Donegal Connections – festival of books

For me living in the Gaeltacht region of Gaoth Dobhair in northwestern Ireland, the most surprising thing emerging from the recent, well-organised and stimulating ‘Belfast Book Festival was the number of novels set or inspired by little ol’ Donegal, the so-called ‘Forgotten County.’

Until then, I had been used to reading locally about publication of novels in our native language being funded by the various cultural groups such as Foras na Gaeilge, but hadn’t really thought too much about the diversity of English-language novels set or inspired by the beauty of the county (aside from Brian Friel’s plays), nor the use of phrases ‘as Gaeilge’ in such novels.

I know I’ll be accused of heresy and probably burned under a heather bush on the shadow of Lugh’s Mountain (otherwise known under its Christian name, Errigal) for suggesting this, but with the use of Irish diminishing in everyday conversation, should the various language groups not ease their overly-tight qualification criteria and fund publication of English-language novels that have some Irish phrasing in them?

IMG_1173

Author Emma Heatherington (seated left) and family, with evening event host, broadcaster, Sarah Travers, (seated right) and festival director, Keith Acheson (back right).

To my mind, it seems like not just a very reasonable suggestion, but a most innovative one that delivers many benefits. Books in Irish, by their nature, are for people who already speak and read our native language. Yet what we desperately need is to encourage non-Irish speaking people to become interested in our language and hunger to learn more. As English is one of the world’s leading languages, are not novels in this language not a perfect place for Irish phrases to be included to help achieve this aim? Will that not help expand use of Irish, both domestically and abroad? Such a linguistic/literary initiative would also help support economic development, especially through tourism, by attracting more visitors to Donegal and other such Gaeltachts. Such areas – while on the whole, providing inspiring land and seascapes – tend to be marginalized, unemployment black spots on the map of Ireland.

The landscape of the Outer Hebrides, with its stark cliffs, ghostly mists and lonely beaches, has become a definitive character of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy entitled ‘Hebrides’ and has helped revitalize tourism in that part of Scotland.

Food for thought.

IMG_1162

Crime fiction writer, Claire McGowan, with David Torrans of Belfast’s ‘No Alibis’ Bookstore at the Ulster Hall, talking about her genre and her work.

Anyway, back to the most enjoyable ‘Belfast Book Festival’ and novels set in the beautiful countryside of Donegal. Take the delightfully funny writing of Emma Heatherington and her book ‘One Night Only’ about four desperate housewives who take off in a car for an outing to the ‘Forgotten County’ and the hilarious, and poignant, consequences. Emma, who is due to speak next week at Ireland’s newest Writing Retreat in west Donegal is a multi-talented woman whose work ranges from novels to short stories to scripts and screenplays, including ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and ‘Playing the Field.’ Her personal ‘growing up’ story of having to become ‘Mum’ to her siblings as a young teenager after her own mother’s untimely death is touching. Aside from her literary output, one can’t help but admire Emma greatly. And she’s a natural, engrossing speaker to boot.

Then there’s Kenneth Gregory, fantasy novelist and mythologist extraordinaire with character names as Gaeilge, perhaps Ireland’s answer to the R.A. Salvatore/ Robert Jordan/ Marion Zimmer Bradley combo. His debut novel ‘The Polaris Whisper,’ the first in a trilogy, was published by Blackstaff Press. He will also speak and teach at Donegal’s ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Wordswriting retreat. Negotiations are now underway for the novel to be turned into a television series with a movie option. His second novel in the series is ‘The Poison of Newgrange.’ ‘Shahryár’s Heir: A Prince among Thieves’ is his first fantasy novel in a re-invention of the Arabian Nights’ stories.

IMG_1188

Blackstaff Press authors Laurence Donaghy and Kenneth Gregory discuss the art of writing, Celtic mythology and fusing fantasy with historical fact with journalist and author, Leona O’Neill at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Speaking together, he told me, “It is an honor to speak at such an event as the Ireland Writing Retreat. Northwestern Donegal is an awe-inspiring place, with an intriguing, colorful history packed with legends. So enthralled am I by the area that the third book in my trilogy, a modern-day thriller, has the working title of ‘Brinlack,’ a place beside Bloody Foreland. My best editor, my brother, Mark, lives there and I visit often.”

Then there’s the lady who shares my name, Sophia Hillan, former associate director of Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies and director of the International Summer School in Irish Studies. During an hour-long interview, Sophia told me about how she came upon a scrap of paper that led her to produce a most fascinating Donegal-based, non-fiction book entitled ‘May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland,’ published by Blackstaff Press in 2011. Her first novel ‘The Friday Tree’ has now just been published by the same publishing group and is set within a stone’s throw of where I grew up and lived for many years in Andersonstown, west Belfast.

IMG_1170

Two intelligent beautiful ladies, leaders in their respective fields – (l to r), author, Emma Heatherington and broadcaster, Sarah Travers.

That’s a lot of Donegal-based writing crossing so many genres, not to mention the many books written about Donegal’s very own mystic monk – Columba – including those by authors Máire Herbert  and Brian Lacey  – more of which will be written about in my next blog.

Of course, not all the authors and books at the ‘Belfast Book Festival’ were linked to Donegal. Head honcho of the Crescent Arts Centre and festival director Keith Acheson and his hardworking team, including marketing director Tracy O’Toole and outreach and education director, Ann Feely, as well as community arts development officer, Jan Carson, (her novel is entitled ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’) and her colleagues at the Ulster Hall, deserve full praise. They brought together a diverse collection of writers in various genres who spoke on such wide-ranging subjects as ageing and sexual politics (Lynne Segal – ‘Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing,’ ‘Is the Future Female?,’ ‘Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men,’ and ‘Straight Sex: The Politics of Desire’); murder most foul (Claire McGowan – ‘The Fall,’ ‘The Lost’ and ‘The Dead Ground,’ some of which use phrases ‘as Gaeilge’); matters of the heart and mind (Joseph O’ConnorInishowen,’ ‘Ghost Light,’ ‘The Thrill Of It All’ and ’Star of the Sea’); and guardian angels (Carolyn Jess-Cooke – ‘The Guardian Angel’s Journey’ and ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’), as well as providing publishing and public speaking advice through guests such as the lovely actress and teacher Rosie Pelan; the inimitable Ian Sansom (Mobile Library Series including ‘The Case of the Missing Books’ and ‘Mr. Dixon Disappears;’ and self-publishing guru, Alison Baverstock (‘Is There A Book in You’ and ‘Marketing Your Book: an author’s guide.’).

IMG_1217

Agents and publishers, including Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander (r), Patsy Horton (c) and Alice Kate Mullen (l) of Carcanet Press, discuss their roles and responsibilities in the writing field.

In terms of diversity of writer and subjects, the week-long series of events surpassed most such festivals I have attended – and I have been to many, including both the Salon du livre Paris and the London Book Fair. Also – beyond just the world of books – the festival reflects the emergence of Belfast from its enforced dormancy as a dynamic and attractive city with many options for would-be visitors, from cozy, atmospheric cafes, terrific restaurants and avantgarde and traditional theatres such as The MAC and the Lyric.

By the way, other speakers at the Donegal writing retreat which begins formally on Sunday, June 28th between An Bun Beag and Bun an Leaca (on which there are only four places left) include ‘Antony-Cleopatra’ expert Rachael Kelly and award-winning author Anthony Quinn and former detective-cum-writer Martin Ridge who lives near Falcarragh.

IMG_1246

As fiesty and stimulating as ever, author, socialist, feminist and civic leader, Lynne Segal greets her avid admirers.

Rachael, a native of Belfast has become the foremost expert on the age-old romance between Roman leader, Mark Antony, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (made famous on-screen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) after completing her doctorate in film studies on it. Rachael has also penned the first novel in a trilogy on the two historical figures entitled ‘Queen of the Nile,’ set in 1st-century-BC Alexandria. Rachael’s earlier novel, ‘The Edge of Heaven,’ won the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition 2014, while her short story, Blumelena, was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2012. Her ‘Long Anna River’ won the Orange Northern Woman Short Story Award and was later featured in an anthology called ‘The Barefoot Nuns of Barcelona,’ while ‘The Night Sky In November’ was runner-up in the White Tower Publishing Short Story Competition. Her poem, ‘A Five Yard Odyssey,’ won ‘The Battle of the Bards.’

IMG_1227

Alison Baverstock, publisher, trainer and writer, talks about the advantages and pit-falls of self-publishing, accompanied by successful self-publishers at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Anthony Quinn was born in 1971 in Tyrone and his short stories have been short-listed twice for a Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award. He was also the runner-up in the Sunday Times New Food Writer competition. ‘Disappeared‘ is the title of his first novel. Published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press in 2012, it was was shortlisted for a Strand Literary Award, as judged by book critics from the LA Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and the Guardian. It was also selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the top ten thrillers of 2012. BORDER ANGELS, the sequel, was published by Mysterious Press last year.

IMG_1233

Actress and teacher, Rosie Pelan, instructs writers how to best speak their words in public.

Martin Ridge, from Galway but living in Donegal for many years, is a retired Garda officer. He almost single-handedly took on the might of the Catholic Church when he investigated rumors – that soon became distressing facts – about the horrific rape and sexual abuse of young boys by members of the clergy in northwest Donegal, in and around the towns of Gortahork and Falcarragh. His brilliantly-written book ‘Breaking the Silence’ tells a tragic story of the carnage such abuse created in the lives of the boys, now men, many still living in the area, and the arrogance of the church towards that abuse in refusing to co-operate with investigations or offer appropriate compensation. This particular rural area now has the ignominy of being the worse area for clerical abuse record in all Ireland. For more information on the Ireland Writing Retreat see http://www.irelandwritingretreat.com/

Advertisements

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Living in Gaoth Dobhair, the heart of the Irish-speaking Gaeltacht area of Donegal in northwest Ireland, I take a strong interest in how this beautiful region – arguably the most scenic part of the entire country – is governed and develops, both economically and socially.

As such, I have vested considerable investigative journalistic experience, gained after 30 years in the media sector, in analyzing the workings of the largest economic development organization here – namely Údarás na Gaeltachta, an organization that has benefited from a spending budget of around one billion euro, mainly for job creation, since it was first established in 1980.

I have penned many news and feature articles on the organization over the last five years, the latest (below) published today (Friday) in the largest circulation newspaper in Donegal, the Donegal News.

For context, it’s probably worth reading the much more comprehensive, three-part series on Údarás that I wrote for the same newspaper. You’ll find it in the earlier posts below.

Pulling the ropes

Údarás na Gaeltachta – a secret society?

Like Br’er Rabbit, west Donegal’s largest economic development group is captive.

Captive to the belief that call centres and large manufacturing companies are the only way to create jobs – and to a golden circle that benefits from such thinking.

As such, Údarás na Gaeltachta is a Tar-baby, ever-more entangled in a sticky situation.

With the recent announcement that Largo Foods in the Gaoth Dobhair industrial estate will now close, with the loss of over 140 jobs, and after spending more than two million euro in the Donegal Gaeltacht over the last year, the Irish-language organisation has suffered a net loss of 78 jobs, according to its own figures, the worst record for many years.

So what has gone wrong? Seemingly, plenty!

Remoteness, poor infrastructure and a narrow skills’ set are the reasons most often given for few companies coming to the rural Gaeltacht of west Donegal. But does this excuse Údarás’ poor performance and lack of transparency as a public body?

After announcing recently it created 220 jobs in Donegal last year, Údarás promptly declined to give a breakdown of the figure. Following a Freedom of Information (FOI) request I made earlier this year seeking a list of funded companies and their job numbers, as well as pension payments, it replied, “For data protection and commercial sensitivity reasons. We do not release specific information collated for the purposes of the Údarás employment survey to the general public,” adding that pensions, while funded by the taxpayer, were private matters.

I asked Sinn Féin Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh of the Oireachtas Joint Committee, which revealed Údarás pays half its annual budget in pensions for 136 former executives, to follow-up. His party leader, Gerry Adams TD, submitted Dail question Nr. 127, as well as Questions 416 and 417, asking the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to “detail final salaries levels, lump sum or additional payments and the pension payments made to each chief executive officer or regional executive of Údarás who retired in the past three years.” Minister Jimmy Deenihan answered: “I have been advised by Údarás na Gaeltachta it considers the payments referred to are covered under the Data Protection Acts 1988 and 2003. Accordingly, it is not in a position to supply the information requested.”

Mary Lou Nolan, TD, Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on public expenditure and reform, then submitted yet another Parliamentary question, Nr. 148, asking the Minister to “reference the specific provisions of the Data Protection Acts to which he refers; the basis on which he believes Údarás na Gaeltachta does not, unlike all other senior managers across the civil and public sector, have to make public, details of public service pension arrangements.” A full answer is still awaited.

Such lack of co-operation by Údarás is disconcerting and leads inevitably to suspicion, making the words of its Arranmore Island-born chairperson Anna Ní Ghallchóir to me – “utter transparency is a given” – seem pale.

About one billion euro has poured into the Donegal Gaeltacht since Údarás was founded – for a population of 24,000. Result: the highest unemployment rate nationally, ugly, empty, ghost-like industrial estates blighting a rural landscape and a horrendously under-developed tourism sector.

Two years ago, under the Fine Gael-Labour ruling coalition, a new board promised change, with both ni Ghallchoir and fellow board member John Curran saying to me in separate interviews that widespread funding for ‘cultural tourism’ projects would be given to create sustainability by attracting more visitors to west Donegal. Two years later, less than five per cent of Údarás’ budget has gone to such projects, leading people at a recent EU-backed cultural tourism CeangalG (ConnectG) conference at An Chuirt Hotel in Gaoth Dobhair to complain of dwindling support.

In the case of Largo Foods, where is the sustainability that Údarás grants totaling 6.2 million euro to it (over 43,000 euro per job) should have created, and what business-sense does it make for Údarás to allocate half a million euro for two years for this company, which didn’t even bother to draw it down? With call centers and large manufacturing units merely band-aids for local unemployment problems, why has Údarás shown so little trust in small businesses forming the backbone of the local area’s economy? Especially so when a national economist who completed her Doctorate on Údarás operations, concluded, “on supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will continue to be, insane.” Could the fixation with short-term job numbers be linked to retention of Údarás’ own staff jobs, whose salaries average 80,000 euro annually, excluding expenses?

Instead of cultural tourism being expanded with serious money, Gearóid Ó Smaoláin, the organisation’s tourism officer, said in a recent public forum that “discussions are well-advanced” on building an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in the coastal town of Falcarragh, beside an existing golf course in the Ballyconnell House estate. It is believed Údarás, having already turned down several tourism ideas for the area, will allocate between several hundred thousand and one million euro to the project, which will be run by an arm of the Catholic Church.

Ultimately, decent Donegal people deserve better. How many more millions of euro must be wasted, how many more years lost, before Údarás changes its vision, and for transparency and accountability to be achieved? Perhaps only then will the ceaseless brain-drain halt and our native language escape from withering on the vine.

Published in Donegal News

Many challenges facing Donegal Gaeltacht and Udaras

Fresh from her first meeting recently as board chairperson of a revamped Udaras na Gaeltachta, Anna Ni Ghallchoir faces discouraging news – the number of fluent Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas is falling and urgent measures are needed to reverse the trend.

“Without doubt, Irish is in decline, we must realise that and put in place a concrete plan to deal with it,” said Ni Ghallachoir, director of the Languages Centre at the NUI in Maynooth.

Meanwhile, a strategy, enshrined in the 2012 Gaeltacht Act and a 20-year strategy plan, is in place, with twin aims of promoting Irish and creating dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, told the Donegal News he remains “open and flexible” in his approach. “If the system supporting the Irish-language and economic development in Gaeltacht areas requires streamlining or enhancing for greater efficiency and more effective use of public money, then we are certainly open to doing so.”

Promoting Irish

The proposed plan under the act has several strands, including support for Irish-speaking families and a greater role for community groups such as co-ops, schools, sports and music clubs in each Gaeltacht area, Ni Ghallachoir said, adding, “Local Gaeltachts must take ownership of the plan, be the foundation upon which growth takes place. With different socio-linguistic-economic factors in every Gaeltacht, each must be analysed and area-specific programmes initiated so they become pivotal drivers. ”

Referring to the act, Eoin O’Murchu, former political editor at Raidio na Gaeltachta  and a national commentator on Irish-language affairs, says, “all that reads well, may not be so,” adding, “It comes down to value for money, especially important in the present difficult economic times. Before, there was a lack of purpose from the State, with no clear vision. Co-ordination could have been more efficient with recognition of the specific differences in each Gaeltacht. Now, with a chance to implement a specific strategy, politics unfortunately has entered the fray and that opportunity is being missed.” Added Concubhar O’Liathain, board member of TG4 and former editor of La, the Irish-language newspaper, “Some appointments to important Irish-language boards such as national funding body, Foras na Gaeilge, are being made on party political grounds. People on boards should be challenging officialdom. Those interested in the language but not in party politics are more likely now to be overlooked.” Officials at Foras, who direct a multimillion euro annual budget, said all projects are selected on merit before funding.

Salaries, transport, board fees and pensions

O’Murchu also said what happened in the corporate world recently in Ireland now happens in the Irish-language one. “A small handful of the same people are on boards, each supporting one another’s projects. This prohibits substantive evaluation of Irish-language project proposals. A person is hardly likely to turn down another’s project for funding when they know that person may be voting on theirs at the next meeting. Such meetings are often merely a way to mark time, nothing more.”

Third-level education in Irish in Donegal is also a challenge. Ionad an Acadaimh, established in Gaoth Dobhair in 2004, has received generous funding but cannot recruit enough students. “It is a problem, we need improved marketing, better outreach,” said former Udaras chairperson, Liam O’Cuinneagain, whose language organisation Oideas Gael, which employs four full-time people, received over 350,000 euro from Udaras and more than that from Foras and other sources.

Jobs: tourism or industry

All those involved in Irish-language planning consider job creation key in preserving it, describing it as “an essential element of dynamic Gaeltacht communities.”

“If we don’t succeed in keeping Irish-speaking population in Gaeltachts, how can we possibly expect to maintain the language,” said Dinny McGinley, Minister of State for the Gaeltacht, saying he reduced the Udaras board from 20 to 12 because it was “too large, too expensive and too political.”

But what sort of economic development meets Gaeltachts’ needs? Lacking proper infrastructure especially rapid transport such as motorways, rail-lines and a multi-destination airport that major manufacturers require, the odds are against rapid employment pick-up in this sector in the Donegal one. “On supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job-creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will be, insane,” said a leading Dublin-based academic whose research has focused on Udaras over several years. “Look at the fate of Fruit of the Loom to see the consequences. Many call centres have also failed, with some still owing Udaras lots of money on outstanding loans.” She added, “Much of what Galway-Connemara – where Udaras is headquartered – got, would help Donegal greatly. Many people there got clean, well-paying, long-term jobs in sectors such as IT, Irish translation services and media, while Donegal, the poor cousin, ended up with lower-paying, short to medium-term, conveyor-belt type jobs in factories.”

The consequences of manufacturing failure dot the Donegal Gaeltacht landscape today, with Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty pointing out that almost half of the industrial parks there lie empty, estimated to be around 45,000 square meters. “Manufacturing in the Donegal Gaeltacht is not sustainable,” he said. “We don’t have the necessary transport links and the government’s withdrawal from the Dublin-Donegal A5 project means we are hardly likely to get them any time soon. That means looking for alternative ways to encourage young Irish speakers to stay here and help create dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Broadband offers one solution. It’s like electricity and running water was years ago, ‘must-haves’ in today’s modern world. With it, the Gaeltacht here can chase the jobs the Connemara Gaeltacht got.”

Instead of easy-to-build ‘mortar and metal’ industrial estates, which analysts said made “fabulous profits for builders and developer,” Udaras chairperson, Ni Ghallachoir, board member, Sean O’Cuirean from Falcarragh and TD Doherty point to tourism, particularly the environmental and cultural variety.

For decades, west Donegal tourism relied on northern Irish holiday-makers flooding across the border, local officials said. That ended with the arrival of low-cost airlines. The entire hospitality sector in the Gaeltacht has declined rapidly since.

“Cultural and green tourism offer tremendous opportunities but its potential has not been exploited enough here,” O’Cuirean said. “Udaras has an important role in this, by supporting large and small tourism projects across the Gaeltacht. Compared to places like Galway and Kerry, we lag far behind. We should adopt environmental tourism models, Norway and Scotland, for example. Mayo hosts meditation retreat type holidays. Whether they are participatory projects in re-afforestation or archaeology, we should be offering them.”  Sabba Curran, an angling tourism entrepreneur in Dore, agrees. “We have all we need, the ocean, the islands, the fishing grounds, but we need Udaras help to develop the sector.”  Added Doherty, “West Donegal has so many tourism pearls scattered around – Errigal, Glenveigh, Dunlewey, Glencolmcille, Tory, Gola – but we have failed to make a necklace out of them. They can’t stand alone. With peace in the north and an all-Ireland tourism body established, now’s the time to act.”

Udaras staff in Donegal declined to talk about tourism development nor job-creation statistics here. When contacted, Micheal MacGiolla Easpuic, acting regional manager based in Gaoth Dobhair, told the Donegal News, “We’re a centralised organisation, you’ll have to call Galway.” But Siubhan Nic Grianna, Udaras communications director in Galway, also declined to provide details as did Gerry O’Smaolain, who oversees Udaras tourism projects here.

Budget constraints

Challenges to Irish-language development include a much-reduced Udaras budget, but also that most of its budget goes towards staff salaries, expenses and pensions rather than supporting job creation projects in Gaeltacht areas. Nic Grianna declined to give specific figures on pensions, even though it is public information. A Joint Oireachtas committee, however, learned recently that pensions of 136 people take up half the current Udaras budget. “Pay levels at Udaras are the envy of people in the Irish-language sector and the pension situation needs looking at,” said O’Liathain, “There could be less bureaucracy in terms of funding also. Udaras has its weaknesses, but it’s not so drastic it can’t be fixed.”

Those interviewed for this three-part series on Udaras na Gaeltachta over the last few weeks were agreed on one thing – Gaeltachts require continuing support. “Promoting Irish in the Gaeltachts may seem like selling coal in Newcastle,” O’Liathain said. “You’d think people would have enough of it. But it is very important in preserving our native culture and heritage.”

Published in Donegal News