Is Féidir Linn – Donegal success story

It’s a wonder what focused, positive, down-to-earth community spirit can achieve especially in face of institutional apathy and paralysis – parkrun in Falcarragh in rural west Donegal being a prime example.

For years, the charming, bucolic grounds around the historic Ballyconnell Estate near the town center were left to wither, unused, disused, and pretty much forgotten by most, except for the odd few curious walkers. Talk of a Catholic church-run addiction center died a slow death, as did a thousand and one other ideas.

Then in stepped a group of local volunteers, with a fiery passion, an innovative idea and an unstoppable ‘can-do’ attitude.

Last Saturday morning under Spring sunshine (yes, it did happen in Donegal), I witnessed first-hand what such admirable leaders can achieve when they unite in the right place at the right time: an overwhelming wave of heartfelt enthusiasm from people of all ages, women, men and children, from eight months to eighty years old, all enjoying a self-supporting, self-perpetuating, united community get-together – with individual mental and physical health being the ultimate achievement.

In many ways, the strong-willed volunteers who kick-started the parkrun project – the first in Donegal – echoed the words of that Hawaii-born, basketball-playing, first African-American President, Barack Obama, when he uttered those immortal words outside Trinity College Dublin.

In many ways, perhaps those same volunteers were simply on the same wavelength as Obama when he said – “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

As a result, this happened. And I was proud to be among the very people who made it happen…

parkrun Falcarragh

Yours Truly (second from left) with parkrun Falcarragh volunteers and a Derry-based veteran of parkruns dressed in black, with more than 170 runs under his belt. 

They’ve come in their thousands – chimney-sweeps, farmers, van-drivers, landscape gardeners, shopkeepers, bartenders and students; top-notch athletes racing through five kilometres in under 20 minutes; young mothers pushing prams, septuagenarian grandmothers and grandfathers – all encouraging each other in the interests of better health.

Such has been the overwhelming enthusiasm for Donegal’s first-ever ‘parkrun’ that organisers in Falcarragh are now discussing how their year-old, volunteer-based community effort – which transformed a few acres of unused land tucked between the second and third holes of the local golf club into a scenic forest running circuit that has attracted more users than anyone anticipated – can be further improved and expanded.

parkrun Falcarragh, Ballyconnell Estate

Men and women of all ages take to the pathways – smilingly.

And they’re expecting a strong turnout this Saturday morning at 9.30, a holiday weekend, while preparing for a special ‘Darkness Into Light’ charity event on Saturday, May 6 on behalf of Pieta House, a suicide prevention service.

Paul McFadden, one of the volunteers, said the Falcarragh parkrun project began as a modest ‘Men On The Move’ event supported by Donegal Sports Partnership “where a few local men got together for a short walk and a cup of tea.” The group then contacted Údarás na Gaeltachta, caretakers of the grounds of Ballyconnell Estate, and raised funds through activities such as pub quizzes, as well as a ‘big breakfast’ sponsorship by McClafferty’s Eurospar in Gortahork for 120 runners, to buy construction materials and rent equipment.

parkrun Falcarragh, Sean Hillen journalist

Hard-working volunteers who made parkrun Falcarragh a reality.

Examples of individual generosity included that of Damian O’Donnell who donated 500 pounds sterling to the community cause.

Another volunteer, Tom Feeney, said generous local people also sponsored summer seats. McFadden, Feeney and colleagues met several times with Údarás officials and now community group, Falcarragh Parish Development, has signed a license to operate the parkrun grounds. Such has been the project’s success, RTE recently sent out a team to produce an ‘Operation Transformation’ programme and local doctors are prescribing participation as a ‘green’ remedy for some ailments. There are now hundreds of parkruns worldwide and two more in Donegal – in Letterkenny and Dungloe.

Ballyconnell Estate, parkrun Donegal

Cheering for success.

Hugh McGarvey, 35 from Bun na Leaca, a tour bus driver with John McGinley Coaches, has completed the circuit six or seven times in preparation for the Wild Atlantic Adventure Race (WAAR) in Donegal next month comprising a combination of sports including running, cycling and kayaking. “Parkrun Falcarragh is a very well organized event, one that I enjoy very much. It is even more impressive when you consider it’s an all-voluntary effort,” he said. Displaying strong family support, Hugh’s partner, Siobhain, has also participated, with their 14-month old infant, Maggie Mae.

Packie Doohan, aged 80, from Drumnatinney, just outside Falcarragh, husband of Creeslough woman, Veronica, with 16 grandchildren and retired after 43 years as a linesman for the ESB, has run the five-kilometre circuit 66 times already. “I started at the very beginning. It’s great exercise. It gets you out of bed on a Saturday morning. And you meet lots of people. And I’m among some very pretty ladies. What could be better?”

Also, preparing for WAAR, Falcarragh man, Eddie Curran, 55, said, “The Park Run is one of the most positive things to happen in this wee community. I see people who were walking the route last year, now running it, such has been the effect on everyone’s health and fitness.”

Ballyconnell House, Darkness Into Light

Hand of triumph. One of many happy finishers.

Support for the Falcarragh project has risen dramatically with many local social workers, teachers and medical personnel becoming involved. Carers at the nearby St. Martin’s House bring people with disabilities to the circuit for leisurely outings as does the local branch of Solas, a HSE project designed to engage people involved with the mental health system in outdoor activities.

St. Finian’s School use the route and have conducted a clean-up of the entire area while raising money for costs involved in its upkeep. Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola also regularly use it for training purposes. “Parkrun was developed by the people of the community for the people of the community and like the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ it works because it’s for everyone and it’s free,” said McFadden. “If there is praise to be given it should be to the people who walk, run and turn up every Saturday morning, from Mary who makes the tea to Maureen who processes the results.”

Turn out this Saturday morning at 9.30 and make Falcarragh proud!

Sea of Santas parade through Dungloe protesting government water charges

Ignoring doomsayers who said very few would turn out for a protest on a damp Saturday afternoon just before Christmas, organisers of an anti-water-charge protest in Dungloe, Donegal placed trust in the will of the people and deservedly enjoyed even greater success than they expected.

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Independent local councilor Michael Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig, Thomas Pringle Independent TD, social activist Brigid O’Donnell and all those organizing the enduring ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign stood on a rise opposite the Garda Station in Dungloe and watched proudly as a lively group of several hundred people marched determinedly through the town centre.

Many wearing decorative Santa hats – some even dressed in the Bearded Fellas’s full bright-red regalia – the marchers called out the names of those TDs who voted in favor of the water charges, including Donegal TDs Joe McHugh and Dinny McGinley, and encouraged everyone to face up to them and not pay.

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Pringle said his home had been metered but added that he would not pay the bills when they arrived next year due to their unfairness.

“It is very gratifying to see so many people here so close to Christmas, it bodes well for the success of this campaign,” he said addressing the crowd. “We will fight this throughout the coming year, and the year after if we have to.”

Mac Giolla Easbuig, who has put himself in the forefront of the protest by blocking workmen trying to install the meters locally, said, “Even if they go ahead and install meters, we all have the choice whether to pay or not. Boycott is a long-held tradition in Ireland and by doing that we can frustrate a government that continues to impose unfair taxes, hitting those who can least afford them.”

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Starting from Ostan na Rosann, the marchers, young and old alike, with children holding parents’ hands, walked to the top of the main street, past the library, then along to Lidl’s supermarket and back again, before stopping to hear a number of speakers, including O’Donnell, who had called for the protest and who’s birthday it was that same day.

For her efforts, she was greeted by warm applause and an impromptu chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ from all those gathered.

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As we move into a New Year, we all nourish the hope of better things ahead. But sometimes hope is not enough. There has to be real discussion and there has to be real action. That’s why my wife and I showed our solidarity and marched with so many other people who turned out on a cold, damp day this past weekend when they could so easily have stayed snug at home beside a warm fire.

In passing so many stealth taxes since it came into power and failing to raise a wealth tax or deal properly with cronyism and the banker-cum-Irish-Water-bonus mentality, the government relied on people’s apathy.

But they severely underestimated the depth of feeling of the electorate and have paid a hefty price for that failure thus far. If opinion polls are anything to go by, they’ll pay an even bigger price when national elections come round again – unless they start doing what they promised to do – to create a more equitable society in Ireland than there has been in generations.

Let’s hope 2015 proves to be a momentous watershed in this regard, and certainly a big improvement over this past year.

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Meeting the IRA chief of staff on the steps of a New York library

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New York Library’s ornate limestone building – an unlikely place to to meet the IRA’s former chief of staff.

Standing on the broad steps of the New York Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street awaiting the arrival of the IRA’s former chief of staff was quite an exciting experience, especially for a naïve teenage undergraduate such as I was then.

Living in west Belfast in the midst of ‘The Troubles,’ I imagined it could conceivably have been a key scene from a movie about a clandestine guerrilla operation.

But it was nothing like that.

By then, Seán Cronin, the IRA’s former chief of staff and mastermind of Operation Harvest, a campaign that carried out military operations on British security installations, was a well-respected author, academic and US correspondent for The Irish Times. In contrast, I was a humble humanities student at the Ulster Polytechnic, now the University of Ulster, working part-time in the Celtic Bar on the Falls Road for disco money.

Seán Cronin

Dungloe-born social activist Peadar O’Donnell – about whose  life a conference was held this week (see news story below) – had brought us together.

Months before, I had – by chance, for an undergraduate thesis – become one of the last persons to interview Peadar in Dublin just before his death. And Seán was writing a book about the 1930s, a tumultuous period in Irish history when Peadar with Frank Ryan, George Gilmore and others had launched the Irish Republican Congress (the subject of my thesis).

It being a time before Google, Facebook or e-mail – in fact, fax was a new-fangled machine I had only vaguely heard of – neither Seán nor I knew what each other looked like. And as there were scores of people lingering on those broad library steps that sunny summer’s day so many years ago, meeting up wasn’t so easy.

But eventually we did, Seán saying later – half-jokingly – that his past training had helped him scope out the situation and pick me out as “the Belfast boy among the Yanks.’

After introductory formalities including my proudly handing over my thesis (part of which he later published in his book), we retreated out of the hot sun into a nearby coffee house. There we spent some time chatting about this and that – his days in the IRA, his arrest and imprisonment, his work as a journalist and not least, the man who had brought us both together, Peadar O’Donnell. Little did I know then, of course, that I too would become an international journalist and live and work in west Donegal as Peadar had.

 

Peadar O’Donnell

Teacher, social activist, soldier, author

As people attending this past weekend’s annual conference in Dungloe learned, Peadar was one of the foremost radicals of twentieth-century Ireland. Born in that town into an Irish-speaking family, he was a teacher on Arranmore Island but by 1919 was a leading organiser of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union and had also attempted in Derry to set up a unit of the Irish Citizens Army. Later he joined the IRA and remained active during the Irish War of Independence, leading guerrilla activities in the border area, becoming commander of the IRA’s Donegal Brigade in 1921. He gained a reputation as being headstrong, and sometimes launching operations without orders. Summing up aspects of his character, a speaker at the conference this week said if at a wedding Peadar wanted to be the groom and if at a funeral, the corpse.

Opposing the 1922 Anglo-Irish Treaty, Peadar was among the IRA leaders who took over the Four Courts in Dublin and helped spark the outbreak of civil war. Imprisoned in Mountjoy, he participated in a mass Republican hunger strike, resisting for 41 days.

civil war photo

Turbulent times in Ireland’s revolutionary history – radical changes that deeply affected leaders like Peadar O’Donnell and Sean Cronin.

Through it all, the west Donegal man saw himself as closely following the principals of James Connolly, seeing the republican cause not solely in Irish nationalist terms. In 1923, while still in prison, he was elected as a Sinn Féin TD for Donegal and after his release took over as the editor of the republican newspaper, An Phoblacht. He did not take his seat in the Dáil and did not stand at the 1927 general election. He tried to steer the IRA in a left-wing direction and founded organisations such as the Irish Working Farmers’ Committee and the Anti-Tribute League, which opposed the repaying of annuities to the British government owed since the Irish Land Acts. He also founded the short-lived socialist republican party, Saor Éire.

The Irish Republic Congress that he helped establish was a left-wing movement that met with success in organising Belfast Protestants under the Republican Congress banner, leading to a march by the Shankill Road branch to Bodenstown churchyard in June 1934 to honour Theobald Wolfe Tone. The Congress ultimately split, however, on a proposal to turn it into a political party, O’Donnell rejecting this idea, arguing that it had more power as a united front. Like Gilmore and other Irish Republicans, he ended up fighting in the Spanish Civil War for the International Brigade against Franco.

After the 1940s, O’Donnell devoted more of his time to writing and less to politics, publishing his first novel, Storm, in 1925. This was followed by Islanders (1928), which received national and international acclaim, The New York Times describing it as a novel of ‘quiet brilliance and power’, the London Spectator ‘an intensely beautiful picture of peasant life.’ Other books followed – Adrigoole (1929), The Knife (1930); On the Edge of the Stream (1934); The Big Windows (1955) and Proud Island (1975). He also edited the Irish literary journal, The Bell, having founded it with well-known writer, Seán Ó Faoláin.

Peadar married Lile O’Donel in 1924, even though they had never met before. But they had communicated extensively during his time in prison. They began their honeymoon in a Dublin hotel that evening but by the following morning he was on the run once again as he had been identified.

Dying at the tender age of 93, he left strict instructions –  ‘no priests, no politicians and no pomp.’ His wishes were granted.

Looking back down the years, remembering my discussions on this larger-than-life character over a cup of tea in a downtown Manhattan café with someone as distinguished as Seán Cronin, whose own life was every bit as colorful and adventurous, seems now to have been a figment of a lively imagination.

I probably didn’t fully appreciate then the incredible opportunity that had been presented to me to turn the pages of history in the company of great men who wrote them. Now, with the wisdom of age and hindsight, I think I do.

 

Conference celebrating life of Peadar O’Donnell highlights key social issues

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(l to r) Clare Daly TD for Kerry and social activists Paula Leonard and Clarrie Pringle describe the struggle by women in Irish society to gain recognition.

Analysis of a women’s co-operative in the Rosses that attracted over 200 knitters and of a left-wing movement, the Irish Republican Congress, were elements of a three-day conference this week celebrating the life of Dungloe-born socialist, teacher and author, Peadar O’Donnell.

At a panel chaired by community leader, Paula Leonard, social activist Clarrie Pringle described how collective efforts “cut out greedy middlemen who took hefty profits from the hard work and knitting skills of local women.”

“Knitting needles were known as ‘poverty sticks’ then as Donegal women attempted to stave off hardship,” she said. “So successful was the co-operative that not only did women get more money for their work but greater independence by learning business skills, including working with banks and statutory bodies.” Later still, some women started their own small companies, quite unusual for the time, she added.

Also speaking on the panel entitled ‘Women in Struggle’ held at Ionad Teampaill Chroine in Dungloe, Clare Daly TD in Kerry, praised the efforts of Pringle and her colleagues “as showing what women can achieve if given a fair chance.” Daly said the key role women have played in Irish history, including the Ladies’ Land League, has been “skewed or silenced by certain bodies for political and social purposes, but now thinking must change to meet modern reality.”

The two speakers agreed that difficulty of divorce and restricted access to contraception in the emerging Irish state made it hard for women to progress socially and politically.

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( l to r) Author and Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, TD Thomas Pringle and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, analyze the success and failure of the Irish Republican Congress.

Both Daly and Pringle blamed the Catholic Church for “holding back the progress of women in Irish society.” Daly said, “There is no place for the church in political life, in selecting core curriculum in schools nor in governing women’s bodies” while Pringle added, “When we look back on the oppression of women and children in Ireland, we must inevitably view the Catholic church as a predominant influence. Shame of sexuality was bred into women for over a hundred years.”

They both called for a human rights module to be introduced into the national school curriculum,

In a second panel chaired by TD Thomas Pringle, Dublin Sinn Fein councillor, Eoin O’Broin, and Eugene McCartan, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Ireland, discussed the merits of the 1934 Irish Republican Congress, an effort by Peadar O’Donnell and others to create a stronger left-wing republican base to combat poverty and inequality.

“In many ways, the Congress, though short-lived, was a high point of left-leaning Republicanism of that era but it was also a lesson in abject failure,” said O’Broin. “It showed the immense challenges involved in linking nationalist and socialist traditions then and building socio-economic bridges, especially in northern Ireland.”

He added, “With the IRA’s ambivalence towards such a radical movement, Fianna Fail’s continued platform building then and the inability of Congress leaders to read the political situation and devise proper strategies, it, in effect, helped result in sixty years of Fianna Fail rule.” Saying there are “many lessons to be learned from the Congress,” McCartan added, “Greater appreciation of working-class issues is key to a fairer society as is the building of a common consciousness and a confidence in ordinary people that they can change things.”

John Crowley, who travelled from Scotland to attend the conference, said, “Overall, there were some very interesting analyses and from diverse viewpoints with many of the issues still relevant in today’s society.”