Donegal: take the cue from Catalonia

So – fed up with Spain’s lack of support – Catalonia has voted for independence.

And even if it doesn’t achieve that, it will at the very least get a much better economic deal from lawmakers in Madrid.

Meanwhile in Ireland, Donegal is shown this week once again why it’s still – even more than ever – the ‘Forgotten County.’

A glossy, 151-page recently-released ‘National Development Framework’ report states categorically that spending much effort on helping the county and the Northwest in general will “demand some level of constraint on Dublin,” adding, that this “could result in diminishing the scale of overall national development.”

Not one single urban center earmarked for future development in the plan lies anywhere near Donegal. And there’s no mention of linking Letterkenny, Derry and Strabane in a much-heralded economic hub.

Is it not time to shove off the shackles and go the way of Catalonia?

Is it not time to revisit my idea from several years ago as published in a series of full-page articles in the ‘Donegal News’ for the establishment of an Independent Republic of Donegal?

Sounds like the work of a depraved mind? Of a man standing too long in the rain?

I ask you: hold off on that view until you’ve first read the articles:

Democratic Republic of Donegal

Donegal: the ‘Remembered County’

Then see if perhaps you don’t agree that it might actually be a well-considered and pragmatic approach to solving all of Donegal’s long-time economic and employment woes.

Indeed, rapidly – though not quite overnight – it perhaps might even transform the county of Donegal into the richest per capita region in the entire nation, north and south.

Fond reading.

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Celtic or Hibernian: which is rightful heir to the Irish tradition in Scotland?

As a Donegal blow-in, I’ve just completed what some here in Ireland’s ‘Forgotten County’ call a key ‘rite de passage.’

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‘Wee Jimmy’ – a winger with panache and a Celtic footballing hero.

On the invitation of Celtic Football Club management, I made my first-ever visit recently not only to the historic city of Glasgow – where half the people in Donegal seem to have originated, and vice-versa  – but also to the venerable stadium known as Parkhead, home of the Hoops, an illustrious team that has become nothing less than a cultural icon for many generations.

So, on a crisp, dry Saturday afternoon, two hours before kick-off against third-placed Inverness Caley Thistle, I found myself walking along a long inner corridor on the upper tier of the stadium lined with the framed autographed shirts of former players including Ireland’s captain, Robbie Keane, Honduran Emilio Izaguirre, Swede Henrik Larsson, Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons.

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Two gray-haired Celts – Professor Pia (l), footballing expert – ahead of game time.

Within minutes, I was seated in the warm comfort of Café 1888 (the year the club was formed) enjoying a tasty lunch rapidly replenished with alcoholic beverage learning about the trials and tribulations not only of Celtic but of Scottish football in general.

And according to the man sitting opposite me – and no better person to grant illuminating insights than someone who has penned not one but three excellent books on Scottish football (‘The Quiet Man’, ‘Scotland’s For Me’ and ‘Sunshine on Leith’) – footie across the water is not in a healthy state.

Not withstanding that my companion, Simon Pia, long-time journalist and now professor at leading universities in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, has been a ‘Hibbies’ (those persons, who for reasons most bemusing to many Celtic supporters, support Hibernian FC) and that his team now lingers in the shadows of the second division, his insights into the sport in his native land were thoughtful and well considered.

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With Scotland battling Ireland this Friday in the Euro Championships, captain Robbie could be a deciding factor.

With money in short supply – at least compared to the massive amounts enjoyed by teams in the English league – Simon’s view is that Scottish football will remain mediocre and largely uncompetitive for the foreseeable future. And with Celtic’s arch Glaswegian rival, Rangers, declaring bankruptcy and being dumped unceremoniously into the second division more than a year ago, even that spark of zesty competition has been extinguished (though the two teams will face off in the League Cup semi-final soon – the first time they’ve met each other for two years).

Setting patriotism aside, or indeed lauding it, Pia – a product of Italian sperm that migrated to Edinburgh many years ago and who was my close pal at London journalism college a world ago – believes top teams such as Celtic would do better playing in the premier league down south.

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Hibbies gracefully acknowledging illustrious history of the Hoops.

“Facing the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal would certainly draw in the big crowds again and probably help other Scottish teams do better in domestic competitions and thus compete on the European stage more often, which would help improve the quality of the game here,” he said.

As for the match itself that day, real excitement was in short supply. The Hoops, under manager Ronnie Deila, struggled to break down a resilient Inverness defense. In the end, a single second-half goal by star forward John Guidetti allowed them to leap over their opposition and into third place, though two late goalmouth scrambles almost sent the visitors home to the banks of Loch Ness in triumph.

Whether good or bad for Scottish football, there are few saying Celtic, the richest team in the league, will not end up winning the premiership for the fourth successive year – especially after leaping to the top with a last-minute winner against Aberdeen on Sunday.

However, after talking to Simon, learning his team was founded by Irish immigrants (thus the nickname ‘Cabbage and Ribs’ and the harp symbol on the shirt) and listening to one of its wonderful musical anthems ‘Sunshine on Leith’ by The Proclaimers, I’m more interested in seeing the Greens promoted than what’s happening in the top division.

But please don’t tell anyone from west Donegal. I’m due to get my residency permit any day.

QUIZ

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Crowds start to gather before kick-off at Parkhead.

Checking your knowledge of Celtic, here are three questions from that day’s match program:

  1. Which two former Celtic captains are this season managing teams in the Championship in England?
  2. Which four clubs did Charlie Mulgrew play for between his two spells at Celtic?
  3. Which two current Celts have in their careers also played in Spanish football?

If you cannot answer these questions, you probably should watch this video Sunshine On leith CIS Final – BBC and listen to the song. I’ll see you at Easter Road.

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Hoopy the Huddle Hound, Celtic’s lovable mascot (in foreground), supervises the team line-ups.

Donegal Connections – festival of books

For me living in the Gaeltacht region of Gaoth Dobhair in northwestern Ireland, the most surprising thing emerging from the recent, well-organised and stimulating ‘Belfast Book Festival was the number of novels set or inspired by little ol’ Donegal, the so-called ‘Forgotten County.’

Until then, I had been used to reading locally about publication of novels in our native language being funded by the various cultural groups such as Foras na Gaeilge, but hadn’t really thought too much about the diversity of English-language novels set or inspired by the beauty of the county (aside from Brian Friel’s plays), nor the use of phrases ‘as Gaeilge’ in such novels.

I know I’ll be accused of heresy and probably burned under a heather bush on the shadow of Lugh’s Mountain (otherwise known under its Christian name, Errigal) for suggesting this, but with the use of Irish diminishing in everyday conversation, should the various language groups not ease their overly-tight qualification criteria and fund publication of English-language novels that have some Irish phrasing in them?

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Author Emma Heatherington (seated left) and family, with evening event host, broadcaster, Sarah Travers, (seated right) and festival director, Keith Acheson (back right).

To my mind, it seems like not just a very reasonable suggestion, but a most innovative one that delivers many benefits. Books in Irish, by their nature, are for people who already speak and read our native language. Yet what we desperately need is to encourage non-Irish speaking people to become interested in our language and hunger to learn more. As English is one of the world’s leading languages, are not novels in this language not a perfect place for Irish phrases to be included to help achieve this aim? Will that not help expand use of Irish, both domestically and abroad? Such a linguistic/literary initiative would also help support economic development, especially through tourism, by attracting more visitors to Donegal and other such Gaeltachts. Such areas – while on the whole, providing inspiring land and seascapes – tend to be marginalized, unemployment black spots on the map of Ireland.

The landscape of the Outer Hebrides, with its stark cliffs, ghostly mists and lonely beaches, has become a definitive character of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy entitled ‘Hebrides’ and has helped revitalize tourism in that part of Scotland.

Food for thought.

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Crime fiction writer, Claire McGowan, with David Torrans of Belfast’s ‘No Alibis’ Bookstore at the Ulster Hall, talking about her genre and her work.

Anyway, back to the most enjoyable ‘Belfast Book Festival’ and novels set in the beautiful countryside of Donegal. Take the delightfully funny writing of Emma Heatherington and her book ‘One Night Only’ about four desperate housewives who take off in a car for an outing to the ‘Forgotten County’ and the hilarious, and poignant, consequences. Emma, who is due to speak next week at Ireland’s newest Writing Retreat in west Donegal is a multi-talented woman whose work ranges from novels to short stories to scripts and screenplays, including ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and ‘Playing the Field.’ Her personal ‘growing up’ story of having to become ‘Mum’ to her siblings as a young teenager after her own mother’s untimely death is touching. Aside from her literary output, one can’t help but admire Emma greatly. And she’s a natural, engrossing speaker to boot.

Then there’s Kenneth Gregory, fantasy novelist and mythologist extraordinaire with character names as Gaeilge, perhaps Ireland’s answer to the R.A. Salvatore/ Robert Jordan/ Marion Zimmer Bradley combo. His debut novel ‘The Polaris Whisper,’ the first in a trilogy, was published by Blackstaff Press. He will also speak and teach at Donegal’s ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Wordswriting retreat. Negotiations are now underway for the novel to be turned into a television series with a movie option. His second novel in the series is ‘The Poison of Newgrange.’ ‘Shahryár’s Heir: A Prince among Thieves’ is his first fantasy novel in a re-invention of the Arabian Nights’ stories.

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Blackstaff Press authors Laurence Donaghy and Kenneth Gregory discuss the art of writing, Celtic mythology and fusing fantasy with historical fact with journalist and author, Leona O’Neill at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Speaking together, he told me, “It is an honor to speak at such an event as the Ireland Writing Retreat. Northwestern Donegal is an awe-inspiring place, with an intriguing, colorful history packed with legends. So enthralled am I by the area that the third book in my trilogy, a modern-day thriller, has the working title of ‘Brinlack,’ a place beside Bloody Foreland. My best editor, my brother, Mark, lives there and I visit often.”

Then there’s the lady who shares my name, Sophia Hillan, former associate director of Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies and director of the International Summer School in Irish Studies. During an hour-long interview, Sophia told me about how she came upon a scrap of paper that led her to produce a most fascinating Donegal-based, non-fiction book entitled ‘May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland,’ published by Blackstaff Press in 2011. Her first novel ‘The Friday Tree’ has now just been published by the same publishing group and is set within a stone’s throw of where I grew up and lived for many years in Andersonstown, west Belfast.

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Two intelligent beautiful ladies, leaders in their respective fields – (l to r), author, Emma Heatherington and broadcaster, Sarah Travers.

That’s a lot of Donegal-based writing crossing so many genres, not to mention the many books written about Donegal’s very own mystic monk – Columba – including those by authors Máire Herbert  and Brian Lacey  – more of which will be written about in my next blog.

Of course, not all the authors and books at the ‘Belfast Book Festival’ were linked to Donegal. Head honcho of the Crescent Arts Centre and festival director Keith Acheson and his hardworking team, including marketing director Tracy O’Toole and outreach and education director, Ann Feely, as well as community arts development officer, Jan Carson, (her novel is entitled ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’) and her colleagues at the Ulster Hall, deserve full praise. They brought together a diverse collection of writers in various genres who spoke on such wide-ranging subjects as ageing and sexual politics (Lynne Segal – ‘Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing,’ ‘Is the Future Female?,’ ‘Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men,’ and ‘Straight Sex: The Politics of Desire’); murder most foul (Claire McGowan – ‘The Fall,’ ‘The Lost’ and ‘The Dead Ground,’ some of which use phrases ‘as Gaeilge’); matters of the heart and mind (Joseph O’ConnorInishowen,’ ‘Ghost Light,’ ‘The Thrill Of It All’ and ’Star of the Sea’); and guardian angels (Carolyn Jess-Cooke – ‘The Guardian Angel’s Journey’ and ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’), as well as providing publishing and public speaking advice through guests such as the lovely actress and teacher Rosie Pelan; the inimitable Ian Sansom (Mobile Library Series including ‘The Case of the Missing Books’ and ‘Mr. Dixon Disappears;’ and self-publishing guru, Alison Baverstock (‘Is There A Book in You’ and ‘Marketing Your Book: an author’s guide.’).

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Agents and publishers, including Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander (r), Patsy Horton (c) and Alice Kate Mullen (l) of Carcanet Press, discuss their roles and responsibilities in the writing field.

In terms of diversity of writer and subjects, the week-long series of events surpassed most such festivals I have attended – and I have been to many, including both the Salon du livre Paris and the London Book Fair. Also – beyond just the world of books – the festival reflects the emergence of Belfast from its enforced dormancy as a dynamic and attractive city with many options for would-be visitors, from cozy, atmospheric cafes, terrific restaurants and avantgarde and traditional theatres such as The MAC and the Lyric.

By the way, other speakers at the Donegal writing retreat which begins formally on Sunday, June 28th between An Bun Beag and Bun an Leaca (on which there are only four places left) include ‘Antony-Cleopatra’ expert Rachael Kelly and award-winning author Anthony Quinn and former detective-cum-writer Martin Ridge who lives near Falcarragh.

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As fiesty and stimulating as ever, author, socialist, feminist and civic leader, Lynne Segal greets her avid admirers.

Rachael, a native of Belfast has become the foremost expert on the age-old romance between Roman leader, Mark Antony, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (made famous on-screen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) after completing her doctorate in film studies on it. Rachael has also penned the first novel in a trilogy on the two historical figures entitled ‘Queen of the Nile,’ set in 1st-century-BC Alexandria. Rachael’s earlier novel, ‘The Edge of Heaven,’ won the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition 2014, while her short story, Blumelena, was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2012. Her ‘Long Anna River’ won the Orange Northern Woman Short Story Award and was later featured in an anthology called ‘The Barefoot Nuns of Barcelona,’ while ‘The Night Sky In November’ was runner-up in the White Tower Publishing Short Story Competition. Her poem, ‘A Five Yard Odyssey,’ won ‘The Battle of the Bards.’

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Alison Baverstock, publisher, trainer and writer, talks about the advantages and pit-falls of self-publishing, accompanied by successful self-publishers at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Anthony Quinn was born in 1971 in Tyrone and his short stories have been short-listed twice for a Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award. He was also the runner-up in the Sunday Times New Food Writer competition. ‘Disappeared‘ is the title of his first novel. Published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press in 2012, it was was shortlisted for a Strand Literary Award, as judged by book critics from the LA Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and the Guardian. It was also selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the top ten thrillers of 2012. BORDER ANGELS, the sequel, was published by Mysterious Press last year.

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Actress and teacher, Rosie Pelan, instructs writers how to best speak their words in public.

Martin Ridge, from Galway but living in Donegal for many years, is a retired Garda officer. He almost single-handedly took on the might of the Catholic Church when he investigated rumors – that soon became distressing facts – about the horrific rape and sexual abuse of young boys by members of the clergy in northwest Donegal, in and around the towns of Gortahork and Falcarragh. His brilliantly-written book ‘Breaking the Silence’ tells a tragic story of the carnage such abuse created in the lives of the boys, now men, many still living in the area, and the arrogance of the church towards that abuse in refusing to co-operate with investigations or offer appropriate compensation. This particular rural area now has the ignominy of being the worse area for clerical abuse record in all Ireland. For more information on the Ireland Writing Retreat see http://www.irelandwritingretreat.com/