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.”

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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!

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From Burtonport to Bucharest: a restless heart keeps creative juices flowing

“Some people write poems, some write novels, I write songs…”

Such is how Donegal-based Ian Smith sums up the special craft he has practiced for more than half a century.

I first met the friendly, fair-haired Scotsman when he kindly introduced himself to my wife, Columbia, and I at a gig some years ago in the hauntingly beautiful Poisoned Glen in the shadow of Errigal where he was both musician and an organising team member at the annual Frankie Kennedy Winter Music School.

Our friendship strengthened after we asked him if he could arrange a group of Irish musicians to play concerts throughout Romania where we were then living as part of our combined inaugural St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and national Corporate Citizen Awards in that struggling post-Communist country.

Ian Smith musician, folk music Donegal

After his arrival in Bucharest, I remember distinctly his shock upon seeing a huge multicolored banner stretching several floors of a city centre building featuring him strumming guitar. Only then perhaps did the full significance of playing before audiences of thousands including the nation’s President, Prime Minister, Mayors and international Ambassadors truly dawn on him.

St. Patrick's Day celebrations Eastern Europe, Irish music Romania

Through snatches of conversation in airports and on winding roads between Romanian cities such as Cluj-Napoca, Oradea, Brasov and Constanta and in Donegal’s very own Hiudái Beag’s, Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern I managed to patch together a tapestry of the life of the talented musician-cum-songwriter.

Smith recalls being seduced initially as a young 14-year-old “by the dark and complex lyrics of Lennon and the more upbeat and happy ones of McCartney” before his musical interests expanded quickly until they encompassed Carol King, James Taylor, Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell. “I could have listened to Joni’s ‘Blue’ album 25 hours a day,” he says.

singer songwriter Ian Smith, Donegal musicians, St Patrick's Day musicians

A moment of pure concentration.

Living in Ayrshire, with such local talent as Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly and Barbara Dixon, the air around him was filled with artistic creativity. Smith must have inhaled it deeply as now, many years later, the 65-year-old has three albums under his belt – the wonderful ‘Restless Heart,’ ‘Keadue Bar’ and ‘A Celtic Connection,’ the latter labeled by ‘Irish Music Magazine’ as the recommended album of the year in 2011. He has also produced a two-track mini CD featuring the lovely songs ‘When it Snows In New York City’ and ‘On Keadue Strand’ – all reflecting the diversity of his song-writing abilities and the beauty of his guitar-playing.

As if that wasn’t enough, he has also hosted gigs both in the US, including one at the legendary Woodstock, and across Europe and Scandinavia, touring and playing alongside many international stars such as Nanci Griffith, Benny Gallagher, Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Mary Black, Altan, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Liam O’Maonlai. He also recently hosted a group of international writers at Teac Jack during the annual Ireland Writing Retreat, granting them insights into the art of songwriting.

Interestingly, the man from Kilmarnock didn’t begin adult life as a musician, instead working in the textile industry before his true passion took him on whirlwind adventures across England and Scotland either performing solo or with bands such as ‘Nessie.’

On one of these tours he met Donegal woman, Breda Ward, and love being the irresistible force that it is, the young, long-haired lead guitarist gave up the fast-moving world of rock music for donkeys, carts, whitewashed cottages and west Donegal rural tranquility where they reared two sons, Daniel and Mathew.

That was 34 years ago but rather than marking the end of his music career, Smith’s move to Ireland’s ‘Forgotten County’ simply signified his entering onto new stages – in the literal sense.

After renovating their home, word went out there was a new musician in the area. Soon there was a knock on the door. ‘Can you play a few songs for us at our Dungloe festival?’

writing songs, Donegal musicians, Ian Smith songwriter

Ian enjoys a moment of post-concert relaxation with international participants and teachers at this year’s Ireland Writing Retreat at Teac Jack, Glassagh, including Gortahork’s Rose Sweeney (centre front) and bearded former CNN editor, John DeDakis from Washington.

That was the beginning of Smith’s baptism into the local melody scene. His skills were in high demand at clubs and pubs throughout the county, and beyond. Smith tours Germany each year with the dynamic dance show  ‘Danceperados’ for which he wrote the song, ‘True Travellers,’ has a music residency in Clare and plays at a number of other venues.

He has also been deeply involved in key community projects – the annual summer ‘Trad Trathnóna’ hosted by the organization Tionscnamh Lugh, at Ionad Cois Locha in Dunlewey, that promotes Irish music and the Frankie Kennedy School, where my wife and I first met him.

Such is his love of music he also hosts intimate concerts in his own home, with creative US-based singer-guitarist, Buddy Mondlock and Benny Gallagher (of Gallagher & Lyle fame), among those playing in his cozy living room.

Buddy Mondlock, Benny Gallagher, Gallagher & Lyle, Ian Smith

A memorable concert at Ian’s home featuring (l to r) Ian, Benny Gallagher and Buddy Mondlock.

You’ll also hear Smith playing with local band, ‘Vintage,’ featuring Letterkenny musician, Ted Ponsonby, on slide guitar, Englishman, Dave Wintour and Gary Porter from Lifford.

Smith sums up his approach to songwriting in the phrase, ‘One and one equals three.’

“It’s all about sharing,” he says. “Working with others – even up to four people together – can make a song so much better. Lyrics should create word images. Songs are really four-minute novels, with beginnings, middles and ends.” No surprise then that he is a regular participant at festivals such as Songcraft, enjoying the camaraderie of artists just like himself.

In Smith’s view, time matters little in songwriting. “In Nashville, a place filled with great talent, songs are churned out like clockwork, but that’s not my thing, I don’t set a specific time to complete one,” he says. “One song, ‘James,’ about my father, took nine years, it was a tough emotional journey. Yet ‘Restless Heart,’ the title album of my first CD, took twenty minutes in my kitchen. As I get older, I write less songs but, hopefully, better ones.”

Looking back over the years, Smith says, “I consider myself lucky in life. I have a passion for melody and the guitar has helped give me a voice of my own.”

TV3’s Vincent Browne ‘People’s Debate’ in Donegal attracts lively discussion

While Fine Gael and Labour were expected to take a beating at yesterday evening’s Vincent Browne-hosted ‘People’s Debate’ in Letterkenny – in part deserved as the two parties refused to participate – Fianna Fail also took a drubbing.

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At one point, after listening to the party’s TD Charlie McConalogue berate government policies, the veteran TV host exclaimed, “I cannot understand how you can make these criticisms. Fine Gael is simply following Fianna Fail policies. Fianna Fail laid down the strategy for dealing with the banking bailout and Fine Gael and Labour are merely following it.”

McConalogue made another mistake later in the debate saying, “the agreement with the Troika was negotiable,” thus contradicting what the public had been told by Fianna Fail that the deal under former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minster of Finance, Brian Lenihan, was non-negotiable. Browne was quick to make the point, “Your party said details of the agreement with the Troika were non-negotiable, yet now you say they were. Make up your mind.”

On the emotive issue of water charges, McConalogue – after much fudging said he would halt Irish Water and suspend water charges. Again, Browne responded, “Your party, Fianna Fail, already had a plan in place in 2010 to impose water charges, but now you’re saying you’re having second thoughts.”

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Browne, at his best as a current affairs host when pushing political guests for a clear-cut answer, didn’t let the lively capacity audience down, especially when badgering the four-member panel for their views on a potential coalition after the next election. Asked whether he would take a ministerial seat under a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led coalition Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty seemed somewhat uncomfortable in his seat.

“That is a hypothetical question and such decisions are made at our party Ard Fheis,” he said finally, as if caught by surprise, but recovering. “What we have agreed is that unless water and property charges are dropped, we will not go into any coalition.” He acknowledged, “Some members have voiced their opinion that they would go into a coalition as a minority party. We are a party hungry for change, we are not hungry for power.”

When asked the same question, his Sinn Fein colleague TD Pádraig MacLochlainn was more direct, unhesitatingly replying, “I will not participate in a government led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.” As if taking strength from this, Doherty later stated categorically, “If asked by a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to be a minister, I would refuse.”

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After chastising the two Sinn Fein members for not giving a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, McConalogue himself began the dance of the slippery eel until, under bombardment from host and audience, he finally said, “I would not like to participate in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition but if I was outvoted by my party colleagues I’d have to go along.”

In his two-minute intro, Doherty said “four years ago we were promised a democratic revolution yet all we have had is more of the same with cronyism, stealth taxes and high levels of unemployment, no more so than right here in Donegal. There is a fairer and better way of moving forward and Sinn Fein’s job strategy can reshape this county.” He added that it was little wonder Donegal was known as ‘The Forgotten County.’ “I know Vincent you didn’t come here by train because this is one of only five counties in all Ireland without a mainline railway service.” Under an FOI request he said he has asked for a government paper produced on the future of small schools, adding that Donegal has the second largest number of such schools, with four teacher or less.

When corruption and lack of transparency within Údarás na Gaeltachta was brought up, including its refusal to release key information on its public spending such as lucrative pension payments to former executives which amount to half of its entire annual budget, Doherty said his party had tabled formal parliamentary questions on the issue, adding, “there should be full disclosure about people in receipt of high public pensions, it is important to have complete transparency so such payments can be scrutinized by the public.”

McConalogue said in his intro, “the last four years of government have been an attack on Donegal with post office closures, agriculture being hard hit and worsening heath services,” adding, “we have strong potential here but we need better infrastructure including the A5 project up and running and wider broadband.”

Referring to the pre-election catchphrase ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way,’ MacLochlainn said the government’s record has proved very different, “with a reduction in classrooms, budget cuts across the board and Donegal having the lowest allocation of medical staff of any county.” He added, “Donegal people are hard-working and passionate. All we’re asking is a fair chance and for Dublin to meet us halfway.”

Regarding the water charges, he added, “For thirty years, Sinn Fein has opposed these charges and now it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has simply been too much austerity. Irish Water is a white elephant. My message is ‘scrap the water charges and go back to the drawing board.’ ”

While decrying the lack of proper health services and unfair stealth taxes, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said renewable energy had tremendous potential for Donegal as had the biomass wood industry. Speaking of Killybegs, he also said the fishing industry had been “hard-hit.’ He said water conservation should be a top priority because so much is being lost through poor network connectivity. He also said he was proud of challenging the bank bail-out through the courts and being in the forefront of water charge protests (continuing the momentum, a major ‘Right2Water’ protest took place earlier today – Saturday – in Letterkenny, with others elsewhere nationwide).

All four TDs, when asked directly, said they would vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Over the lively, two-hour event at the Clanree Hotel, there was no shortage of questions from the floor with periodic rambunctious catcalls, cheering and booing, which caused short stoppages and words of warning from the presenter.

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True to his word, Browne attempted to cover as many topics as possible such as equality, including the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum; family services, education, employment and health. Speakers ranged from parents of terminally-ill children; school teachers, social workers and community activists working on behalf of people as diverse as lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, cancer sufferers, the disabled, and many others.

Some light-hearted moments and biting comments helped take the edge of emotions as when a thirsty Vincent Browne ran out of water and promised he’d even pay for some and when James Woods from Gortahork commented that with so much emigration, Donegal was turning into a wildlife refuge.

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All in all, ‘People’s Debate’ is an excellent initiative by TV3, no doubt demanding detailed planning to host such shows in all the constituencies of Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour’s decision to spurn them, indicating fear and a lack of understanding of the difficulties facing ordinary people, could ultimately cost them vital votes in the polling booths.

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Bunbeg, once pretty, now disfigured

Once pretty, Bunbeg is looking more and more like a toothless old hag.

Derelict spaces, decrepit ‘For Sale’ signs and boarded up, empty and run-down buildings have pockmarked its once thriving main street.

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The iconic, century-old Seaview Hotel, which employed over 108 people seven years ago (talk of Cayman Islands and meat debts has no place in this blog), stands empty and forlorn this week , joining a heap of other ‘deadwoods’ on the street  – a once popular restaurant opposite and three other nearby hotels, The Errigal View, the Ostan Gaoth Dobhair and The Brookvale, as well as a mix of shops, bars and cafes, all now closed and crumbling.

Ironically, one of the few buildings to be renovated and opened on the main street is the constituency office of Fine Gael TD and former Gaeltacht, Arts and Tourism Junior Minister Dinny McGinley, the man who proudly pronounced this week, “We’re on the cusp of a new golden era of tourism.”

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Talk about poor timing.

Not to mention poor positioning. McGinley’s office lies a mere 50 yards from the deserted Seaview Hotel, first established in 1904.

News this week of the Seaview’s demise is a stark reminder of the abnegation by Udaras, the area’s main economic regeneration group, of its prime responsibility for creating  jobs, including those in the hospitality sector, with Gearoid O’Smaolain its main tourism development officer.

Eamon McBride, former President of the Gaoth Dobhair Chamber of Commerce, put it simply: “the area is crying out for more attractions.”

Job losses, lack of transparency

Aside from the 35 jobs, both full and part-time, lost at the Seaview this week, hundreds have been lost at other Udaras-sponsored businesses such as Largo Foods, Nuance and Sioen Apparel over the last few years. In fact, the Udaras Donegal office has performed consistently worse than any other Gaeltacht region in Ireland in terms of its job-creation record.

Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty this week called on the Government to immediately publish the findings of a delayed report by a working group tasked with examining job creation in the Gaoth Dobhair area. One hopes he will demand the same of the local Udaras office. Only then, can the organisation be properly analyzed to ascertain if the public is getting ‘bang for its buck,’ or if drastic changes need to be made internally if it is found that employees lack the skills-set necessary for the important task at hand.

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Gaeltacht disintegration

The intriguing part of the sad saga surrounding what is, in effect, economic mismanagement of the Irish-speaking area, is that while towns within it, such as Gortahork, Falcarragh and Bunbeg, are literally peeling apart, both economically and physically, Dunfanaghy, just outside the borders of the Gaeltacht, is riding a wave, with bars and cafes enjoying a boost in trade, especially at weekends – without the benefit of public funding of any kind.

While Udaras Donegal announced this week it will release proposals for economic development, observers say this is more a cosmetic exercise aimed at organisational survival than a serious attempt at strategic innovation and staff revision – that it has not even hosted a single open public meeting to ascertain the views of ordinary people, the very people who pay for its running costs. Interestingly though, while widespread job losses have occurred in Udaras-sponsored companies in Donegal, no such losses have occurred within the local Udaras office itself.

Based on its operational history (see above graph), should we accept as normal that out of its seven million euro budget for this year as announced by Udaras officials, two-thirds go towards salaries, pensions and expenses, and the remaining one-third only to economic and language development?

Is it not long past time this organisation came under closer public scrutiny and thus be made more accountable?

Columba: saint, soldier or New Age Pagan?

Columba, considered saintly by some, charismatic by others, was a bit of a ‘cute whore,’ a caustic and cantankerous character, a male chauvinist, thrifty to the point of miserliness and perhaps a non-entity who did diddly squat except be a pawn for powerful war lords vying over territory in early Ireland.

Such are the colorful views of some leading historians, archaeologists and writers gathered recently in what is considered the Celtic mystic’s ‘home place’ of west Donegal to deconstruct aspects of the legendary fellow’s life. The three-day conference at Loch Altan Hotel, Gortahork, was organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall, ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba.

Photo by Alan Sproull

Rural west Donegal – the area is considered the ‘home place’ of the legendary Columba. Photo by Alan Sproull

So who then was responsible for some of the magnanimous stories about this larger-than-life character and his supposedly ‘unEarthly’ powers and their ultimate adoption as mainstream belief? A new, ambitious group hell-bent on making sure it rose to the top of the ‘Champions League of Religions’ table, that’s who. Not an easy task, mind you, for developing Christianity faced well-established teams of equally high calibre, many with loyal fan bases, catchy club anthems, ambient arenas and good-looking kits – all well-suited to the emotional needs and superstitions of Irish people around 2,000 years ago.

To compete with the Red Devils, Gunners, Barças, Reals, Inters and Juves of the religious world, Christianity had to go on the transfer market to strengthen its position. And it didn’t much waste time about doing so either, quickly transferring a bunch of Pagan symbols – wells, crosses, incense, wreaths, bells, chants, ceremonies – even wedding rings – under its spreading angelic wings.

But that wasn’t enough. With solid defensive work and fine attacking play, opposing teams held out well against them.

Then leaders of the new movement put their collective heads together and in an illuminated moment of intellectual brilliance (in lingo religiosa ‘the Holy Spirit came upon them’) realized the one vital ingredient missing from their strategy – the persuasive power of an ancient, as well as modern, condition known commonly as ‘celebratitis.’

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Using Pagan symbols such as the cross, Columba may have persuaded tribes-people to a different way of thinking.

So, as one does when one has rising aspirations of political greatness, they created a sub-committee. A subcommittee with the sole purpose of weaving together stories on selected individuals, stories so grandiose and wondrous they’d make celebrities out of any plain Peter, Paul and Mary, alive or dead. In fact, their preferred choice was the latter, for among all the beliefs abounding – then and now – there’s one you can be pretty damn sure of –- it’s difficult to argue with a corpse.

Thus was born the legend of Columba – about whom, conveniently for his ‘handlers,’ conjecture heavily outweighs fact.

Hell-bent on their mission, monks of the newly-fashioned Christian organization created a carefully-crafted chronology of the fellow’s life that they entitled ‘Chronicles of Iona’ but while others mention a library in Kilmacrennan where it might have been housed, no-one has found a single shred of evidence of it (or such evidence, for reasons of strategy, has been craftily shifted to location unknown). A censored part of it is in the ‘Annals of Ulster.’ In it is included details of what they purport to be miracles (seemingly the head gaffer put around a memo to his fellow brethren asking for submissions as they were a bit short on anecdotes) and other material supporting their cause, including their anti-woman crusade (all contributions welcome as to the origin of this particular stance). For example, Columba is supposed to have banished all women from Iona, warning others to be wary of them, not to give them too much power, or – interestingly – too much water, one conference speaker claimed.

As for his alleged saintliness, historians indicate Columba – like many other monks of the time – often believed the secular to be more sacred than the spiritual and were mere ciphers for rival, warring factions, at a time when churches were placed on territorial borders as symbolic deterrents or markers. It is believed Dai Riada, the king of the area associated with Columba, might have wanted to expand his holdings and used our fellow solely for that reason.

Fired up by his missionary zeal, Columba also supposedly skedaddled hither and thither all over Europe. But, just as in the case of saints’ relics, he’d have to have been cloned to be in all the places he is supposed to have been, doing the things he is supposed to have been doing. Some believers, for example, say he was not only involved in discovering the holy wells of Derry but was the actual founder of that particular northern Irish city. There’s little contemporary evidence of this. Due to the gap of years between his death (around 593) and the city’s founding, he’d have to have been a time-travelling vampire to have accomplished the task. Another monk, Augustine, is more central to Derry, having established a church there since the 600s AD. At best, Columba’s favorite Uncle Fiachra was Derry’s founder but again evidence even of this is severely lacking.

According to Christian slant, Columba is also thought to have brought back the so-called Gospel of Martin from Tours in France. Please don’t ask me to accept this on ‘blind faith.’ That’s like the blind leading the blind, and there’s no easier way to go astray than that. More likely, with spelling in those days being less than precise and Tory Island known in documents as Toraigh, Toirinis and Tourensis, it was a case of geographical misplacement (or story enhancement).

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Iona – a windswept Scottish island that reflects the heritage of the legendary Celtic mystic.

Even the much talked about Battle of Cúl Dreimne near Ben Bulben in Sligo – allegedly fought over Columba’s illegal copying of a book (‘to every cow its calf and to every book its copy’) and his banishment to Iona – this may simply have been the workings of an over-imaginative scribe in a cloistered scriptorium. Instead, the battle may have been over the killing of man, who was under Columba’s protection, by Diarmait mac Cerbaill, High King of Tara. Some say the leader of a monastic settlement in Inismurray Island, Sligo, then told Columba bluntly it would be‘better’ to high-tail it out of town and across the water (others say he may have left out of guilt at causing so much bloodshed).

Regardless, what seems to be true is that there was no love lost between Columba and Diarmait. Diarmait, the last High King to worship in the Pagan manner and who celebrated the Feast of Tara, the pagan inauguration ceremony, was not keen on this new Christian doctrine, seeing it as an opportunistic usurper. The Irish annals include a reference to him even building druid fences on the battlefield.

As for Columba being caustic and cantankerous, word has it that he’d simply curse people he didn’t like. One man who pretended he was asleep to avoid talking to him ended up snoozing for a year and a day. Poked in the eye by a reed while tying his shoe, Columba cursed all reeds, thus the reason they’re brown and no longer sharp. After slipping on a salmon…… well, I’ll let you conjure up for yourself what curse Columba might have bestowed upon those innocent little creatures.

Amidst all the fact, fiction and propaganda, what emerges is that Pagan leaders and Christian monks and their supportive warring chieftains battled each other for territorial advantage and the spoils of victory that came with it.

Whether you believe Columba was your average Joe Blow or a saint, a term open to so many interpretations (one speaker at the Gortahork conference referred to him as “a bit of a James Bond character”), the cult that grew around him makes for fascinating anthropological and sociological discussion.

That is why the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project, a partnership between Foras na Gaeilge and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, could be a boon for cultural tourism. After hundreds of years, wouldn’t it be nice for communities, and not only the church, to benefit from such a legendary figure? Developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful pilgrimage project could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

For further information, see the book by University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey’s (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

A note of caution: when reading about Columba and his exploits it is probably helpful to keep in mind the old adage – History is written by the victors.

A poem attributed to Columba is also worth musing upon –

“If poet’s verses be but fables

So be food and garments fables

So is all the world a fable

So is man of dust a fable.”

Cultural tourism – its time is nigh

There are some among us (either through ignorance or greed) who consider Donegal unfit for cultural tourism – but a quick glance at what’s happening right now in the area proves them wrong.

Take, for example, the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project.

As I started writing this, many people – tourism and community leaders, teachers, retired air-force pilots, sociologists, photographers, authors, solicitors, doctors and academics – were gathered at Óstán Loch Altan, Gortahork, in the scenic northwest of the county, talking enthusiastically about developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful cultural tourism pilgrimage project that could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

Speakers at the conference air their views as to how the proposed pilgrimage trail could be developed.

Organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall and ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba and supported by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Foras na Gaeilge, this three-day conference which ended today (Sunday) aims to develop a heritage trail based on the travels and travails of the Celtic mystic, Columba. Such a project could not only inform Irish and foreign visitors about local history, archaeology, folklore and heritage but also create employment and business for hotels, B&Bs, cafes, restaurants, museums and bars alike in the two regions.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to expand our learning and to attract visitors on a significant historical route from south-west Donegal to the Isle of Lewis in north-west Scotland,” said Randall, chairman of the Islands Book Trust.

This united effort is supported by renown authors-cum-academics such as University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

Renown University of Cork researcher and author Máire Herbert beside the old stone cross on Tory Island with her groundbreaking book on the mystic monk Columba (Colmcille).

With additional speakers such as University of Galway’s Mícheál Ó Dónaill, Calum MacGilleain, Tristan ap Rheinallt and Aidan O’Hara from Scotland, Noel O’Gallchoir from Gaoth Dobhair, Noleen Ni Cholla, Moira Ni Ghallchoir, Maolcholaim Scott, Liam O’Cuinneagain and even the King of Tory Island himself, Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri, the conference comprehensively analyzed the tantalizing persona of Columba from the sociological, archaeological, historical, religious and mythological perspectives. And, more importantly, how interest in the fellow can be turned into a dollars and cents/euros and pennies booster for local tourism.

Brian Lacey, medieval historian and author, informs guests at the Sli Cholmcille conference about Pagan and druidic practices in and around Errigal and Muckish mountains.

The only drawback to an otherwise excellent symposium of speakers was the often poor technics, the out-of-focus projection of some otherwise well-researched multi-media presentations.

But the development of Sli Cholmcille is just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick glance at the local newspapers – the Donegal News and the Donegal Democrat – this weekend alone, shows a rich vein of cultural tourism – including the weekly music seisúns and this summer’s ‘Gaelturas’ initiative at Teach Hiudai Beag; the year-long programme of music and dance at Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern; the ‘Goitse Gaoth Dobhair’ events in Bunbeg this coming weekend, which emerged from the ‘Dearg le Fearg’ language equality campaign, as well as ‘Luinneog Lunasa’ in the same area; the ‘Swell Festival’ on Arranmore; and ‘FestiFál’ and ‘Evil Eye Festival’ in Falcarragh to name but a few. Other local diverse activities with strong potential range from rock-climbing, wind-surfing and kayaking with Rock agus Roam; horse and pony riding at the Dunlewey Trekking Centre and elsewhere; the craft demonstrations at Ionad Cois Locha; and the educational Walking Donegal, the hill, coast and lake hikes with informed guide, Seamus Doohan; as well as specialty walks such as the ‘Tullaghbegley Heritage Walking Weekend.’

The list is endless.

And that’s not to mention the many literary tourism opportunities based on the art of creative writing.

Antonia Leitner from Carinthia in Austria is not shy to show her love of books and learning at Magheroarty Beach.

The idyllic landscapes and seascapes of Donegal have been an inspiration to many best-selling novelists and short story authors who have set their plots within or around the county, in genres ranging from sci-fi to literary fiction and fantasy, as well as plays. These writers include Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, Sophia Hillan, Kenneth Gregory, Emma Heatherington, Michael Harding and Laurence Donaghy, some of whom will speak at Ireland’s newest writing retreat ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Words’ from June 28th to July 4th in Gaoth Dobhair.

With the national initiative ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ now well underway and Donegal an integral part of it, there’s only one thing stopping the cultural tourism momentum that’s building up – a continued reluctance by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the primary economic development organisation in the Gaeltacht – to fund the many projects with serious money not just the few pennies it has been doling out until now to stave off a rising tide of protest.

‘Acupuncture of the body, acupuncture of the earth’ – author Brian Lacey describes a theory he learned from a Slovenian artist.

As many people are now saying, this organisation must host regular, open, community meetings and really listen to what local people – the very people they are there to serve – want in terms of more innovative community development; provide much greater transparency in its spending of an estimated 1.2 billion euro in public money, than it has to date; and an end to kow-towing to political parties and their funders (first Fianna Fail and now Fine Gael) which has resulted in far too much money going into the pockets of a rich elite of developers/builders who make easy profits from building simplistic, unneeded, industrial estates.

A new direction is required and a Catholic Church-run sex, drugs and alcohol addiction center in Falcarragh, with no guarantee of decent local jobs – especially as such a centre already exists in Donegal and research indicates this is sufficient for need – is hardly the panacea for high unemployment and emigration from the area. Some say real investment in local cultural tourism means shelving the proposed investment of three million euro by Údarás in the addiction centre and putting those euro millions into local tourism projects, the one sector a beautiful region like Donegal can benefit widely from, now and in the long-term (if that three million euro is spent on the proposed addiction centre, it spells the end for any real investment in anything else – no other board members of Údarás in other Gaeltachts will vote for any further significant monies for Donegal).

In this regard, it is quite sad to see how much Tory Island has fallen below its full potential – far behind many other attractive island retreats dotted around Ireland. The dismissive attitude of relevant funding authorities – and perhaps the disunity and lack of concerted lobbying and effort by local people (full burden cannot rest solely on the shoulders of one man, King Patsy Dan) – has meant its tourism income has suffered greatly, with accompanying lack of promotion (not even a regular newsletter on events or significant signage on the mainland and on the island itself).

“I am tired of trying to persuade Udaras na Gaeltachta officials to properly fund projects here on Tory Island, their ears are deaf, they simply don’t understand,” said King Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri. “The people here deserve such support. Our ancient and colourful history calls out for it.”

Befriending Royalty. Modern version of the horse-drawn carriage?

It’s make-or-break time for northwest Donegal.

Let’s put an end to the notion that cultural tourism is an unimportant, peripheral activity, the kind of mind-think that Údarás officials are stuck on, and have been for decades. This specialized sector has the potential to provide immense, long-term economic benefits for this hard-hit, hard-pressed part of the county and country, but it requires serious commitment and financial support.

In a future post I will give specific examples from my extensive sojourns in other parts of the world as an international travel writer where cultural tourism has transformed and enlivened a local and often paralyzed economy.

Meanwhile the next post will focus on what precisely various speakers at the conference said about Columba, this larger-than-life monk who seems to defy description, someone about whose background we know very little, either because documents were destroyed by marauding, book-burning Vikings, or were deftly confiscated by church abbots on a precise propaganda campaign.

To read more of Sean’s work, check these sites:

Digging for Dracula

World Itineraries

Examiner

JustLuxe

Ireland Writing Retreat

Fios Training and Coaching Organization

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