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

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Ramelton basks in cosmopolitan manouche music festival

Artistic and organizational daring-do recently transported the pretty coastal town of Ramelton (Ráth Mealtain in Irish means ‘Fort of Mealtain’) in east Donegal, Ireland back to the charming musical nostalgia of pre-World War Two, reminiscent of ‘Midnight in Paris,’ the recent movie directed by Woody Allen.

Marting McGinley jazz festival, Donegal manouche

Raphoe-born, Donegal fiddler and journalist Martin McGinley (on left) listens to an informal group music session at the traditional Conway’s Bar, Ramelton on Friday evening just before the gypsy jazz festival kicked-off.

Billed as ‘Django sur Lennon,’ the inaugural weekend festival focused on a genre of music known as either gypsy jazz or manouche, with one of the foremost pioneers being Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt, a Belgian-born French guitarist and composer of Romani ethnicity.

With international musicians from countries such as Italy, Spain, Holland and Slovakia playing, the tiny Irish town alongside the River Lennon became a cosmopolitan hub of melodies with a definite positive vibe, both in formal concert-hall settings and informally in many of the town’s pubs and cafes, and even in a ‘mystery venue’ – a 17th century mansion.

Kicking off the festival was a quartet in the Town Hall, complete with an elegant, colorful stage canvas backdrop of chandeliers, bay window and ornate Doric pillars and a choice of either table-side or cinema-style seating.

Skilled guitarist, Romane from Paris, was joined by Dublin-based, pony-tailed José Anselmo on double bass, Rudo Bado on violin and Belfast-based Nicolas Deschatrettes on rhythm guitar. They played classics such as Reindhart’s ‘Swing 48’ and Romane’s original creations such as an enchanting tune he composed for his wife and first practiced with the violinist a mere hour before the show. Among their other musical renditions during the unbroken 90-minute set were ‘Pour Parler’ and ‘After You’ve Gone.’

Romane guitarist, Rudolf Bado manouche

Romano and Bado produced delightful, flirtatious musical interludes.

It was delightful to listen to Romane’s guitar and Rudo’s violin intimately, affectionately, effortlessly wrapping around each other, flirting like old familiar lovers knowing the simple caresses that turned each other on, a pure musical joy to listen to.

A second enjoyable quartet at the town later, was led by Amsterdam-born singer-guitarist Irene Ypenburg. Their diverse musical offering included a tune which originated out of a Norwegian folk song, then was re-interpreted by a Greek composer before Django transformed it manouche-style. Another tune, ‘Django’s Tiger,’ was a playful, flirty tune, almost naughty in style if lyrics had been put to it. Ypenburg, who is also a Reiki master and a talented artist, also sang a gypsy ballad penned by Schnuckenack Reinhardt, a relative of Django, about what defines ‘richness’ – material well-being or simple contentment.

Other tunes included the lively ‘My Brother,’ the song ‘Chavo’ meaning ‘Man’ or ‘Lad’ and the well- known Yiddish song ‘ Bei Mir Bistu Shein,’ more popularly known as ‘My Dear Mr. Shane’ a former hit by the Andrews Sisters, as well as ‘The Sheik of Araby’ and the romantic classic ‘Autumn Leaves,’ sung by Irene in both French and in English.

Later during the festival at Ramelton Town Hall, another concert featured three guitarists, the Dario Napoli Trio, who opened with the tune ‘Within,’ composed by the Italian-born Napoli, with the composer-guitarist explaining that his genre of music was not “pure Django but a modern fusion.” If Olympic gold medals were doled out for the fastest fingers running up and down guitar frets, Napoli would be Usain Bolt. Immensely talented, he and his two supporting musicians shifted seamlessly from one tune to another, fast, sometimes furious, producing intricate three-way sets of string harmony, never, ever harsh.

Master of his instrument, it seemed at times as if the guitar was a natural physical extension of Napoli’s arms. His rendition of his composition ‘My Favorite Spot,’ created last year while on a music coaching camp in Tuscany, ended with a flourish of flowering notes, the visual version of petals opening under a speed camera. ‘Unsaid,’ a song he composed about relationship break-ups and avoiding important truths, was melancholic and sad with a sense of inevitability and a touch of ‘c’est la vie’ hard realism to it. In contrast, the band’s interpretation of the age-old ‘Tiger Rag,’ made famous by the Mills Brothers in the 1932 comedy movie ‘The Big Broadcast,’ was bubbly and uplifting. And if deft guitar playing isn’t enough, Napoli also sings, and pretty darn well too.

In addition to the five concerts over a weekend, there were also workshops in guitar and violin.

Dario Napoli, gypsy jazz

Dario Napoli from Cortona swept his listeners into an enthusiastic standing ovation with his fast-fingered guitar skills.

Full credit goes to festival organizers – Donough Cleary, Donal Casey, John Kinsella, Damian Doherty, Martin McGinley, Aisling Cleary, Ann Casey, Mary Kinsella, Violet Buchanan and Simon McCafferty. Cleary and his colleagues were obviously content with the festival’s success. “Django Sur Lennon has exceeded all our expectations,” said Cleary. “We had some truly exceptional musical performances over the weekend, big crowds at the concerts and a fantastic atmosphere for the pub gigs. Our workshops were also well supported. It’s all going to drive the development of gypsy jazz in Donegal. Watch this space!”

Festival sponsors included principal funders, Sir Gerry and Lady Heather Robinson of Oakfield Park in Raphoe and Peter Nolan, also from the same town. Sponsorships also included financial consultants Fintan Moloney and Company Limited while Donegal Music Education Partnership sponsored the violin workshops.

Traditional Tennessee music comes to northwest Ireland

Dressed in checked shirts, caps and denim dungarees with big colorful handkerchiefs sticking out of back pockets, American musicians at Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Center (RCC) this week looked as ready for harvesting corn (or producing moonshine from it) as hosting a concert.

Fortunately, it was the latter and what a knee-slapping hoedown the evening turned out to be courtesy of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, combining a mix of musical talent and fine stagemanship with good humor, including some zany ‘instruments.’

With an impressive number of CDs behind them, the five-member group are so at ease on stage, they often decide at the last minute which song they’ll play next, which lends their concerts a delightful sense of spontaneity, such as when they ended this week’s show with a lively rendering of that all-time Irish classic, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’

As evidenced Wednesday evening at the RCC, their inventory of songs and tunes is diverse, ranging from romantic ballads to spine-chilling ghost stories to comical tales of ‘tooth picking time in false-tooth valley’ and revengeful chickens as in ‘Ghost Chickens In The Sky.’

Add to the mix, the well-honed skills of Dan Kelly on fiddle; smiling Ernie Sykes on bass and voice; bald-pated, nimble-fingered John Tomlin on mandolin and voice; versatile band leader Troy Boswell, known professionally as Leroy Troy, playing claw hammer-style banjo, harmonica and washboard and voice, as well as Mike Armistead on guitar and voice.

Concert-goers were also treated to the amusing sight of Troy teasing a tune out of a plastic milk jug and a water bottle and Sykes producing the same from closed hands on the song, ‘Sick, Sober and Sorry,’ and then later hilariously miming a chicken.

Among the song highlights of the evening were a touching ballad entitled ‘These Hands’ and the carefree ‘Chug-a-Lug,’ about aforesaid moonshine, written and recorded by American country artist Roger Miller, both sung by Sykes; the ghostly tale and bluegrass classic, ‘Bringing Mary Home’ written by Chaw Mank, Joe Kingston and John Duffey and sung by Tomlin; as well as ‘Miller’s Cave,’ a Don Williams melody and the hilarious and probably most confusing song yet written, for which a family diagram is required, ‘I’m My Own Grandpa,’ both sung by Troy. Instrumentally, Troy’s prowess on the scrub board on ‘They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree’ was a delight, as was the group’s interpretation of the Hank Williams song ‘A Mansion On The Hill.’

The evening’s concert was ably opened by singer-guitarist Nashville-born George Harper, who sang a variety of songs from his ‘I’ll Be Back’ and ‘No Smokin In Here’ albums including the lively ‘Overland Express’ and a traditional folk song with the amusing kick-line ‘sugar tit a mile wide and six feet long.’ Northwest Ireland wasn’t left out of his repertoire either, with ‘Why Do I Go To Sligo,’ a song about the pretty girls of that particular town, written after a previous gig there. His voice and Tomlin’s mandolin playing on the love ballad, ‘A Stone’s Throw Away’ made for a perfect combination.

Considering Letterkenny lies in the peripheral end of Ireland, about three-hours away from Dublin where music groups often congregate, great credit goes to RCC director, Shaun Hannigan and his colleagues there, as well as Donegal County Council Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain, for bringing so many diverse bands to play. Last week I enjoyed a marvelous performance by ‘Hot Club of Cowtown’ and the series of US country concerts ends next Friday (Nov. 11) with singer-songwriter-musician, Maine-born Jude Johnston performing alongside Linley Hamilton and Dave Keary. After that it’s something different – a Swiss jazz trio, Vein, with New York saxophonist, Greg Osby, on Thursday Nov. 17, and acoustic guitarist Pierre Bensusan from France, the very next day, Fri. 18.

The concerts are presented in association with Earagail Arts Festival, Donegal Music Education Partnership and Music Network.