Was Columba gay?

Thousands of euro of public money are pouring into diverse celebrations this year throughout Ireland to celebrate the life of a 6th century Celtic monk called Columba (or Colmcille) – a strange and elusive man we know almost nothing about.

Even though schools, community centres, Christian churches, local councils and other groups celebrate the 1,500th year of the mystical monk’s birth, no-one knows exactly when he was born. Nor do we know exactly where. We think it was Donegal but we don’t know for sure what part. We know he left Ireland for the Scottish island of Iona where he spent a good part of his life. But we don’t know the real reasons why.

Sitting on the Torr an Aba (Hill of the Abbott) in front of Iona Abbey where it is said Columba did most of his meditating.

We don’t even know for sure if Columba had a mistress, a wife, children, or indeed whether he was gay or bisexual like many of the monks of his time. (Celibacy was not compulsory then, monks/priests could marry and have families and homosexuality was not denigrated as it is today by the Catholic Church).

Nor do we know where Columba is buried. It was thought his bones (or at least the smaller ones) were wrapped up inside a wooden casket covered with silver and copper-alloy designs known as a reliquary and carried by Scottish soldiers at the Battle of Bannockburn where they famously defeated the English. But we now learn there was nothing in the box, which now sits behind a glass case wired to a sophisticated security alarm system in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and labelled as the ‘Monymusk Reliquary.’

Make no bones about it – Columba’s relics are not in the ‘Monymusk Reliquary.’

The reason we know so little about Columba is that while he and his followers attracted a worldwide reputation for penning and illustrating magnificent books of all kinds including the famous Book of Kells, there are no records whatsoever of Columba’s own personal writing, not even a simple diary.

So, how is it then we’re spending so much public money celebrating a man we know nothing about, indeed a man who was never even declared a saint, though most people think he was. Why would the Vatican canonise him anyhow? After all, the Celtic Christian church Columba represented stood firmly against the Roman version, battling tooth and nail for ultimate supremacy, that issue being eventually settled at the Synod of Whitby in 664 with Rome being the victor.

Who knows, perhaps Columba, a lover of herbs, specially St. John’s Wort, followed too many Pagan practices, maybe even believing in faeries, and his writings were wilfully destroyed by the powers that be in Rome.

This brings me to another man, a man of our time.

Dr. Brian Lacey relaxes at his rural west Donegal home in the shadow of Errigal mountain.

Lively septuagenarian, author, archaeologist and historian, Brian Lacey is an exceptional dinner guest. A fine raconteur with quirky views of the world, he’s a man at ease with laughter and story-telling.

And he has just penned his latest book, on a spin-doctor called Adomnán (or Eunan) who single-handedly raised Columba’s name to ‘the High Heavens’ by inventing a series of mostly fictional or at the very least, highly-exaggerated, stories about the founder of Iona Monastery and the ‘miracles’ he supposedly performed.

Rather than it being a selfless literary endeavour, Adomnán’s reasons for writing his book were directly linked to both politics and money. In raising the profile of Columba, he also raised the public profile of the community of monks on Iona that he presided over 100 years after its founder had passed on, thus no doubt encouraging new recruits to sign up and more money donated to the monastery’s coffers.

Meeting the man himself, academic celebrity par excellence.

Some in Ireland might use local slang and call Adomnán ‘a cute hoor,’ loosely translated as ‘a shrewd scoundrel, especially in business or politics.’ Probably he was, but he also achieved much more, as you can see from the article below I wrote for the ‘Donegal News’ recently.

New Book On Columba’s Spin-doctor 

By Sean Hillen

Hemmed in by mountains in Dunlewey near the Poisoned Glen under the shadow of Errigal, one might think Dr. Brian Lacey has taken on the life of a hermit.

Far from it.

Instead, the gregarious 72-year-old regales visitors with colourful tales from bygone days with the natural gift of a seanchaí, explaining the complexities of early medieval life in an easy, entertaining manner.

That, and his vast experience as author, historian and archaeologist, has made him one of the most popular speakers on the life of Columba (Colmcille), the famed monk born yesterday (June 9) 1500 years ago.

Brian’s latest book, one of 15 he has penned, is of particular interest to scholars as the first written in over 1,000 years about a key 7th century figure called Adomnán, who was responsible for launching Columba into the forefront of popular folklore.

‘Without him, Columba could well have been simply a tiny blip on the radar screen of history,” said Brian, whose book entitled Adomnán, Adhamhnán, Eunan: Life and Afterlife published by Four Courts Press was launched during the recent American Conference for Irish Studies. “Adomnán wrote Vita Columbae, (Life of Columba) over a hundred years after Columba’s death in 597 AD and in doing so ‘made’ him into the saint later generations would celebrate.”

The Vita is in three sections – Columba’s alleged ‘miraculous’ powers,’ his ‘prophetic foreknowledge’ and his ‘angelic visions.’ While Brian admires Adomnán for his life’s achievements, he acknowledges he was, “an astute spin-doctor pushing his own Christian agenda.”

“If I met him, I would share few of the same beliefs, most particularly his religious views, but I certainly acknowledge his accomplishments and skill,” he said about the 9th abbot of Iona in Scotland where Columba established his community. “He probably ignored any evidence that cast Columba in a bad light. Instead of a biography he compiled a work of hagiography to extol his spirituality. He also voiced his own political convictions and raised the prestige of the monastic federation – the Familia Columbae – over which he was leader.”

He adds that Adomnán, who was probably born close to Raphoe and studied at Drumhome monastery in south Donegal, even had Columba ‘ordain’ Áedán mac Gabráin, King of Dál Riata, reputedly the earliest recorded instance in European history of the Christian inauguration of a king. “The story fitted Adomnán’s belief in an ideal Christian kingship established in Ireland and Britain,” said Brian.

Brian praises Adomnán for having many ‘firsts.’ 

“He was first to draft a law – Lex Innocentium – for the protection of noncombatants in war, a precursor of the Geneva Convention,” he said. “He also wrote the oldest surviving ‘guide-book’ from western Europe about the Holy Land, De Locis Sanctis, (Concerning Sacred Places), including famous buildings, structures and relics. In it, he also introduced to the English a character who would later become their patron saint – Saint George.”

Brian also said Adomnán was the first to write about the Lough Ness monster, which makes its appearance in the Vita when Columba sees people burying a man savaged by ‘a water beast.’ Adomnán also gained fame as a hostage negotiator, helping free 80 prisoners held by the King of Northumbria.

Flying  high

Eldest of nine children and son of a train driver in Donnybrook, history was not Brian’s first career choice. Before the academic bug hit, he worked in air traffic control in Dublin and Shannon, earning around eight pounds a week, before leaving for Brussels and Paris.

But investigating the past was a pet passion and he soon left the security of the skies and hit the ground running, studying early and medieval Irish history at UCD, becoming a lecturer at Magee College in Derry in the mid-1970s. Brian later led a team of 35 people on a one-year archaeological survey of Donegal, the first project of its kind in Ireland. “This brought us to almost every field in the county,” he recalls fondly. “Four thousand sites, including an Iron Age barracks near the Barnesmore Gap and over two thousand sites dated before 1700 AD.” That project, completed in 1983, helped Brian become head of Derry City Council’s Heritage and Museum Service and director of the Dublin-based Discovery Programme. 

In his pursuit of truth in history, Brian is not averse to controversy. He considers the Christian tale involving saints Colmcille, Fionán, Dubthach and Begley at Cnoc na Naomh (Hill of the Saints) at Machaire Rabhartaigh deciding by tossing their croziers who should convert Tory islanders, to be rooted in Paganism. “This story emerged out of the cult of Lugh and his spear. Adoration of Lugh was widespread through Europe, but the Romans, then Christianity, killed that belief.” 

Having already written an earlier book entitled ‘Saint Columba His Life and Legacy,’ Brian is something of an academic celebrity at many events linked to Columba throughout this special commemoration year.

Published in the ‘Donegal News’

If you want to know more about skulduggery disguised as religion and furious political struggles between Celtic Christians and their Roman counterparts, read the excellent series of Sister Fidelma novels by Peter Tremayne (pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis, historian, literary biographer and novelist). 

Fidelma is a ‘dálaigh’ or judge in ancient Ireland, a sexy red-haired female version of Sherlock Holmes in a habit.

Intrigued by the reputation of this early Irish mystic monk known as Columba, I decided as a travel writer to head for Iona, the Scottish island where he established his community of like-minded people. Here’s what I found after landing on a little stony pier after taking the ferry from Mull last autumn, a massive, treacherous sea crossing that took all of five minutes.

Click on the photo to read the story

Love boat sets sail again

With its clear water, impressive sea arches, interesting monuments and meandering stone pathways leading to a rustic cafe-cum-information centre, Gola Island is an idyllic, picture-book getaway from the hustle and bustle of modern life.

And if it wasn’t for Captain Sabba Curran and his daily ferry service, few people would be able to enjoy this west Donegal island’s rugged beauty.

C

Many’s the time, stiff from sitting on a chair in front of a computer, I’ve jumped in my car and driven the ten minutes from my home on the slopes of Bloody Foreland towards Magheragallon Pier near the Gweedore Golf Course to catch Sabba’s regular crossings, greeting an old acquaintance on board or meeting a new friend ‘up from the country’ or from another country altogether.

After a short hike and a refreshing seawater swim if the notion takes me, I head to the Uncrowned King of the Island, Eddie McGee, sup an cupán tae and enjoy his lively raconteurship at one of the outside cafe tables overlooking the back pier near the toppled stones of the old schoolhouse. 

So enamoured am I of the island and its quiet, unassuming personality, I included it as a key location in my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly.

In honor of Sabba, Eddie and the beauty of the island, I penned this short news story for the ‘Donegal News’ this week.   

People welcomed the re-launch of the ferryboat service to Gola Island this week following easing of Covid restrictions, with some hailing it as a major boost for tourism.

Captain Sabba Curran, 58, from Dore, began the Gola Island Ferry Service five years ago after he purchased and renovated a 38-foot, 300-horsepower Aquastar, named ‘The Cricket’ (also known as ‘The Love Boat’) with 12-passenger capacity.

“There was a great need for a regular ferry service and as I have a strong interest in boats it was a good match,” said Sabba, who operates his service every day until September, leaving from Magheragallon Pier beside Gweedore Golf Club. “I’m delighted how things have gone so far though I encourage the county council to recognise the island’s tourism potential. It’s been twenty years since the council maintained the roads and the island has only one Portaloo. More are needed, as visitor numbers have increased.”

In addition to individual sightseers, Sabba caters to school groups, as well as hikers, rock-climbers, paddle-surfers, and those attending the island’s festival. Estimates vary but at least several thousand people, including visitors from the US, France and Germany, go to Gola every year. Among island highlights are old schoolhouse ruins, sea arches and monuments to victims of 9/11 and local people aboard the Asgard, used in a gun-running operation for Irish Volunteers in 1914.

Sabba provides other services to the council including transporting the island’s only Portaloo twice a week to the mainland for cleaning. He also brings leftover rubbish to a skip on Magheragallon Pier, thus keeping the island tidy. 

Margo and Paul McGinn from Rathcoffey, Kildare, often travel to west Donegal for holidays. “The Gaeltacht region offers some of the best scenery in Ireland, with Gola, ten minutes by ferry from the mainland, a jewel in the crown,” said Margo. “I like seawater swimming and the island has some of the clearest water I’ve ever been in, as well as sandy beaches. We’ve also enjoyed hiking there and have been rewarded with wonderful views. As a tourism destination, it’s greatly underrated.”

Added Eddie McGee, who manages an island information center-cum-cafe, “It’s great the ferry is back running again. Gola is becoming better known, with many Irish people coming for the first time after Covid prevented them travelling abroad.”

Local Sinn Fein Councillor John Seamais O’Fearraigh said, “without the ferry service, the island wouldn’t have developed as it has over the last few years. I will be pushing the council to fund better amenities to support this. I expected road funding this year but it went to three other islands.”

New writing competition – almost 3,000 euro worth of awards

If you like writing, please take note – a new competition in northwestern Ireland offers around 3,000 euro worth of awards, for just 500 words.

With the coronavirus outbreak forcing many of us to stay home, Donegal-based ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ at which I am co-founder and tutor, decided this was a good time to launch its first-ever competition, with key prizes for winners.

Welcome to the inaugural ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards’ (WAWA), a competition that we hope will provide challenge, diversion and enjoyment for you as a wordsmith in the strange times we live in right now.

After much brainstorming, it was decided the competition should reflect the nature of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ itself and what it has focused on over the last five years of operation.

The conclusion: not one, but two, separate competitions: fiction and creative nonfiction.

woman in gray sweater sitting on wooden floor typing on portable computer

Photo by bongkarn thanyakij on Pexels.com

Flash Fiction Award

The fiction writing competition is open to all genres – sci-fi, crime, romance, horror, humor, thriller, mystery, whatever tickles you and your Muse’s fancy. And it is in the form of flash fiction, a field growing rapidly in popularity.

To add spice to the idea, there is a single theme.

After many hours of debate, we realised the perfect one was staring us right in the face.

Writing itself.

In other words, upon reading competition entries, judges are left in no doubt that a key element in your story is linked in some way to writing itself. For example, one of the characters, human or non-human, could be a writer. Or a piece of writing could play a key role in the story. Let your imagination be your guide.

All you have to do is pen a flash fiction story in any style or genre focusing on the act of writing, in any way, shape or form, up to a maximum of 500 words.

PRIZE

The winning entry will receive 500 euro in cash.

And more.

An added bonus of 990 euro in value in the form of free participation* – including all excursions, by land and sea, food and drinks tastings, concerts and dance performances, and all writing workshops and author talks – at one of our retreats of your choice, either this autumn in either Paris or Donegal, or one of our retreats next year.

In effect, a total prize equal to almost 1,500 euro.

Plus, with the writer’s permission, the winning entry will be published on the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ website, with short bio and photograph. The writer retains all copyright to her or his work.

sad elderly man writing on brown notebook

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Creative Nonfiction Award

As for our creative nonfiction competition, we offer you a similar challenge.

To write a story of not more than 500 words on any subject – whether it be in the form of memoir, profile, literary journalism, personal essay, travel (and remember, award-winning travel articles don’t have to be about exotic destinations, it could be about your own hometown), food, or any creative nonfiction category you prefer.

PRIZE

The winner will receive 500 euro in cash.

And more.

An added bonus of 990 euro in value in the form of free participation* – including all excursions, by land and sea, food and drinks tastings, concerts and dance performances, and all writing workshops and author talks – at one of our retreats of your choice, either this autumn in either Paris or Donegal, or one of our retreats next year.

In effect, a total prize equal to almost 1,500 euro.

Again, with the writer’s permission, the winning entry will be published on the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ website, with short bio and photograph. The writer retains all copyrights to her or his work.

Grab this golden opportunity to unleash your creative abilities during this period of restrictive ‘social distancing’ and emerge a happy winner.

Enter now the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards.

*See full terms and conditions.

New Irish Government was decided BEFORE the elections

Weeks before the recent Irish election was even announced and long before the first votes were cast, representatives of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael met behind closed doors to cut a deal, with one solitary aim in mind – to keep Sinn Fein out of government.

At the same time, generously funded by major corporations, banks and developers, highly-paid public relations specialists in the pockets of these two same political parties were instructed to create what’s known as a ‘news camouflage.’

To avoid any fall-out from someone learning about these secret meetings, they spun a story through a web of overly acquiescent Irish media that these two political parties would instead discuss forming a coalition with other minor parties.

irish elections, elections in ireland

Coalition terms were discussed on behalf of these two men by their representatives BEFORE the Irish election was even announced.

It is a well-planned and co-ordinated charade to create a facade of democratic fairness.

Among those most wanting Sinn Fein side-lined at all costs was Jim O’Callaghan, wealthy Dublin barrister, senior counsel and Fianna Fail’s justice minister, a man who only managed to get elected on the eighth (8th) count, beaten by Sinn Fein candidate, Chris Andrews.

O’Callaghan is brother of millionairess and RTE presenter Miriam O’Callaghan who infamously grilled Sinn Fein leader, Mary Lou McDonald, on a pre-election ‘Leader’s TV Debate’ on – guess what – justice issues.

In doing so, she used an archaic 13-year-old audio report excavated from deep within the archives of the BBC as a weapon. It may come as no surprise to many whom Miriam’s husband, Steve, works for.

Yes, you guessed right. The BBC.

The O’Callaghans, like many wealthy people in Ireland today, would be required to pay a little more in taxes under a Sinn Fein led government, with loose tax avoidance loopholes used by many rich people closed. These taxes would help close the gap between rich and poor and ease the housing, health and education crises mainly affecting working-class people.

Reflecting growing popular interest in the economic inequalities in Ireland, a blog I wrote before the elections on the O’Callaghans attracted a massive 20,348 views from readers in just one week. More than 2,000 readers every single day.

 That being said, here is my prediction.

Within the next two weeks – after demonising Sinn Fein as a ‘cult’ through a slick and expensive media campaign (thus demonising half a million Irish people who voted for that party), Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will announce a new Centre Right government.

The word ‘change’ will be sprinkled liberally throughout their joint manifesto and media interviews and they will announce they ‘have put aside their differences —- in the interests of the country,’ thus positioning themselves as some kind of ‘national saviours.’ 

Sinn Fein President, Mary Lou McDonald, won more votes for Prime Minister than both existing PM Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin.

I predict this development with sadness, but with confidence gleaned from 40 years of journalism experience in Ireland, the US and mainland Europe. 

And on this election issue, I’ve got things right so far.

I predicted Sinn Fein would get more than 30 seats.

I predicted the five politicians who would be elected in my own constituency of Donegal

I predicted Pat the Cope Gallagher, a Fianna Fail member of parliament for 40 years, a man with whom I had a public run-in would lose his seat, with many people telling me such a prediction was like Manchester United being relegated from the Premiership.

With the Cheltenham races coming up, perhaps I should make a few big bets for I even predicted the following two weeks ago in my blog –

“… on voting day tomorrow (Saturday), will the final outcome be any different from that over the last 100 years? Sadly, regardless of Sinn Fein receiving a well-deserved boost, hopefully above the 30 mark, I don’t think so.

If past results are anything to go by, we will remain with a Centre Right majority that kowtows to wealthy individuals, major corporations, banks, vulture funds and major land developers offering tax breaks and other incentives. A coalition that steadfastly fails to rectify the growing, severe inequalities in social life here.”

The truth is simple. Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin wants to be Taoiseach, Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar still wants to be in Government. And they both need to pay back their rich sponsors, both individuals and corporations.

Such was the huge turnout for this week’s Sinn Fein public meeting at Dublin’s Liberty Hall, site of many famous events hosted by socialist leaders such as 1916 Revolution leader James Connolly, people were addressed both inside and outside the Hall.

As they prepare to announce their Government, it is important to point out the following for context: 

*Sinn Fein elected 37 TD’s, out of 42 candidates;

*10 Sinn Fein candidates topped the polls;

*27 Sinn Fein candidates were elected in the first count.

*Sinn Fein doubled their vote in Dublin;

*Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald won more votes last week for Prime Minister than both the present PM Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin; 

*Sinn Fein’s Dublin West candidate, Paul Donnelly, elected in the first count, beat Leo Varadkar, who only got elected in the fifth count, the first time in Irish history a Prime Minister has lost his own constituency;

* Sinn Fein candidates in my constituency, Donegal, were both elected on first counts – Pearse Doherty with 21,044 votes, 8,000 over the quota, and Pádraig MacLochlainn, with 13,891 votes, a massive 45% of the total vote;

*Sinn Fein’s candidate in Clare Violet-Anne Wynne who received just 385 in the local elections, won over 10,000 votes in the national ones;

*Sinn Fein candidate Johnny Mythen won in Wexford, the first time in 100 years the party has won a seat there;

*Sinn Fein won 45,614 votes, a mere 2.5% of the total in the 1997 election. In 2020, that transformed into 535,595 or 24.5%;

Is it any wonder the O’Callaghan’s and wealthy people like them are fearful.

And so sadly it seems are the Irish media which, displaying its Right-wing bias, has failed miserably to fulfil its role as the Fourth Estate, to serve and protect the public interest.

It refused to report on the emerging banking crisis under Fianna Fail’s watch that left Ireland bankrupt and at the mercy of the IMF and it is now refusing to report the real reasons Sinn Fein is being excluded from Government.

Gifted Donegal women host music concert for worthy cause

Death is rarely asked to sing.

But a group of immensely talented women Friday night at Amharclann theatre in the Donegal Gaeltacht invited it to join them – transforming it into a celebration of life, community spirit and artistic triumph.

Devoted to Fiona Carr, popular singer and dancer who fell victim to cancer at the young age of 30 and others like her who bid their last farewells under tender care at the Donegal Hospice, local performers known as the ‘Wild Atlantic Women’ gathered together for a heartfelt musical tribute.

wild atlantic women concert, live music donegal, donegal women singers

And what an uplifting evening it turned out to be.

Regardless of your favorite musical genre, this special concert seemed to have it all – soul and folk, traditional and country, the popular and the newly-penned.

Lead organiser, teacher-multi-instrumentalist-singer-cum-songwriter Brí (Brighdin) Carr with many local female musicians have already raised more than 15,000 euro for Donegal Hospice and the Oncology Department in Letterkenny University Hospital through such events and a double CD.

Few better ways to open such a concert than this admirable group of women together in harmony led by Emma Ní Fhioruisce, Maria McCormack and Bernie Doherty on the haunting folk ballad ‘Caledonia, the unofficial anthem of Scotland written by singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean.

And few better ways to end it than their touching interpretation of ‘Grace,’ written by Frank and Seán O’Meara, telling the tragic story of Grace Gifford who married Irish rebel leader Joseph Mary Plunkett, in Dublin’s notorious Kilmainham Gaol shortly before his execution by firing squad in 1916.

Between these songs, an appreciative audience enjoyed two hours of inspiring entertainment by women, young and old, who displayed remarkable vocal range and musical prowess, drawing a standing ovation for their efforts.

With so many highlights, it’s impossible to describe them all, but here’s a flavour of the evening –

Noeleen Ní Cholla, Gaoth Dobhair-based award-winning sean nos singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, whose angelic voice can be heard on her album ‘An Mhaighdean Mara,’ performed pitch-perfect the Irish-language version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ the ever-popular song written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. How she managed to reach those high notes is beyond me.

 

Glasgow-born singer, guitarist and lawyer, Jacqui Sharkey, with three albums already to her name, sang ‘Never Be The Sun’ by Donagh Long from Cork. Recorded with her friend and fellow singer Caitlin Murtagh from county Down, and produced by Pat Gallagher of ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ fame who also plays guitar backing. This song will be officially released on February 28 and a video aired on Sky TV this week.

On keyboards, Brí Carr, who founded Blue Ribbon, a performing arts group for children, sang a song she wrote, simply entitled ‘Home,’ as well as a duet with Claire Ward called ‘Second Violin,’ by Irish band, Bagatelle, one Fiona Carr herself recorded aged 14 for Blue Ribbon.

‘H.o.m.e,’ Brí’s next album will be released in May. Her song, ‘Árainn Mhór,’ was the first iTunes chart song as Gaeilge in the Top 200 in Ireland, peaking at number 3. Bubbly Brí, who keeps a ‘big blue book’ of songs she has composed over the past 25 years, also participated in ‘South Of The Border’ festival in Ardara this past weekend. Her first album, ‘Full Circle/Rotha an tSaoil,’ is on iTunes and Spotify. Bernie Doherty sang a beautiful rendition of the wistful ballad, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ by English folk-rock singer Sandy Denny. Bernie is now involved in the formation of the ‘Choir of Ages’ its members ranging in age from 5 to 80.

Accomplished pianist and keyboardist, Kelli Nic Ruaidhri,  from Fanad who teaches in Ballinamore and supported many of the songs on the evening, also sang ‘Sanctuary,’ which she translated into ‘Beidh mé Ann.’

 

Maria Mc Cormack’s contributed to the evening’s success with a song about her own personal experience of lost love. Entitled ‘Stratford to Stansted,’ about someone moving away to London for work, it will feature on her second album, her first being, ‘I Choose To Love.’ Aside from gigs this year in Slane (Purple Sessions), Drogheda (Fireside Festival), and even a St. Patrick’s Day festival in Germany, Maria will also play at the Letterkenny Jazz and Blues Festival on July 4th Maria has set up a fundit page to help support her upcoming recording.

Looking like a sultry Marilyn Monroe in black silk on stage, Rachel Akkoç, actress, singer and member of the Letterkenny Musical Society, transported listeners to a smoky uptown New York nightclub with her soft, seductive interpretation of soul song ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ from the musical ‘Hairspray.’

Highlighting the difficulty of ‘letting go,’ and having special meaning for me as my mother died last week, Clare Ward sang ‘Reflections’ in remembrance of her friend Manus Kelly, killed tragically last year in the Donegal International Car Rally. Claire’s album is called ‘Bite the Bullet,’ an eclectic mix of folk, Celtic and easy rock music. Recent solo recordings include ‘Eye of the Storm,’ and ‘Remember,’ about a friend’s journey with Alzheimer’s.

Last but certainly not least were what could best be described as ‘the Little (Wild Atlantic) Women’ – girls, aged six and upwards, namely Caela Carr, Siofra Harvey, Clodagh Mooney, Mia Clarke, and Hannah NicPhaidín, all award-winning singers and musicians. They drew enthusiastic applause from the audience with a rousing medley that included ‘I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me,’ ‘Rós na Seirce,’ “Christmas Letter,’ ‘Fear a’Bhata,’ ‘Angels Among Us,’ ‘Liom Féin’ and finally, ‘Home To Donegal.’

Other excellent singers included –

Trish Rodgers, whose albums include ‘This Is My Island,’ ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘The Gold Collection’ – singing, ‘Donal Óg.’

Deirdre Bonner, whose albums include ‘Remember When’ and ‘Atlantic Bridges’ – singing, ‘Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies.’

Maria McCool, whose albums include ‘Ailleog, ‘Doagh and ‘Shenandoah’ – singing ‘Teddy O’Neill.’

Gearóidín Breathnach, a leading sean-nós singer, whose album is ‘Ar Fhoscadh na gCnoc‘ – singing ‘Anseo I lár an ghleanna.’

and the velvety-voiced Emma Ní fhioruisce from Gaoth Dobhair – singing ‘Ar Ais go Gaoth Dobhair.’

 

Kudos to Áine Ní Churrain (Barrscéalta Raidio na Gaeltachta) and Karen Gallinagh (Speech and Drama Federation Ireland) who acted as excellent MCs and to Serenity Hair & Beauty Salon Gweedore which donated a 200 euro voucher to a lucky raffle winner.

Appreciation poured in for the artists –

A great night had by all at the Valentine’s night concert by the ‘Wild Atlantic Women.’ We had a fantastic time. Such a talented group of singers and for such a worthy cause as the Donegal Hospice.” Simon Smith, Letterkenny, professor of nursing.

wild atlantic women, live music donegal,

Friends obviously having a good time at Amharclann.

I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Wild Atlantic Women’ concert in the Amharclann, Gaoth Dobhair. It was an eclectic mix of musical genres, excellent song-writing and inventive reworking of older songs. A great night’s entertainment.” David McNally, librarian and researcher.

A great mix of talents, and all age groups, both languages, and the modern and the traditional. Agus neart craic! I particularly enjoyed the translated songs such as Maria Nic Cumhaill’s ‘Grace’ and Noleen Ní Cholla’s ‘Thar an Tuar Ceatha’(Somewhere Over The Rainbow). Given the night that was in it, we had love-songs and songs of unrequited love such as the haunting and ancient Dónal Óg, Thíos i Lár a’Ghleanna and a new song about love lost to modern day emigration.
Well done ‘Young and Tender Ladies’ of Donegal (one of ballads sung on the night) for sharing St Valentine’s evening and helping an important cause. Having the CD, I can now enjoy it all again.
Reuben Ó Conluain, retired teacher Dún Laoghaire and Machaire Rabhartaigh

Sabba Curran, gola boat ferry, gola island ferry

Sabba and Patricia Curran getting settled for an evening of music and song.

A wonderful night of entertainment, so many talented singers and musicians on stage at one time. Truly memorable.” Sabba Curran, Captain of ‘The Cricket,’ Gola Island ferryboat.

Festive tribute to the creative, artistic people of Donegal

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

Ask director-cum-teacher Máire Ioannidis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helluva commotion going on in Donegal over lovable little oysters

Oysters, those soft, jelly-like little creatures that are (to some people) delicious to eat and ingeniously produce glittering pearls, are causing some bother in Ireland, especially in Donegal – or at least the greedy corporations hunting them for profit are.

And it seems the partnership government of Fine Gael-Fianna Fail and its back-up civil service are doing their utmost to prevent concerned local communities from doing anything about it.

Sitting at a public meeting this week at Falcarragh Community Centre focusing on these issues, these were the thoughts that passed through my mind as I listened to speaker after speaker give their views on controversial shellfish farming practices at Ballyness Bay near the town of Falcarragh on the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ in the Donegal Gaeltacht they consider are polluting and defacing the lovely, pristine scenery.

John Conaghan, spokesperson for the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee, said four jobs would be created through aquaculture while more than 250 would be created via tourism, therefore “we should be protecting our area environmentally.” He also complained his committee had been denied inaccessibility to certain details, sometimes entire documents, pertaining to official comments made by both Donegal County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

“An official comment from Donegal County Council stated that there would be no visual impact, but the document was simply signed by a clerk,” he said. “I’ve spoken to many councillors and nobody seems to know who authorized the comments. No visual impact? Maybe, lads, you should go to Specsavers.”

Politician after politician, both local and national, including TDs, Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty and Fianna Fail’s Pat the Cope Gallagher, told around 200 concerned people that they were unable to access key information relevant to the situation.

John Shéamais Ó Fearraigh Sinn Fein local councillor and Údarás na Gaeltachta board member said he would try with whatever powers he had to obtain the information required from the council and the Irish language organization. “I will do whatever I can to help,” he said.

Fine Gael local councillor, Michael McClafferty, said he had submitted questions to the local council but had not received any answers. “It looks as if we are being thrown under the bus,” he added.

The proposed shellfish scheme could cover more than 46 hectares of sea coast in the scenic Gaeltacht region, with bags on steel trestles containing millions of oysters, with sediment accumulation beneath them and large-scale congregation of dead shells, committee members said. Licenses for 20 hectares of oyster beds have already been granted, with one site alone being over 10 hectares.

Committee member, Caitlin Ni Bhroin, said “no cost-benefit analysis has been produced for us to see” and licenses have been granted on “unsound scientific criteria, including the idea that oysters are healthy water filters, but they actually emit waste.”

Conaghan said there were many contradictions in the government’s approach. “While it granted licenses for shellfish farming, Ballyness Bay is not designated a shellfish area, but it is a special area of conservation.” He said Inland Fisheries Ireland declared the bay a valuable fishing asset.

“We are against all oyster harvesting in Ballyness Bay, such activity will damage eco-tourism, which could bring much-needed jobs,” he said. “Gaps, mistakes and assumptions sums up the government’s approach. If community concerns had been addressed properly, we’d not be standing here talking.”

He said the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee was being assisted by Belfast-based Pat Finucane Centre.

Commending the committee on its efforts, Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty stated clearly, “My firm belief is that this scheme is anti-community and the application process is not fit for purpose, they are not being given properly and there is a lack of clarity.” He said three years ago he had sent a letter to the relevant ministry and department questioning the decision process, adding “construction cannot begin until all appeals have been heard, which could take several years.”

Being a long time, staunch member of Fianna Fail, part the ‘partnership government,’ Pat the Cope Gallagher, was obviously in a bit of a conundrum. While he offered to find out more information and report back to committee members, he went into a bit of a tantrum when I asked him to say ‘yes or no’ whether he agreed with the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee’s views.

Now, credit being given, Pat is a wily politician, that comes with being forty years and more in politics. Maybe I spoke harshly when I said that his spiel was (to quote myself) “pure politics, filled with generalities and trivialities.” That he took offence was his right. That he tossed the microphone down (as someone said, “like a baby throwing out its dummy-tit”) is also his democratic right.

But he still didn’t answer my question.

Instead, he said previous situations had occurred near his home in Dungloe similar to the one at Ballyness but he “didn’t get involved in them,” but said he did pass on letters he had received from local people to the relevant minister.

At the meeting, two members of Aontú pledged their support, with one young member saying as the shellfish farms were adding to the carbon footprint, people had a right to know more.

Local resident, Mary Attenborough, said while a proper environmental impact study was required, so-called experts were all vetted by the government, and that bias might occur in their reporting.

Committee members were still unsure if licenses already granted were strictly non-transferrable.

One challenge facing the committee is the expense involved in appealing licenses. Each one must be appealed separately at a cost of 200 euro each, with a time limit for appeals being four weeks from date of the government’s decision on December 4.

Columbia Hillen, my wife who is from Romania but concerned about the environment, stood up and asked if those local people who had applied for licenses would show support for the local committee by refusing to accept them even if they were granted. None of those applicants in the hall – and there were some present – said anything. One of the applicants, Seamus O’ Donnell who owns Cluain Na d’Tor (Seaside Nursery Garden) in Falcarragh had gone as far as saying he is “having second thoughts” about his application for over 4.4 hectares of aquaculture if granted. But has he withdrawn his application?

For full information on all applications see HERE.

One speaker said Ballyness Bay was one of the best surfing areas, comparable to Hawaii and western Australia, creating strong tourism income. “Let’s try to keep it that way by not spoiling the scenery.”

Another speaker summed up feelings of many people present, “Governments that treat people with disdain, usually get their comeuppance.”

Sean Hillen is co-founder of Gaoth Dobhair based ‘Ireland Writing Retreat and author of the contemporary novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’  linking Donegal and the United States.

Journalism: a funny thing, sometimes

Sometimes it’s not writing about political showmanship and skullduggery or economic booms and busts that create good journalism.

Sometimes, it’s the simple quirks of everyday life that make for a good story.

You can imagine my delight in unearthing these two tales of near disaster in Donegal that end happily.

They give new meaning to the term ‘missing people.’

Missing boy (5) found safe – in a hot press on Gola Island

gola island donegal, donegal tourism, gaeltacht tourism,

He almost ‘missed the boat’ 

gaeltacht tourism, gola island, donegal tourism

 

Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rides high

I was delighted to write this feature piece for the ‘Donegal News’ recently supporting the hard-work, communal spirit and creativity of people in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and the Rosses in hosting their respective festivals.

For such a small rural area, often there are more diverse cultural activities – dance, theatre, sporting events, concerts, to be name but a few – than in major urban areas.

Delightfully, making choices as to which to attend can be the biggest challenge.

Sean Hillen Donegal gaeltacht, donegal gaeltacht,

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