Celtic or Hibernian: which is rightful heir to the Irish tradition in Scotland?

As a Donegal blow-in, I’ve just completed what some here in Ireland’s ‘Forgotten County’ call a key ‘rite de passage.’

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‘Wee Jimmy’ – a winger with panache and a Celtic footballing hero.

On the invitation of Celtic Football Club management, I made my first-ever visit recently not only to the historic city of Glasgow – where half the people in Donegal seem to have originated, and vice-versa  – but also to the venerable stadium known as Parkhead, home of the Hoops, an illustrious team that has become nothing less than a cultural icon for many generations.

So, on a crisp, dry Saturday afternoon, two hours before kick-off against third-placed Inverness Caley Thistle, I found myself walking along a long inner corridor on the upper tier of the stadium lined with the framed autographed shirts of former players including Ireland’s captain, Robbie Keane, Honduran Emilio Izaguirre, Swede Henrik Larsson, Charlie Mulgrew and Kris Commons.

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Two gray-haired Celts – Professor Pia (l), footballing expert – ahead of game time.

Within minutes, I was seated in the warm comfort of Café 1888 (the year the club was formed) enjoying a tasty lunch rapidly replenished with alcoholic beverage learning about the trials and tribulations not only of Celtic but of Scottish football in general.

And according to the man sitting opposite me – and no better person to grant illuminating insights than someone who has penned not one but three excellent books on Scottish football (‘The Quiet Man’, ‘Scotland’s For Me’ and ‘Sunshine on Leith’) – footie across the water is not in a healthy state.

Not withstanding that my companion, Simon Pia, long-time journalist and now professor at leading universities in both Edinburgh and Glasgow, has been a ‘Hibbies’ (those persons, who for reasons most bemusing to many Celtic supporters, support Hibernian FC) and that his team now lingers in the shadows of the second division, his insights into the sport in his native land were thoughtful and well considered.

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With Scotland battling Ireland this Friday in the Euro Championships, captain Robbie could be a deciding factor.

With money in short supply – at least compared to the massive amounts enjoyed by teams in the English league – Simon’s view is that Scottish football will remain mediocre and largely uncompetitive for the foreseeable future. And with Celtic’s arch Glaswegian rival, Rangers, declaring bankruptcy and being dumped unceremoniously into the second division more than a year ago, even that spark of zesty competition has been extinguished (though the two teams will face off in the League Cup semi-final soon – the first time they’ve met each other for two years).

Setting patriotism aside, or indeed lauding it, Pia – a product of Italian sperm that migrated to Edinburgh many years ago and who was my close pal at London journalism college a world ago – believes top teams such as Celtic would do better playing in the premier league down south.

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Hibbies gracefully acknowledging illustrious history of the Hoops.

“Facing the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal would certainly draw in the big crowds again and probably help other Scottish teams do better in domestic competitions and thus compete on the European stage more often, which would help improve the quality of the game here,” he said.

As for the match itself that day, real excitement was in short supply. The Hoops, under manager Ronnie Deila, struggled to break down a resilient Inverness defense. In the end, a single second-half goal by star forward John Guidetti allowed them to leap over their opposition and into third place, though two late goalmouth scrambles almost sent the visitors home to the banks of Loch Ness in triumph.

Whether good or bad for Scottish football, there are few saying Celtic, the richest team in the league, will not end up winning the premiership for the fourth successive year – especially after leaping to the top with a last-minute winner against Aberdeen on Sunday.

However, after talking to Simon, learning his team was founded by Irish immigrants (thus the nickname ‘Cabbage and Ribs’ and the harp symbol on the shirt) and listening to one of its wonderful musical anthems ‘Sunshine on Leith’ by The Proclaimers, I’m more interested in seeing the Greens promoted than what’s happening in the top division.

But please don’t tell anyone from west Donegal. I’m due to get my residency permit any day.

QUIZ

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Crowds start to gather before kick-off at Parkhead.

Checking your knowledge of Celtic, here are three questions from that day’s match program:

  1. Which two former Celtic captains are this season managing teams in the Championship in England?
  2. Which four clubs did Charlie Mulgrew play for between his two spells at Celtic?
  3. Which two current Celts have in their careers also played in Spanish football?

If you cannot answer these questions, you probably should watch this video Sunshine On leith CIS Final – BBC and listen to the song. I’ll see you at Easter Road.

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Hoopy the Huddle Hound, Celtic’s lovable mascot (in foreground), supervises the team line-ups.

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Shipwrecks, puppets and mechanical creatures – opportunities for cultural tourism

An earlier post – Cultural tourism: its time is nigh – highlighted the immense potential for cultural tourism in the Donegal Gaeltacht to help fill the vacuum left by failed government policies, mainly by Údarás na Gaeltachta, to provide jobs and prevent the departure of our dynamic young to foreign shores.

With the pursuit of major manufacturing companies a lost cause mainly due to difficult and expensive transport logistics and call centres being a short-term band-aid, cultural tourism has been an underused weapon in the battle against rising unemployment and severe economic decline in the Gaeltacht.

While some say a minority of people such as language-based entrepreneur Liam Cunningham in Glencolmcille have become tourism millionaires, mainly based on national and international grants with Cunningham perhaps reaping the benefits of his chairmanship of Údarás for over a decade (whether questionable or not, meaning within ethical parameters, is a topic for future discussion), the depth of funding to other local cultural tourism entrepreneurs has been sparse.

The reason, according to Udaras officials, is that cultural tourism doesn’t create long-term jobs. Asked why, officials are at a loss to explain, so what this long-held and somewhat irrational attitude is based on is a matter of pure conjecture, with some critics saying the real reason is unrelated to accepted principles of economic development but rather linked to cronyism, influence peddling and continued support, financial and otherwise, to Fianna Fail, a party that ruled the roost for so long and put certain people in key executive positions.

While the accuracy of this allegation requires further investigation, what is important to note is what other parts of Ireland and beyond have done – and are doing – to reap healthy benefits from committed policies to cultural tourism development and analyze whether the Donegal Gaeltacht has – to put it succinctly – ‘got what it takes.’

At a largely EU-funded conference earlier this year under the auspices of CeangalG and with the catchphrase ‘Selling Our Story,’ speaker after speaker talked about interesting cultural tourism ideas that have produced positive measurable results, including increased job creation. Many of the speakers agreed that key components for such success include ‘identity,’ ‘authenticity’ and ‘memorability.’

In my opinion, the Latin term ‘genius loci’ (spirit of place) best describes what the central element is – the specific nuances of any given place that separate it from the rest of the world.

So, does the Donegal Gaeltacht have what it takes?

In a word, yes!

Cherishing an ancient language that proudly holds its place among the oldest in the known world; with the singing tradition of sean-nós, whose ornamented, rhythmic intimations are an inspirational reminder of the primordial beginnings of Man; and with the area’s unique traditional dance and music, disparate elements of ‘genius loci’ are plentiful. Not to mention the intriguing Celtic legends such as those related to Balor and Lugh, thus the Mount of Lugh (now called Errigal) named after the ancient Sun God.

Having had the privilege over the last 30 years of travelling as a journalist on assignment to many parts of the world, I considered some of the places I’ve visited and successful cultural tourism projects there, projects that have not only strengthened the economic vitality of deprived areas but also uplifted the innate spirit and pride of the local population.

Here are a few, some which might just provide models of excellence for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

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Creative engineering in Nantes, France, has led to economic revival based on cultural tourism.

Nantes, France – Earlier this year, I travelled to this western town in the Pays Loire region to see such a project. Faced with empty industrial estates, local officials had decided to invest in cultural tourism to create jobs using the existing space and infrastructure.

Realizing how watching ships return to this riverside port with exotic cargo from around the world inspired a young Jules Verne to later write science-fiction classics as ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ the officials embarked on a project that now attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually. Entitled Les Machines de L’Ileand opened in 2007, it is a 21st-century mechanical wonderland consisting of monumental structures including the, ‘Grand Elephant,’ ‘Mantra Ray,’ ‘Sea Snake,’ ‘Heron Tree,’ and ‘World Carousel’ in what is known as the ‘Gallery of Machines’ upon which visitors enjoy adventure rides and experiences. Last year alone, almost 100,000 people rode on the Grand Elephant; 190,000 people visited the gallery and 250,000 the ‘World Carousel.’ Total investment – in various stages – was 17.7 million euro, a sum that was recouped within a few years. In comparison, according to Údarás, Largo Foods received around seven million euro in funding and left the area earlier this year.

Not only did the project increase business revenues, it also created permanent, long-term new jobs in central workshops employing such tradespeople as plumbers, carpenters and engineers. Could a project like this – using local legendary Celtic figures as central subjects – not help deal with the empty industrial spaces throughout west Donegal, while attracting more tourists to the area?

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Puppetry, an age-old tradition in Sicily, attracts tourists and locals alike, providing both entertainment and cultural education.

Palermo, Sicily – Like west Donegal, this rocky island at the toe of Italy has generally been ignored by the central government in Rome. Faced with worsening employment, local officials took matters into their own hands. Seizing on a peculiar and unique vein of cultural heritage dating back hundreds of years to the time of Socrates – puppetry – they created a flourishing tourism attraction that has boosted business and employment.

Opera dei pui’ (puppet theater) has a long tradition in Sicily, reaching its peak around 100 years ago on the island. With support from the Association for Conservation of Popular Traditions, visitors to the downtown Palermo puppet museum can now see hundreds of beautifully designed puppets, their masters’ equipment (mestiere), as well as other memorabilia, and regularly-staged shows involving cultural characters and chivalrous heroes such as Orlando, Rinaldo and Gano di Maganza. So strong has been the resurgence of interest in this long-held tradition, puppet theatre performances – that also play an important educational role in highlighting the island’s history –take place in other parts of Sicily. Again, using local legendary figures and stories, can the Donegal Gaeltacht not avail of a similar cultural tourism initiative? A creative team under the guidance of Kathleen Gallagher has already shown the level of know-how required for such a project.

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Donegal flag flies high over one of the area’s most well-known shipwrecks opposite Ostan Gaoth Dobhair. Many others lie offshore, spanning centuries of history.

Key West, Florida – before it became a hotspot for tourism, this area on the tip of the peninsula was a backward, forgotten place in the 1800s where local fishermen and their families led difficult hand-to-mouth existences. Only when the phrase ‘Wreck Ashore!’ rang out did hope for better things arise. ‘Unloading’ the many ships that ran into difficulty was a chore, but a most rewarding one.

Seizing upon this colourful aspect of the area’s history, local officials decided to create an attraction that would be both entertaining, as well as educational. Thus, the ‘Key West Shipwreck Museum,’ where visitors step back in time to discover Key West’s unique maritime heritage. The museum combines actors, video and actual artefacts from the rediscovery of wrecked vessels such as the Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the treacherous Florida Keys reef.

Narrator and master wrecker, Asa Tift, and his wrecking crew tell the story of how this unusual industry created livelihoods for the early pioneers of Key West. Visitors can even climb a 65-foot lookout tower in search of wrecks.

West Donegal, with its rich maritime heritage and its record of shipwrecks, including the sinking of Spanish Armada galleons off Tory and Gola Islands plus other vessels, both military from the two world wars and commercial, offers a similar historical backdrop to Key West. What’s to prevent officials funding such a project – except, of course, narrow-minded thinking and lack of specialised business acumen?