Good writing gives me goose-bumps

Having arrived in picturesque west Donegal – Bun na Leaca to be precise – over six years ago and recognizing it for the artists’ haven that it is, my wife, Columbia, and I thought about establishing a creative writers’ retreat.
After all, surely such a pristine and bucolic landscape could inspire great prose. 

Ireland Writing Retreat participants enjoy a special Celtic legend coastal walk with guide, Seamus Doohan.

Not that such an idea hadn’t been done before.  Poet partners, Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late departed husband, James, had done so many years previous, setting up a ‘Poet’s House’ in a refurbished cottage at Clonbarra, outside Falcarragh.

Then funding was more generous and tens of thousands of euro annually wasn’t much of a problem for Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council, Donegal County Council, LEADER, and other sources.
Times have changed, however, and the public funding pump is dripping slowly, a mere trickle at best. Seanie FitzPatrick and Co. and Fianna Fail made sure of that.

Rose Sweeney teaches future members of the ‘Riverdance’ cast the basic ‘sevens’ of Irish ceilidhe dancing.

County Librarian and Divisional Manager of Cultural Services, Eileen Burgess, a keen supporter of our idea, issued warnings: “It’s a wonderful project but there’s simply no money in the kitty. You’d pretty much be on your own.”

But you know how it is – an intriguing idea comes along, sticks to you like furze in a meadow and simply won’t fall away no matter how hard you try.
So, even though there are more than one hundred creative writing conferences and book festivals throughout Ireland – many in the much-publicized, tourist-centric counties of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kerry – we took the plunge.
After all, isn’t Donegal the prettiest of them all?

Washington-based triple book author and former CNN editor, John DeDakis, enjoys a leisurely trip on ‘The Cricket’ to Gola Island with other writing retreat participants.

Of course, wisdom told us to delay until better economic times were upon us. But passion drove us forward, screaming, ‘tempus fugit.’ We swayed for a while between the two.

We’re going into our third year now and have managed to attract participants from far off fields, many of whom had never been to Ireland before never mind the back-roads of the Donegal Gaeltacht – Wyoming, Sydney, Utah, Perth, Stoke-on-Trent, New Jersey to name but a few.
Not bad for a project without public funding of any kind.

Guest speakers at the Ireland Writing Retreat held at Teac Jack, Gaoth Dobhair. (l to r) Singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith; Mark Gregory, forensic editor; actor/director Murray Learmont.

Imagine where it could go with a bit of financial support – but perhaps only if it’s located in one of the aforementioned counties.

As for this year, international stars of the week-long retreat included John DeDakis, triple book author and former senior editor at CNN for 25 years who flew directly from Washington to be at Teac Jack’s, the retreat location; Anthony Quinn, experienced author of crime fiction with a crafty literary twist; and Mark Gregory, a much-heralded forensic editor (the person who reads book manuscripts minutely word by word, syllable by syllable).

Plot, character, suspense – (l to r) Authors John DeDakis and Anthony Quinn discuss the challenging task of writing novels.

But committed locals also loaned their weight enthusiastically to the endeavor – actor and drama group director, Murray Learmont, guided participants on improving their public reading skills; singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith granted insights into the challenging task of lyric writing; Rose Sweeney taught participants their ‘sevens’ in preparation for a ceilidhe in the backroom of the popular Glassagh venue; Pól Ó Muireasáin gave an enlightening tour of Gola Island; and Seamus Doohan led participants on a Celtic legend coastal walk – all of which was grist to the mill for writers’ creativity.

Eddie, the uncrowned King of Gola Island (in blue) with walking guide, Pol O’Muiresean, (r) talk about life on the west Donegal island many years ago.

The ‘Donegal News’ considered this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ which ended last week, worthy of an article in today’s edition.
article
Onward to 2016.
 
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From Donegal to Transylvania – Irish music helps lift the veil

Organizing the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Romania and pairing it with the nation’s inaugural Corporate Citizen Awards was how I first came to appreciate the skilled musicianship of the wonderful Donegal group, Arcanadh, which launched its third album, ‘Light From The Water,’ at An Grianan this past Saturday.

Having gone to the eastern European country from the US after the fall of Communism as a volunteer to establish the first journalism schools and train evolving charities and NGOs in media relations skills, I thought I’d raise the flag and launch the first-ever March 17 celebrations.

But that’s hard to do unless you have some very fine Irish musicians.

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So I searched the length and breadth of the country for some of the best, flying over traditional musicians from Belfast to Dublin, betwixt and beyond, for a nationwide tour that encompassed the capital, Bucharest; the Black Sea port of Constanta; Cluj-Napoca, in the very heart of Transylvania; and other towns and cities besides.

When I bought my house in Bun na Leaca, Gaoth Dobhair, my search was over.

Among the excellent Donegal musicians who have mightily entertained thousands of delighted Romanians including Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ambassadors and Mayors throughout the land of Vlad the Impaler have been singer-songwriter-guitarist Ian Smith from Keadu; fiddle player extraordinaire Theresa Kavanagh from Gortahork; accordionist Marie Clarke; as well as Letterkenny-based singer and banjo-mandola player Colm Breathnach; his wife, singer-guitar-whistle player, Sinead Gibson; harpist and singer, Maria Corbet, and the other multi-talented members of what must surely be voted the most accomplished traditional band in all Ireland.

Then Arcanadh had no albums to its name, now they have three quality ones – ‘Soundings,’ ‘Turning Of A Day’ and now ‘Light From The Water.’ So good are they, they’re invited to play at venues and festivals from Boston to Brittany (luckily, you can hear them in concert as part of their promotional tour at Westport House, Westport, Mayo, this Friday evening at 8 pm).

Being fortunate enough to see them in concert at An Grianan in Letterkenny a few nights ago, I wrote an appreciation of that standing ovation performance.

To whet your appetite, read on –

Irish traditional group, Arcanadh, acclaimed with standing ovation in Donegal

Versatile and multi-talented, deftly harmonious, wholesome, warm and welcoming – the album-launching concert by Arcanadh, one of Ireland’s leading traditional music groups, at An Grianan theatre Donegal this past weekend brought all these adjectives to mind, and more.

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From ancient classics to modern contemporary, from songs in English to others in Irish, from tear-jerking ballads to foot-tapping sing-alongs, the diverse repertoire of this six-member band is truly impressive.

And with the launch of their third album ‘Light From the Water,’ more people will have the good fortune to hear them as they continue a national promotional tour, with the next stop being Gracy’s Bar, Westport House, Westport, Mayo, this Friday evening, 8p.m

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A haunting quality pervaded Waterford-man Colm Breathnach’s beautiful opening of ‘The Swallow’ enhanced by the echoing voices of the others as they coalesced to create soothing, multi-layered complexities. Master of mandola and banjo and the main on-stage interlocutor, Colm’s family background provides him with a sound platform for his musical endeavors. As he informed a packed audience good humoredly in Letterkenny, he is one of 11 children and his mother would often sing to help keep peace among them. It is from her he learned many of the songs he performs including ‘Barr na Sráide’ (Top of the Street).

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In contrast to the strong masculine tonality of his voice, his wife and fellow schoolteacher, Sinead Gibson’s can best be described as  ‘whispery,’ somewhat akin to feathers rustling in a breeze, as in her version of the Gaeilge ballad ‘Méilte Cheann Dubhrann’ (Sandy Hills of Ceann Dubhrann).

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With eyes closed, I could almost imagine her breaking into a soft, breathy, seductive rendition of “Happy birthday, Mister President, happy birthday to you.’ At other times, however, her voice is downright sultry-sexy Southern as when she skipped nimbly along the lyrics of the American Bluegrass song ‘One More Dollar.

A strong hallmark of an Arcanadh concert is not only their musical prowess and collective light-heartedness but the interesting anecdotes they tell before each song, which grants the listener added insights through context.

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Of this, Colm is a master in the telling. A classic example at An Grianan was the Gaeilge song ‘Trathnona Aoine’ (Friday Evening), written by Paidin, one of Colm’s brothers, with music composed by Sinead about two teenager boys lost at sea near Waterford while out on currach boats lobster fishing.

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Award-winning Mags Gallen, who completed a Masters degree at the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick, sang a wonderful version of the Scottish poet Robert Burns’ classic ballad, ‘My Love is Like a A Red, Red Rose’ while accompanying herself on grand piano, as well as ‘County Down’ by Tommy Sands.

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Her brother, Martin, a guitarist, displayed his singer-song-writing skills with his homespun ‘Turning Of A Day’ and his soothing version of Christine Kane’s ‘She Don’t Like Roses.’

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Musician and band manager, Maria Corbet, not only weaves an almost ethereal tapestry of melodies from her harp but is an accomplished singer to boot, as evidenced by her lovely interpretation of ‘Anachie Gordon’ and the poignant ‘John Condon,’ the heart-breaking story of 14-year-old Irish boy who finagles his way into the British Army during World War One only to die on his very first day of battle in the fields of Picardy, Belgium.

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Adding even greater variety to the timbres of the gathered ensemble, Fiona Walsh, who plays fiddle and tin whistle, sang ‘Horo Johnny’ impeccably and enlivened an appreciative audience with her dizzying lilting on ‘Ceol An Phíobaire’ (Music of the Piper).

Appropriately, the band finished off a terrific evening of entertainment with their arrangement of ‘The Parting Glass,’ drawing a well-deserved and enthusiastic standing ovation.

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To sum up Arcanadh and their intricate interweaving vocal and instrumental harmonies, I borrow the words from a song the group performed bilingually, ‘Coinleach Ghlas an Fhomhair,’ (From Time to Time), with the single change of one word, from ‘love’ to ‘music’  – ‘If this be music, then there go I.’ 

Arcanadh’s album, ‘Light From The Water,’ was recorded at Stiuideo Cuisle Ceoil in Gaoth Dobhair, west Donegal, by Hughie Boyle, assisted by Brid Ferry and Padraig Grogan, with graphics by Ali Deegan.