Praise and prise

As one year ends and another begins I look back at the privilege I’ve had of writing in this blog about exceptional individuals who – through skill, initiative, invention, passion and sheer persistence – deserve great praise.

They’ve brought added color and a refreshing sense of diversity to Donegal, one of the most remote parts of Ireland straddling its most northwesterly Atlantic seaboard.

Consider Sabba Curran from Dore, who some years ago, without knowing much about boats drove down through England at exactly this time of year and returned with one in tow. Now he owns ‘The Cricket’ one of the largest passenger boats in the area and brings people for enjoyable excursions to Gola Island and much farther out on leisure fishing trips.

The Cricket boat to Gola Island, ferry to Gola Island, Donegal islands

Or Gareth Doherty, whose boat-trips with his grandfather unwittingly launched him on a series of sea-loving escapades. Now, with a plethora of certificates to his name as master of different crafts, Gareth takes visitors, young and old alike, on sailing and canoeing adventures, teaching them the skills he himself has learned over the years and showing them the beauty of the bird and sea-life population all around us.

Selkie Sailing, Gareth Doherty

Then there’s Pól Ó Muireasáin, one of the most refined Irish speakers in the entire Donegal Gaeltacht, or indeed any Gaeltacht for that matter. Having taught as Gaeilge at university and worked as a translator in Brussels on complex European issues, there’s very little Pól doesn’t know about our native language, grammar, linguistic or etymology.

Brimming with civic spirit, there’s few challenges Pól won’t try, including line-dancing as a nun and a cowboy, then imitating that most famous of seasonal characters, Santa, thus bringing untold pleasure to young and old alike.

fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Photo by Sean Hillen

Trips with these three men over the last few years has filled me with the kind of exhilaration and child-like exuberance one rarely finds in the bland concrete-and-glass urban settings I’ve often lived in.

But it’s not just lovers of the sea that help restore one’s faith in humanity. There’s also lovers of the land. Such people as Seamus Doohan, walking guide and lover of all things Celtic.

Seamus Doohan walking guide, walking Donegal

Having had the pleasure of experiencing his tours for an article in ‘The Irish Times’ as well as for this blog, I can guarantee a right-royal good time in his company, meandering among the hills of Donegal while learning about the colorful history of the area – including flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles and Pagan wishing stones.

Treading a different terrain altogether is Kathleen Gallagher.

Kathleen Gallagher Falcarragh,

Standing at Falcarragh crossroads just before sunset one year, I – like hundreds of others – was astounded to see a dramatic spectacle unfold before our eyes. At the edge of the hazy horizon, slowly coming into view, appeared wave upon wave of grisly, shapeless, blood-spattered zombies, horrible-looking members of the UnDead who, as they drew near, suddenly burst into a frenzy of brilliantly-choreographed dance moves to the pounding music of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Such a mesmerizing event, part of a community festival, is but one example of the sheer creativity of this lively, zesty individual who’s probably the envy of Galway’s ‘Macnas.’

Kathleen’s artistic talent brings me conveniently to another transplant to Donegal, this time from the heart of Scotland – a man who has brought Kings, Queens, medieval murderers and even ‘Cold War’ spies to this small part of the world. From James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ to Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man,’ Murray Learmont is a stage supremo directing members of the Cloughaneely Players to theatrical success.

Murray Learmont theatre director, theatre in Donegal

‘Toss a stone and you’ll hit a musician on the head.’ Such were the memorable words I recall hearing from someone after first setting up home in Bun na Leaca fifteen years ago. It’s an understatement. ‘Toss a stone and it’ll bounce from the head of one musician to another, to another, to another….’ is a more accurate depiction of the situation.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing so many performing, it would be impossible to name them all here, but two whose lives I’ve written about deserve mention.

Few around here, nor in places beyond Ireland, don’t remember ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ and its founding member, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Pat Gallagher, who penned the immortal tribute, ‘Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal’ that became an instant national hit. Such is his musical prowess Pat can meander effortlessly from one genre to another, from ballads and blues to folk rock and country. Listen to ‘A Returning Islander,’ ‘Turfman’s Blues,’ ‘Children of the Highways,’ and ‘Let the World Keep on Turning’ and you’ll understand just what I mean.

Pat Gallagher musician, Goats don't Shave

Then there’s Ian Smith. Not managing to become a native of west Donegal, he did the next best thing – married beann álainn, Breda, from here. Formerly a guitarist and singer with a rock band in England, Ian left thousands of groupies broken-hearted and settled near Burtonport – and has never looked back, well, hardly ever. During that time he has played with some of the best musicians in the world and has cut not one but three full CDs, one of which ‘Restless Heart’ showcases his immense song-writing talent, with many of the titles his own work.

Ian Smith musician, folk music Donegal

That’s the praise bit of the headline. What about the prising bit?

Such talented people as mentioned have not received the kind of support they deserve from those with their hands on the cash that is meant to enrich the cultural, social and economic soil of west Donegal.

Instead of providing generous funding for touristic and artistic initiatives that help attract welcome visitors to the area and create jobs, the powers-that-be at the Gaeltacht’s leading funder, Údarás na Gaeltachta have either repeatedly fed the billion euro they’ve received to well-known, rich elites; to themselves or acquaintances; to developers to build now derelict, deserted industrial estates; and to companies which have gladly accepted the hand-outs, then promptly left the area, leaving out-of-work unfortunates in their wake.

Perturbed by the stories I’ve been told by local people about such discrimination and the wall of informational silence constructed by Údarás – I began prising apart, bit-by-bit, snippets of information through the Freedom of Information Act about the spending policies of aforesaid economic development organization.

To say I was surprised and disappointed at what I found is a distinct understatement. Astonishment would be a more suitable word. Lack of strategy, absence of clarity, cases of cronyism and nepotism – in fact, all the dubious goings-on that continue to bedevil Ireland and prevent its healthy development.

With the New Year approaching, I’ll continue to praise and prise. Perhaps, in doing so, I’ll help create a bit more transparency as well as highlighting some more of the real heroes of the area and thus contribute something to the area where I live.

I hope so cos’ I’m a terrible singer, can’t play a musical instrument if my life depended on it. As for gardening, what’s the difference between a parsnip and the tail of a donkey? Don’t even mention boating.

In the meantime, have a happy and contented New Year, wherever you are, whatever you do!

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Donegal entrepreneur Moira Ní Ghallachóir pushes for local tourism diversity

With no particular experience in tourism and no specific agenda, Edinburgh-born Moira Ní Ghallachóir bravely packed up her bags in London four years ago and returned to west Donegal where she grew up, to re-invent herself – and says she has never looked back.

Moira Ní Ghallachóir Donegal,

Back home, and lovin’ it! Photo by Philip Mulligan

Living in her grandmother’s home in Derryconnor just outside Gortahork in the Gaeltacht, she noticed the large number of local people with outdoors skills such as Iain Miller, an experienced mountaineer, and Gareth Doherty, a sailing instructor, so she launched mng Ventures to organize outdoor adventures linking their skills to clients.

mng Ventures, Donegal outdoor activities

Iain Miller puts Moira ‘through the ropes.’

“I looked at my life in London, the work-week, then partying all weekend, and asked myself, ‘Is this it?’ ” said the petite, short-haired 39-year-old woman sitting in An Crannog, a community-based complex in the coastal town of Bunbeg under the management of Cathal Ó Gallchóir, where she was given free office space for a year to help develop her business. “If someone had told me I’d be earning as little as I have over the last three years, however, I’d have said, ‘You must be joking.’ But, honestly, I feel more fulfilled, happier and healthier than I’ve ever been. With islands, mountains, lakes and the Atlantic Ocean right beside us, this place is truly world class. That’s what inspired me to set up a business.”

While Moira is armed with plenty of enthusiasm and networking links gained from living in Ranafast from age 8 to 18, she is concerned at what some describe as ‘generational grant dependency,’ the over-reliance on public hand-outs for projects rather than sheer entrepreneurial spirit.

mng Ventures, Rock agus Roam

Ready to ‘Rock agus Roam, a project organised by mng Ventures!

“Many people feel they have to be supported by government grants and if there is none, then ‘game over’ it cannot be done,” she said forthrightly. “We need to realize what we have and build on it. Some people say, ‘We need an adventure centre,’ not realizing that the adventure centre is all around them. Many also don’t appreciate what a beautiful landscape they have here. How can they then expect tourists to appreciate it? They’ve got to believe in their business and tell it as it is, get the word out there, with honesty and an authentic voice. Why be quiet about generating jobs or being environmentally-friendly? With today’s technology we can promote ourselves at the click of a button.”

Moira also believes greater co-operation among local people is required for group success. “We need to work together more closely, we’re still not doing enough of that. We need to start clustering.”

activities in Donegal, Donegal people,

Captivating seascapes around the northwest coast of Donegal.

Taking language as a cultural issue, she adds, “There is a lot of fear here in the Gaeltacht around the Irish language issue. Yet it can be our greatest strength, an important part of our cultural landscape. I have never viewed the Irish language as central to the growth of my business, but I embrace it with respect, with ‘meas.’”

In fact, Moira says having a bilingual business is “a challenge, double the effort as it’s often difficult to marry English and Irish,” with even announcements having to be written, edited and designed in both languages.

rock-climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, island hopping, whale watching

Speaker Finbarr Bradley captures his audience on Saturday.

Her statement inadvertently raises an important issue for Gaeltacht areas. Is too much precedence given to Irish-speaking-only entrepreneurs for funding from grant-awarding bodies such as Údarás na Gaeltachta, than local non-Irish speaking applicants or ‘blow-ins’ as they are referred to locally? In terms of larger grants, language doesn’t seem to be a barrier, with English-speaking call centers having received millions of euro over the years from Údarás. With smaller entrepreneurs, however, ‘blow-ins’ report having very little success accessing grants from the organization for projects that they say could create badly needed employment.

While Moira admits to it being, “hard to make a decent living here,” she is optimistic things will get better. “About three hundred are already booked for outdoor pursuits next year,” she says proudly. While she says success so far has been ‘built on my own investment and initiative,” she adds that she has accessed grant funding from Foras na Gaeilge for the Colmcille Trail (Colmcille Eirinn is Alba) project launched recently and from Údarás for a three-month pilot programme, which ends in January.

entrepreneurs Donegal, outdoor activities Donegal

She also says she will probably apply for the upcoming EU-funded LEADER programme aimed at economically regenerating rural areas.

Though mng Ventures organizes a wide variety of activities including rock-climbing, sea kayaking, sailing, island hopping, whale watching and hill walking, Moira believes there is still not enough diversity of tourism offer in west Donegal. “We need more choice and we need to work from the inside out to achieve that.”

where to eat in Gweedore Donegal, Donegal cafes

Caitlin Gallagher, owner of Caife Kitty, and her daughter served up delicious food and drinks to everyone Saturday.

Her words were echoed by Finbarr Bradley, professor and co-author of ‘The Irish Edge’ and a mentor to Moira’s fledgling company. At an event Saturday organized by Moira at Sean Teach Niall O’Domhnaill Loch an Iúir where fine food was prepared by Caitlin Gallagher of Caife Kitty in Bunbeg, he said, “This area of Donegal is rich in landscape and culture and that’s what many people are searching for now, something experiential, something spiritual, something authentic. Building upon all that you already have here so naturally is the best way forward.”

Finbarr Bradley author, University College Dublin

Watched by excellent singer Noeleen Ni Cholla (centre), Finbarr Bradley talks about the importance of ‘cultural authenticity’ in tourism development.