Journalism: a funny thing, sometimes

Sometimes it’s not writing about political showmanship and skullduggery or economic booms and busts that create good journalism.

Sometimes, it’s the simple quirks of everyday life that make for a good story.

You can imagine my delight in unearthing these two tales of near disaster in Donegal that end happily.

They give new meaning to the term ‘missing people.’

Missing boy (5) found safe – in a hot press on Gola Island

gola island donegal, donegal tourism, gaeltacht tourism,

He almost ‘missed the boat’ 

gaeltacht tourism, gola island, donegal tourism

 

My Peculiar Movie Story

It’s not often one watches an exciting suspense movie based on true events, then wander into a bar an hour later and meet some of the very people involved in the real thing.

But that happened to me recently.

It was an intriguing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And, who knows, may lead to my novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ being turned into a big hit at the box-office.

I’m not what you’d call a movie buff, in part because the nearest cinema is over an hour from my home along a winding mountain pass through Glenveagh National Park in the remotest northwest corner of coastal Ireland plumb on the Wild Atlantic Way. And I don’t have Netflix. And I rarely watch television.

But I’d met former prisoner and IRA hunger striker turned writer, Laurence McKeown, whose latest play had been performed at my local theater, which I reviewed, and we’d agreed to meet in Belfast, my native city, on my next trip there.

Laurence McKeown, Sean Hillen author,

Meeting Laurence McKeown (r) – a man who has achieved so much in a lifetime – was an absolute pleasure.

A week or so later, I went there to talk to Laurence about being a guest trainer at the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ that my wife, Columbia, and I host every year in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht (which he agreed to do and was a terrific success).

While chatting, he asked if I’d be interested in seeing the world premiere of a new movie entitled ‘Maze’ based on actual events about a mass breakout from a prison of the same name just outside Belfast in 1983, where he himself had been incarcerated for 16 years.

I remembered the break-out well for though I had by then emigrated to America and was working as a journalist in Kansas City, I’d read about it in the papers and my parents had told me details over the phone from their working-class home in west Belfast where some of the prisoners were from.

The Movie House on Belfast’s Dublin Road was packed for the evening premiere, with some former prisoners who’d been part of the escape and local political and social leaders seated in the audience. I came early and nabbed a central place near the front.

Maze’ is written and directed by Stephen Burke, known for ‘Happy Ever Afters’ (2009), ‘81’ (1997) and ‘After 68’ (1994). By chance, both Stephen and I attended the same Belfast school, St. Mary’s, during our teenage years. The movie is an engrossing cinematic accomplishment based on a well-written script. Created on a low budget, it is filled with emotion and raw passion, philosophical musings, exciting action and slow-fuse suspense focusing on the escape by 38 IRA members, the biggest prison escape in Europe since World War II, from what was then considered the best-guarded prison in Europe. The acting is superb, with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Larry Marley, the mastermind behind the daring escape, and Barry Ward as a prison officer, Gordon Close, in the starring roles. The caliber of the supporting cast is equally impressive.

As the movie ended, I was delighted to see an old acquaintance, Brendan Gunn, whom I’d not seen in several decades, receive much-deserved mention in the credits. Brendan is a gifted linguist and dialect coach and his brilliant work helped the main actors, who are from around Dublin, adopt a broad northern Irish accent, pivotal for credibility and character backstory. A pioneer in this specialized movie-related field in Ireland when he first began his work in the mid-1980s, Brendan’s ‘students’ have included a remarkable list of mega-stars such as Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Aidan Quinn, Cate Blanchett, Jim Sturgess, Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Natalie PortmanDaniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell.

Leaving the cinema after talking briefly to Stephen about my novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ based in part on the life of former US Senator Edward Kennedy, as a future movie proposal, and to Laurence who spoke on a post-show panel, I drove homeward through quiet streets.

Feeling thirsty after being inside for several hours, I decided to stop off at the Felon’s Club, a stone’s throw from my mother’s home in Andersonstown. The Felon’s is an important place in local Belfast folklore. It started life as a parochial hall before becoming a school and then being transformed into a local drinking club and, as its name suggests, a popular gathering center for IRA members, many of whom were avoiding – or had just been released from – prison. I’d heard Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, a former leader of the Maze prisoners and a talented musician and singer, was playing there and I was curious to hear him.

As luck would have it, Bik had not started his performance when I arrived and I found him standing at the bar. We chatted, making our way back to the reception area to the security guard on duty. Telling both men I’d just come from seeing the movie they both suddenly became curious, asking me questions about it. Then they announced deadpan that they were among the 38 who had escaped. Excited and keen to learn more, I encouraged them to tell me their stories of what happened to them that fateful day.

Some of what they said was adrenalin-filled stuff, much of it more exciting than what we see in movies. About how they managed to smuggle guns into the prison ahead of the escape (the movie shows them doing this inside cans of paint, but actually Bik said the guns were smuggled painstakingly by their individual parts over a period of time, then put together inside the prison; how they surprised the on-duty guards at gun-point by timing their shift changes between cell-blocks; how unfortunately they ran head-on into more guards at the front gates of the prison and how a brawl broke out, with shots being fired;  how, rushing through the open gates, they were torn to shreds struggling through rolls of barbed wire outside, then fled madcap through fields searching for escape routes, with trained search dogs, armed soldiers and police hot on their heels). After our hour-long chat, one thing became crystal clear – fact can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

That’s my movie story – and more importantly – that’s their real-life story.


See the Winter Offer for ‘Pretty Ugly’

Giant rhubarbs, faeries and other enchanted species on ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Invasion by giant rhubarb plants throughout Donegal’s Gaoth Dobhair region captured the imagination of international writers during this summer’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – with intriguing stories involving faeries and magical creatures emerging onto blank pages. Some of the stories are soon to be published on the Ireland Writing Retreat Blog.

And such far-fetched tales weren’t due to the influence of the whiskey, poitín and pálinka served up at various events throughout the enjoyable week-long event, even though such potent liquids have been Muse for generations of great novelists and playwrights including James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Ian Fleming and Mark Twain.

wild rhubarb Donegal, faeries in Donegal

Faeries and other magical creatures hide among the giant rhubarb leaves.

Call it a combination of fresh sea-air along the ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ excellent writing guidance from published authors and a wee drop or two of uisce beatha, some of the inventive stories focused on faeries planting the giant rhubarb to warn humans about how they are polluting and destroying the natural environment around us,” said one of the retreat organizers, delighted with the week’s success. “The writings were really fun to read and bringing such a diverse group of fine international writers here also helps promote this lovely area through literary tourism. One participant summed it up brilliantly when she said, ‘I came to Donegal searching for inspiration, and instead found magic.’  That makes me proud. I know we’ve achieved our goal.

The stories also included a mysterious faerie named after the gigantic rhubarb, called Rhu, who can produce a flame by simply cupping her hands together and a secret, white-washed faery-home hidden among the plants themselves.

Sliabh Liag Distillery, Donegal whiskey

Ian Smith plays his own composition ‘The Holy Hour’ as Sliabh Liag Distillery managing director, James Doherty, and international writers listen intently.

With Donegal having its first distillery for more almost 200 years, the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – at which I’m proud to be one of the tutors – collaborated with the Sliabh Liag Distillery to create a hearty ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ for participants.

Taking place at Teac Jack, a popular boutique hotel in Glassagh, and with the distillery’s chief executive James Doherty at the helm, writers from places as diverse as Wyoming, Alaska, Newfoundland, California, Ohio, Wisconsin, Belfast and Ballybofey sipped whiskey cocktails with the surprising flavors of rhubarb (not the infamous rhubarus gigantus variety) and orange.

We want to reclaim part of the lost heritage of Donegal, to replicate the uniqueness of whiskey-making, a skill that was an integral part of life here two centuries ago,” Doherty said, as he described the subtle taste of his company’s ‘Silkie’ brand to his attentive audience.

Not only but guitarist-singer-songwriter Ian Smith entertained guests with some of his very own compositions, one appropriately entitled ‘The Holy Hour,’ about whiskey, that will feature next year in a special musical show he stars in that will tour Germany, entitled ‘Whiskey, You’re The Devil.’

Teac Mhuiris Donegal, An Crann Óg Donegal

Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg serves up a tasty feast for international poets and novelists at the Ireland Writing Retreat.

Bringing even more good cheer, writing retreat participants – most of whom had never been to Donegal before – also enjoyed traditional foods ranging from delicious home-baked breads and scones to carrageen moss and dulse in the traditional thatched cottage ‘Teac Mhuiris’ with panoramic views over Bloody Foreland and the islands of Gola, Inismeain and Umfin. Here, local people, Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg, the Bunbeg community center, her daughter Alanna, experienced seanchaí-historian Antoin MacAodha, Anna Ní Bhroin from Foras na Gaeilge and music teacher, Caitlín Joe Jack, related the history of the cottage, taught basic Irish words and phrases including the meaning of place-names, as well as Irish dance steps in advance of a lively cèilidh that evening at Teac Jack.

The week-long writing retreat also featured a host of other activities including nightly music concerts, a boat trip to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat’ captained by Sabba Curran and a talk by uncrowned King Eddie Joe McGee, as well as a tour of Glenveagh National Park and Castle.

boat to Gola Donegal, Gola Island Donegal

Captain Sabba Curran of ferry-boat, ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat,’ at Magheragallon Pier with international writers headed for Gola Island.

As for classes, participants completed assignments on many of the excursions they experienced during the week which were then critiqued by published authors and editors, including Anthony Quinn, author of five books, ‘Disappeared,’ ‘Border Angels,’ ‘The Blood Dimmed Tide,’ ‘Blind Arrows,’ and ‘Silence’; Mark Gregory, a forensic word editor, and yours truly. Tuition focused on strengthening key writing skills such as character development, dialogue and importance of landscape.

I was delighted to host a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ highlighting the importance of questions (thus IQ meaning ‘I Question’) and the five journalism Ws – ‘who, what, why, where, when’ with the all-important sixth W, ‘what if,’ in the development of strong plot and character. And to use my recently-published novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal with New York, Washington and Kansas City, as an illustration of that.

Pretty Ugly a novel, Sean Hillen author, IQ for Creative Writing

No greater joy than being surrounded by friendly, talented writers – except maybe winning the national lottery.

Without public funding of any kind, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ now in its fourth consecutive year, has gone from success to success, with a second Autumn Writing Retreat taking place late this September.

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

Youthful Irish spirit and creativity generate success

Entrepreneurial spirit often starts early in life – perhaps it’s embedded in DNA – and that certainly seems to be the case with teenage brothers, Rónán & Conor McGarvey, who are enjoying their successful venture, ‘Donegal Pens.’

Started in a makeshift garden shed at their parents’ (Eoin and Marie) home in the charming village of Loughanure in the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht in Ireland’s most inspiring and northerly county, where their father is a local postman, their company has flourished. The siblings showed a true spirit of endeavor by developing their fledgling idea of using leftover wood from local carpenters and sawmills to create stylish, elegant pens, some of which have inbuilt styluses with a special touch application for use on IPhones.

Donegal pens, Christmas gifts

Rónán & Conor McGarvey

‘We’ve worked hard at building up our wee business but we’re used to the six and seven day weeks by now,” said 19-year-old Rónán, who with 16-year-old, Conor, started ‘Donegal Pens’ when they were only 14 and 11 years old respectively, when they were both students at Rosses Community School and after first trying their hand at making pens from wood at a craft-fair in Antrim. “We’ve sold several thousand pens so far, with the most popular being from bog oak, trees that can lie deep in the bogs for thousands of years.”

Ireland Writing Retreat, what to buy for Christmas

Conor McGarvey

Their pens, from trees as diverse as bog oak, yew, ash, elm, beech, ebony, olive, beech, cherry, laburnum, purple heart, oak, jatoba, maple, pear, walnut, spalted beech and red cedar, are individually turned and polished. Interestingly, the equivalent of their hometown ‘Loughanure’ in Irish is ‘Loch na Luire,’ meaning ‘island of the yew trees.’

Donegal pens, hand made pens

Conor McGarvey

Not only are their pens sold in 50 stores throughout Ireland but also internationally, with three shops in Germany and two in the United States – Carrick Mór, a gift shop specializing in the best of Ireland and Irish culture, run by Kristin and Michael McGowan in Glenrock, New Jersey and Sarah Maguire’s Cottage Scents & Gifts run by Arlene & Ann Maguire in New Milford, Connecticut, who named the store after their great grandmother.

Donegal made pens, Wild Atlantic Way crafts

Rónán McGarvey

With the growing success of ‘Donegal Pens,’ the two brothers have developed their business premises from their modest shed to a second garage where they store the wood and also a small office. Having taken classes in wood-turning in Downpatrick in northern Ireland, they also now create designs on a special computer which are then ‘burned’ on to the wood of the pens. All pens are put together painstakingly by hand, not by machine.

Irish made pens, Christmas gifts

Rónán & Conor McGarvey

Ireland Writing Retreat’ is delighted to partner with the two creative young west Donegal pen-making brothers, Ronan and Conor, from the ‘Island of the Yew Tree’ for a ‘Winter Season Special Gifts.’ To find out how you can win a unique Irish Gift, your perfect inspirational writing companion, become a Friend of ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ before December 31st.

Author, playwright and civil rights activist, Danny Morrison, to attend ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’

Interesting experiences fire the imagination, so it’s little wonder Danny Morrison has become master of both the written and the spoken word as author of numerous books, including fiction and non-fiction, short stories and plays, as well as being a newspaper editor, insightful radio and television commentator, community arts festival chairperson and elected public official.

Ireland Writing Retreat‘ is proud to welcome Danny as one of the guest trainers at this year’s event which begins at Teac Jack in Gaoth Dobhair at the end of June. Participants from places as diverse as Minnesota, Cork, New Hampshire, Dublin and Missouri are to attend this year’s international gathering.

I have met Danny on many occasions over the years, often at political, media and writing events (the most recent being at the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis in Dublin) and was honored when he invited me to speak at the West Belfast Festival that he chaired a few years ago. Interestingly, before knowing Danny, I knew his lovely younger sister, Susan, as she and her friends and myself and mine would strut our stuff, teenage-style at the weekly Clonard dances on the Falls Road to the sounds of Sweet, T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, Queen and David Bowie. Susan, now sadly departed, married a close friend of mine, John Patterson, who came with their daughter to my 50th birthday party at the Gaoth Dobhair golf club where we wandered down nostalgia road together. Danny and I have much in common, both being from Andersonstown and having attended some of the same schools, including St. Theresa’s Primary and St. Mary’s Grammar in Belfast. I admire greatly what he has suffered in his lifetime, what he has achieved and what he has become. It’s  wonderful he has agreed to come to the Donegal Gaeltacht to be a trainer at this year’s writing retreat but also to take part in a special Q&A public event at Teac Jack about his life.

Danny Morrison author

Unique life experiences make for interesting stories as illustrated by published author and creative writing trainer, Danny Morrison.

Born in Andersonstown, west Belfast, the friendly, down-to-earth Irishman has led such an intriguing and eventful life, including internment without trial and imprisonment for eight years while barely in his 20s, that it has imbued him with multi-faceted views on both the world of politics and the world of literature.
Morrison grew up in a solid, working-class family, reaching teenage years just as the so-called ‘Troubles’ in northern Ireland erupted, with civil rights protests becoming widespread, then civil strife and finally a peace agreement based upon a fairer and more just society for everyone.

As a young man, influenced by what was happening around him and the anti-Vietnam protests in the US, Morrison developed a yearning to write and a need to confront injustice. When his sister loaned him the money in 1971 to buy a typewriter, his fate was sealed.

'Rudi - In the Shadow of Knulp, Danny Morrison

Later, both before and after becoming editor of An Phoblacht/Republican News, he wrote many articles, political pamphlets and even scripts for documentary films on Irish history until, in the 1980s, he became national director of publicity for the Sinn Féin political party.

His love of creative writing flourished even in jail and led to Morrison’s first novel, ‘West Belfast,’ being published in 1989 but never formally launched. In 2015 a revised edition was re-issued to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first publication. ‘On the Back of the Swallow,’ his second novel, was written in prison and published nine months before his release, in May 1995. ‘The Wrong Man,’ his third novel, also begun in prison, was completed after his release and published in 1997. Morrison’s three works of non-fiction are: ‘Then The Walls Came Down,’ based on his prison letters, published in 1999; ‘All The Dead Voices,’ a part-memoir, published in 2002; and ‘Rebel Columns,’ a collection of his political writings, published in 2004. He edited a book of essays, ‘Hunger Strike,’ which was published in 2006 by Brandon. His fourth novel, ‘Rudi – In the Shadow of Knulp,’ inspired by ‘Knulp,’ the 1915 novel by Hermann Hesse, was published in 2013.

Then the Walls Came Down book, Danny Morrison author

 

His writing also spans the short story format leading to published work in various magazines and broadcasts on BBC, RTE and Lyric FM radio. Interestingly, ‘We’ve Got Tonite’, a love story he penned, was banned by the BBC in 1992 despite having already been recorded. He also adapted ‘The Wrong Man’ for the stage. The play was hosted in London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin and was nominated by ‘Fest’ magazine as one of the top three dramas of the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Morrison has also written articles for such prestigious newspapers as ‘The Irish Times,’ ‘The Observer,’ ‘The Guardian,’ “The Washington Post’ and ‘The Boston Globe’ and is currently working on a fifth novel, ‘Band on the Run’ and a play, ‘The Mental.’

For a number of years, Morrison has been in strong demand as a trainer of creativity writing and recently completed a writer-in-residence program in Berlin.

Sea lettuce, sugar kelp and snakelocks anemone: exotic foods of the Gaeltacht islands

Pól Ó Muireasáin’s the kind of guy who’s hard to miss – especially in a quiet, rural place such as Gaoth Dobhair sweeping down to the islands of west Donegal.
He’ll talk to anyone – no-one being above or below his broad radar of interest.
guide tour of Donegal islands

Sea voyaging is filled with danger – Pól explains to participants at the Wild Atlantic Way ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ during an expedition on Gola Island, as he recites the names of those islanders who died engraved on the pier wall. Photo by Sean Hillen

Walking with him from A to B means inevitably stopping off at G, H, K and Z as he meanders this way and that to chat with most men or women who happen to come within his quite well-developed range of vision.

Not that you’d want to miss him anyway cos that’d mean you’d suffer the loss of hearing his colorful, homespun tales about wildlife and ghostly sightings; his abiding interest in the intricacies of the Irish language; his poetic lyricism on the beauty of the local landscape; and his whimsical descriptions about esoteric delicacies he manages to find hidden along nearby shorelines.  
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp and snakelocks anemone – these are just some of the lesser-known foods uncovered on the solo ‘search-and-find’ missions that Pól Ó, a committed, skilful ‘sea forager,’ conducts around the islands of the west Donegal Gaeltacht.
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp, snakelocks

Sea lettuce and snakelocks anemone make for tasty snacks (Photo by Pól Ó Muireasáin)

Wearing waders, a waterproof vest and carrying an aquascope, an underwater viewing device, the exploits of the Derry native now living in Bunbeg and a guest speaker at this weekend’s annual Gola Island Festival (Féile Ghabhla), have now attracted national and international attention, with Der Spiegel, the German national newspaper, despatching a photo-writer team this week to profile him and Raidió na Gaeltachta’s ‘Mo Ghrá Thú’ featuring him in a special.
“There is as much nutritional food underwater than there is above and we haven’t even really begun to understand it,” claims Ó Muireasáin, a youthful-looking 49, who worked for two years as the first Irish language proof-reader in Legal Services at the European Commission when it was granted official status in 2007, before moving to Gaoth Dobhair. “It’s sad when one reads about world food shortages and the lack of a nutritional diet, especially when so much healthy ‘cuisine’ exists in our seas and oceans.”
Sea lettuce, sugar kelp, sea forager, snakelocks anemone

Sea urchins – yummy, yummy! (Photo by Pól Ó Muireasáin)

An island lover, Ó Muireasáin, whose local nickname is  Pól a’Bhicycle, spends much of his time on Gola. In fact, he was the official island guide during the recent Wild Atlantic Way, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ at Teac Jack, which featured former CNN news editor, John DeDakis.
Needing to take time out to contemplate what was important in my life, I went seeking solitude,” he explains. “I wild-camped and developed an avid interest in sea-foraging, enjoying a calm convalescence, observing and listening to nature at close quarters. Doing so helped me appreciate the important things in life – mental and physical health, giving help to others and receiving help in return, smiling and making others smile and having a deep gratitude for simply being alive.”
writing in Donegal, Ireland Writing Retreat, lobster

On the pier at Magheraghallon, Pól explains the difference between male and female lobsters – “See, one is hard and erect,” he says, much to the ladies’ rising curiosity.

As for the obscure foods he finds on his foraging trips, Ó Muireasáin refers to the Atlantic Ocean as “freesupermarket.com,” adding, “All you need to know is which aisles to wander down for whatever type of seafood you want. The Japanese convert sugar kelp into crispy snacks, the Spanish deep-fry snakelocks anemone which they call ‘ortiguillas de mar’ (little sea nettles) in olive oil for a tasty dinner. You can also boil shrimps or prawns with sea lettuce for a nutritious meal or make a fine stew from limpets, not to mention using both types of duileasc – dillisk or creathnach – in a whole range of culinary ways.”
Ireland Writing Retreat, writing courses Donegal, Gola Island

His Excellency King Eddie of Gola (in blue T-shirt) listens attentively as Pól talks about some of his island adventures.

During his sojourns on Gola, near the dilapidated Teach Charlie Uí Fhrighil, the polyglot, fluent in five languages, has undergone a number of intriguing experiences, including ghostly apparitions in the dead of night that sent him scurrying like a madman out of his tent (though where he could scurry to on an isolated island, alone, without a boat or a paddle is beyond me), as well as his sighting of a six-foot conger eel sunbathing off Portacrin Pier. “Experiences I’d hardly get in Brussels,” he said, smiling, recollecting some of his adventures on the ‘high seas.’
Gareth Doherty, Selkie Sailing, Pól Ó Muireasáin’s, Pól Ó Muireasáin

Two seafaring environmentalists (l to r) Pól and Gareth Doherty share a joke on an island pier. (Photo by Sean Hillen)

Ó Muireasáin voices admiration for many local people who’ve befriended him since his arrival in west Donegal, including Gareth Doherty with Selkie Sailing, who organises training in water-sports and eco-tourism trips and has lobbied for greater protection for stranded sea mammals. Ó Muireasáin describes him as a “a committed and deeply knowledgeable environmentalist.”
Both men passionately believe environmental tourism coupled with the rich cultural history of the Gaeltacht can bring strong economic benefits to the marginalized rural area, describing the Donegal islands as a “a paradise of wildlife.”
“There’s dolphins, both bottlenose and Risso’s; otters, porpoises, whales, especially Minke; you’ve even got eels that travel around seven thousand miles from the Sargasso Sea,” said Doherty. “Not to mention diverse birdlife – sandwich and arctic terns, the largest migratory birds in the world; puffins, around two thousand on Tory Island alone, the most westerly of colonies; sand martins, skua, corncrake, as well as manx and sooty shearwaters, which fly about a million miles during their lifetimes.”
fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Dinner is served! (Photo by Sean Hillen)

Adds Ó Muireasáin, “There is tremendous potential here for attracting international visitors, especially from landlocked areas of countries such as Germany and the US, but local people need to pull together. They can’t act like islands.”
Ó Muireasáin, who studied Celtic languages and literature at Queens University before completing his Masters in Irish translation studies, teaching at the University of Ulster and working for the Department of the Gaeltacht, also admires Eddie Joe Mac Aoidh, the ‘Uncrowned King’ of Gola (Rí Ghabhla). Eddie, born on the island, has set up a café there to cater for visitors, many of whom travel over on ‘The Cricket,’ a ferry service organised by Captains Sabba Curran and his son, Daniel, of Gola Ferry Service.
Ireland Writing Retreat, John DeDakis, writers in Donegal

Participants at the Wild Atlantic Way ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ with Pól and Captain Sabba Curran (in T-shirt) before embarking on ‘The Cricket’ courtesy of Gola Ferry Service for Gola Island.

They’re all hoping this weekend’s island festival and the promotion in Der Spiegel, RnG and other media outlets will provide a welcome tourism boost and bring greater focus on the traditional Donegal island way of life.
See feature article on page 28 of today’s Donegal News.
Sean Hillen writer Donegal