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.

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Cultural tourism – its time is nigh

There are some among us (either through ignorance or greed) who consider Donegal unfit for cultural tourism – but a quick glance at what’s happening right now in the area proves them wrong.

Take, for example, the Slí Cholmcille (Slighe Chaluim Chille) project.

As I started writing this, many people – tourism and community leaders, teachers, retired air-force pilots, sociologists, photographers, authors, solicitors, doctors and academics – were gathered at Óstán Loch Altan, Gortahork, in the scenic northwest of the county, talking enthusiastically about developing Ireland’s very own ‘Santiago Columba’ into a successful cultural tourism pilgrimage project that could attract thousands to both western Scotland and Ireland.

Speakers at the conference air their views as to how the proposed pilgrimage trail could be developed.

Organized by The Islands Book Trust, led by John Randall and ably assisted by the ever-helpful Mairi NicChoinnich, in association with Colmcille Éirinn is Alba and supported by Bòrd na Gàidhlig and Foras na Gaeilge, this three-day conference which ended today (Sunday) aims to develop a heritage trail based on the travels and travails of the Celtic mystic, Columba. Such a project could not only inform Irish and foreign visitors about local history, archaeology, folklore and heritage but also create employment and business for hotels, B&Bs, cafes, restaurants, museums and bars alike in the two regions.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to expand our learning and to attract visitors on a significant historical route from south-west Donegal to the Isle of Lewis in north-west Scotland,” said Randall, chairman of the Islands Book Trust.

This united effort is supported by renown authors-cum-academics such as University College Cork’s Máire Herbert (Iona, Kells, and Derry: The History and Hagiography of the Monastic Familia of Columba) and Brian Lacey (Saint Columba: His Life & Legacy).

Renown University of Cork researcher and author Máire Herbert beside the old stone cross on Tory Island with her groundbreaking book on the mystic monk Columba (Colmcille).

With additional speakers such as University of Galway’s Mícheál Ó Dónaill, Calum MacGilleain, Tristan ap Rheinallt and Aidan O’Hara from Scotland, Noel O’Gallchoir from Gaoth Dobhair, Noleen Ni Cholla, Moira Ni Ghallchoir, Maolcholaim Scott, Liam O’Cuinneagain and even the King of Tory Island himself, Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri, the conference comprehensively analyzed the tantalizing persona of Columba from the sociological, archaeological, historical, religious and mythological perspectives. And, more importantly, how interest in the fellow can be turned into a dollars and cents/euros and pennies booster for local tourism.

Brian Lacey, medieval historian and author, informs guests at the Sli Cholmcille conference about Pagan and druidic practices in and around Errigal and Muckish mountains.

The only drawback to an otherwise excellent symposium of speakers was the often poor technics, the out-of-focus projection of some otherwise well-researched multi-media presentations.

But the development of Sli Cholmcille is just the tip of the iceberg.

A quick glance at the local newspapers – the Donegal News and the Donegal Democrat – this weekend alone, shows a rich vein of cultural tourism – including the weekly music seisúns and this summer’s ‘Gaelturas’ initiative at Teach Hiudai Beag; the year-long programme of music and dance at Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern; the ‘Goitse Gaoth Dobhair’ events in Bunbeg this coming weekend, which emerged from the ‘Dearg le Fearg’ language equality campaign, as well as ‘Luinneog Lunasa’ in the same area; the ‘Swell Festival’ on Arranmore; and ‘FestiFál’ and ‘Evil Eye Festival’ in Falcarragh to name but a few. Other local diverse activities with strong potential range from rock-climbing, wind-surfing and kayaking with Rock agus Roam; horse and pony riding at the Dunlewey Trekking Centre and elsewhere; the craft demonstrations at Ionad Cois Locha; and the educational Walking Donegal, the hill, coast and lake hikes with informed guide, Seamus Doohan; as well as specialty walks such as the ‘Tullaghbegley Heritage Walking Weekend.’

The list is endless.

And that’s not to mention the many literary tourism opportunities based on the art of creative writing.

Antonia Leitner from Carinthia in Austria is not shy to show her love of books and learning at Magheroarty Beach.

The idyllic landscapes and seascapes of Donegal have been an inspiration to many best-selling novelists and short story authors who have set their plots within or around the county, in genres ranging from sci-fi to literary fiction and fantasy, as well as plays. These writers include Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, Sophia Hillan, Kenneth Gregory, Emma Heatherington, Michael Harding and Laurence Donaghy, some of whom will speak at Ireland’s newest writing retreat ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Words’ from June 28th to July 4th in Gaoth Dobhair.

With the national initiative ‘The Wild Atlantic Way’ now well underway and Donegal an integral part of it, there’s only one thing stopping the cultural tourism momentum that’s building up – a continued reluctance by Údarás na Gaeltachta, the primary economic development organisation in the Gaeltacht – to fund the many projects with serious money not just the few pennies it has been doling out until now to stave off a rising tide of protest.

‘Acupuncture of the body, acupuncture of the earth’ – author Brian Lacey describes a theory he learned from a Slovenian artist.

As many people are now saying, this organisation must host regular, open, community meetings and really listen to what local people – the very people they are there to serve – want in terms of more innovative community development; provide much greater transparency in its spending of an estimated 1.2 billion euro in public money, than it has to date; and an end to kow-towing to political parties and their funders (first Fianna Fail and now Fine Gael) which has resulted in far too much money going into the pockets of a rich elite of developers/builders who make easy profits from building simplistic, unneeded, industrial estates.

A new direction is required and a Catholic Church-run sex, drugs and alcohol addiction center in Falcarragh, with no guarantee of decent local jobs – especially as such a centre already exists in Donegal and research indicates this is sufficient for need – is hardly the panacea for high unemployment and emigration from the area. Some say real investment in local cultural tourism means shelving the proposed investment of three million euro by Údarás in the addiction centre and putting those euro millions into local tourism projects, the one sector a beautiful region like Donegal can benefit widely from, now and in the long-term (if that three million euro is spent on the proposed addiction centre, it spells the end for any real investment in anything else – no other board members of Údarás in other Gaeltachts will vote for any further significant monies for Donegal).

In this regard, it is quite sad to see how much Tory Island has fallen below its full potential – far behind many other attractive island retreats dotted around Ireland. The dismissive attitude of relevant funding authorities – and perhaps the disunity and lack of concerted lobbying and effort by local people (full burden cannot rest solely on the shoulders of one man, King Patsy Dan) – has meant its tourism income has suffered greatly, with accompanying lack of promotion (not even a regular newsletter on events or significant signage on the mainland and on the island itself).

“I am tired of trying to persuade Udaras na Gaeltachta officials to properly fund projects here on Tory Island, their ears are deaf, they simply don’t understand,” said King Patsy Dan MacRuaidhri. “The people here deserve such support. Our ancient and colourful history calls out for it.”

Befriending Royalty. Modern version of the horse-drawn carriage?

It’s make-or-break time for northwest Donegal.

Let’s put an end to the notion that cultural tourism is an unimportant, peripheral activity, the kind of mind-think that Údarás officials are stuck on, and have been for decades. This specialized sector has the potential to provide immense, long-term economic benefits for this hard-hit, hard-pressed part of the county and country, but it requires serious commitment and financial support.

In a future post I will give specific examples from my extensive sojourns in other parts of the world as an international travel writer where cultural tourism has transformed and enlivened a local and often paralyzed economy.

Meanwhile the next post will focus on what precisely various speakers at the conference said about Columba, this larger-than-life monk who seems to defy description, someone about whose background we know very little, either because documents were destroyed by marauding, book-burning Vikings, or were deftly confiscated by church abbots on a precise propaganda campaign.

To read more of Sean’s work, check these sites:

Digging for Dracula

World Itineraries

Examiner

JustLuxe

Ireland Writing Retreat

Fios Training and Coaching Organization

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