Launch of suspense novel linking Ireland, the US and Romania attracts arts, business and diplomatic leaders

I’m now enjoying the satisfaction of a successful official launch last night in Dublin, designated European City of Literature, of ‘Pretty Ugly,’ a novel I ‘ve been working on for a number of years that links Donegal and Belfast with the US and Romania.

I’m even more delighted that the celebratory event brought together diverse leaders in business, arts and diplomacy including Tony Canavan, editor of Books Ireland, the foremost literary organization supporting publishing here; Richard Moat, CEO of national telecoms company, eir; and the Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu, who all gave short speeches, with much-appreciated compliments about my book.

A perfect complement to my readings was the rich voice and fine guitar-playing of well-known musician Pat Gallagher, lead singer of ‘Goats Don’t Shave,’ including a song he wrote inspired by the tradition of turf-cutting in Donegal, entitled ‘Turf Man Blues,’ which matched several dramatic scenes that take place in the ‘Pretty Ugly’ linked to the bogs of Donegal.

The book launch event at The Gutter Book Shop near Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre even included a fun ‘test tasting’ of the first whisky made in Donegal in over 100 years, ‘Silkie’ from the new Sliabh Liag Distillery. With Boston, New York, Washington and Kansas City playing location roles in ‘Pretty Ugly,’ it was terrific US Embassy representatives could come along, as well as members of the Donegal Association and the Arts Council, all obviously enjoying themselves.

Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu, Sean Hillen

Her Excellency Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu

With my working as a reporter and editor in print, television and radio journalism in the US and Europe for so many years, I was keen to point out that – while such experience didn’t qualify me to write a novel – basic rules do link journalism and creative writing, especially adherence to the five ‘Ws’ – who, what, why, where and when. Adding another ‘W’ – the ‘what-if’ factor – to the equation can help make for interesting ideas for novels, as happened with ‘Pretty Ugly,’ when I learned how many people had been injured by chemicals in cosmetics yet the law regulating them had not been changed since 1938.

Sean Hillen author book launch, Pretty Ugly book launch Dublin

I was also delighted to mention the annual June international ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ in Gaoth Dobhair and hopes that ‘Pretty Ugly’ and novels by other authors in Donegal could help kick-start the concept of ‘literary tourism’ in the county. Everyone agrees. Donegal deserves a much stronger tourism industry than it has right now, one dynamic enough to support local hotels, B&Bs, pubs, cafes. It’s my fervent belief that literary tourism can help achieve this – if Donegal County Council, Failte Ireland, Discover Ireland, and other relevant organizations would simply take note of the success of this concept in other countries, particularly the US.

Book launch Pretty Ugly Dublin, Sean Hillen author

Sometimes, tourism promotion in Donegal is so far behind the curve, it borders on tragedy, as many frustrated tour tourism operators in the aptly-named ‘Forgotten County’ keep telling me. Novels written by authors of all kinds can provide intriguing literary road-maps to places of interest for people who come to visit, an added dimension to any trip.

Pat Gallagher musician

Much of the drama in ‘Pretty Ugly,’ which pits an unlikely trio of a skin specialist, a celebrity model and an investigative journalist against the might of a rich and powerful corporation in the American cosmetic industry, with high-level political and media intrigue, features such Donegal locations as the Poison Glen, Errigal, Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) and Gola Island.

Sean Hillen book launch Dublin, best Irish books, best Irish writers

On the links between journalism and creative writing, I’m proud to have the chance to teach a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writing’ at this year’s upcoming writing retreat at Teac Jack in Glassagh.

Pat Gallagher, Tony Canavan, Sean Hillen

…with a hint of time-travel

In a rather bizarre turn of events with a hint of time-travel, fiction has predicted reality.

In my suspense novel, ‘Pretty Ugly’ released several weeks ago, a key scene depicts a lead character on a plane crossing the Atlantic reading a travel guide about the place to which he is going – the northwestern region of the ‘Forgotten County’ Donegal.

Pretty Ugly novel, Fodor's top experiences

Donegal Fodors guide, Sean Hillen Fodors guide

Fast-forward several weeks and Fodor’s, the world’s largest English-language publisher of tourism and travel information, owned by Penguin Random House, released an article by me on, yes, you’ve guessed it, the very same place – with excerpts from ‘Pretty Ugly’ introducing the article. See the full article below that was published several days ago.

Sean Hillen Fodors, Pretty Ugly novel

As Fodor’s has such a wide reach globally, I’m hoping this article helps bring more international guests – many of whom have never been to Ireland – to enjoy this beautiful and lesser-known part of Ireland’s coastline, strengthen the hospitality sector in the hard-hit Gaeltacht and create more jobs for local cafes, pubs, restaurants, hotels and B&Bs.

Lion-tamers, nude concert-goers, the Rolling Stones, one-clawed lobsters and terrific Irish music

How can small boxes of air that fit neatly between one’s hands create the haunting rhythm of a heartbeat, the roar of an angry sea and the chanting of cloistered monks at prayer?

Ask the talented, five-member ‘Irish Concertina Ensemble’ who captivated a packed audience earlier this week at Teach Hiudái Beag, a popular traditional music venue on the main street of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht (a region that features prominently in new suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ (Easons, Gallaghers/Matt Bonners Bunbeg, Amazon) and where the Irish Writing Retreat takes place every year).

Such wondrous music left me bemused about how such a rich diversity of melodies can emerge from such a tiny bellows-buttons-reed instrument. The ensemble, with members from different Irish counties, was one of many performances at this week’s ongoing annual ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ (Winter School) in Gaoth Dobhair (the festival continues right through Sunday, so buy your show tickets now).

Composed of Tim Collins, Padraig Rynne, Micheal O’Raghallaigh, Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Edel Fox – the musicians brought this popular, cozy pub to a hushed and appreciative silence. So exhilarated were affable pub manger and owner, also himself a fine musician, Hugh Gallagher, my wife, Columbia, myself and others, we gave them a hearty and well-deserved standing ovation.

Irish Concertina Ensemble, Scoil Gheimhridh

Boxes of air that produce mellifluous music.

Drawing on a wealth of melodies, some old, some new, some composed for other instruments such as the fiddle, flute and uilleann pipe, the group displayed the surprising and immense versatility of the concertina.

Not only were there versions of tunes by such iconic instrumentalists as Turlough O’Carolan, (1670–1738), a blind Irish harper and composer, but also their own compositions. Highlights among the latter were a series of mellifluous waltzes in honor of Kathy, a friend and admired social activist who died from cancer, and also a dreamy melody inspired by watching the sunrise with Oisin, the young child of one of the group members.

The opening night of the festival was a veritable cabaret of myriad talents at Ionad Cois Locha in memory of well-respected community and media leader, Seamus Mac Géidigh, broadcaster and manager of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta‘s northwest service in Donegal, who recently passed away.

Such is the interest in preserving local Irish heritage, fiddle player and teacher Róisín McGrory who is also co-founder of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project established in 1999 to preserve the music of the region, also performed at the festival.

Another highlight of this week’s festival and music school so far has been the double-bill of Carlow-based brothers Diarmuid and Brian Mac Gloinn who perform as ‘Ye Vagabonds’ and star fiddle-player and ‘Hobbit-lookalike’ Frankie Gavin, who played alongside bouzouki-mandolin player, Brendan O’Regan. The former, resembling young, bearded troubadours, moved effortlessly from ballad to toe-tapping melodies, from the ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ a soft air about a man lost at sea, which they learned from Donegal-native Paddy Tunney, the same county their mother hails from – Arranmore Island – to a lively finale that included ‘The Lark In The Morning.’ They sang songs in both English and Irish.

While he strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of my heroes, the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the affable Gavin’s blinding bursts of speed reminded me more of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney,’ the character in the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name whose fiddle playing ‘made folks dance like a wave of the sea.’

Frankie Gavin, Brendan O’Regan, Donegal Irish music

(l to r) Frankie ‘Bilbo Baggins’ Gavin and Brendan ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan display their ample talents at Teac Jack.

To say Gavin’s bow tripped lightly over the strings would be a severe understatement. Skipping, dancing, somersaulting even, would be much more appropriate descriptions – from hornpipes and reels to jigs and highlands; from Donegal composition, ‘Strike the Gay Harp’ to ‘The Old Grey Goose;’ from tunes by well-known Irish musical ambassadors such as fiddler Tommy Peoples and music collector and uilleann pipe player, Séamus Ennis; to others learned from fellow musician, Dermot Byrne; and still others he performed previously with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in a ‘Jigs and Jazz’ show.

Gavin’s ludicrously fast fiddle-playing may have seemed eye-to brain-to-fingers neurologically impossible but when he picked up the flute he really put the emotional brakes on his packed audience at Teac Jack in Glassagh (which also features prominently in ‘Pretty Ugly‘), leaving them glassy-eyed with his version of the classic slow air, ‘Boolavogue,’ about Father John Murphy and the Wexford uprising during the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Not only, but the founder of the well-known group, DeDannan, is also a natural raconteur and effortlessly entertained his listeners with an assortment of jokes, ranging from lion-tamers to one-clawed lobsters. Alongside him, ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan displayed his musical virtuosity with a simply brilliant solo of his own competition on mandolin.

The festival’s energetic and committed organizers deserve great praise.

They include Conor Byrne, accomplished flute player who was mentored by west Belfast musician Frankie Kennedy (who tragically died from cancer at a young age and for whom the festival was originally named after); Cathal Ó Gallchóir, who is also manager of local community center, An Crannog in nearby Derrybeg, where varied activities ranging from yoga to Irish language and music classes take place; their excellent, friendly support team; and special guests such as fiddle player, music teacher and journalist, Martin McGinley, who opened the festival this year and who conducted a most interesting, light-hearted and insightful  afternoon interview with Gavin at PobalScoil Gaoth Dobhair (more on that, including naked Danish concert-goers and sessions with Jagger and Co. of The Rolling Stones in an enlarged festival review on World Itineraries later this weekend).

Scoil Gheimridh, Irish music festivals, live Irish music

Cathal Ó Gallchóir introduces festival musical performers.

‘Scoil Gheimridh’ has now rightly become a prominent feature of national Irish cultural life. Students and teachers, men and women, schoolchildren and retirees, both national and international, lovers of instruments ranging from the bodhrán, an Irish hand drum, to fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina and even traditional sean-nós singing and dancing, gather every year in this beautiful north-western region known as the ‘Forgotten County’ to attend classes taught by leading musicians and to enjoy the many concerts and seisún.

Here, in this most northerly region of Ireland, interest and pride in the native Irish language, Gaeilge, and the rich cultural heritage of their forebearers remains impressively strong, especially in the face of the fickleness and superficiality of modern-day life.

The festival ends this weekend with a concert tonight (Friday, 8.30pm) by Dublin four-piece band, Lynched, at Teac Jack; an exhuberant New Year’s Eve celebration at Club CLG Gaoth Dobhair with Kerry-based Polca4 and local band, An Crann Óg; and two seisiún mór (big informal music/dance sessions) at Teach Hiúdaí Beag Saturday and Sunday, plus the classes.

Sponsors of the annual winter school include The Arts Council of Ireland.

A sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.’ (Clement Clarke Moore)

As winds howl around me and rain rattles my window panes like the chattering of false teeth, I recall this sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story…

Prominent politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness on the Irish national stage gets stuck on a knife-edge. Someone with access to key information can prove he falsified expenses on the back of the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow’ citizen, both as a board member of Irish-language body, Údarás na Gaeltachta, and Donegal County Council.

Concerned about the effects on its chances of returning to Power if things get sour, spin doctors at his political party’s Dublin head office get involved. Politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness also calls in his own local cronies, most from the west Donegal Gaeltacht area – well-paid fellows in silk suits, some of whom made financial hay on the back of his and his party’s long-term, some say overly-long, stay in power.

Christmas story Donegal, politicians in Donegal

Money, money – who says I’m interested in money?

They say ‘deny, deny,’ which said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness does. He’s hoping the custodians of the county council and the national Irish-language body – many of whose top brass owe their own cushy, well-paid admin jobs, expenses and pensions to his own political party – will sit on it like dementia-suffering chickens, and do nothing.

But the evidence is much too solid, and from a respected and knowledgeable insider too, comprising definitive documents that prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the culpability of said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness.

Also, hushed voices are alleged to whisper in the Corridors of Power, ‘there’s so much more that could easily come to light and make donkeys of us all.

Aforesaid local top brass know they must do what’s unavoidable. Otherwise their own jobs, generous expenses and pensions could be on the line. So, faced with no alternative, they bring the allegations – rather reluctantly – to the attention of the relevant authorities, hoping it will all go away and they can return undisturbed to their comfy desks, genteel lifestyles and holiday homes on the Spanish coast.

But that doesn’t happen.

An investigation begins by the six-member, national Standards in Public Office (SIPO) chaired by an experienced, former High Court Judge.

corruption in Donegal, what's on in Donegal

Now let me think: two places at the same time. Mmmmm, surely it must be possible. Anyway, who’s lookin’?

Re-enter stage left the local and national spin-doctors-cum-advisors to said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness. Okay, not ‘deny, deny,’ but ‘delay, delay.’ Until it all blows over and our All-Consuming Party climbs back on to its Rightful Throne. ‘Knowing the fickleness of the average dumb, thick-as-shite, Irish voter, that’s inevitable,’ they say, ‘quicker than you can slip a brown envelope into a pocket.’ Then we can blow this under the carpet as we have done with much more serious stuff in the past.’

But national elections come around. And, lo and behold, the hoped-for Dramatic Return to Power, which they feel is theirs by Right, they being the ‘Soldiers of Destiny,’ doesn’t happen.

The battle cry, as per the silk-suited, well-heeled advisers and cronies, then becomes not ‘deny, deny’ or even ‘delay, delay’ but that bastion of Irish patriotism. The one, they feel, will blind the thick-as-shite voters to the insignificant wrongs of falsifying expenses and screwing the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick Joe O’Blow.

The sacred language. The language of Pearse, Plunkett and Wolfe Tone.

Let’s tell them, by George: ‘We want any investigation to be conducted in our native language, as Gaeilge, le do thoil. If not, we’ll not recognize this court.’ Quite ironic, as the comprehensive falsifying of expenses, by all accounts, was done in the dignified language of the Royal British Crown.

And so it’s done.

And so the cost continues to rise…and rise…and rise even more.

Finally, the rather inevitable conclusion was reached, just last week after around two years of delay: politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness has indeed screwed over the average thick-as-shite Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow.’ Regardless of our rapid technological development, it seems it’s still impossible for a homo sapien to be in two separate physical places at the very same time.

But guess what?

poverty in Donegal, Senator O'Donnel Donegal

Hey Mister, Merry Christmas, can ye spare a penny cos the politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness stole all our parents’ money?

Instead of costing the average Seamus/Sean/Patrick thick-as-shite ‘Joe O’Blow’ a couple of thousand euro, it costs, wait for it – with lawyers’ fees, documents, photocopying, translation costs, administrators and secretarial overtime etc – a whopping 350,000 euro.

To put this sum in perspective, this is the equivalent of around 12,000 (that’s twelve thousand) round-trip airfares on flybe for cancer patients from Donegal’s Carrickfinn Airport for specialist treatment in Dublin.

Yet, even sadder, so unimportant and insignificant is scarce public money, both Donegal county council and Údarás na Gaeltachta have just announced they’re not going to ask for the money back from said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness.

Now isn’t that a sad and pathetic Christmas story?

But know what the even sadder thing is?

Said politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness continues to be paid out of Seamus/Sean/Patrick ‘Joe O’Blow’s’ thick-as-shite’ pocket. In fact, between 2011 and 2015, said politician was among the top ten most expensive Senators in the entire Irish nation – 409,183.06 euro to be exact in salaries and expenses. That’s about a 100,000 euro a year. Did you ever earn that figure?

As for the party of our politician-on-the-cusp-of-greatness. Fianna Fail by name. Beset by ever-increasing, power-hungry pains and after spending a great deal of time, effort and money defending ‘Their Man’ and spinning the truth, they – in their instantaneous wisdom – cut him loose. Snip. You can always come back another day, they say, the Seamus/Sean/Patrick thick-as-shite-Irish-voter suffers genetically from short-term memory problems, so we’re all okay, in it together, if you know what I mean.

Now, you tell me. Who’s the real loser in this sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story?

Donegal politicians, Fiana Foil Donegal

Yeah, it’s pretty bad. We ain’t got no shoes or socks. Where did the money for them go anyway, you ask? Well, it’s a sad, rather pathetic, Christmas story…


If you’re interested in political and corporate corruption in a suspense novel linking Donegal to the US, read newly-published ‘Pretty Ugly.’ Can be purchased direct from Amazon, in eBook or print form, or in Donegal from Gallaghers or Matt Bonners Bunbeg, or Easons Letterkenny.

 

Grassroots initiative promotes men’s health and well-being

Few things deserve greater praise than a community-led initiative that helps increase the quality of life of its members – thus the Men’s Sheds concept.

Started only five years ago, the idea has enjoyed phenomenal growth with more than 350 such sheds throughout Ireland already with an amazing 10,000 people attending activities every week, and a growth rate of 1.5 sheds per week. Donegal alone has 10 sheds.

What’s the aim? A simple, yet admirable one – improving members’ mental and physical health through diverse activities.

See article below I wrote for this week’s edition of the ‘Donegal News.’ It contains a couple of Donegal contacts for those interested in finding out more.

Making Lives Better in the Shed

Many men throughout Donegal travelled to Belfast this past weekend for the biggest international gathering of ‘Men’s Shed’ members with the goal of developing diverse activities and closer links with each other to help improve members’ physical and mental health.

Embracing the traditional concept that the garden shed has long served as a sanctuary for men, a place where they ease the everyday stresses of life, ‘Men’s Sheds’ are spaces where men meet and work together on diverse projects. Community-based and non-profit, they are open to all men who want to enjoy a safe, friendly and inclusive environment.

Sheds without Borders, Gaobh Dobhair Men’s Shed

Members of Gaobh Dobhair Men’s Shed (Scioból na bFhear), Liam Ó Gógáin, Paul Treacy, Michael Coll, Dónal Clancy and Austin O’Donnell, at Belfast international ‘Sheds without Borders’ conference.

Founded just five years ago, the Irish Men’s Sheds Association (IMSA) organized the Belfast event, entitled ‘Sheds without Borders,’ which was attended by several hundred people from countries such as Scotland, Wales, Australia and Ireland. The association has experienced phenomenal growth and now represents sheds both here and across the border with a rapidly-increasing membership of 350, with around 10,000 ‘shedders’ attending weekly. It is growing at a rate of 1.5 sheds per week. Membership is also expanding in Northern Ireland, with 44 sheds and around 1,000 attending weekly. Donegal now has about 10 sheds county-wide.

Reflecting on their growing popularity, Liam O’Gogain, a member of Gaobh Dobhair shed (Scioból na bFhear) in the local industrial estate who went to Belfast with several colleagues, said, “Worldwide, sheds have a proven positive mental health dividend for members countering feelings of isolation with a relaxed, community spirit and an opportunity to share your skills and learn new ones.” He said “increasing public awareness” about them was key, with the shed he attends meeting every Monday and Thursday evening 7-10 pm. Anyone interested can contact sciobolgaothdobhair@gmail.com or call Liam on Mobile 087 254 3997 for details.

Liam Ó Gógáin Donegal, Men's Sheds

Shedders enjoy a joke while converting a disused room into a tea-room using bits and pieces.

Enthused by the Belfast conference, O’Gogain said he heard, “endless stories from men of all ages about how their shed has transformed their lives, through friendship, conversation and simply having fun with projects,” which, he added, “creates effusive, natural companionship.”

Asked why Men’s Sheds’ are particularly important in Donegal, he added, “With the loss of the manufacturing jobs base here, Scioból na Bfhear, like other such sheds, provides a welcoming environment for men from every background from their mid-30s to their 80s, any age, to gather and work together through craic and collaboration.” As to the benefits of last weekend’s international event at Belfast City Hall, he said, “We made friends and contacts with other sheds in Donegal and throughout the country who offered information, ideas and support to fledgling sheds. Interesting talks ranged from mental health to adult learning.”

Back from Belfast and speaking about inclusiveness and easing social isolation, Gerry Connolly, chairperson of the Ballybofey-Stranorlar shed established last year, now with 30 members, said, “We started, in part, because may men here in the area suddenly became unemployed either out of illness or redundancy when the crash happened but we also have many retirees.” Members completely renovated and rewired a Portacabin for meetings, which is also used by other community groups, and will make ‘buddy benches’ for schools with the help of a skilled woodturner. Those wishing to know more can contact Gerry at Mobile 086 825 0550.

Shed activities nationwide range from boat-building to making ornamental crafts from wood such as candle-holders and toolboxes to simply playing pool or table-tennis and creating choral groups.

Good writing gives me goose-bumps

Having arrived in picturesque west Donegal – Bun na Leaca to be precise – over six years ago and recognizing it for the artists’ haven that it is, my wife, Columbia, and I thought about establishing a creative writers’ retreat.
After all, surely such a pristine and bucolic landscape could inspire great prose. 

Ireland Writing Retreat participants enjoy a special Celtic legend coastal walk with guide, Seamus Doohan.

Not that such an idea hadn’t been done before.  Poet partners, Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late departed husband, James, had done so many years previous, setting up a ‘Poet’s House’ in a refurbished cottage at Clonbarra, outside Falcarragh.

Then funding was more generous and tens of thousands of euro annually wasn’t much of a problem for Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council, Donegal County Council, LEADER, and other sources.
Times have changed, however, and the public funding pump is dripping slowly, a mere trickle at best. Seanie FitzPatrick and Co. and Fianna Fail made sure of that.

Rose Sweeney teaches future members of the ‘Riverdance’ cast the basic ‘sevens’ of Irish ceilidhe dancing.

County Librarian and Divisional Manager of Cultural Services, Eileen Burgess, a keen supporter of our idea, issued warnings: “It’s a wonderful project but there’s simply no money in the kitty. You’d pretty much be on your own.”

But you know how it is – an intriguing idea comes along, sticks to you like furze in a meadow and simply won’t fall away no matter how hard you try.
So, even though there are more than one hundred creative writing conferences and book festivals throughout Ireland – many in the much-publicized, tourist-centric counties of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kerry – we took the plunge.
After all, isn’t Donegal the prettiest of them all?

Washington-based triple book author and former CNN editor, John DeDakis, enjoys a leisurely trip on ‘The Cricket’ to Gola Island with other writing retreat participants.

Of course, wisdom told us to delay until better economic times were upon us. But passion drove us forward, screaming, ‘tempus fugit.’ We swayed for a while between the two.

We’re going into our third year now and have managed to attract participants from far off fields, many of whom had never been to Ireland before never mind the back-roads of the Donegal Gaeltacht – Wyoming, Sydney, Utah, Perth, Stoke-on-Trent, New Jersey to name but a few.
Not bad for a project without public funding of any kind.

Guest speakers at the Ireland Writing Retreat held at Teac Jack, Gaoth Dobhair. (l to r) Singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith; Mark Gregory, forensic editor; actor/director Murray Learmont.

Imagine where it could go with a bit of financial support – but perhaps only if it’s located in one of the aforementioned counties.

As for this year, international stars of the week-long retreat included John DeDakis, triple book author and former senior editor at CNN for 25 years who flew directly from Washington to be at Teac Jack’s, the retreat location; Anthony Quinn, experienced author of crime fiction with a crafty literary twist; and Mark Gregory, a much-heralded forensic editor (the person who reads book manuscripts minutely word by word, syllable by syllable).

Plot, character, suspense – (l to r) Authors John DeDakis and Anthony Quinn discuss the challenging task of writing novels.

But committed locals also loaned their weight enthusiastically to the endeavor – actor and drama group director, Murray Learmont, guided participants on improving their public reading skills; singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith granted insights into the challenging task of lyric writing; Rose Sweeney taught participants their ‘sevens’ in preparation for a ceilidhe in the backroom of the popular Glassagh venue; Pól Ó Muireasáin gave an enlightening tour of Gola Island; and Seamus Doohan led participants on a Celtic legend coastal walk – all of which was grist to the mill for writers’ creativity.

Eddie, the uncrowned King of Gola Island (in blue) with walking guide, Pol O’Muiresean, (r) talk about life on the west Donegal island many years ago.

The ‘Donegal News’ considered this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ which ended last week, worthy of an article in today’s edition.
article
Onward to 2016.
 

Giant green Easter bunnies roam the Hills of Donegal

Having to postpone their March 17 national day celebrations didn’t dampen the indomitable spirit of many people in Falcarragh this past weekend – they simply doubled up for Easter and held a bigger parade then. As a reward for such creativity and can-do attitude, the weather was immensely kind, with the rare sight of azure blue skies, a few fluffy white clouds and warm temperatures well into the teens.

Photo by Tony Hillen

Photo by Tony Hillen

So successful was the event, some say there’s now a move afoot to keep the ‘two-fer’ tradition alive – thus making the Donegal Gaeltacht town unique throughout Ireland by unifying twin celebrations in a single grand one. photo 2

Scouts have now been sent out to find a friendly green bunny that has been seen hopping around the area recently to be next year’s Parade Grand Marshall.

photo 4

So if you’re a Pantheist, a Christian or follow any other faith, whether you believe in the Pagan fertility Goddess Eastre (otherwise known as Easter, Eostur, Eastra, Eastur, Eostra or Eostre), Yeshua (otherwise known as Jesus Christ), Gautama Buddha, Muhammad, Horus, Brahma, Vishnu or Shiva or any other spiritual mentor you admire, then maybe Falcarragh is the place to be next year.

Photo by Tony Hillen

Photo by Tony Hillen

In the immortal words of the Almighty Long-Eared God of Disguise himself, “Eh, what’s up Doc? Don’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.” bunny

Colmcille: mysterious monk, mystic and mischief-maker

Though his name has become well known down through the centuries, nobody seems to know much about him – one of the reasons he has become a figure of legend.

But efforts are now underway to unmask the mysterious Irish monk known as Colmcille and in so doing create a special pilgrimage aka the Camino of Santiago de Compostela that could provide a much needed boost to the ailing tourism sector amid the rugged beauty of northwest Ireland.

To this end, a launch event will take place this Friday at 12.30 in An Crann Og in Derrybeg, west Donegal, where all will be revealed.

invitation

Much of the information about the enigmatic fellow was written many years after his death in the middle of the 6th century and as such, as often happens when attempts are made to enhance an individual’s saintly credentials, is either embellished or simply inaccurate. But the result has been even greater intrigue and heightened interest in the fellow – what he did and what he stood for.

One absorbing element is that his name is linked to the ‘illegal’ copying of a secret manuscript – with many observers saying it may have been the first-ever case of copyright infringement. But nobody is certain whether it really happened as described or, if it did, what the sacred document was, belonging to Finian, the monk’s former teacher, that Colmcille felt such a great need to copy, and why.

Following the incident, Diarmuid, High King of Tara, is supposed to have handed down an edict, “To every cow her calf, and to every book its transcript. And therefore to Finian of Moville belongeth the book.” Not surprisingly, this decision was not to the liking of certain interested parties, including the revered monk himself. Records indicate fighting erupted over this bizarre case of intellectual theft with Colmcille facing the High King at the ‘Battle of the Book’ on the slopes of Benbulben in Sligo.

Some also say this – a bloody battle that left several thousand dead – was the reason Colmcille left Ireland for Scotland voluntarily and with great remorse, to establish his own settlement on the island of Iona. Others say he was ordered, or ‘advised,’ to get out of town fast or have assassins forever chasing his tail. After all, a spear to the head or sword to the gut were pretty strong persuaders in the dark days when rival monks were also fighters well trained in the art of swift and agonizing chop-chop.

Colmcille’s story by most accounts began in Gartan, Donegal, where he was born into the northern branch of the O’Neill Clann around 521. His mother, Eithne, was believed to be a princess from Leinster, and his father, Fedelmidh, a prince of Tír Conaill and the great grandson of Niall of the Nine Hostages, the pagan king who brought Patrick, he of shamrock fame, as a slave to Ireland. Christened Criomhthann (meaning ‘fox’), Colmcille certainly lived up to his name, jumping in among the chickens as he did and causing such a furor.

Scholar, warrior, mischief-maker, prince, diplomat – Colmcille seems to have been a man of many parts. If you want to learn more about him, be at Crannog, this Friday where Brian Lacey, renown historian, author and expert in the era, and Moira Ní Ghallachóir, founder of outdoors tourism group, mng.ie which organises ‘Rock agus Roam,’ will speak at the launch of an innovative tourism venture entitled ‘Connecting Colmcille.’

In addition, a special exhibition entitled ‘Amra Cholium Chille’ – a modern translation of a poem composed after the monk’s death with paintings by Brian Ferran and caligraphy by Donald Murray – will be opened at An Gailearai in Aislann Ghaoth Dobhair at 8pm this Friday evening. The event is free and open to the public with wine and refreshments served.

For further reading, see the works of University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

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Michael the modern Messiah

With gray beard, tousled hair and wrinkled coat and pants, writer Michael Harding descended upon Donegal Friday night looking all the world like the modern risen Messiah and promptly mesmerized his disciples.

As one who enjoys a night at the theatre  – pointing my rickety but faithful jalopy weekly out my pebble-stoned driveway enroute to one venue or another – it has been a long while since I last saw An Grianan theatre so packed (a shame really as it hosts so many enjoyable performances).

Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

On this occasion, rightly, theatre director Patricia McBride and her marketing adjutant, Daithi Ramsay, should be marching triumphantly all the way to the bank. Or at least to the office of Traolach O’Fionnan, arts officer at Donegal County Council, with hands outstretched for a somewhat larger annual stipend.

So what magical message did the Messiah from Cavan (via Leitrim) bring northwards to have created such a keen fan base that left nary a seat unoccupied. Notwithstanding the writer-cum-playwright-cum-columnist-cum-actor’s obvious charisma, down-to-earth homeliness and ageless, sage-like physical bearing, I’ve narrowed his popularity in Donegal down to several things –

  • Humanism:  Harding carries a soothing, spiritual message that – in the stress-bedraggled world we inhabit – is manna from heaven. In this respect, he is suitably qualified – as a priest, a calling he abandoned after some years, then as a Buddhist, a calling he continues still. Summing up his lifestyle message Friday night, the author of ‘Staring at Lakes’ and ‘Hanging with the Elephant,’ said, “The ultimate wisdom is that there is no wisdom, so fuck it, just relax,” adding that his secret to contented living was following what he termed “the ancient Gaelic tradition of meditation” – in a word, ‘dozing.’ “I think I’ll start organising workshops training people how to doze properly,” he said tongue-in-cheek.
  • Nostalgia – he recounts homespun, heart-warming tales about life, love and growing old; about mothers and families and childhood, suggestions of innocence reminiscent of our own youth, of those fading bygone years we’ll never experience again but in which we bathe joyously for the remembering and the re-telling. In this respect, Harding is a wistful humourist, the Irish equivalent of Garrison Keillor whose radio programme, ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ I listened to faithfully on National Public Radio each Saturday evening when I lived across the Atlantic.

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  • Empathy – the performer’s first words after coming on stage Friday evening were, “I’m not well,” said with a downright doleful expression. Immediately he’d captured the audience’s undivided attention. After all, having all been sick at one time or another, hearing someone else who’s sick makes us feel both empathy for that person and better about ourselves, either because, fortunately, we are no longer sick or because we are still sick but as Mephistopheles tells Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s classic tale “Misery loves company.”
  • Sympathy – one of Harding’s strengths is that he is unafraid to bear his soul, to show his vulnerable side. With a hint of melancholy, he touches – often poignantly – upon self-doubts, mistakes, indecisions, depression and the other suitcases of distress that life tends to carry with it. And we feel for him and support him and want him so dearly to succeed because – aside from altruism – if he emerges okay at the other end, then there’s hope for the rest of us.

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  • Hilarity – Harding can be belly-wobblingly funny – no more so when he is in a self-deprecating mood or on a sudden flight of fancy. The aisles rocked with fits of laughter Friday night as he launched into a story about how – in the muddled midst of a mid-life crisis  – he read that shaving one’s pubic hair helped expand exponentially one’s erotic experiences.  So, fortified by a bottle of wine, he sallied forth, “with a Wilkinson triple blade.” Unfortunately, the mirror he was using was not tall enough so he had to balance himself precariously on a chair to accomplish the feat. The result: “fresh breezes in the nether regions and a boil from an ingrowing hair that had to be pierced by a doctor – a lady.”

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  • Familiarity – Michael has been to Donegal on several occasions, last year at An Earagail Arts Festival with singer Tommy Sands and in late 2013, speaking after the launch of ‘Staring at Lakes.’ He also spent some time previously on holiday in the county and opened the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair a few months ago.

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Overall the evening with Michael Harding was a most enjoyable occasion ripe with amusing, philosophical ramblings that left the audience departing the theatre wrapped in added layers of warmth to fend off the cold, biting weather outside.

With but a mysterious suitcase on the floor stage centre, a padded armchair and his lectern as props, Harding took his listeners on a delightful stroll down ‘Nostalgia Avenue,’ his deft turns of phrase encapsulating many-layered meanings in a flurry of simple-seeming words.

His ability to mix ‘n match moods, swinging rapidly from melancholy to bittersweet to outright hilarity was impressive, all part and parcel of personal anecdotes gleaned from the trials and tribulations of his own life. One illustrative example was when he described how his mother would make him wait in the street in front of a draper’s shop while she went in to buy “women’s things” leaving him “to develop childhood neuroses outside,” then in response to the shop-owner asking if he was her son, she’d say yes but that she would have preferred a daughter.

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And how, not having sisters, it took a visit by three Letterkenny girls to his home for him to see “women’s things” first-hand. “Their bras hanging in the bathroom like a line of dead rabbits,” as he amusingly put it.

The writer’s description of rummaging through his mother’s belongs soon after her death was emotive by its sheer simplicity. “I found my dead mother in little boxes and drawers,” he said, before recounting exactly what he found.

Harding’s terse turns of phrase can be poetic as when he talks about his Aunt Molly, as “a woman like a tree with so many shaking bits” or love in Cavan as “not many hugs but a lot of apple tarts and extra portions of potatoes.” Or even a dead chicken hanging on an assembly line in a meat factory as “wrinkled and naked like an old man’s neck.” His sharp observations of everyday life are also impressive as when he describes his uncle sleeping as “heavy on the bed like a hammock” or the danger of men “having ideas” especially in the toilet, leading him to warn women to beware of men emerging saying, “I was just thinking…..”

His insights on Irish rural life are delightfully illuminating whether they about the tradition of “throwing cocks over neighbours walls” to keep a healthy gene pool or the differences between the rural walk (“with chakras open”) and the urban one – both of which were accompanied by amusing on-stage simulations. Or even the annual ‘Blessing of the Graves” which he describes as, “Getting out the deckchairs and sitting on top of the dead to keep them down.”

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Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

Harding, not surprisingly, has a love for his native Cavan, though he admits, with himself foremost in mind, that, “you’re not going up in the world merely by going from Cavan to Leitrim,” adding that he is more “a refugee seeking asylum.”

An oft-quoted saying is that ‘one can never go back home,’ but Harding achieves the next best thing, resurrecting vivid memories of places and people from his past that help bring an audience on an enjoyable and entertaining journey of nostalgia.

Minister of Public Expenditure raps Údarás na Gaeltachta for lack of transparency

Minister of Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, has rapped Údarás na Gaeltachta on the knuckles for failing to release vital information on spending of public money affecting Donegal and other Gaeltacht areas.

Following a refusal by Údarás to provide details on hefty pension payments to former executives that accounts for more than half its annual budget under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I filed, formal written parliamentary questions were submitted by TDs angry about the lack of transparency by the Gaeltacht economic development group.

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Such questions culminated in one by Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Fein TD and member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on my behalf, directly to the Minister, “To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform in view of his stated commitment to transparency and accountability in the spending of public moneys, his views that it is acceptable for a public body fully funded by the Exchequer to withhold from the public record details of public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers; and if he will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government.”

A formal written response has just been received from Minister Howlin, in which he, in effect, tacitly states that Údarás was wrong to turn down my FOI request seeking details of pensions for former executives paid wholly out of public funds, and that it should release the information forthwith.

The Minister writes, “Under the 2014 (Freedom of Information) Act, the terms and conditions of any individual who holds or held any office or other position remunerated from public funds in a public body, rather than just those of a Director or member of staff as provided for under the 1997 Act, are not afforded the protections under the Act in relation to personal information. On that basis, the type of information to which the Deputy’s question refers i.e. public service pension arrangements on retirement for senior managers which would be part of remuneration, would be available from a public body that was subject to FOI, other than where a specific exemption applies against the release of such information.

The Minister elaborates further, “Under the Freedom of Information Act 2014, as was the case in the original Freedom of Information Act in 1997, an exemption from the provisions of Freedom Of Information (FOI) is provided for personal information. The 2014 Act also expanded the definition of what does not constitute personal information in the context of FOI.”

In answer to McDonald’s question as to whether the Minister “will legislate to require all publicly funded bodies to make such information public in the interests of open Government,” the Minister writes, “Given the matter is already provided for by the Freedom of Information Act 2014, I do not consider further legislative action is required.

As we have seen with scandal-hit FAS and other Irish state bodies that abused peoples’ trust and misspent public money, the only way to prevent corruption is by creating greater transparency. The government coalition of Fine Gael and Labour made this a central issue in their electoral platform. In the three years since they took office, little progress has been made.

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Several weeks ago, Ireland was placed 31st position ‘in the league of transparent nations’ following research by the World Wide Web Foundation. It is the worst of any European nation, even behind countries such as Russia, Mexico and Brazil. The group’s categorized Ireland as a country that faces challenges to “mainstreaming open data across government and institutionalizing it as a sustainable practice.” It also said “core data on how the government is spending taxpayers’ money and how public services are performing remains inaccessible or pay-walled even though such information is critical to fight corruption and promote fair competition is even harder to get.”

Tim Berners-Lee, Web, founder of the Web Foundation and the London-based Open Data Institute, said, “Governments continue to shy away from publishing the very data that can be used to enhance accountability and trust” and highlighted the power of open data “to put power in the hands of citizens.”

Údarás is a classic case in point.

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Dinny McGinley, former junior minister for the Gaeltacht, wrote back in a vague response to my FOI request saying simply that Údarás had informed him it was “a data controller, defined under the Acts as a person who either alone or with others controls the contents and use of personal data.

For so many years untouchable hidden behind a veil of Irish-language support, Údarás perhaps is in many ways no different to FAS in terms of greed and individual self-interests. According to Údarás sources, former board members in Donegal remained in boardroom meetings during discussions on lucrative payments to their very own companies and organisations. In addition, not one but at least three Donegal Údarás board members have been up before the Standards in Public Office Commission on corruption charges relating to double dipping on expenses. When one considers the expense claims for board members, particularly under the long-time chairmanship of Liam Cunningham from Glencolmbcille (from 2005 to 2010 he received more than 155,000 euro in fees and expenses, according to Highland Radio), one has an idea of the unchecked, proliferate spending that went on.

Some details as already reported by Highland Radio –

  • Four former Donegal members of the Údarás board each received in excess of 100,000 euro each, over a four-year period, in travel expenses.
  • Fianna Fáil member Daithi Alcorn earned nearly €120,000 between 2005 and 2009;
  • Fianna Fail Senator Brian O Domhnaill received €115,000 while independent Donegal member Padraig O Dochartaigh received €105,000.

Over one billion euro of public money has already gone into supporting Udaras na Gaeltachta yet unemployment rates in Gaetachts are consistently highest in the nation.

Misspending of public money (an issue brought up by the former head of the PAC, see 3-part series article series), includes all-expenses trips to Las Vegas for Udaras board members and their spouses – supposedly to meet a delegation of the IDA;

In truth, Údarás was – and perhaps still is – a cash cow for well-to-do insiders in west Donegal.

It is long past time Údarás prepared proper annual reports instead of the porous documents it now produces that disguise the spending picture and that it holds open public meetings to allow the people of the Gaeltacht to know exactly how their hard-earned money is being spent.