Helluva commotion going on in Donegal over lovable little oysters

Oysters, those soft, jelly-like little creatures that are (to some people) delicious to eat and ingeniously produce glittering pearls, are causing some bother in Ireland, especially in Donegal – or at least the greedy corporations hunting them for profit are.

And it seems the partnership government of Fine Gael-Fianna Fail and its back-up civil service are doing their utmost to prevent concerned local communities from doing anything about it.

Sitting at a public meeting this week at Falcarragh Community Centre focusing on these issues, these were the thoughts that passed through my mind as I listened to speaker after speaker give their views on controversial shellfish farming practices at Ballyness Bay near the town of Falcarragh on the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ in the Donegal Gaeltacht they consider are polluting and defacing the lovely, pristine scenery.

John Conaghan, spokesperson for the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee, said four jobs would be created through aquaculture while more than 250 would be created via tourism, therefore “we should be protecting our area environmentally.” He also complained his committee had been denied inaccessibility to certain details, sometimes entire documents, pertaining to official comments made by both Donegal County Council and Údarás na Gaeltachta.

“An official comment from Donegal County Council stated that there would be no visual impact, but the document was simply signed by a clerk,” he said. “I’ve spoken to many councillors and nobody seems to know who authorized the comments. No visual impact? Maybe, lads, you should go to Specsavers.”

Politician after politician, both local and national, including TDs, Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty and Fianna Fail’s Pat the Cope Gallagher, told around 200 concerned people that they were unable to access key information relevant to the situation.

John Shéamais Ó Fearraigh Sinn Fein local councillor and Údarás na Gaeltachta board member said he would try with whatever powers he had to obtain the information required from the council and the Irish language organization. “I will do whatever I can to help,” he said.

Fine Gael local councillor, Michael McClafferty, said he had submitted questions to the local council but had not received any answers. “It looks as if we are being thrown under the bus,” he added.

The proposed shellfish scheme could cover more than 46 hectares of sea coast in the scenic Gaeltacht region, with bags on steel trestles containing millions of oysters, with sediment accumulation beneath them and large-scale congregation of dead shells, committee members said. Licenses for 20 hectares of oyster beds have already been granted, with one site alone being over 10 hectares.

Committee member, Caitlin Ni Bhroin, said “no cost-benefit analysis has been produced for us to see” and licenses have been granted on “unsound scientific criteria, including the idea that oysters are healthy water filters, but they actually emit waste.”

Conaghan said there were many contradictions in the government’s approach. “While it granted licenses for shellfish farming, Ballyness Bay is not designated a shellfish area, but it is a special area of conservation.” He said Inland Fisheries Ireland declared the bay a valuable fishing asset.

“We are against all oyster harvesting in Ballyness Bay, such activity will damage eco-tourism, which could bring much-needed jobs,” he said. “Gaps, mistakes and assumptions sums up the government’s approach. If community concerns had been addressed properly, we’d not be standing here talking.”

He said the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee was being assisted by Belfast-based Pat Finucane Centre.

Commending the committee on its efforts, Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty stated clearly, “My firm belief is that this scheme is anti-community and the application process is not fit for purpose, they are not being given properly and there is a lack of clarity.” He said three years ago he had sent a letter to the relevant ministry and department questioning the decision process, adding “construction cannot begin until all appeals have been heard, which could take several years.”

Being a long time, staunch member of Fianna Fail, part the ‘partnership government,’ Pat the Cope Gallagher, was obviously in a bit of a conundrum. While he offered to find out more information and report back to committee members, he went into a bit of a tantrum when I asked him to say ‘yes or no’ whether he agreed with the ‘Save Ballyness Bay’ committee’s views.

Now, credit being given, Pat is a wily politician, that comes with being forty years and more in politics. Maybe I spoke harshly when I said that his spiel was (to quote myself) “pure politics, filled with generalities and trivialities.” That he took offence was his right. That he tossed the microphone down (as someone said, “like a baby throwing out its dummy-tit”) is also his democratic right.

But he still didn’t answer my question.

Instead, he said previous situations had occurred near his home in Dungloe similar to the one at Ballyness but he “didn’t get involved in them,” but said he did pass on letters he had received from local people to the relevant minister.

At the meeting, two members of Aontú pledged their support, with one young member saying as the shellfish farms were adding to the carbon footprint, people had a right to know more.

Local resident, Mary Attenborough, said while a proper environmental impact study was required, so-called experts were all vetted by the government, and that bias might occur in their reporting.

Committee members were still unsure if licenses already granted were strictly non-transferrable.

One challenge facing the committee is the expense involved in appealing licenses. Each one must be appealed separately at a cost of 200 euro each, with a time limit for appeals being four weeks from date of the government’s decision on December 4.

Columbia Hillen, my wife who is from Romania but concerned about the environment, stood up and asked if those local people who had applied for licenses would show support for the local committee by refusing to accept them even if they were granted. None of those applicants in the hall – and there were some present – said anything. One of the applicants, Seamus O’ Donnell who owns Cluain Na d’Tor (Seaside Nursery Garden) in Falcarragh had gone as far as saying he is “having second thoughts” about his application for over 4.4 hectares of aquaculture if granted. But has he withdrawn his application?

For full information on all applications see HERE.

One speaker said Ballyness Bay was one of the best surfing areas, comparable to Hawaii and western Australia, creating strong tourism income. “Let’s try to keep it that way by not spoiling the scenery.”

Another speaker summed up feelings of many people present, “Governments that treat people with disdain, usually get their comeuppance.”

Sean Hillen is co-founder of Gaoth Dobhair based ‘Ireland Writing Retreat and author of the contemporary novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’  linking Donegal and the United States.

Whirlwind US ‘Pretty Ugly’ book tour: Tucson, New York, Kansas City, Fredericksburg…

Speaking recently before audiences of high-level academics, medical leaders and journalists and editors in diverse settings across the United States about my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ has been a most exhilarating and gratifying experience.

Even more gratifying was the positive response from Americans about Donegal. Most – including those who had been to Ireland almost every year for decades – had never been to the ‘Forgotten County.’ Hearing about northwest Ireland’s key location role in my novel’s drama, many said they were intrigued to visit the region. One up for literary tourism.

Now back in the quiet, bucolic landscape of Bloody Foreland right behind my house, I find myself remembering many of the enjoyable and challenging moments during those pivotal weeks, from Kansas cornfields to Big Apple skyscrapers, while of course, internally evaluating what I consider I did right and what I could have done better.

And ultimately, thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity to embark on such a whirlwind tour that took me from Tucson, Arizona to Kansas City, Missouri to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with Florida and New York sandwiched between.

In Tucson, I had the privilege to talk before an august gathering of some of the best women doctors in Arizona in an event organized by Dr. Sandra Katz, three-term president of the of the Tucson Society of Women Physicians. Ranging from cardiologists and gynecologists to neurologists and orthopedic surgeons, they were all deeply interested in the potential dangers from nanoparticles in everyday cosmetics and discussed openly during question time and among their peers beside them afterwards over dinner, what health problems such tiny particles could cause within the human body. Most of the doctors were intrigued and delighted that such a real-life, and somewhat controversial medical theme, could be the central thread of a novel.

Dr. Katz thanked me on behalf of the medical society for what she described as “an enlightening and fascinating presentation,” adding, “You had a room full of physicians of every specialty- from family practice, anesthesia, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, general surgery, orthopedics, oncology – and we were all spellbound by the facts you presented about the dangers of toxins in cosmetics.  Hopefully, your book will have an impact on the regulation of the cosmetic industry and will educate the public on the health risks.”

Meanwhile, my talk in Missouri allowed me the chance to re-visit the place where I had lived for ten years working as the medical and science correspondent for the main morning newspaper, The Kansas City Times. Warm memories flooded back of wonderful people I had met, including highly-skilled journalists such as Pulitzer-prize winning Dunstan ‘Dusty’ McNichol (now sadly departed and for whom I offer a dedication in ‘Pretty Ugly’) and Chicago-born Mike Kennedy who still plies his trade skillfully there and who, to me delightful, was able to attend my presentation.

The event itself also give me the chance to honor two other highly-regarded individuals who have had a marked effect on me during my life. The evening took place in the Diastole International Scholar’s Center beside the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, which like Diastole, was established by Dr. E. Grey Dimond, a most astute man that I had the great pleasure of meeting while I was a newly-emigrated, 20-something reporter.  Such was E. Grey’s influence on me as both a close personal friend and an educator, I used his persona for one of the lead characters in my novel – a kind-hearted doctor concerned about the health and well-being of ordinary people.

The second person is Cuban-born Felix Sabates, a leading ophthalmologist who founded the Eye Department at the medical school, the Eye Foundation and also the Sabates Eye Centers. I knew very little about the complex internal workings of that most important of human organs until I interviewed Felix many years ago. The valuable knowledge I gained then came in very useful as I began to write ‘Pretty Ugly’ and decided the eye would be the crucial organ that is badly affected by toxic nanoparticles in cosmetics in a key female character.

Warm thanks must also be given to Nancy Hill, the center’s president, without whose tireless organizational skills the whole evening soiree could not have taken place and to Phil and Kathy Chaney for being such kind and generous hosts.

As for Fredericksburg, full credit there goes to Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, journalist, political commentator, Fulbright professor, author of multiple books and founder of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, who arranged my talk before students, staff and member of the local community. I was delighted that so many of them wanted more details from me after the lecture about this ongoing healthcare controversy and were puzzled and concerned that US politicians hadn’t done more to protect peoples’ health from such potential dangers as nanoparticles about which few clinical efficacy tests have been conducted.

All in all, my three-week US tour was not only a most gratifying one but one that helped me as an author strengthen my skills in presenting my novel in an interesting and attention-grabbing way, a challenging task for any author and one I hope to talk more about at this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ in west Donegal, the very place where much of the action of ‘Pretty Ugly’ happens.

Also, I’m delighted to announce that I have been asked to teach a practical workshop – IQ (I Question) for Creative Writersat this year’s Belfast Book Festival linking techniques in journalism to creative writing, particularly the art of asking questions

I hope to see you there.