Helluva commotion going on in Donegal over lovable little oysters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he still didn’t answer my question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For full information on all applications see HERE.

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

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

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

Journalism: a funny thing, sometimes

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

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

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

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

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

gola island donegal, donegal tourism, gaeltacht tourism,

He almost ‘missed the boat’ 

gaeltacht tourism, gola island, donegal tourism

 

Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rides high

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

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

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

Sean Hillen Donegal gaeltacht, donegal gaeltacht,

Wizards of Lies, or nightmare accountancy?

Would you approve almost one million euro in public money for a company with liabilities of half a million and a cash shortfall of around 200,000?

Hardly.

Strangely, that’s what seems to have happened in the case of SLM, the English call center that closed several weeks ago without warning in the Donegal Gaeltacht leaving many local people still owed a big chunk of back salaries.

Helluva Christmas gift Mr. Scrooge!

And here’s something even more intriguing…

Michael Gallagher, from the coastal village of Falcarragh, is an intelligent and likeable fellow, a man deeply concerned about social justice.

Sensing something amiss, Michael decided to carry out his civic duty and promptly investigated the financials of the Manchester-based company in the official register. Shocked by what he unearthed, he quickly warned two senior staff members at the economic group, Údarás na Gaeltachta, which intended to hand the company close to a million euro of scarce public money.

Michael Gallagher letter about SLM, Udaras and SLM

Alas, Michael’s timely and crucially important information seemed to have been promptly ignored as Údarás went full-steam ahead with its earlier decision to pour 842,000 euro into the company – strongly supported, maybe even led, by Minister of the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh.

The award was announced with fancy fanfare, with screaming national and local newspaper headlines. Written by Greg Harkin, now a spin doctor for Minister McHugh, an article in ‘The Irish Independent’ read, ‘125 new jobs announced at SLM Éire Teo in Donegal.’  Not surprisingly, McHugh – who seemingly went to school with SLM manager James Moran and flew to Manchester to seal the deal – was given a pretty quote about being ‘delighted.’

The Údarás website blasted, ‘UK Digital Marketing company to create 125 jobs in Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal,’ with its then CEO  Steve Ó Cúláin saying, “Today’s announcement is the result of Údarás’ enterprise strategy for this vibrant Gaeltacht region. I wish the promoters of SLM Éire every success and wish to thank the Údarás employees whose dedication is helping to make this jobs announcement become a reality.”

Cupán Tae

Meanwhile, quite separately, my interest in SLM began in the most innocent of ways – over a welcome cup of tea shared with a fellow jogger after a challenging morning run. The person worked at the call centre and complained training was lax, pay was the legal minimum, bonus targets were pretty much unreachable and on-the-floor Manchester managers were as scarce as a prickly cactus growing in the turf bogs. Adding that only around 30 people worked there, a far cry from the 125 promised more than a year before.

Two weeks later, on December 3, an article appeared in the ‘Donegal News,’ with the surprising headline ‘SLM Eire Teo Plans To Increase Its Workforce.

Strangely – considering the company closed its doors permanently in Donegal a few short weeks later, barely one year into operations – local SLM manager, James Moran and Paid O’ NeachtainÚdarás public relations director, both said the company would employ more people.

Sheer ignorance? Spin doctoring? Who knows?

Out of the quagmire that has resulted, a key question remains: why did a supposedly experienced, national economic organization such as Údarás award such a formidable grant to a company obviously struggling to make ends meet?

Michael Gallagher discovered SLM Manchester at end financial year 2015 had liabilities of 556,400 pounds sterling and a cash shortfall of 171,600. My Freedom of Information request showed Údarás approved an employment grant for SLM of 614,000 euro, plus a 60,000 employment grant for managers, a training grant of 100,000 and rent subsidy of 68,000.

budget for SLM Donegal, Udaras funding SLM Donegal

Is no-one at Údarás trained in simple analytical accountancy? Did they simply choose to ignore SLM’s shaky financial situation? Or did Minister McHugh – for political kudos through positive media coverage – override concerns that may have been raised by Údarás staff? Or indeed, did everyone involved truly believe this was an employment bonanza for the Donegal Gaeltacht but were duped by SLM owners?

The answer my friend – to use the words of a well-known song ‘…is blowin’ in the wind.’ And, as usual in modern Ireland, no-one’s taking responsibility for failings.

Isn’t this exactly what got Ireland into economic quicksand? Isn’t this why the World Bank and the IMF own us? Isn’t this why health and education are underfunded, why sick people with IVs in their arms are sleeping on chairs in hospital corridors?

If you want to know more about how Údarás spends scarce public money, simply e-mail Cathal O Gallachóir c.ogall (at) udaras.ie and ask for information under FOI. With what you find out, you might even be encouraged to do what Michael Gallagher did, write a letter to the editor Údarás challenged on SLM dealings thus placing important information in the public arena, or notifying concerned councilors such as new Údarás board member, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh.

John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, Udaras Donegal

Curious to know how many SLM jobs that Údarás included in its annual summary, I have requested the much-delayed 2016 report, which 13 months later has still not been published.

It’s still blowin’ in the wind…

Falcarragh parkrun celebrates record-breaking turnout on Easter holiday Saturday

Enjoying the excellent organization and enthusiasm of volunteers, the Falcarragh parkrun continues to go from strength to strength.

Under friendly Spring Easter Saturday sunshine, a whopping 221 runners and walkers – the highest number yet since this particular parkrun was first established just over a year ago – turned out, with 14 terrific volunteers guiding everyone around the course and then serving coffee, tea and fresh baked treats afterwards.

Such was the buoyant sense of community spirit at this, the 67th event, many people ended up beating their own long-time personal bests over the five-kilometer course at the Ballyconnell Estate including Eddie Curran (see his comments in Is Féidir Linn – Donegal success story)

Eddie, who claims to be “55 and getting younger” finished in 22 minutes 44 seconds and is well on target to tackle next month’s Wild Atlantic Adventure Race (WAAR) in good time. Other runners from this morning’s outing are also set to complete the extremely challenging WAAR event alongside him. The event includes a 10K run, a 42.5K cycle, a 2k hike and a 1K kayak.

Well behind ‘Eddie the Eagle’ but still happy, Yours Truly crossed the line – albeit panting for breath and gasping for an cupán tae – in 29 minutes 35 seconds. To finish first in my age category, 99 to 145, was a bonus Easter present, the best performance I’ve had in at least 80 years.

The animated buzz of community spirit was enlivened even more after the run with the long-awaited announcement by Paul McFadden of the winners of the special Easter raffle. Warm smiles marked the faces of those leaving the local Cloughaneely GAA grounds with food hampers and chocolate Easter eggs tucked under their arms. Fair reward for hard physical effort. Volunteer Paul and colleague, Tom Feeney, also presented a special prize, a framed photograph of happy parkrun participants, to 80-years-young grandfather, Packie Doohan from Drumnatinney, just outside Falcarragh, for selling most raffle sheets.

Thanking all the sponsors and the volunteers, Paul also praised the runners and walkers themselves, saying “without you, coming here, week in, week out, there would be no parkrun in Falcarragh, so give yourselves a very big round of applause.”

So, that’s all from me on this extended holiday weekend. I don’t know about you but I’ll be enjoying succulent slow-roasted lamb and an EXTRA BIG chocolate egg.

I wish you a very enjoyable weekend dear reader with your family and friends. As you relax, spare a thought for Ēostre, the ancient Goddess of fertility and light, to whom we owe the honor of this fine holiday.

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!

Who’s the mystery whistle-blower inside the corridors of Údarás na Gaeltachta?

Seems as if Donegal’s leading newspaper and Údarás na Gaeltachta are on a head-on collision over truth following publication by the ‘Donegal News’ recently of sensitive, confidential correspondence indicating the Irish language group has been planning wind-farms on many sites throughout the county and an immediate rebuttal of the article in a press release issued by the Irish language group.

Údarás na Gaeltachta has wind turbine plans for six sites

An tÚdarás dismisses wind turbine talks

If not for strong protest meetings by Stad An Tuirbín Gaoithe, a community-based Donegal group opposing Galway company, Lir Energy Ltd’s plans to construct 123- meter turbines on publicly-owned land in Gweedore and a flood of more than 100 objection letters to the county council, a forest of turbines could have gone up ‘under the radar’ – some in scenic sites and some close to homes.

According to the confidential correspondence obtained by the newspaper, these could include Ardara, Kilcar, Fintown, Cloghan, Termon and Glencolmcille.

A string of shady dealings have left many people disturbed by the clandestine way in which Údarás now seems to operate, both locally in Donegal and out of its Galway headquarters.

Following the secrecy of the sale by Údarás of Irish seaweed rights to Canadian multinational Acadian Seaplants, with an unprecedented ten-year confidentiality clause attached to the contract, by which no documents can be accessed, some observers say the Irish language economic group has lost public confidence.

An Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee (PAC) investigation queried why 30,000 euro was spent by Údarás on seven different trips by senior officials to look at “seaweed projects” in Halifax, Canada, according to a report in The Irish Times.

These suspicious situations plus behind-the-scenes talks with a Catholic Church group to construct what some say was to be an alcohol, sex-addiction and drugs rehabilitation clinic in Falcarragh in a landscaped green area now used for community walks and jogging, has left some wondering if the publicly-funded group has reneged on its responsibilities in terms of transparency and fairness.

Landscaped area in Falcarragh that was being earmarked for an addiction center to be funded by Udaras.

“This organization is funded out of the public pocket so at the very least it should be open about how exactly it’s spending that money,” said one irate Gaoth Dobhair resident at the recent ‘Scoil Gheimridh’ (Winter School) music festival. “People are also questioning the ownership of this Galway company, Lir, and what its connections might be to top executives of Údarás. It could be a re-run of the seaweed scandal.”

It has also become known that the Údarás office in Donegal is to be paid a whopping 600,000 euro for managing a 2.3 million euro EU LEADER scheme in the county, almost a quarter of the total funding, aside from several million euro it receives annually out of the national public coffers.

“Is the wind-farms’ project simply another way for Údarás executives to make money?” said a resident of Bunbeg earlier this week. “There’s no proof at all they’ll help reduce energy costs as we’ve had wide turbines for years in the area and there’s been no obvious public benefit at all. It’s long past time people were told just how much money is being used by Údarás for projects that create jobs and how much is simply being used to top up executive salaries and expenses. For God’s sake, Údarás staff have the highest salaries of any group under the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.”

While many criticize Údarás for its poor record in job creation in Donegal, it must be acknowledged that it is not easy to attract companies to Ireland’s most northwesterly region, but few would disagree that greater transparency is necessary to calm rising fears that scarce public money is being misspent.


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