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.”

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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.
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Onward to 2016.
 

Unique chance to meet Washington-based author and former CNN editor in west Donegal

Wandering through a dappled glade in Glenveigh National Park a short while back, Lugh and Siog, our two loving, lively, not-so-shy Irish collies – as is their habit – found some new friends. A bearded man, his wife and his daughter.
That man turned out to be Washington-based former CNN senior editor and triple-book author, John DeDakis, a friendly fellow over on this side of the Pond on a short holiday – his first foray into Donegal.
He must have liked what he saw, for that same man I am delighted to say, will now speak at a special public event hosted by ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ at Teac Jack in Gaoth Dobhair this Monday evening, June 29, at 8pm, sharing his decades-long experiences in American TV and radio broadcasting – including interviewing Alfred Hitchcock – as well as writing three crime suspense novels.
Interestingly, the protagonist in John’s three crime novels is a young woman, so – having honed his writing skills from a female perspective – he will talk about what he learned about the mistakes men make in trying to forge meaningful relationships with women.
In his fourth novel, which he is working on now, John deals with the death of his 22-year-old son. During his talk, he will explain why he wanted to tackle such a personal and painful topic.
John will also offer advice to those who feel they have an interesting story to tell, but are confused about how to get started writing it.
 
Staffed 24 hours, seven days a week at CNN‘s world headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, and in bureaus worldwide, the television and online news network has a global team of almost 4,000 news professionals. Its news and information services are available in five different languages across all major TV, internet and mobile platforms reaching more than 380 million households worldwide.
“It is a delight to be a part of the Ireland Writing Retreat in Donegal,” said John earlier this week, several days before he departed from the US capital. “It is wonderful that such an international event as this takes place amid such a beautiful landscape, a perfect backdrop for artists of all kinds, including creative writers.” 
His exciting and informative multi-media presentation is entitled ‘From Journalist to Novelist Or How I Learned to Start Making it Up.’ If you’re interested in news, journalism, current events or creative writing – don’t miss it.
Among the many roles, John played at CNN was as senior script editor of the popular Emmy and Peabody-Award winning programme, ‘The Situation Room,’ hosted by Wolf Blitzer, which offered expert analysis of the world’s top news and current affairs stories, both national and international.
John is travelling direct to west Donegal from Washington this weekend to join a line-up of top-notch published authors in diverse genres, including crime, magic realism and science fiction, for the week-long ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ where they will help retreat participants improve their creative writing skills.
His interest in the crime suspense genre began long before he finished the first of his three published novels, ‘Fast Track,’ ‘Bluff’ and ‘Troubled Water.’ He enjoyed the rare privilege of conducting a 40-minute, one-on-one interview with the man who has been nicknamed the ‘Master of Suspense,’ Alfred Hitchcock. The career of this British director, who pioneered many techniques in psychological thriller movie genres, spanned half a century and included such film successes as ‘The Birds,’ ‘Dial M for Murder’ and ‘Psycho.’
John was also White House correspondent for CBN News during the last three years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. He is an adjunct journalism faculty member at the University of Maryland-College Park and has been a lecturer at the American University, Washington, D.C. and Writer-in-Residence at the Callanwolde Fine Arts Center in Atlanta, teaching fiction writing classes and holding one-on-one writing tutorials.
For details on how to book your place see Ireland Writing Retreat