Is Féidir Linn – Donegal success story

It’s a wonder what focused, positive, down-to-earth community spirit can achieve especially in face of institutional apathy and paralysis – parkrun in Falcarragh in rural west Donegal being a prime example.

For years, the charming, bucolic grounds around the historic Ballyconnell Estate near the town center were left to wither, unused, disused, and pretty much forgotten by most, except for the odd few curious walkers. Talk of a Catholic church-run addiction center died a slow death, as did a thousand and one other ideas.

Then in stepped a group of local volunteers, with a fiery passion, an innovative idea and an unstoppable ‘can-do’ attitude.

Last Saturday morning under Spring sunshine (yes, it did happen in Donegal), I witnessed first-hand what such admirable leaders can achieve when they unite in the right place at the right time: an overwhelming wave of heartfelt enthusiasm from people of all ages, women, men and children, from eight months to eighty years old, all enjoying a self-supporting, self-perpetuating, united community get-together – with individual mental and physical health being the ultimate achievement.

In many ways, the strong-willed volunteers who kick-started the parkrun project – the first in Donegal – echoed the words of that Hawaii-born, basketball-playing, first African-American President, Barack Obama, when he uttered those immortal words outside Trinity College Dublin.

In many ways, perhaps those same volunteers were simply on the same wavelength as Obama when he said – “Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

As a result, this happened. And I was proud to be among the very people who made it happen…

parkrun Falcarragh

Yours Truly (second from left) with parkrun Falcarragh volunteers and a Derry-based veteran of parkruns dressed in black, with more than 170 runs under his belt. 

They’ve come in their thousands – chimney-sweeps, farmers, van-drivers, landscape gardeners, shopkeepers, bartenders and students; top-notch athletes racing through five kilometres in under 20 minutes; young mothers pushing prams, septuagenarian grandmothers and grandfathers – all encouraging each other in the interests of better health.

Such has been the overwhelming enthusiasm for Donegal’s first-ever ‘parkrun’ that organisers in Falcarragh are now discussing how their year-old, volunteer-based community effort – which transformed a few acres of unused land tucked between the second and third holes of the local golf club into a scenic forest running circuit that has attracted more users than anyone anticipated – can be further improved and expanded.

parkrun Falcarragh, Ballyconnell Estate

Men and women of all ages take to the pathways – smilingly.

And they’re expecting a strong turnout this Saturday morning at 9.30, a holiday weekend, while preparing for a special ‘Darkness Into Light’ charity event on Saturday, May 6 on behalf of Pieta House, a suicide prevention service.

Paul McFadden, one of the volunteers, said the Falcarragh parkrun project began as a modest ‘Men On The Move’ event supported by Donegal Sports Partnership “where a few local men got together for a short walk and a cup of tea.” The group then contacted Údarás na Gaeltachta, caretakers of the grounds of Ballyconnell Estate, and raised funds through activities such as pub quizzes, as well as a ‘big breakfast’ sponsorship by McClafferty’s Eurospar in Gortahork for 120 runners, to buy construction materials and rent equipment.

parkrun Falcarragh, Sean Hillen journalist

Hard-working volunteers who made parkrun Falcarragh a reality.

Examples of individual generosity included that of Damian O’Donnell who donated 500 pounds sterling to the community cause.

Another volunteer, Tom Feeney, said generous local people also sponsored summer seats. McFadden, Feeney and colleagues met several times with Údarás officials and now community group, Falcarragh Parish Development, has signed a license to operate the parkrun grounds. Such has been the project’s success, RTE recently sent out a team to produce an ‘Operation Transformation’ programme and local doctors are prescribing participation as a ‘green’ remedy for some ailments. There are now hundreds of parkruns worldwide and two more in Donegal – in Letterkenny and Dungloe.

Ballyconnell Estate, parkrun Donegal

Cheering for success.

Hugh McGarvey, 35 from Bun na Leaca, a tour bus driver with John McGinley Coaches, has completed the circuit six or seven times in preparation for the Wild Atlantic Adventure Race (WAAR) in Donegal next month comprising a combination of sports including running, cycling and kayaking. “Parkrun Falcarragh is a very well organized event, one that I enjoy very much. It is even more impressive when you consider it’s an all-voluntary effort,” he said. Displaying strong family support, Hugh’s partner, Siobhain, has also participated, with their 14-month old infant, Maggie Mae.

Packie Doohan, aged 80, from Drumnatinney, just outside Falcarragh, husband of Creeslough woman, Veronica, with 16 grandchildren and retired after 43 years as a linesman for the ESB, has run the five-kilometre circuit 66 times already. “I started at the very beginning. It’s great exercise. It gets you out of bed on a Saturday morning. And you meet lots of people. And I’m among some very pretty ladies. What could be better?”

Also, preparing for WAAR, Falcarragh man, Eddie Curran, 55, said, “The Park Run is one of the most positive things to happen in this wee community. I see people who were walking the route last year, now running it, such has been the effect on everyone’s health and fitness.”

Ballyconnell House, Darkness Into Light

Hand of triumph. One of many happy finishers.

Support for the Falcarragh project has risen dramatically with many local social workers, teachers and medical personnel becoming involved. Carers at the nearby St. Martin’s House bring people with disabilities to the circuit for leisurely outings as does the local branch of Solas, a HSE project designed to engage people involved with the mental health system in outdoor activities.

St. Finian’s School use the route and have conducted a clean-up of the entire area while raising money for costs involved in its upkeep. Pobalscoil Chloich Cheannfhaola also regularly use it for training purposes. “Parkrun was developed by the people of the community for the people of the community and like the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ it works because it’s for everyone and it’s free,” said McFadden. “If there is praise to be given it should be to the people who walk, run and turn up every Saturday morning, from Mary who makes the tea to Maureen who processes the results.”

Turn out this Saturday morning at 9.30 and make Falcarragh proud!

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Traditional Tennessee music comes to northwest Ireland

Dressed in checked shirts, caps and denim dungarees with big colorful handkerchiefs sticking out of back pockets, American musicians at Letterkenny’s Regional Cultural Center (RCC) this week looked as ready for harvesting corn (or producing moonshine from it) as hosting a concert.

Fortunately, it was the latter and what a knee-slapping hoedown the evening turned out to be courtesy of the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, combining a mix of musical talent and fine stagemanship with good humor, including some zany ‘instruments.’

With an impressive number of CDs behind them, the five-member group are so at ease on stage, they often decide at the last minute which song they’ll play next, which lends their concerts a delightful sense of spontaneity, such as when they ended this week’s show with a lively rendering of that all-time Irish classic, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.’

As evidenced Wednesday evening at the RCC, their inventory of songs and tunes is diverse, ranging from romantic ballads to spine-chilling ghost stories to comical tales of ‘tooth picking time in false-tooth valley’ and revengeful chickens as in ‘Ghost Chickens In The Sky.’

Add to the mix, the well-honed skills of Dan Kelly on fiddle; smiling Ernie Sykes on bass and voice; bald-pated, nimble-fingered John Tomlin on mandolin and voice; versatile band leader Troy Boswell, known professionally as Leroy Troy, playing claw hammer-style banjo, harmonica and washboard and voice, as well as Mike Armistead on guitar and voice.

Concert-goers were also treated to the amusing sight of Troy teasing a tune out of a plastic milk jug and a water bottle and Sykes producing the same from closed hands on the song, ‘Sick, Sober and Sorry,’ and then later hilariously miming a chicken.

Among the song highlights of the evening were a touching ballad entitled ‘These Hands’ and the carefree ‘Chug-a-Lug,’ about aforesaid moonshine, written and recorded by American country artist Roger Miller, both sung by Sykes; the ghostly tale and bluegrass classic, ‘Bringing Mary Home’ written by Chaw Mank, Joe Kingston and John Duffey and sung by Tomlin; as well as ‘Miller’s Cave,’ a Don Williams melody and the hilarious and probably most confusing song yet written, for which a family diagram is required, ‘I’m My Own Grandpa,’ both sung by Troy. Instrumentally, Troy’s prowess on the scrub board on ‘They Cut Down The Old Pine Tree’ was a delight, as was the group’s interpretation of the Hank Williams song ‘A Mansion On The Hill.’

The evening’s concert was ably opened by singer-guitarist Nashville-born George Harper, who sang a variety of songs from his ‘I’ll Be Back’ and ‘No Smokin In Here’ albums including the lively ‘Overland Express’ and a traditional folk song with the amusing kick-line ‘sugar tit a mile wide and six feet long.’ Northwest Ireland wasn’t left out of his repertoire either, with ‘Why Do I Go To Sligo,’ a song about the pretty girls of that particular town, written after a previous gig there. His voice and Tomlin’s mandolin playing on the love ballad, ‘A Stone’s Throw Away’ made for a perfect combination.

Considering Letterkenny lies in the peripheral end of Ireland, about three-hours away from Dublin where music groups often congregate, great credit goes to RCC director, Shaun Hannigan and his colleagues there, as well as Donegal County Council Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain, for bringing so many diverse bands to play. Last week I enjoyed a marvelous performance by ‘Hot Club of Cowtown’ and the series of US country concerts ends next Friday (Nov. 11) with singer-songwriter-musician, Maine-born Jude Johnston performing alongside Linley Hamilton and Dave Keary. After that it’s something different – a Swiss jazz trio, Vein, with New York saxophonist, Greg Osby, on Thursday Nov. 17, and acoustic guitarist Pierre Bensusan from France, the very next day, Fri. 18.

The concerts are presented in association with Earagail Arts Festival, Donegal Music Education Partnership and Music Network.

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.”

Michael the modern Messiah

With gray beard, tousled hair and wrinkled coat and pants, writer Michael Harding descended upon Donegal Friday night looking all the world like the modern risen Messiah and promptly mesmerized his disciples.

As one who enjoys a night at the theatre  – pointing my rickety but faithful jalopy weekly out my pebble-stoned driveway enroute to one venue or another – it has been a long while since I last saw An Grianan theatre so packed (a shame really as it hosts so many enjoyable performances).

Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

On this occasion, rightly, theatre director Patricia McBride and her marketing adjutant, Daithi Ramsay, should be marching triumphantly all the way to the bank. Or at least to the office of Traolach O’Fionnan, arts officer at Donegal County Council, with hands outstretched for a somewhat larger annual stipend.

So what magical message did the Messiah from Cavan (via Leitrim) bring northwards to have created such a keen fan base that left nary a seat unoccupied. Notwithstanding the writer-cum-playwright-cum-columnist-cum-actor’s obvious charisma, down-to-earth homeliness and ageless, sage-like physical bearing, I’ve narrowed his popularity in Donegal down to several things –

  • Humanism:  Harding carries a soothing, spiritual message that – in the stress-bedraggled world we inhabit – is manna from heaven. In this respect, he is suitably qualified – as a priest, a calling he abandoned after some years, then as a Buddhist, a calling he continues still. Summing up his lifestyle message Friday night, the author of ‘Staring at Lakes’ and ‘Hanging with the Elephant,’ said, “The ultimate wisdom is that there is no wisdom, so fuck it, just relax,” adding that his secret to contented living was following what he termed “the ancient Gaelic tradition of meditation” – in a word, ‘dozing.’ “I think I’ll start organising workshops training people how to doze properly,” he said tongue-in-cheek.
  • Nostalgia – he recounts homespun, heart-warming tales about life, love and growing old; about mothers and families and childhood, suggestions of innocence reminiscent of our own youth, of those fading bygone years we’ll never experience again but in which we bathe joyously for the remembering and the re-telling. In this respect, Harding is a wistful humourist, the Irish equivalent of Garrison Keillor whose radio programme, ‘A Prairie Home Companion,’ I listened to faithfully on National Public Radio each Saturday evening when I lived across the Atlantic.

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  • Empathy – the performer’s first words after coming on stage Friday evening were, “I’m not well,” said with a downright doleful expression. Immediately he’d captured the audience’s undivided attention. After all, having all been sick at one time or another, hearing someone else who’s sick makes us feel both empathy for that person and better about ourselves, either because, fortunately, we are no longer sick or because we are still sick but as Mephistopheles tells Faustus in Christopher Marlowe’s classic tale “Misery loves company.”
  • Sympathy – one of Harding’s strengths is that he is unafraid to bear his soul, to show his vulnerable side. With a hint of melancholy, he touches – often poignantly – upon self-doubts, mistakes, indecisions, depression and the other suitcases of distress that life tends to carry with it. And we feel for him and support him and want him so dearly to succeed because – aside from altruism – if he emerges okay at the other end, then there’s hope for the rest of us.

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  • Hilarity – Harding can be belly-wobblingly funny – no more so when he is in a self-deprecating mood or on a sudden flight of fancy. The aisles rocked with fits of laughter Friday night as he launched into a story about how – in the muddled midst of a mid-life crisis  – he read that shaving one’s pubic hair helped expand exponentially one’s erotic experiences.  So, fortified by a bottle of wine, he sallied forth, “with a Wilkinson triple blade.” Unfortunately, the mirror he was using was not tall enough so he had to balance himself precariously on a chair to accomplish the feat. The result: “fresh breezes in the nether regions and a boil from an ingrowing hair that had to be pierced by a doctor – a lady.”

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  • Familiarity – Michael has been to Donegal on several occasions, last year at An Earagail Arts Festival with singer Tommy Sands and in late 2013, speaking after the launch of ‘Staring at Lakes.’ He also spent some time previously on holiday in the county and opened the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair a few months ago.

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Overall the evening with Michael Harding was a most enjoyable occasion ripe with amusing, philosophical ramblings that left the audience departing the theatre wrapped in added layers of warmth to fend off the cold, biting weather outside.

With but a mysterious suitcase on the floor stage centre, a padded armchair and his lectern as props, Harding took his listeners on a delightful stroll down ‘Nostalgia Avenue,’ his deft turns of phrase encapsulating many-layered meanings in a flurry of simple-seeming words.

His ability to mix ‘n match moods, swinging rapidly from melancholy to bittersweet to outright hilarity was impressive, all part and parcel of personal anecdotes gleaned from the trials and tribulations of his own life. One illustrative example was when he described how his mother would make him wait in the street in front of a draper’s shop while she went in to buy “women’s things” leaving him “to develop childhood neuroses outside,” then in response to the shop-owner asking if he was her son, she’d say yes but that she would have preferred a daughter.

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And how, not having sisters, it took a visit by three Letterkenny girls to his home for him to see “women’s things” first-hand. “Their bras hanging in the bathroom like a line of dead rabbits,” as he amusingly put it.

The writer’s description of rummaging through his mother’s belongs soon after her death was emotive by its sheer simplicity. “I found my dead mother in little boxes and drawers,” he said, before recounting exactly what he found.

Harding’s terse turns of phrase can be poetic as when he talks about his Aunt Molly, as “a woman like a tree with so many shaking bits” or love in Cavan as “not many hugs but a lot of apple tarts and extra portions of potatoes.” Or even a dead chicken hanging on an assembly line in a meat factory as “wrinkled and naked like an old man’s neck.” His sharp observations of everyday life are also impressive as when he describes his uncle sleeping as “heavy on the bed like a hammock” or the danger of men “having ideas” especially in the toilet, leading him to warn women to beware of men emerging saying, “I was just thinking…..”

His insights on Irish rural life are delightfully illuminating whether they about the tradition of “throwing cocks over neighbours walls” to keep a healthy gene pool or the differences between the rural walk (“with chakras open”) and the urban one – both of which were accompanied by amusing on-stage simulations. Or even the annual ‘Blessing of the Graves” which he describes as, “Getting out the deckchairs and sitting on top of the dead to keep them down.”

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Photo courtesy of Michael Harding

Harding, not surprisingly, has a love for his native Cavan, though he admits, with himself foremost in mind, that, “you’re not going up in the world merely by going from Cavan to Leitrim,” adding that he is more “a refugee seeking asylum.”

An oft-quoted saying is that ‘one can never go back home,’ but Harding achieves the next best thing, resurrecting vivid memories of places and people from his past that help bring an audience on an enjoyable and entertaining journey of nostalgia.

TV3’s Vincent Browne ‘People’s Debate’ in Donegal attracts lively discussion

While Fine Gael and Labour were expected to take a beating at yesterday evening’s Vincent Browne-hosted ‘People’s Debate’ in Letterkenny – in part deserved as the two parties refused to participate – Fianna Fail also took a drubbing.

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At one point, after listening to the party’s TD Charlie McConalogue berate government policies, the veteran TV host exclaimed, “I cannot understand how you can make these criticisms. Fine Gael is simply following Fianna Fail policies. Fianna Fail laid down the strategy for dealing with the banking bailout and Fine Gael and Labour are merely following it.”

McConalogue made another mistake later in the debate saying, “the agreement with the Troika was negotiable,” thus contradicting what the public had been told by Fianna Fail that the deal under former Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minster of Finance, Brian Lenihan, was non-negotiable. Browne was quick to make the point, “Your party said details of the agreement with the Troika were non-negotiable, yet now you say they were. Make up your mind.”

On the emotive issue of water charges, McConalogue – after much fudging said he would halt Irish Water and suspend water charges. Again, Browne responded, “Your party, Fianna Fail, already had a plan in place in 2010 to impose water charges, but now you’re saying you’re having second thoughts.”

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Browne, at his best as a current affairs host when pushing political guests for a clear-cut answer, didn’t let the lively capacity audience down, especially when badgering the four-member panel for their views on a potential coalition after the next election. Asked whether he would take a ministerial seat under a Fine Gael or Fianna Fail led coalition Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty seemed somewhat uncomfortable in his seat.

“That is a hypothetical question and such decisions are made at our party Ard Fheis,” he said finally, as if caught by surprise, but recovering. “What we have agreed is that unless water and property charges are dropped, we will not go into any coalition.” He acknowledged, “Some members have voiced their opinion that they would go into a coalition as a minority party. We are a party hungry for change, we are not hungry for power.”

When asked the same question, his Sinn Fein colleague TD Pádraig MacLochlainn was more direct, unhesitatingly replying, “I will not participate in a government led by either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael.” As if taking strength from this, Doherty later stated categorically, “If asked by a government led by Fianna Fail or Fine Gael to be a minister, I would refuse.”

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After chastising the two Sinn Fein members for not giving a straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, McConalogue himself began the dance of the slippery eel until, under bombardment from host and audience, he finally said, “I would not like to participate in a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition but if I was outvoted by my party colleagues I’d have to go along.”

In his two-minute intro, Doherty said “four years ago we were promised a democratic revolution yet all we have had is more of the same with cronyism, stealth taxes and high levels of unemployment, no more so than right here in Donegal. There is a fairer and better way of moving forward and Sinn Fein’s job strategy can reshape this county.” He added that it was little wonder Donegal was known as ‘The Forgotten County.’ “I know Vincent you didn’t come here by train because this is one of only five counties in all Ireland without a mainline railway service.” Under an FOI request he said he has asked for a government paper produced on the future of small schools, adding that Donegal has the second largest number of such schools, with four teacher or less.

When corruption and lack of transparency within Údarás na Gaeltachta was brought up, including its refusal to release key information on its public spending such as lucrative pension payments to former executives which amount to half of its entire annual budget, Doherty said his party had tabled formal parliamentary questions on the issue, adding, “there should be full disclosure about people in receipt of high public pensions, it is important to have complete transparency so such payments can be scrutinized by the public.”

McConalogue said in his intro, “the last four years of government have been an attack on Donegal with post office closures, agriculture being hard hit and worsening heath services,” adding, “we have strong potential here but we need better infrastructure including the A5 project up and running and wider broadband.”

Referring to the pre-election catchphrase ‘Frankfurt’s Way or Labour’s Way,’ MacLochlainn said the government’s record has proved very different, “with a reduction in classrooms, budget cuts across the board and Donegal having the lowest allocation of medical staff of any county.” He added, “Donegal people are hard-working and passionate. All we’re asking is a fair chance and for Dublin to meet us halfway.”

Regarding the water charges, he added, “For thirty years, Sinn Fein has opposed these charges and now it has become the straw that broke the camel’s back. There has simply been too much austerity. Irish Water is a white elephant. My message is ‘scrap the water charges and go back to the drawing board.’ ”

While decrying the lack of proper health services and unfair stealth taxes, Independent TD Thomas Pringle said renewable energy had tremendous potential for Donegal as had the biomass wood industry. Speaking of Killybegs, he also said the fishing industry had been “hard-hit.’ He said water conservation should be a top priority because so much is being lost through poor network connectivity. He also said he was proud of challenging the bank bail-out through the courts and being in the forefront of water charge protests (continuing the momentum, a major ‘Right2Water’ protest took place earlier today – Saturday – in Letterkenny, with others elsewhere nationwide).

All four TDs, when asked directly, said they would vote ‘yes’ in the upcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.

Over the lively, two-hour event at the Clanree Hotel, there was no shortage of questions from the floor with periodic rambunctious catcalls, cheering and booing, which caused short stoppages and words of warning from the presenter.

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True to his word, Browne attempted to cover as many topics as possible such as equality, including the upcoming same-sex marriage referendum; family services, education, employment and health. Speakers ranged from parents of terminally-ill children; school teachers, social workers and community activists working on behalf of people as diverse as lesbians, gay, bisexuals, transgender, cancer sufferers, the disabled, and many others.

Some light-hearted moments and biting comments helped take the edge of emotions as when a thirsty Vincent Browne ran out of water and promised he’d even pay for some and when James Woods from Gortahork commented that with so much emigration, Donegal was turning into a wildlife refuge.

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All in all, ‘People’s Debate’ is an excellent initiative by TV3, no doubt demanding detailed planning to host such shows in all the constituencies of Ireland.

Fine Gael and Labour’s decision to spurn them, indicating fear and a lack of understanding of the difficulties facing ordinary people, could ultimately cost them vital votes in the polling booths.

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Raiders of the Lost Archives

Finding a killer is no easy matter – more so when government agencies don’t want you to.

That’s why a small team of highly-committed people proudly refer to themselves as ‘raiders of the lost archives’ and this past weekend they arrived in Letterkenny to discuss what they’ve discovered through their painstaking murder investigations.

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Paul O’Connor and Anne Cadwallader are leading members of the Pat Finucane Centre, which, for many years, has been forensically examining sensitive British government documents and interviewing hundreds of people to expose the ruthless collusion between Protestant paramilitary extremists who murdered many Catholics, and the RUC, the former northern Irish police service, and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), once the largest regiment in the British Army.

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Indeed, their investigations have revealed that some of the cold-blooded murderers were actually full-time or part-time members of the above mentioned ‘security forces’ with easy access to rifles, guns, grenades and other weapons used in the killings.

Some of their findings as revealed at the Station House Hotel Friday evening –

  • 120 paramilitary murders, one-third of which took place in the Republic, show RUC and UDR involvement;
  • At least two members of the UDR were involved in the roadside massacre of the Miami Showband music group in July 1975 in County Down;
  • Both members of the RUC and the UDR were involved in the bombing of ‘The Step Inn’ in the town of Keady that killed two people and injured more than twenty;
  • RUC officers and UDR members were part of a gang operating from two farms in south Armagh and Tyrone, responsible for the deaths of 120 people between 1972 and 1976;
  • British government documents acknowledge authorities knew some UDR and RUC members would also join extreme Loyalist paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF);
  • Compensation paid out to families of some of those whose loved ones were murdered amounted to a paltry 750 pounds sterling;
  • British government documents listing the amounts of arms that went  ‘missing’ from UDR armories showed a single gun was used to kill 11 people in 11 months;
  • No RUC officer has ever been convicted of any of the murders;
  • Four British soldiers have been convicted of murder in northern Ireland – all were released after serving less than five years of their life sentences. All were allowed to rejoin their regiments;
  • The Special Branch was allowed to operate as “a force within a force” and often decided not to give information to the Criminal Investigation Department;
  • The British government will not allow a review of its secret files on bombings that killed many people in Dublin and Monaghan, not even by an agreed judiciary figure;
  • In explaining the mere suspension of police officers involved in murder, Lord Chief Justice Lowry said, “…. more than ordinary police work was needed and was justified to rid the land of the pestilence which has been in existence.”
  • Scores of cases are now before the Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and civil cases are pending against the Chief Constable and the British government.

In concluding the evening, O’Connor, the centre’s director, and Cadwallader, a former BBC and RTE journalist, posed a number of questions:

  • Was truth covered up systematically by the British government to protect the reputation of the RUC?
  • Did the British government as a former colonial power adopt the technique of using one tribal group against another through counter gangs as it did in Kenya under General Frank Kitson, who also served in northern Ireland?
  • Was there a government policy to kill Catholics in an effort to turn popular opinion within that community against the IRA? In other words ‘if you can’t kill the fish, poison the water.’

Notes

The Pat Finucane Centre, a non-party political, anti-sectarian human rights group supported by the European Union’s PEACE III programme, is named after a Catholic lawyer who was shot dead by Protestant loyalists in front of his wife and children at his north Belfast home in 1989. A review of the case by Sir Desmond de Silva showed RUC officers proposed that Finucane, 39, be killed, passed information to his killers, then obstructed the murder investigation. The findings have been accepted by the Northern Irish Police Service. While describing the level of state collusion as “shocking,” British Prime Minister David Cameron ruled out a full public inquiry.

The event at the Station House Hotel was organized by Abhaile Arís, an EU funded programme supporting the Republican ex-Prisoner community.

A book produced by Anne Cadwallader (Mercier Press) entitled Lethal Allies: British collusion in Ireland, focuses on 120 killings attributed to loyalist groups between 1972 and 1976. It draws on investigations compiled by a specialist group, the Historical Enquiries Team (HET), which is re-examining deaths during the northern Irish conflict.

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