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

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Irish band, Goats Don’t Shave, raise the rafters at album launch concert

Musical lovers know such Irish groups as U2, The Cranberries and The Pogues – now make way for Donegal-based ‘Goats Don’t Shave.’

Whether it’s about the perils of drinking, the Irish Revolution, the loss of island life or indeed love itself – multi-talented singer-songwriter Pat Gallagher and his dynamic band move you to laughter or to tears. Never neither, as more than evident in a hair-raising, hand-clapping, foot-tapping, time-stopping, standing-ovation performance at The Balor Theatre recently in Ballybofey, Donegal, northwestern Ireland.

Master of many instruments including guitar, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and drum, not to mention the fine art of lyric writing, Gallagher and his musical colleagues more than please an audience – with humorous anecdotes, brilliant musicianship and strong voices whether in soft, poignant, tear-jerking ballads or fast, let-it-all-hang-out rhythms.

More than that, Gallagher’s songs tell vivid stories, rough-cut slices of life, some with serrated edges. And diverse they are too, whether about a washed-up Scottish boxer and his winning the world championship, digging turf for the fire (down and dirty blues-style), the tale of an Irish gigolo known as ‘Crooked Jack,’ or simply about Irish navvies taking the bus from Donegal to Glasgow in search of work.

Pat Gallagher musician, Goats don't Shave

Living in rural west Donegal – considered by many to be the most naturally beautiful part of all Ireland – Gallagher and his band have just released their fourth album, entitled ‘Turf Man Blues,’ an impressive output of musical creativity by any standard. Equally impressive, the friendly performers work spans many genres, from country and rock to folk, blues, even gospel. So versatile is Gallagher, musical aficionados say they await his debut as a classical composer and conductor for the Irish National Orchestra.

Shaun Doherty Goats don't Shave

While light-hearted banter is an integral element of Gallagher’s performances, so too sometimes is biting satire, as in ‘God Takes Visa’ about how some religions have gotten so greedy about taking peoples’ money for the saving of souls, as exemplified in the line, ‘the dollar is a Kingdom but the poor must stay outside.’

Mickey Gallagher Goats don't Shave

Gallagher’s verses and musical notes also have an enduring effect on listeners as in his, at times poignant, at times angry rendition, of ‘The Evictions,’ about the merciless evictions of Irish peasants from their small farms in Derryveagh in Donegal by a powerful English landlord, John George Adair, and his ‘crowbar brigades’ in the mid-1800s, thus forcing them to sail away from family, friends and their native homeland to Australia and other far-off places.

Odhran Cummings Goats don't Shave

Just as Gallagher’s new song, ‘The Volunteer,’ is a tribute to those men, women and children who gave up their lives during the 1916 Easter Irish Revolution, with the centennial being commemorated this year, so ‘Let The World Keep On Turning’ is devoted to diversity, whether that be religion, skin color or language.

Patsy Gallagher Goats don't Shave

A tribute to the loyalty Pat Gallagher and ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ have created down through the years, especially since their chart-topping hit ‘Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal’ in 1992, is that on Saturday night a woman made a request for her two friends who got engaged at a Goats concert almost 20 years ago.

Stephen Campbell Goats don't Shave

Devoted fans Malachy McLaughlin from Dungloe and Michael Gallagher (Ireland’s famous weather forecaster) and daughter Marian, a Special Olympics Summer Games silver medal winner, left the concert-hall in ecstasy, with the former saying, “Brilliant. Fantastic music from my favorite band. I loved it.”

Michael Gallagher weather man, The Turf Man Blues

Even when Gallagher, singer-songwriter-musician par excellence, asked the audience to stay behind for a moment after the last song to pose for a group photo, he brought a smile to everyone’s face, saying he wanted it for the band’s ‘Instabook’ page.

So, a big hurrah for band members Pat Gallagher (vocal, guitar and banjo), Mickey Gallagher (drums), Patsy Gallagher (lead guitar, mandolin and vocal), Odhran Cummings (bass), Shaun Doherty (guitar and vocal) and Stephen Campbell (fiddle), as well as guest musicians, Connor Malone (saxophone) and Dermot Donohue (harmonica), for a terrific evening of entertainment launching the band’s newest CD. Interestingly, for part of Saturday’s concert, Pat Gallagher and fellow musician, Patsy Gallagher, played instruments made by Donegal-based company, Emerald Guitars – Pat on an X20 Artisan Woody, featuring a Bubinga veneer, and Patsy on an X7 Artisan.

Goats don't shave, Turf Man Blues

Following the Balor Theatre gig, ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ will perform three dates in Scotland next month: The Ceilidh House, Oban (May 27); Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen, Islay (May 28) and The Shed, Glasgow (May 29).

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!