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

 

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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,

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

Visiting Berlin Wall speaks volumes for free thinkers

It was as cold then as it is now, I recalled, thick coat and woolly hat keeping my body and soul together, even though the ‘Cold War’ had just melted away.

Exactly 27 years ago, swaying atop the Berlin Wall, a bottle of champagne in one hand, the other firmly clasping that of someone unknown to me but equally as carefree and excited, both of us wildly celebrating a supreme historic moment.

Sean Hillen speaking in Berlin, Berlin books

Reminiscing: Quiet now but thousands clambered on to it and over it 27 years ago, myself included.

There were tens of thousands of us, stumbling over rubble, banging on the solid concrete with anything we could lay our hands on, hammers, candlesticks, shovels, pitchforks, pieces of metal piping. You name it, we were using it, desperately trying to dislodge pieces to take home with us.

In some ways, it seemed to me we were doing so not just to have a hard-won souvenir to show to friends and family but also because we felt we were facing a frenzied race against time, that we feared men in uniforms, with rifles and growling, muzzled dogs, might suddenly come along and order us down, telling us it was a bad joke, that the powers that be had changed their minds, that the exhilarating glimpse of freedom was over.

Sean Hillen author, books by Sean Hillen

Checkpoint Charlie: Tourist attraction now but filled with drama when I first visited it in the mid-1980s during the Cold War.

We were all of the same thought: the wall had to come down and it had to come down now before someone powerful somewhere changed their mind. After all, it had gone up fast, so down it must come – equally as fast. And boy, were we ever doing a helluva demolition job. With a capital ‘D.’

That’s why it was a delight to be there again last week standing beside the few remaining remnants of the wall, much of it covered by colorful graffiti, reliving those exuberant moments from years before. And an even greater delight to be talking not only about my experiences as a foreign correspondent covering the dramatic fall of Communism, then rushing by train to Bucharest, to the Romanian revolution, but also about my first novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ which deals with many of the same universal themes, freedom of thought and action.

Gazing around me as I walked to the Berlin Book Nook bookstore in the Neukoelin district, the American sector after World War Two, I was astonished to see how much Berlin had changed. Changed? Transformed would be a better description. Bright lights, lively pubs and cafes, the conversational buzz of shoppers filling the streets. Open-air markets like the Gendarmenmarkt packed with people drinking gluhwein and chowing down on currywurst, and carolers singing sweetly about hope and love.

Author talks Berlin, Berlin book shops

Enjoying a chat at the Berlin Book Nook about literature, art, travel and the German capital’s ever-changing face.

The overriding sense of togetherness and positivity was a vivid reminder to me of that same collective sense of well-being I felt all those years ago along the crumbling wall, the grim edifice that symbolized the very opposite of all that is good in Mankind.

As for my author’s talk, when is it not thoroughly enjoyable to speak to book-lovers about books? Even more satisfying as I had earlier that very day visited ‘The Story of Berlin’ museum where a pile of books tossed randomly along the floor was a sad reminder of the tragic ‘burning of books’ episode instigated by Hitler and his racist Nazi cronies intent on destroying any semblance of free thinking.

Sean Hillen author in Berlin, Pretty Ugly a novel

Books underfoot at ‘The Story of Berlin’ museum symbolizing the despicable Nazi ‘burning of books’ episode in 1933.

Talking about the inspiring land and seascapes of Donegal’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ (no wonder the county recently topped the National Geographic Traveller magazine’s ‘Cool List 2017’) where much of the dramatic action in ‘Pretty Ugly’ takes place and about how my main characters, both in Ireland and America, strive for justice in face of overwhelming odds, I felt like I was staging my own private revenge against the Fuhrer and his violent mob of senseless bullies.

Pretty Ugly book, Irish writers

Pretty nice to see ‘Pretty Ugly’ on the shelves of a popular Berlin bookstore.

I hope you feel the same, especially at this time of year when we think more of family and friends and how fortunate we are compared to others much worse off.

Have a most contented winter holiday season. I very much look forward to hearing your feedback after reading my novel.

Here’s where you can order your copy of Pretty Ugly.

Halloween surprises and other encounters in the company of Dracula

Meeting someone who travels the world investigating fairytales and a Gothic expert who specialises in all things spooky and supernatural as well as seeing a vampire killing kit – these were among highlights of my pre-Halloween sojourn this past week in Dublin.

Asked to give a lecture separating historical fact from literary fiction associated with Irish author, Bram Stoker, his arch character, Dracula, and medieval warlord, Vlad the Impaler, I was delighted to stand Saturday afternoon before a capacity audience in the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor’s official residence, relating my adventures researching ‘Digging for Dracula.’

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Imagine my surprise when confronted by Dracula Junior and his mother in the ghostly grounds of Dublin Castle last Friday night.

Now an annual event, the Bram Stoker Festival took place at various suitably atmospheric venues including the eerie, shadowy Chapel Royale inside the grounds of Dublin Castle and the Samuel Beckett Theatre deep within the cobbled-confines of Trinity College, where Ireland’s 19th century best-selling novelist was once a humble student.

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(l to r) Enjoying the company of Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin founder of the Inkwell Group and organiser of the festival’s literary programme; Professor Bill Hughes, Bath Spa University; and Angela Dinu, an authentic Transylvanian from Brasov.

Such is the fascination with Stoker’s immortal long-toothed Transylvanian Count, the festival events earlier this week attracted hundreds of people, both speakers and participants. Before and after my talk I was approached by people from places as diverse as Rome, Warsaw and Las Vegas, all keen to discuss ‘beyond-the-grave’ mysteries.

Christa Thompson, from Florida, travels throughout the world investigating and writing about folk stories, while Ed Mooney, from Kildare, combines his passion for photography with his deep interest in history, ancient sites, folklore and mythology. Much of Edwards’ free time is now spent traveling around the Irish countryside in search of his next adventure, which he fondly refers to as ‘ruin-hunting.

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(l to r) In the delightful company of Intrepid folklore investigators from Ireland and the US.

Lara Musto, a highly-qualified librarian and researcher, originally from Rome was among the participants. She said she had been fascinated by Bram Stoker’s work ever since she was a child, “Believe it or not, my father used to read me vampire stories at bed-time, and they helped me sleep. So you can imagine, I’ve really enjoyed the talks I’ve attended here in Dublin during the festival.”

Asked the inevitably question whether I believed in the infamous nocturnal blood-sucking creatures (known as ‘strigoi’ in Romanian folklore), I answered, both evasively and diplomatically, I must admit: “Just because something is written about doesn’t mean it’s true. But then again, just because we don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not.” What else could I say? Not having seen either Donegal fairies or Transylvanian vampires, I remain doubtful but very much open-minded.

Credit must go to the Bram Stoker Festival organisers who provided a plethora of delightful activities for everyone. These ranged from walks with experienced guide, Pat Liddy who brought to life spine-chilling tales such as Stoker’s ‘Dracula;’ Irish Gothic writer Sheridan Le Faanu’s ‘Carmilla’ and Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray;’ book readings and a cosy Q&A with authors Lynne Truss  and Joanna Briscoe who penned ghostly tales for Hammer Classics, an imprint of Random House; and lively music every night. Light-hearted humor was the hallmark of a funky ‘Literary Death March’ at Smock Alley Theatre, where writers such as Lynn Shepherd read their work and competed with others before a panel of judges, with audience participation in a rousing literary quiz finale.

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Flying witches, goblins and vampires – all part of the Bram Stoker Festival in the Oak Room of the Mansion House in Dublin.

The festival – sponsored by Failte Ireland and Dublin City Council – also featured a tantalising discussion entitled ‘Madness and Sexuality’ at which Paul Murray, a former cultural attaché at the Irish Embassy in London and a Stoker biographer, and two doctors, one a psychiatrist, discussed Stoker’s state of sanity when he penned his macabre bestseller.

Much to my surprise, the ‘vampire killing kit’ was among strange artefacts at a special exhibit entitled ‘BLOOD’ at the Science Gallery beside Trinity College, hosted to coincide with the Stoker festival. The ‘kit’ was neatly arranged inside a glass case and included a gun with silver bullets and a hammer and wooden stake (best, I suppose, to be prepared for all eventualities).

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Gun with silver bullets, a crucifix and a hammer with wooden stakes of various sizes – all elements in a vampire killing kit.

Vampire season approacheth

A strange invitation popped into my mailbox this week – and it being October, with Halloween approaching fast – perhaps I shouldn’t have been too surprised whom it came from: that most infamous of blood-thirsty vampires, Dracula.

Or at least from some people close to him, those at Fáilte Ireland and on Dublin City Council who together next week are organizing a special international Bram Stoker Festival in honor of the Long-Toothed Count and his maker, Dublin author Bram Stoker.

Quite right too: after all, ‘Dracula’ is believed to be the most printed book after the Bible, making Bram Ireland’s all-time, best-selling author.

Ever since I penned a tongue-in-cheek (note I didn’t say teeth-in-neck) travel book entitled “Digging for Dracula” almost 20 years ago while a foreign correspondent in eastern Europe, I’ve receive periodic invitations to speak at events focusing on Man’s fascination with blood-sucking immortals (‘strigoi’ as they’re known in the deepest, darkest Carpathians).

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But the invitation that popped into my mailbox this time was stranger than most – to speak next Saturday at no less prestigious a residence than the Mansion House, official home of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

Why there – no idea? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s certainly a sign from on high that we’ve long passed the era when a classic novel such as this was not even acknowledged as part of our literary heritage nor studied in school, for fear it might make us feel a little  too erotic, Catholic and all, as we are.

who is dracula

But go I will and enjoy a nostalgic journey back in time – to Bram Stoker at the turn of the 19th century, a time when a general obsession about a shadowy, little-known region of eastern Europe called Transylvania and gory, bloody deaths (Jack the Ripper was alive and well and doing his stuff in Whitechapel) combined to focus peoples’ minds on all things dark and macabre.

Thus, Bram, then manager of prominent actor Henry Irving’s London theater, the Lyceum (having earlier eloped with Oscar Wilde’s former girlfriend – yes, Oscar was bisexual once), dusted up his research at the British Library (Bram never actually went to Transylvania) and penned his blood-riddled masterpiece. While his tale has been made into a zillion movies (the first being the German-made ‘Nosferatu’) and lots of TV series, poor old Bram barely made a penny from his work. When he died, his obituaries barely mentioned he was even a novelist.

After his death, the German company tried to avoid paying copyright by changing Dracula’s name to Count Orlok. Bram’s widow, Florence, sued, the court ordered all copies of the movie burned but one copy had already been distributed around the world and this was duplicated, making it an example of an early cult film.

big screen

For me, writing ‘Digging for Dracula’ was a quirky idea that emerged from an even quirkier fax received one morning at my Bucharest apartment from The Times foreign news desk in London asking me to cover a rather bizarre event – the ‘First-Ever World Congress of Dracula’ in Romania. Initially I thought it a joke (foreign newsroom editors have a black sense of humor akin to those in hospital emergency rooms, it helps in dealing with everyday catastrophes).

whitch trial

A much younger version of yours-truly stepped forward chivalrously (or, more likely, was pushed from behind) and ever since has been bound in wedlock to a woman from Transylvania for all eternity.

With hundreds of participants attending from many different countries including Japan, the US, England, France and Germany (strangely, aside from myself, none from Ireland, home of the author) and many different professions – doctors, nurses, academics, writers, psychologists, teachers – the week-long affair proved to be quite an eye-opener. Some people admitted to having coffins in their living rooms and slept soundly there when the notion took them; others had paid a hefty sum to their dentists to have their teeth sharpened.

Many of the speakers at the conference proved interesting, ranging from a psychologist’s view on what he termed ‘energy vampires, ’ those people whose company we sometimes share who leave us drained of energy; to a colorful history of the medieval warlord (‘voivod’ in Romanian), Vlad the Impaler, who some say was the model for Bram’s lead character.

vlad

While mysterious places in Romania such as Snagov Island and the Transylvanian village of Arefu, the ancient site of Vlad’s castle, proved intriguing for me to visit on my travels for the book, so did the mummies of Saint Michan’s in Dublin and Whitby (where Dracula’s ship arrives in a storm) – all major influences on Bram, the dramatic storyteller.

But seeing crooner Bing Crosby of ‘White Christmas’ fame laid out alongside the world’s most famous vampire in a Los Angeles graveyard proved more than anything that fact can indeed be stranger than fiction.

Fangs for stopping by and, in the words of the Count, “Come freely, go safely and leave some of the happiness you bring.”

Brewing up a storm

A wheelbarrow and a pair of boots painted proudly in Donegal GAA colors perched atop a house roof in Falcarragh.

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A sexy, full-size female mannequin dressed in nifty sporting gear posing roadside in Glassagh, Gaoth Dobhair.

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And goodness knows how many rusted carcasses of cars suddenly transformed into brightly-colored, eye-catching street decorations.

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Sporting success has brought out the best in Donegal creativity – both on and off the field.

With less than seven days to go before ‘the Grande Finale’ at Croke Park, the county is awash with an artistic spirit that Jimmy, Declan and their respective teams have inspired.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such genuine outpouring of community solidarity could be harnessed into sustained cultural tourism projects that would provide much needed long-term employment and economic benefits?

If some of the recently erected ‘altars’ to the success of Donegal GAA are anything to go by, there is no shortage of ideas, but funding is sadly missing. Not because the money isn’t there, it is. But because those holding the purse strings don’t have the confidence that proposed projects are anything more than short-term hobbies. Consequently, those with excellent cultural tourism ideas continue to live a hand-to-mouth existence, spending much of their brilliant creativity, not on artistic endeavor, but on scrounging for pennies, with long-term sustainability a mere pipe-dream.

An earlier post cited Udaras’ rejection of funding this year for the excellent ‘Evil Eye’ festival in Falcarragh. Now, a recent report shows a paltry 48,250 euro has been shoe-horned for 17 festivals throughout the county by Failte Ireland. Work out the math. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

Meanwhile, there is a peculiar notion out there that beer will be consumed in considerable quantities in the county if Donegal ride victorious over the Holy Ground this weekend.

The bad news is that beverage choice for such a celebration in the county is among the most limited in the nation. Seemingly, more publicans in Donegal have kowtowed to multinationals such as the British-owned company, Guinness, and Heineken because they offer their products wholesale for as little as 50 cents a pint rather than offer their customers a wider choice of beers and ales to imbibe as is happening in other parts of Ireland.

Attending the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival a week ago at the RDS in Dublin, I was delighted to see how many micro-breweries had been launched nationwide – Galway Bay Brewery, The White Hag in Sligo and 9 White Deer in Cork to name but a few. While Ireland is still well behind England and the US in terms of micro-beer choice, mainly due to consumer acquiescence, Donegal is well behind other counties.

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Only Kinnegar Brewing and Muckish Mountain Brewery keep Donegal from being bottom of the national micro-brewery league table. The latter is named after nearby Kinnegar Beach 
just north of Rathmullan and produces around 4,000 liters per week with funky brands such as Limeburner, Scraggy Bay, Rustbucket, Devil’s Backbone and Yannaroddy. The latter, based in Creeslough, produces Miner’s Red Ale made with dark crystal malt.

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It is the same narrative when it comes to cider. Check any pub in Donegal and the likelihood is the label says ‘Bulmers.’ For the record, most of what goes into this particular drink is concentrate, usually brought in from Poland by the truckload. Every day they’re lined up at the plant waiting to unload. ‘Tree slurry,’ as as one cider aficionado quipped less than affectionately. In contrast, Irish apples represent a tiny percentage, less than five percent of content, insiders say. That’s why information on bottles and cans is so vague and limited. Yet, there’s choice aplenty – if we push publicans to provide it – with scores of other Irish cider producers that use freshly-squeezed apples, such as ‘Tempted? outside Lisburn, the ‘Armagh Cider Company’ and ‘Craigies Irish Cider’ in Wicklow. But most Donegal pubs ignore them – for the sake of greater profit.

Good news is that a crop with a long tradition in Donegal but one long forgotten is again being planted – something that gives a faint glimmer of hope to real beer drinkers. Hops are now growing in Conwal outside Letterkenny near the site of an old monastic settlement, whose caped inhabitants once prided themselves on their beer-making skills (those monks had their priorities right).

So when you rush to the bar this Sunday evening celebrating the latest Ryan McHugh goal, forgo the usual sulphite-laden, chemical-ridden liquids and ask for a local brew. Then watch closely the bemused expression on the barman’s face (as per below).

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