Good writing gives me goose-bumps

Having arrived in picturesque west Donegal – Bun na Leaca to be precise – over six years ago and recognizing it for the artists’ haven that it is, my wife, Columbia, and I thought about establishing a creative writers’ retreat.
After all, surely such a pristine and bucolic landscape could inspire great prose. 

Ireland Writing Retreat participants enjoy a special Celtic legend coastal walk with guide, Seamus Doohan.

Not that such an idea hadn’t been done before.  Poet partners, Janice Fitzpatrick Simmons and her late departed husband, James, had done so many years previous, setting up a ‘Poet’s House’ in a refurbished cottage at Clonbarra, outside Falcarragh.

Then funding was more generous and tens of thousands of euro annually wasn’t much of a problem for Udaras na Gaeltachta, the Arts Council, Donegal County Council, LEADER, and other sources.
Times have changed, however, and the public funding pump is dripping slowly, a mere trickle at best. Seanie FitzPatrick and Co. and Fianna Fail made sure of that.

Rose Sweeney teaches future members of the ‘Riverdance’ cast the basic ‘sevens’ of Irish ceilidhe dancing.

County Librarian and Divisional Manager of Cultural Services, Eileen Burgess, a keen supporter of our idea, issued warnings: “It’s a wonderful project but there’s simply no money in the kitty. You’d pretty much be on your own.”

But you know how it is – an intriguing idea comes along, sticks to you like furze in a meadow and simply won’t fall away no matter how hard you try.
So, even though there are more than one hundred creative writing conferences and book festivals throughout Ireland – many in the much-publicized, tourist-centric counties of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kerry – we took the plunge.
After all, isn’t Donegal the prettiest of them all?

Washington-based triple book author and former CNN editor, John DeDakis, enjoys a leisurely trip on ‘The Cricket’ to Gola Island with other writing retreat participants.

Of course, wisdom told us to delay until better economic times were upon us. But passion drove us forward, screaming, ‘tempus fugit.’ We swayed for a while between the two.

We’re going into our third year now and have managed to attract participants from far off fields, many of whom had never been to Ireland before never mind the back-roads of the Donegal Gaeltacht – Wyoming, Sydney, Utah, Perth, Stoke-on-Trent, New Jersey to name but a few.
Not bad for a project without public funding of any kind.

Guest speakers at the Ireland Writing Retreat held at Teac Jack, Gaoth Dobhair. (l to r) Singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith; Mark Gregory, forensic editor; actor/director Murray Learmont.

Imagine where it could go with a bit of financial support – but perhaps only if it’s located in one of the aforementioned counties.

As for this year, international stars of the week-long retreat included John DeDakis, triple book author and former senior editor at CNN for 25 years who flew directly from Washington to be at Teac Jack’s, the retreat location; Anthony Quinn, experienced author of crime fiction with a crafty literary twist; and Mark Gregory, a much-heralded forensic editor (the person who reads book manuscripts minutely word by word, syllable by syllable).

Plot, character, suspense – (l to r) Authors John DeDakis and Anthony Quinn discuss the challenging task of writing novels.

But committed locals also loaned their weight enthusiastically to the endeavor – actor and drama group director, Murray Learmont, guided participants on improving their public reading skills; singer-songwriter-guitarist, Ian Smith granted insights into the challenging task of lyric writing; Rose Sweeney taught participants their ‘sevens’ in preparation for a ceilidhe in the backroom of the popular Glassagh venue; Pól Ó Muireasáin gave an enlightening tour of Gola Island; and Seamus Doohan led participants on a Celtic legend coastal walk – all of which was grist to the mill for writers’ creativity.

Eddie, the uncrowned King of Gola Island (in blue) with walking guide, Pol O’Muiresean, (r) talk about life on the west Donegal island many years ago.

The ‘Donegal News’ considered this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ which ended last week, worthy of an article in today’s edition.
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Onward to 2016.
 

Banned in the US and UK, but coming to Donegal soon – sex, profanity and fireworks

Ever tried reading James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’?
Only 800 pages, more or less, a quarter of a million words, characterised by convoluted, stream-of-consciousness prose, meaning some sentences aren’t really sentences and those that are seem like they’re not.
Not to mention every chapter relates to an organ of the human body and also that while it’s about a day in the life of Dubliner Leopold Bloom, it’s also about the Mediterranean Sea adventures of the ancient Greek hero in Homer’s epic poem.
Like me, you probably stopped reading after 10 pages or so.
Now try imagining not only reading all 800, often unpunctuated, pages but transforming it into a captivating play entitled ‘Extracts from Ulysses,’ then coaching a large group of amateur actors in the backroom of a community center in a rural west Donegal Gaeltacht to deliver a delightful 90-minute theatrical production.

Roy Orbison-like, Learmont Murray stirs his coffee, the way he stirs life – in ever-widening circles (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Enter stage left, Murray Learmont, thespian extraordinaire who turned 69 a few days ago and has not only directed a plethora of theatrical productions during his 20-plus years in the drama field, but has himself played roles as diverse as Captain Renault in ‘Casablanca,’ Polonius in ‘Hamlet,’ a preacher in ‘High Noon’ and Simon Dedalus, father of Stephen Dedalus, the hero in ‘A Portrait Of the Artist As A Young Man.’
On Bloomsday (Tuesday, June 16), Learmont and his enthusiastic, skilled troupe, the Cloughaneely Players, will perform their unique production before a hoped-for capacity audience in Arnold’s Hotel, Dunfanaghy Donegal, at 9pm. Don’t miss it. It’s a rare dramatic treat.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Together as One. (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

So why tackle such a complex literary challenge?
It’s such a wonderful story of human experience, with such powerful dialogue,” says Murray, sitting over a coffee and a huge chunk of chocolate cake (mine, he was much more disciplined) at ‘Moonshine Café’ in Letterkenny last week. “It contains so many worlds within it, being the classic tale of Ulysses in a colourful turn-of-the-20th century Dublin setting with even a biscuit-tossing scene in the bar in the first chapter relating to Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant, hurling a huge rock at Ulysses.
Photo by Columbia Hillen

Ever-passionate about matters of the stage (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Speaking passionately, he adds, “In Joyce’s novel you never lose the sense of surprise. While scenes fit into nicely one another, he surprises your expectations. The pitiful blind boy swearing at someone who accidently bumps into him – “God’s curse on you, whoever you are! You’re blinder nor I am, you bitch’s bastard!” being but one example. The author also makes no concessions, leaving it up to the reader to find things out. It is a modern piece both in thoughts and ideas, about relationships, and many of its themes are still very much relevant today.
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Production even features risque bedroom scenes (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

As for the task of reducing 800 hefty pages into theater form? “ I must say, the cut-and-paste capabilities of a modern-day computer really helped,” says Murray modestly, smiling. “But what I was really looking for was memorable dialogue and there’s just so much of that it wasn’t too difficult. Joyce captures exactly the way people speak. Of course, there were certain scenes I definitely wanted in like the bar scene where the one-eyed citizen abuses bloom in an anti-Semitic rant and the scene in the Ormond Hotel with the two barmaids laughing, saying ‘ “Aren’t men frightful idiots,’ which relates to the song of the Sirens in the classic myth.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

What’s that you say? (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

With a previous performance several weeks ago having met with strong positive reaction and the next due soon, how does he feel? “Very happy. It has been great fun doing what is, in effect, an ensemble production. Around 20 people, with everyone putting in their ideas. It has been a labour of love and, of course, I’m delighted it has been received so well.

Photo by Columbia Hillen

Murray Learmont: Serious about the stage, but with a ready laugh  (Photo by Columbia Hillen)

Murray, who first read ‘Ulysses’ while in his 20s studying English literature at Glasgow University, had particular praise for lead actor, Pearse McGee, who plays Bloom and is on-stage throughout and for Maggie McKinney, who plays his wife, and has a challenging soliloquy at the end.  Aside from the actors, Murray also praises Robert Shields, owner of Clady Media in Crolly, who supervised the sound system and Joanne Lindsay-Butler for set design.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Whatever you do, don’t look the other way! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

Speaking about Joyce’s work and his role in the production, McGee said, “The novel deserves its reputation. It is a law onto itself. While it is, granted, a dense, multi-layered and hard-to-handle beast of a book, the sheer exuberance of the language can carry you through it, if you let it.
On playing Bloom, he added, “It was a tough ask to get into the head of one of the great everyman characters, especially then having to portray him as the public man without showing the audience his inner thinking. Murray’s patience and boundless enthusiasm were invaluable to me in getting there and his sheer love of the source material clearly shone through at rehearsal, which helped to take a tough job and make it fun.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Pretty as a picture, but what’s that in your hand? (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

McKinney, whose previous diverse roles have included Lady Macbeth, Ophelia and Helena in the Shakespearian classics “Macbeth,’ ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and a chorus girl in ‘Some Like It Hot,’ said she “loved” playing Molly Bloom. “I had not read the book, so it was interesting to learn about it. To begin with, the soliloquy was a little challenging, as it is Molly Bloom’s stream of consciousness and James Joyce left it unpunctuated and her thinking often flits from one memory to another, so it took a while to decipher this. Also, some of my lines were a bit risqué and I was a little concerned I might be shunned in the local community for using such improper language, but in context of everything else I had to say it worked and wasn’t too shocking, thankfully!
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Honestly, hand on heart – if I can but find it, I know it’s here somewhere! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

‘Ulysses’ takes place at Arnold’s Hotel in Dunfanaghy, west Donegal, on Tuesday evening, June 16, commencing at 9pm. Book your tickets early by calling 00353 74 913 6208 as venue room capacity is 60 people. A second performance will take place on Thursday evening, June 25, at the Church of Ireland hall in Dunfanaghy.

Photo by Moses Alcorn

You’re sooooo serious, you make me smile! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

Maybe, upon advance request, they might even serve up the traditional ‘Bloomsday Irish breakfast’ of kidneys and gizzards.
Photo by Moses Alcorn

Well-behaved angels all in a row! (Photo by Moses Alcorn)

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Who’s that dapper, fashion guru (Photo by Moses Alcorn)