Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rides high

I was delighted to write this feature piece for the ‘Donegal News’ recently supporting the hard-work, communal spirit and creativity of people in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and the Rosses in hosting their respective festivals.

For such a small rural area, often there are more diverse cultural activities – dance, theatre, sporting events, concerts, to be name but a few – than in major urban areas.

Delightfully, making choices as to which to attend can be the biggest challenge.

Sean Hillen Donegal gaeltacht, donegal gaeltacht,

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Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Another cultural entertainment success for Amharclann

What a terrific cultural contribution this historic theatre provides not just for Bunbeg, not just for the Gaeltacht, not just for Donegal but for all-Ireland, north and south.

world itineraries

by Sean Hillen

Six musicians-singers-songwriters with such a wealth of talent it seems blatantly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals – that sums up Irish-group, Arcanadh, which played to an enthusiastic audience at historic Amharclann theater, Bunbeg, northwest Donegal, Ireland this week.

Here I must admit my bias.

In a rare moment of wisdom, I invited this terrific group to tour Romania when I launched the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in that former-Communist country. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

The result more than 10 years ago was the same as that at Amharclann 72-hours ago – a boisterous appeal for more at the end and an appreciative standing ovation after their final encore.

Members of Arcanadh have known each other for more than twenty years and this is reflected in their smooth light-hearted banter off-song and their seamless harmonies on-song. Their passion for their…

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‘Pretty Ugly,’ suspense-filled medical novel set on Donegal’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Over the last 40 years or so in media I’ve covered police, education, city hall, the rise, and fall, of Mayors, Prime Ministers and Presidents, I’ve been a medical writer, a war correspondent, a columnist, a travel writer, a publisher, a creative writing teacher…

…I’ve written about heart transplants, airplane crashes, wars (Iraq, former Yugoslavia and Romania, not to mention my very own native northern Ireland), I’ve survived earthquakes and tropical storms and a few other catastrophes (some of my very own making)… but completing my first novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ recently linking Ireland (Belfast and Donegal) and the US (Kansas City, Boston, New York and Washington) beats them all for sheer challenge.

Pretty Ugly novel, Sean Hillen author

Pretty Ugly’ has been a few years in the writing, and I wish I could say it was all plain sailing, but as probably most first-time novelists will tell you, “It wasn’t.”

I crashed into some plot rocks, found myself diverted by a few wayward literary waves and was even capsized mid-story and tossed into the opaque waters of writers’ block without a literary lifebelt. And if that wasn’t enough, I then had to throw a lot of ballast overboard in a desperate attempt to save the whole kit and caboodle from going under (100,000 words in total), with only myself on the poop deck waving a sad farewell.

The GOOD news, however, is that it’s DONE! And boy, am I PROUD – not about ‘Pretty Ugly’ being a success. That decision I leave to others more astute and objective than I, which includes you. But about finishing it, just the way I wanted.

Christmas gifts, new booksNow all I need is appreciative book-lovers to read what I’ve written. In fact, as many such readers as I can possibly muster. More than that, some of those fine people to kindly, generously, selflessly, write a short comment on the Amazon page below. Around 50 words is enough. I’ll even settle for 10. Even one, preferably ‘Great.’

I know it’s a lot to ask. In today’s fast-moving world, there seems barely enough time for even the ‘must-do’ things in daily life than to pen a few words to help an aspiring author. But following the timeworn advice, ‘if you don’t ask, you don’t get,’ I’m asking. Not quite with cap in hand, but with one knee slightly bent (lopsided, probably from playing too much football as a young man).

So, here goes…

PRETTY UGLY in print

PRETTY UGLY in kindle

Far be it from me to say, ‘Pretty Ugly’ would make an excellent Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year or birthday gift for book-reading friends and family, but think of it this way. It has a pretty cover, it’s a pretty good read and it’s a pretty size so it’s bound to look extremely pretty wrapped up with nice colorful paper or inside a seasonal red stocking. What about the ugly bit, you ask? Always keep in mind, ‘Beauty is in the mind of the beholder.’

Who knows, maybe the land and seascape descriptions and dramatic action in ‘Pretty Ugly’ that take place in west Donegal including Gola and Tory Islands, Dunlewey, the Poisoned Glen, Gaoth Dobhair, Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland), Bunbeg, Teac Jack, Teac Hiudái Beag’s and many other places, will kick-start literary tourism here in the northwest.

new medical novels, wild atlantic way novelsIf it could but emulate a fraction of what Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ‘The House of the Seven Gables’ and ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller did for Salem, Massachusetts; Anne Rice’s ‘Interview With A Vampire’ did for New Orleans, Lousiana; John Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ for Savannah, Georgia; an even George R. R. Martin’s fantasy novel ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ more popularly known as ‘Game of Thrones,’ did for northern Irish tourism, then the rewards would be rich. A flood of international visitors would come to the area creating stronger business for local cafes, restaurants, pubs, B&Bs’ and hotels, as well as greater support for community and cultural activities.

Why, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ even contains words and phrases as Gaeilge, therefore supporting development of the Irish language and scenes involving traditional Irish music seisiún and that most ancient of skin rejuvenation treatments – bog turf.

Anyway, please take a look and see what you think. Then leave a one-word or ten-word review on Amazon. I’d be much obliged.

Go raibh maith agat. Is mise le meas mor.

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.