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.

Advertisements

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.

Exclusive: Donegal councillors John O’Donnell and Michael McBride funded by Údarás na Gaeltachta

At a time when controversial ‘cash for favors’ Donegal councillor John O’Donnell was refusing to pay more than 33,000 euro compensation to a Creeslough woman he injured in a car accident 16 years ago, Údarás na Gaeltachta granted him and fellow councillor Michael McBride more than 122,000 euro in public money (see document here Udaras grant), I can reveal exclusively in this blog.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

O’Donnell was founder, director and secretary of Dúncrua Teoranta, the company receiving the money. Interestingly, a second director of the company was fellow councillor, Michael McBride, who also acted as company secretary. Both men – now declaring themselves independent councillors – were then members of Fianna Fail. A third director named was Sarah Doherty.

Documents show McBride and O’Donnell became directors of Dúncrua Teoranta on the same day, 14 Sep 2006, when it was set up to sell metal ore. They are also listed as company secretaries. McBride was director for a year and four months, until February 2008 when he resigned. The company’s address was listed as just inside the Gaeltacht, at Cuirin, Termon.

Dúncrua Teoranta

Údarás approved funding for Dúncrua Teoranta of 122,300 euro in 2008, paying out 66,850 euro in that year alone. The owners put the company into bankruptcy within months of the money being given. Aidan Garcia of Collins Garcia Corporate Recovery, 28 Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin was appointed as liquidator.

“As the money was given at a time when the company was close to bankruptcy, it seems it’s yet another case of cronyism, money given to two Fianna Fail politicians by a Fianna Fail dominated organization,” commented one observer with inside knowledge of Údarás operations.

Interestingly, O’Donnell was granted the money by Údarás at a time when he owned another company, Kilmac Form Work Limited, which later went into receivership with documents showing it had liabilities of 4.8 million Euro. Much of that debt, as declared during a High Court hearing in 2012, was owed to AIB Finance, thus to ordinary Irish people as the bank was bailed out by the State through injections of billions of euro of public money.

Kilmac Form Work Limited

O’Donnell registered Kilmac Form Work Limited on 6 April, 2005 in Ballyherrin, Kilmacrennan, several kilometers from Duncrua Teo, described as being involved in the manufacture of metal structures. It is currently listed as ‘Receivership’ with two directors, O’Donnell and his brother. The ‘Irish Independent’ reported recently that O’Donnell was forced to make back settlements to the taxman totaling over 330,000 euro. I have contacted both Councillors McBride and O’Donnell for comment but neither has responded. Údarás finally released a statement confirming it did grant O’Donnell the money. Where were Údarás officials when the RTE ‘cash for favors’ investigation was aired to such national furore weeks ago? Cowering in a corner hoping no-one would notice it had given scarce public money away so recklessly?

Urgent questions require immediate answers

The documents unearthed for this blog call into question the actions of both O’Donnell and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

O’Donnell is already firmly in the public spotlight due to his being caught on RTE camera allegedly offering ‘favors for cash’ on Donegal council business, as well as being under threat of arrest for failing to pay compensation due to Ms. Petra Kucklick of Creeslough whom he injured when he drove his car over her foot in 2000. District Court Judge Paul Kelly was quoted in the local media saying he will have the councillor arrested if he does not appear in person at the Letterkenny court on February 3rd to explain why he has failed to pay any of the compensation to the injured woman. O’Donnell seemed to have had lots of money at one time and could have easily paid the compensation, why did he decide not to do so?

Almost all of the main political party representatives in Donegal have called directly for O’Donnell’s resignation, as did Independent councillors, Micheal Cholm Mac Giolla Easpuig, who has called for a boycott of next week’s full council meeting due to take place on Monday, January 25, Dessie Shiels, who left a meeting Letterkenny Municipal District Council last week in protest, and Frank McBrearty, former Mayor, who resigned last week from the Independent Grouping on Donegal County Council in protest as O’Donnell not being expelled.

Donegal Now‘ news service said Cllr. McBrearty explained that Cllr Michael McBride’s casting vote as party whip means he has the power to expel Cllr John O’Donnell from the group and the committees given to him under the all inclusive deal. The news service quoted McBrearty saying: “I will perform my duties as an Independent councillor and do my very best for the people that elected me. I will not be associated with Cllr John O Donnell when he clearly said he could get the backing of 25 to 30 other councillors. I am not one of these councillors and am making my position clear by taking this stand. I do not understand the reluctance of some councillors to support my decision but that’s for them to decide.”

The information these documents reveal also come as councilor Shiels, who will contest the next national elections, recently left a meeting of the 10-member Letterkenny Municipal District Council in protest at O’Donnell’s attendance. “In the aftermath of the RTE investigates programme which aired on RTE in November past, I personally cannot involve myself in county council meetings, whether at Municipal District Level or at full plenary council level in the presence of councillor O’Donnell,” Shiels said. “To do so would, to my mind, compromise everything that I have tried to do to date since being elected to Donegal County Council to restore public confidence in politics in Donegal.”

Added another observer, who prefers his identification to remain confidential at this times, said, “I wondered why Michael McBride was so quiet in his condemnation of O’Donnell.”

Is John O’Donnell the kind of political leader the people of Donegal want? Is this what we mean when we say proudly, “we’re different up here?”

Does Údarás na Gaeltachta lack good governance?

Key questions also remain about the operations of Údarás na Gaeltachta, particularly in Donegal.

Did anyone at the organization check into the financial health of O’Donnell and his companies before granting him 122,000 euro of public money? If so, why did it go ahead and approve the grant? If it did not check, then it is guilty of ignoring its duties to the public whose money supports the organisation’s entire operation.

Perhaps, in addition to the controversial wind farm development issue that was the focus of the RTE program, perhaps O’Donnell can clarify how he got the money from Údarás for Dúncrua Teoranta. It is not believed either O’Donnell or McBride have paid any of the money back.

Also, as the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE) identified the requirement for a ‘Section 56’ on O’Donnell’s company – which allows interested parties to bring concerns before the liquidator and thus try to recuperate their money – has Údarás done so in relation to the loss of public money (the grant)? If, not, why not? Is this yet again willful disrespect of public interest?

Or in the light of the allegations arising from the RTE program – did some people at Údarás get kick-backs for pushing the money through for O’Donnell? Considering Fianna Fail’s long-time dominance of Údarás and that party’s record of skullduggery in bankrupting Ireland, such allegations cannot be ignored. In addition, this blog revealed that Údarás hired Finbarr Boyle as business training manager for local entrepreneurs through the EU funded CeanaglG project in Donegal even though Boyle was already under investigation, had already pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain and was later proven guilty of stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for children’s food. Does the organization suffer from a severe lack of good governance?

Oh, and by the way, where did the 122,000 euro go? As Cuba Gooding Jr. said in that wonderful film, ‘Jerry Maguire’ – “Show us the money!”

Changes required at Údarás?

With frequent revelations about the operations of Údarás – including free trips for executives, board members and their wives to Las Vegas (to meet officials of Enterprise Ireland) and ‘insider trading’ schemes whereby former Údarás board members and top executives received money for their own organizations and projects – economic experts are questioning whether the group is fit for purpose. These concerns are especially sensitive locally as well as in Brussels as the Government decided recently it will operate the multi-million euro EU LEADER programme in the Donegal Gaeltacht where decisions on money allocation will take place over the coming months.

Some sector analysts as well as ordinary people in the Gaeltacht community say that after several decades of failure and with unemployment in the Gaeltacht at an all-time high, the economic regeneration model for the regions is simply not working and that Údarás na Gaeltachta should simply be dismantled and replaced with a new and more efficient organization, one featuring well-trained technocrats, not politically-appointed personnel.

Others say that much-needed changes are already underway, an example being the recent appointment of Letterkenny-based, former county council director of services for community, culture and planning, Micheál Ó hÉanaigh, as director of enterprise and employment, marine and natural resources at Údarás. Ó hÉanaigh, credited with launching the Donegal Diaspora project.

However, one must also note the recent reaction by Joe McHugh, Fine Gael Minister for the Gaeltacht, to the questionable activities at Údarás – he said the organization would receive an extra one million euro in public funding this year.

Crooks, citizens or celebrities?

Ethics, or lack thereof, has been the raging catchphrase in Donegal recently with county councilor John O’Donnell  caught on RTE camera allegedly offering lobbying services for cash and Bunbeg-based, EU-funded former school principal, Finbarr Boyle, stealing more than 200,000 euro from a village school, including money earmarked for childrens’ food.

But what’s all the commotion about? Hasn’t there been such unsavory goings-on right here in Donegal for years? Why the shock? Or is there any, really?

In last weekend’s edition of ‘The Irish Times,’ columnist Fintan O’Toole, painted a scary scenario, a malaise spreading nationwide.

…other cultures criminalise the things they find unacceptable; we find unacceptable only the things that have been criminalized. If you can get away with it, we reckon, it can’t be all that bad.” He then quoted Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan on white-collar crime, saying, “It is remarkable, first of all, how long it takes, how heavy the procedures are and how light the consequences.

Back in Donegal.

Ardara-born Finbarr Boyle’s story is well-publicized “School principal pleads guilty to 7 counts of theft and forgery.”

As a journalist and editor for over thirty years, I thought sharpened instincts had made me a good judge of character – boy, was I ever wrong.

Sitting at a lunch prepared by my wife in my home with Mr. Boyle as guest some time ago, I would never have guessed the man across from me would stoop to such lows as using a village school’s money where he was principal to treat himself royally to holidays in England, Spain and other fine places, car and house payments and expensive golf equipment.

Finbarr Boyle Donegal, CeangalG,

(l to r): Concubhar Ó LIatháin, CeangalG Marketing Manager, Claire Nic Neacail, Alasdair Morrison CeangalG Director, Dinny McGinley Fine Gael TD and Fionbar Ó Baoill – CeangalG Training Manager.

Mr. Boyle was given space inside the headquarters of Údarás na Gaeltachta in the Gweedore Industrial Estate, Bunbeg as a training manager – surprising, as that particular organisation has refused to gave any free space to small, local entrepreneurs in that same estate, a situation local Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty, has consistently taken issue with.

I must admit, Mr. Boyle impressed me then, a fast talker, assertive and supremely confident. Yes, I know what you’re probably thinking – ‘Sounds like a conman to me.’ As things turned out, you are absolutely right. But I was left sad and disillusioned after learning of his multiple theft. He struck me then as the kind of person who could be a positive force for change, especially as we discussed the importance of ethics and the need for the Donegal Gaeltacht to rid itself of its historic cronyism and nepotism which have warped normal economic development of the region.

Yet this is the same person found guilty of seven counts of theft over a number of years (he admitted to many more as part of his plea bargain), for whom Judge John Aymler may not impose a custodial sentence because, in part, 25,000 euro of the money taken may be paid back within a year. That’s around a tenth of what was stolen.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?

A key question, however, still remains unanswered: Mr. Boyle was caught red-handed several years ago (the investigation has been ongoing for at least seven (7) years), so how did he obtain a well-paying position as training manager of a lucrative, multi-million euro, tax-payer supported EU funded project – ironically, one aimed at helping economically disadvantaged people? Was this , in itself, a classic case of nepotism and cronyism? Regardless of the multiple thefts, people have asked, “Does a school principal have the business credentials to train entrepreneurs?”

When contacted by me this week on the issue, Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group, Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Scotland, e-mailed back, saying, “Mr. Boyle’s actual contract of employment, for the post of Training Officer, with the wider CeangalG Project, was formally and directly managed through our Project Partners, Údarás na Gaeltachta.” He added that Mr. Boyle was “employed by the project between 9th Sept 2013 and 31st March 2015.” The Gardai investigation began as late as 2008 and Mr. Boyle, according to media reports, admitted his thefts almost two years ago (January last year).

Mr. Munro added, “At no stage in either the recruitment process or during his subsequent period of employment, was CeangalG ever made aware of there being any on-going police investigation.” Mr. Munro cc his email to the law company of Wright, Johnston & Mackenzie and to the University of the Highlands. Have I touched a red button?

Entitled CeangalG (ConenctG), this project is funded by the EU’s INTERREG IVA, Bòrd na Gàidhlig, MG ALBA, the Scottish Government, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich and focuses on the Gaeltachts of Donegal, Scotland and Belfast. On it’s website, it states:

CeangalG Donegal, INTERREG IVAAs for independent councilor John O’Donnell, the ball is largely in his court. He can do the dignified thing and bow out. If he stays, he places the entire council under a shadow. Independent councillor Frank McBrearty says he should be removed from all committees. But it seems resigning is the last thing O’Donnell will do. Another Independent councillor, Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuic, is right in asking fellow councilors to walk out of the chamber at the next meeting in protest. Someone has to stand up, otherwise – due to blatant impunity – it will get much worse. Let’s see if that happens. If not, then Fintan O’Toole’s words ring frighteningly true.

John O Donnell Donegal, independent councilor Donegal

Independent councilor John O Donnell: will he do the right thing?

But questionable dealings are nothing new in Donegal, as many local people have told me.

Under the auspices of the former Fianna Fáil government, Liam Cunningham (Liam Ó Cuinneagáin), was paid substantial sums for his services as member and long-time chairperson of Údarás na Gaeltachta – more than a quarter of a million euro. Between 2002 to 2012, his travel expenses alone amounted to 131,730 euro. His fees amounted to 206,962 euro.

More than that, documents requested by me under the Freedom of Information Act also now show that at least one company he established, Oideas Gael, received generous amounts of money – more than 350,000 euro in a series of payments – from the very same organization he chaired for so long. Mr. Cunningham said Oideas Gael was a hobby. With a financial return like that, that’s quite a hobby.

In stock market terms, is this not a case of insider trading, and therefore unethical? After all, no better-placed person to access money from a group than the person who’s on the inside track of that very same group, knowing intimately its budgets, its strategy and its key staff. When called by me about this situation in a phone interview, Liam said, “Sean, things were different then. I don’t see it as a conflict of interest.” Different then? How is it different? The question was never answered.

Oideas Gael, Liam Cunningham Donegal

Liam Cunningham: is it wrong to lobby for money from the very funding organisation that you chair?

Some readers might say, ‘Liam hosts Irish-language classes.’ That’s true, but so do many others and they don’t benefit from the rich financial backing Oideas Gael received so handily. Still others could do so – if they had that kind of money. Is such treatment fair and ethical? Is the playing ground a level one? How many times has Údarás said there’s not enough money for your project?

The particular situation of Mr. Cunningham also raises an inevitable question: was it linked to an ongoing quid pro quo agreement among local Údarás board members then? And has anything changed since? Interested to find out? You have the right to know, and here’s how. (See below).

Mr. Cunningham has since been named, ‘Donegal Person of the Year.’ Considering the dire economic development of the Gaeltacht, where I live, under his watch, the question must be asked, ‘Is this how we want the term ‘model citizen’ to be defined?”

Michael Heaney, formerly a director of services with Donegal County Council, has recently been appointed director of Enterprise & Investment with Údarás. Will his leadership change the way Údarás doles out money, how it selects projects to fund? Or will the same old cadre of elites be the recipients? Time will tell.

As Údarás is helping DLDC select projects for funding under the EU’s upcoming LEADER programme, it will be operating under much tighter European regulations than the rather loose Irish ones it has been working under thus far. It will be interesting to monitor the quality of their project selection process for LEADER.

As O’Toole writes in last Saturday’s column, “If corruption is very low on the list of priorities for criminal justice, it is little higher on the list of political priorities…. So long as impunity reigns, the rare eejit who gets caught will always evoke sympathy… What marks out (Ireland) is the breathtaking degree of impunity for all white-collar crimes.

Isn’t it long past time this situation changed? The upcoming election gives us the chance to affect such change. In  ofthis regard, it is worth noting the words  ‘Donegal News’ columnist Martin McGinley’s in Friday’s edition, “We get what we accept.”

You have the right to know:

You can find out additional information on the dealings of Údarás by e-mailing Judy Ní Dhubháin at judy(at)udaras.ie. Quoting the FOI Act 2014, you can ask for any information you like, financial or otherwise. The service is free.

Anyone wanting answers from CeangalG, can contact Dr D. Munro, chair of the CeangalG Steering Group at dm.smo(at)uhi.ac.uk or +44 (0) 1471 888352. Claire Nicolson is the organisation’s administrator claire(at)ceangalg.net Alasdair Morrison, a former minister in the Government of Scotland, is its director. Or through Údarás na Gaeltachta, Donegal. Tel: 074-9560100. Fax: 074-9560101. Email: dnag(at)udaras.ie

Be sure to tell me what you find out. I’d be curious to know.

Banned in the US and UK, but coming to Donegal soon – sex, profanity and fireworks

Ever tried reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’?
Only 800 pages, more or less, a quarter of a million words, characterised by convoluted, stream-of-consciousness prose, meaning some sentences aren’t really sentences and those that are seem like they’re not.
Not to mention every chapter relates to an organ of the human body and also that while it’s about a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, it’s also about the Mediterranean Sea adventures of the ancient Greek hero in Homer’s epic poem.
Like me, you probably stopped reading after 10 pages or so.
Now try imagining not only reading all 800, often unpunctuated, pages but transforming it into a captivating play entitled ‘Extracts from Ulysses,’ then coaching a large group of amateur actors in the backroom of a community center in a rural west Donegal Gaeltacht to deliver a delightful 90-minute theatrical production.

Roy Orbison-like, Learmont Murray stirs his coffee, the way he stirs life – in ever-widening circles (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Enter stage left, Murray Learmont, thespian extraordinaire who turned 69 a few days ago and has not only directed a plethora of theatrical productions during his 20-plus years in the drama field, but has himself played roles as diverse as Captain Renault in ‘Casablanca,’ Polonius in ‘Hamlet,’ a preacher in ‘High Noon’ and Simon Dedalus, father of Stephen Dedalus, the hero in ‘A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man.’
On Bloomsday (Tuesday, June 16), Learmont and his enthusiastic, skilled troupe, the Cloughaneely Players, will perform their unique production before a hoped-for capacity audience in Arnold’s Hotel, Dunfanaghy Donegal, at 9pm. Don’t miss it. It’s a rare dramatic treat.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Together as One. (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

So why tackle such a complex literary challenge?
It’s such a wonderful story of human experience, with such powerful dialogue,” says Murray, sitting over a coffee and a huge chunk of chocolate cake (mine, he was much more disciplined) at ‘Moonshine Café’ in Letterkenny last week. “It contains so many worlds within it, being the classic tale of Ulysses in a colourful turn-of-the-20th century Dublin setting with even a biscuit-tossing scene in the bar in the first chapter relating to Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant, hurling a huge rock at Ulysses.
Photo by Columbia Hillen

Ever-passionate about matters of the stage (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Speaking passionately, he adds, “In Joyce’s novel you never lose the sense of surprise. While scenes fit into nicely one another, he surprises your expectations. The pitiful blind boy swearing at someone who accidently bumps into him – “God’s curse on you, whoever you are! You’re blinder nor I am, you bitch’s bastard!” being but one example. The author also makes no concessions, leaving it up to the reader to find things out. It is a modern piece both in thoughts and ideas, about relationships, and many of its themes are still very much relevant today.
ulysses 9

Production even features risque bedroom scenes (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

As for the task of reducing 800 hefty pages into theater form? “ I must say, the cut-and-paste capabilities of a modern-day computer really helped,” says Murray modestly, smiling. “But what I was really looking for was memorable dialogue and there’s just so much of that it wasn’t too difficult. Joyce captures exactly the way people speak. Of course, there were certain scenes I definitely wanted in like the bar scene where the one-eyed citizen abuses bloom in an anti-Semitic rant and the scene in the Ormond Hotel with the two barmaids laughing, saying ‘ “Aren’t men frightful idiots,’ which relates to the song of the Sirens in the classic myth.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

What’s that you say? (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

With a previous performance several weeks ago having met with strong positive reaction and the next due soon, how does he feel? “Very happy. It has been great fun doing what is, in effect, an ensemble production. Around 20 people, with everyone putting in their ideas. It has been a labour of love and, of course, I’m delighted it has been received so well.

Photo by Columbia Hillen

Murray Learmont: Serious about the stage, but with a ready laugh  (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Murray, who first read ‘Ulysses’ while in his 20s studying English literature at Glasgow University, had particular praise for lead actor, Pearse McGee, who plays Bloom and is on-stage throughout and for Maggie McKinney, who plays his wife, and has a challenging soliloquy at the end.  Aside from the actors, Murray also praises Robert Shields, owner of Clady Media in Crolly, who supervised the sound system and Joanne Lindsay-Butler for set design.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Whatever you do, don’t look the other way! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

Speaking about Joyce’s work and his role in the production, McGee said, “The novel deserves its reputation. It is a law onto itself. While it is, granted, a dense, multi-layered and hard-to-handle beast of a book, the sheer exuberance of the language can carry you through it, if you let it.
On playing Bloom, he added, “It was a tough ask to get into the head of one of the great everyman characters, especially then having to portray him as the public man without showing the audience his inner thinking. Murray’s patience and boundless enthusiasm were invaluable to me in getting there and his sheer love of the source material clearly shone through at rehearsal, which helped to take a tough job and make it fun.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Pretty as a picture, but what’s that in your hand? (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

McKinney, whose previous diverse roles have included Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Helena in the Shakespearian classics “Macbeth,’ ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and a chorus girl in ‘Some Like It Hot,’ said she “loved” playing Molly Bloom. “I had not read the book, so it was interesting to learn about it. To begin with, the soliloquy was a little challenging, as it is Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness and James Joyce left it unpunctuated and her thinking often flits from one memory to another, so it took a while to decipher this. Also, some of my lines were a bit risqué and I was a little concerned I might be shunned in the local community for using such improper language, but in context of everything else I had to say it worked and wasn’t too shocking, thankfully!
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Honestly, hand on heart – if I can but find it, I know it’s here somewhere! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

‘Ulysses’ takes place at Arnold’s Hotel in Dunfanaghy, west Donegal, on Tuesday evening, June 16, commencing at 9pm. Book your tickets early by calling 00353 74 913 6208 as venue room capacity is 60 people. A second performance will take place on Thursday evening, June 25, at the Church of Ireland hall in Dunfanaghy.

Photo by Moses Alcorn

You’re sooooo serious, you make me smile! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

Maybe, upon advance request, they might even serve up the traditional ‘Bloomsday Irish breakfast’ of kidneys and gizzards.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Well-behaved angels all in a row! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

Photo by

Who’s that dapper, fashion guru (Photo by Moses Alcorn)