of the more pertinent information), Mac Giolla Easbuig supported Ó Smoláin’s rather ill-tempered ‘not speaking’ huff and also asked me to stop. Instead of relenting when reminded that this was billed by Údarás itself in its promotions as an open public “information meeting” and also that EU regulations permitted recording of it, he turned to the audience and asked for their opinion.

As someone put it to me afterwards, “it was like offering Jesus or Barabbas to the crowd.”

Saying I acknowledged his preference but that I would continue to exercise my civil right and record key elements of the information being imparted, Mac Giolla Easbuig finally had a whispered word with Ó Smoláin and the latter stood up and continued where he’d left off – bilingually.

Ironically, it is interesting to note that Ó Smoláin complained to the ‘Donegal Daily that he was misreported by me in an earlier story related to an alleged Catholic Church operated pedophile treatment and drug addiction center funded by Údarás being established in Falcarragh. In that case, Stephen Maguire, the news website’s co-owner, informed me that Ó Smoláin told him an official recording showed I had misreported what he had said. When I contacted the Scottish organizer of that event held at An Chuirt hotel, I was informed by e-mail that no such official recording existed, indeed that the meeting was not recorded at all. Based on that alone, one would think Ó Smoláin, of all people, would have welcomed an actual recording by me last week, rather than the reaction he displays below.

What is most disappointing, indeed sad, about what happened last week at Áislann Ghaoth Dobhair, aside from my own discomfort as a member of the local community at being subjected to such ill-treatment, was that this kind of socially embarrassing situation – which some might say is tantamount to linguicism (racism by language) and racial profiling, and thus contravening EU rules and regulations – could have, and should have, been easily avoided. That is if indeed the main aim of Údarás was to provide relevant information, as opposed to just ticking the EU ‘public meeting’ box to qualify for its generous administrative ‘handling fee.’

Earlier that day, interested in contributing to community development, I had called the Údarás office and had been informed the meeting would be bilingual. Thus my surprise when Mac Giolla Easbuig spoke only in Irish. In today’s convenient age of technology, providing simultaneous translation should be mandatory, especially on such a key issue and as the LEADER ‘handling fee’ is so high so it can easily be afforded. I believe such translations ‘as Gaeilge’ should also be conducted for all meetings taking place here in English. This would help those not fluent in Irish to improve their language skills.

More important than potential accusations of xenophobia – meaning hundreds of non-Irish speaking people living in the Donegal Gaeltacht from other countries including EU-members such as Holland, France and Italy and other parts of Ireland might be facing linguistic discrimination by Údarás when applying for funding – such social exclusion could be a tragic loss to the struggling economy of the Donegal Gaeltacht with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation.

Údarás’s role is to strengthen the Gaeltacht’s economy and keep our proud native language alive. Well-funded – staff at Údarás have the highest salaries of any organization under the The Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs – it is expected to perform its duties in many ways, including job creation. Speaking only ‘as Gaeilge’ and not bilingually, Mac Giolla Easbuig and Ó Smoláin would, in effect, have prevented non-fluent Irish speakers in the Donegal Gaeltacht community from participating fully in the meeting. Worse, some non-Irish speaking members of the audience might well have excellent project ideas that could provide gainful employment to needy local people, people with families who wish to stay in the Donegal Gaeltacht and speak our native language on a daily basis.

Wanting to align our business ethics with those of global mainstream thinking, it would have been better for both men to remember one of the principles of the recently-signed ‘Conscious Business Declaration’ being presented to the United Nations – ‘Business must behave as a positive and proactive member of the local and global communities in which it operates.’

If last week’s meeting was any example, then Údarás na Gaeltachta – with its obvious inherent bias – perhaps should not have been given the EU LEADER programme to administer, for which it will receive the whopping ‘handling fee’ as mentioned above. Keep in mind, Údarás also receives millions of euro annually from the Irish public pocket.

Gearoid O’Smaolain Udaras, Leader program

Gearoid O’Smolain, staff member in the Donegal office of Udaras na Gaeltachta, speaks during last week’s meeting.

No mature analyst doubts the challenges facing Údarás in attracting major companies to such a peripheral rural area with substandard road infrastructure as the Donegal Gaeltacht – but that still does not excuse the organization from doing simple things well. This lack of attention to detail may be one of the main reasons why there is consistently high unemployment in the Donegal Gaeltacht, which in itself indicates the organization is not doing its job properly and needs experienced entrepreneurs with know-how, technocrats and public relations specialists on its staff.

I had already raised the issue regarding the potentially positive economic contributions non Irish-speaking people could make within the Gaeltacht here with Donegal-based Michael Heaney, Údarás national director of enterprise & investment with, at an international ‘TransAtlantic Connections’ conference organized by the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland and Drew University, New Jersey earlier this year. I then sent a follow-up e-mail directly to him to meet and discuss how such a strategy could be developed. As yet, in the intervening six months, I have not received a single invitation to meet and discuss. That sort of attitude does not bode well for the future.

Isn’t it better for the common good of the community to work together in an inclusive, transparent manner, rather than in an exclusive and opaque one? My hope is that this blog encourages open, mature debate on a thorny dilemma and also helps prevent cronyism, the same ‘inner circle’ elites accessing LEADER funds while ‘blow-ins’ and ordinary local people lacking ‘the right connections’ being left empty-handed. That only results in emptier pubs, cafes and restaurants and a depletion of our Gaelic sports teams as more families board emigration planes for far-off places.

It is also worth questioning whether Údarás na Gaeltachta contravened strict EU regulations last Tuesday evening by strongly promoting a single financial lender, Clann Credo, a Catholic Church run entity, to the exclusion of other national and international lenders. This was done both through printed materials (a color brochure in the EU LEADER information package) and by its main on-stage speaker, Ó Smoláin. The inevitable question must be asked: Was this a paid promotional advertisement and did the Donegal chapter of Údarás or the national Galway-based headquarter receive the payment?

All comments welcome.

Are Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and pseudo-Independents set on destroying power-sharing in Donegal?

Early last Monday morning as most of us woke up groggily and struggled out of bed to face the week, a dramatic closed-door meeting of the Independent Grouping within Donegal Council was taking place in Lifford at which the very future of politics in the county was being decided.

Or at least that’s one interpretation: that pseudo-Independents (my sobriquet for them) backed by the Coalition Government partners of Fine Gael and Labour together with Fianna Fail were aiming for.

But the political cat might be out of the bag, so to speak.

Could it be that someone poured (or was it self-administered?) poisonous elixir into the ears of certain councillors that the life of an independent within traditionally conservative Irish political circles is a short one, so they’d better rejoin the party fold again – before it is too late? “Being in a party makes for an easier life,” may have been the song on the hymn sheet. “You’ve got the company of like-minded people. Talk up the party you formerly belonged to until we win the Dail, then we – together with you – will control Lifford as well.” If it was, perhaps instead, without knowing, they’ve been listening to the Song of the Sirens.

Donegal councillors, county council meeting

(l to r) Let’s decide on a plan of action. Councillors Frank McBrearty and Michael McBride confer discreetly at Monday morning’s meeting of Donegal County council.

Intriguing backstory

As Councillor Michael McBride told me last week, a motion by John Campbell at Monday morning’s private Independent Grouping meeting to have John O’Donnell expelled from the group supported, by Michael Cholm MacGiolla Easbuig and himself, was defeated by five other councillors, a strange situation to say the least as only last month, they had all voted to make him resign.

But that wasn’t the biggest surprise of that morning.

That came just a few minutes later, immediately Campbell and Easbuig left the Independent Grouping in protest.

“Much to my amazement, someone suddenly called for the dissolution of the entire Grouping,” recalls McBride, who chaired the meeting but said he cannot remember who made what he considered a bizarre call (strange loss of concentration as chairperson at so vital a time). “And it was agreed upon so quickly I can’t but believe they had all discussed this much earlier, in private.”

The five councillors in the Independent Group who voted against O’Donnell’s expulsion were Nicholas Crossan, Tom Conaghan, Niamh Kennedy, Ian McGarvey, and John O’Donnell himself, most former party members.

Later that same evening McBride sent me an e-mail purportedly written by Kennedy stating that, “a decision has been taken to suspend the independent grouping and that no positions would be removed from any member as an investigation is currently underway by the ethics registrar of Donegal county council.”

She added, “None of us are involved in the 25/30 councillors referred to by Cllr.  O Donnell (on the RTE programme). This decision has been taken in the interest of the people of Donegal and in order to accommodate the smooth running of the business of Donegal county council following this past two months of turmoil.” But one is still left wondering why the Grouping was suddenly dissolved? Could it be, as McBride said, that they were fed up working with the fiery Frank McBrearty, who first proposed O’Donnell’s expulsion. Or with the intellectually able Campbell and passionate Easbuig? Or is something more sinister going down?

Franc McBrearty, Donegal councillors

Loosening his tie. But then again, Councillor McBride wasn’t wearing one, was he, at the council meeting? Just a bout of nervousness then? Or indecision?

Asked about his feelings on the dissolution of the Independent Grouping, McBride said, “I didn’t want that. It’s good for the council to have the four-group all-inclusive set-up that it has. To my understanding, that kind of power-sharing is unique in the whole country, something Donegal should be proud of.”

I asked McBride several questions

“Would you like O’Donnell – your former business partner in Dúncrua Teoranta, which was granted 120,000 euro from Udaras na Gaeltachta – expelled from all council committees.”

“I would have no problem with him being removed from all committees.”

“Why then did you abstain in the full council vote on the matter this Monday?”

“Because of the way I was treated fairly when I was co-opted on to the council for former Senator Jimmy Harte’s seat.”

“So, you would have been okay with a council decision to expel him, but not for you to vote on it?”

“Yes, it would have been democracy in action.”

Conversation ends.

Shakespeare: Is there something rotten in the state of …. Donegal?

Why would the trio of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour want the Independent Grouping at Donegal County Council dissolved? Here is a possible answer.

We’ll have a national elections very soon – we’ll know this week just when – and if the situation demands it, these three parties, regardless of what they say now, will try to ‘intermingle’ to form the next Government. But according to latest polls, their Donegal TD candidates desperately need all the help they can get even to shuffle lamely past the finish line – thus the pseudo-Independents. Fifteen years ago, the electoral breakdown was Fianna Fail a massive 70 per cent, Fine Gael 30 per cent, Sinn Fein 0.2 per cent and the rest Independents and Pseudos. Within the last five to six years, the Donegal political pendulum has swung dramatically and is now around 25 per cent Fianna Fail, Fine Gael 18 per cent, Sinn Fein a mighty 40 per cent, and rising, and the rest Independents and Pseudos.

And, let’s be quite clear about this: the main reason some pseudo-Independents are ‘Independents’ is that either their parties didn’t choose them to run last time out or that they’d never have won if they’d gone under that party’s ticket, especially if they’d gone under the Fianna Fail banner. In politics, however, such slights and inconveniences are often forgotten in the greedy grab for the prize piñata.

Concillor O'Donnell, Donegal politics

(r to l) Fianna Fail Donegal County Council chairperson, Ciaran Brogan, prepares for the meeting with council chief executive, Seamus Neely.

What happened behind closed doors Monday morning one week ago after Campbell and Easbuig stood on principle and left could be a classic political quid pro quo situation. ‘Talk up the party in the nationals in a few weeks time and you can run under our ticket for a council spot next time round, and, believe me, you’ll feel more secure for doing so,” could have been the way it was put.

Then again, my hunch might just be the workings of an over-active imagination. The truth might be that the Independent Grouping is a motley group, a raggle-taggle band with perhaps their hearts in the right places, but no cohesion. And so inexperienced and pulled apart by differences that they don’t even realize what their full potential could be if they created unity from diversity and voted for the right things.

This, however, is the perfect time – with national elections six weeks away – to find out which of the above-mentioned theories is the right one. True colors will begin to seep through. Threads will start to unravel.

If something more sinister is afoot, perpetrators of the cloak-and-dagger plotting have sadly overlooked one vital element – common decency. The overriding public mood is one of disillusionment, bordering on despair. If the three main political parties have indeed won the pseudo-Independents over – backed by business elites with much to gain by keeping O’Donnell on the council and on the ever-important ‘Roads’ committee which oversees tens of millions of euro in construction projects – trouble lies ahead. Keep in mind, the council’s annual budget is 133 million, 127 fixed and 6 to 7 discretionary. Construction of the Dungloe-Glenties road is in five-stages, the second, for example, cost around four million euro and the tender for the next stage is end of this month.

The ‘plotters’ may, however, have made the fatal mistake of ignoring the simple, unadorned hopes of ordinary folk, throughout Donegal and throughout the country, hopes for a sliver of common decency among politicians after all the putrid corruption they’ve been forced to roll in over the last five years or so.

Donegal people demonstrating, Donegal county council

Protestors inside the County Chamber voice their sentiments about Councillor John O’Donnell, corruption and cronyism within and outside Donegal County Council.

Another key question is now being asked in the corridors of power in Lifford: not if, but how many, high-level executives within Donegal Council – many of which were employed both within the county and imported from outside the county, with generous salaries and pensions under the previous, long-running Fianna Fail government – are involved in this purge of True Independents and the break-up of power-sharing? After all, they have to reward their paymasters.

What a shame if such a deceitful game is being played, in this of all years – the centennial anniversary of our national independence.

But in a very short time, you, dear Reader, will have the chance to put things right – by availing of your unalienable right to walk behind a curtain and put your ‘X’ exactly where you want it to be.

Perhaps, this blog will help you choose well. I certainly hope so. It’s a rare chance to truly show that we are indeed ‘different up here.’

As for Councillor O’Donnell….

Epitome of nonchalance

I was quite astounded watching the councillor last Monday morning nonchalantly reading that morning’s edition of the ‘Donegal News’ as the political maelstrom swirled all around him in the council chamber. Either this young man has nerves of steel, I thought, or he is so utterly sure of what will happen that there is absolutely no need for him to be concerned in any way, about anything or anyone. Wish I could wake up feeling that way, as I’m sure do thousands of unemployed, elderly, sick, disabled and struggling mothers trying desperately to feed their children on paltry, insufficient income coming into homes across this county, across the country.

John O'Donnell, Sinn Fein Donegal

Nonchalance or absolute certainty? John O’Donnell displays his lack of concern about the possibility he might be expelled from Donegal County Council on Monday morning. That very evening, he released a press statement thanking his fellow councillors for supporting him.

During a short adjournment, I approached O’Donnell and introduced myself as Gaeilge, thinking – as he had attracted so much Údarás funding – he would be fluent. Perhaps it was due to my poor pronunciation or stumbling vocal ways, but he didn’t seem to understand, so I changed my questioning to as Bearla.

“Can you speak? I’ve a few questions I’d like to ask.”

I’ve been told by my legal advisers not to say anything,” he responded. “They’ve told me to let the ethics investigation takes it course. I’ve nothing to answer for anyway. People are just out to get me and use me as a platform for their own political gains.”

“What would you say to your fellow councilors here if they ask you any questions about your various business interests and debts owed through them?”

“I’d say, ‘That’s none of anyone’s business. It’s my private affair, mine only.”

“What about the 120,000 euro granted to your company, Dúncrua Teoranta, by Údarás na Gaeltachta just before it went bust, can you explain that?

“My legal advisers have told me to say nothing and that’s what I’m going to do.”

“Will you pay the money back?

“No comment.”

Then he went back to reading his newspaper.

O’Donnell, a long-time family member of Fianna Fail, also declined to comment on the court case he faces this Wednesday, Feb. 3 for failing to pay 33,000 euro in compensation to a Creeslough woman whose foot he drove over in a car accident. If O’Donnell does not show up for that case, District Court Judge Paul Kelly has said he will have him arrested.

Next week’s court case should be just as entertaining as the county council meeting last  week – with potentially very serious consequences for all concerned. If, having said he has no money, he pays up, you have to ask yourself: where did the spondulix come from? If his solicitor delays the proceedings, you’ve got to ask yourself: why? Could it be waiting for the results of the upcoming elections? If, however, he is convicted, I am ainformed O’Donnell automatically loses his council seat. There’s a lot at stake.

Go along if you can. It should be as good as an episode of ‘Judge Judy,’ hopefully better – unless some shadowy person(s) gets to the judge before then.