Praise and prise

As one year ends and another begins I look back at the privilege I’ve had of writing in this blog about exceptional individuals who – through skill, initiative, invention, passion and sheer persistence – deserve great praise.

They’ve brought added color and a refreshing sense of diversity to Donegal, one of the most remote parts of Ireland straddling its most northwesterly Atlantic seaboard.

Consider Sabba Curran from Dore, who some years ago, without knowing much about boats drove down through England at exactly this time of year and returned with one in tow. Now he owns ‘The Cricket’ one of the largest passenger boats in the area and brings people for enjoyable excursions to Gola Island and much farther out on leisure fishing trips.

The Cricket boat to Gola Island, ferry to Gola Island, Donegal islands

Or Gareth Doherty, whose boat-trips with his grandfather unwittingly launched him on a series of sea-loving escapades. Now, with a plethora of certificates to his name as master of different crafts, Gareth takes visitors, young and old alike, on sailing and canoeing adventures, teaching them the skills he himself has learned over the years and showing them the beauty of the bird and sea-life population all around us.

Selkie Sailing, Gareth Doherty

Then there’s Pól Ó Muireasáin, one of the most refined Irish speakers in the entire Donegal Gaeltacht, or indeed any Gaeltacht for that matter. Having taught as Gaeilge at university and worked as a translator in Brussels on complex European issues, there’s very little Pól doesn’t know about our native language, grammar, linguistic or etymology.

Brimming with civic spirit, there’s few challenges Pól won’t try, including line-dancing as a nun and a cowboy, then imitating that most famous of seasonal characters, Santa, thus bringing untold pleasure to young and old alike.

fishing in Donegal, Gola Island Ferry, sea foreger

Photo by Sean Hillen

Trips with these three men over the last few years has filled me with the kind of exhilaration and child-like exuberance one rarely finds in the bland concrete-and-glass urban settings I’ve often lived in.

But it’s not just lovers of the sea that help restore one’s faith in humanity. There’s also lovers of the land. Such people as Seamus Doohan, walking guide and lover of all things Celtic.

Seamus Doohan walking guide, walking Donegal

Having had the pleasure of experiencing his tours for an article in ‘The Irish Times’ as well as for this blog, I can guarantee a right-royal good time in his company, meandering among the hills of Donegal while learning about the colorful history of the area – including flesh-eating plants, soaring eagles and Pagan wishing stones.

Treading a different terrain altogether is Kathleen Gallagher.

Kathleen Gallagher Falcarragh,

Standing at Falcarragh crossroads just before sunset one year, I – like hundreds of others – was astounded to see a dramatic spectacle unfold before our eyes. At the edge of the hazy horizon, slowly coming into view, appeared wave upon wave of grisly, shapeless, blood-spattered zombies, horrible-looking members of the UnDead who, as they drew near, suddenly burst into a frenzy of brilliantly-choreographed dance moves to the pounding music of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’ Such a mesmerizing event, part of a community festival, is but one example of the sheer creativity of this lively, zesty individual who’s probably the envy of Galway’s ‘Macnas.’

Kathleen’s artistic talent brings me conveniently to another transplant to Donegal, this time from the heart of Scotland – a man who has brought Kings, Queens, medieval murderers and even ‘Cold War’ spies to this small part of the world. From James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ to Graham Greene’s ‘The Third Man,’ Murray Learmont is a stage supremo directing members of the Cloughaneely Players to theatrical success.

Murray Learmont theatre director, theatre in Donegal

‘Toss a stone and you’ll hit a musician on the head.’ Such were the memorable words I recall hearing from someone after first setting up home in Bun na Leaca fifteen years ago. It’s an understatement. ‘Toss a stone and it’ll bounce from the head of one musician to another, to another, to another….’ is a more accurate depiction of the situation.

I’ve had the pleasure of hearing so many performing, it would be impossible to name them all here, but two whose lives I’ve written about deserve mention.

Few around here, nor in places beyond Ireland, don’t remember ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ and its founding member, singer and songwriter extraordinaire, Pat Gallagher, who penned the immortal tribute, ‘Las Vegas in the Hills of Donegal’ that became an instant national hit. Such is his musical prowess Pat can meander effortlessly from one genre to another, from ballads and blues to folk rock and country. Listen to ‘A Returning Islander,’ ‘Turfman’s Blues,’ ‘Children of the Highways,’ and ‘Let the World Keep on Turning’ and you’ll understand just what I mean.

Pat Gallagher musician, Goats don't Shave

Then there’s Ian Smith. Not managing to become a native of west Donegal, he did the next best thing – married beann álainn, Breda, from here. Formerly a guitarist and singer with a rock band in England, Ian left thousands of groupies broken-hearted and settled near Burtonport – and has never looked back, well, hardly ever. During that time he has played with some of the best musicians in the world and has cut not one but three full CDs, one of which ‘Restless Heart’ showcases his immense song-writing talent, with many of the titles his own work.

Ian Smith musician, folk music Donegal

That’s the praise bit of the headline. What about the prising bit?

Such talented people as mentioned have not received the kind of support they deserve from those with their hands on the cash that is meant to enrich the cultural, social and economic soil of west Donegal.

Instead of providing generous funding for touristic and artistic initiatives that help attract welcome visitors to the area and create jobs, the powers-that-be at the Gaeltacht’s leading funder, Údarás na Gaeltachta have either repeatedly fed the billion euro they’ve received to well-known, rich elites; to themselves or acquaintances; to developers to build now derelict, deserted industrial estates; and to companies which have gladly accepted the hand-outs, then promptly left the area, leaving out-of-work unfortunates in their wake.

Perturbed by the stories I’ve been told by local people about such discrimination and the wall of informational silence constructed by Údarás – I began prising apart, bit-by-bit, snippets of information through the Freedom of Information Act about the spending policies of aforesaid economic development organization.

To say I was surprised and disappointed at what I found is a distinct understatement. Astonishment would be a more suitable word. Lack of strategy, absence of clarity, cases of cronyism and nepotism – in fact, all the dubious goings-on that continue to bedevil Ireland and prevent its healthy development.

With the New Year approaching, I’ll continue to praise and prise. Perhaps, in doing so, I’ll help create a bit more transparency as well as highlighting some more of the real heroes of the area and thus contribute something to the area where I live.

I hope so cos’ I’m a terrible singer, can’t play a musical instrument if my life depended on it. As for gardening, what’s the difference between a parsnip and the tail of a donkey? Don’t even mention boating.

In the meantime, have a happy and contented New Year, wherever you are, whatever you do!

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Scuba-diving plankton make Donegal waters sparkle

Ever seen luminescent plankton sparkle at night like scuba-diving fireflies?
If not, then maybe you should take an island tour with Captain Gareth Doherty of Selkie Sailing as I did several days ago on his 22-foot Drascombe long boat.

Land ahead! Captain ‘Columbus’ Doherty’s first sighting of America, or some such landmark (Photo courtesy Selkie Sailing).

Setting off from what I call ‘Ernie’s Place’ (Bun An Inver harbor, opposite Teac Jack) just as the sun was setting, we headed across tranquil water to Sceard Iompainn (Umfin’s Blowhole) near Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin (Duggan’s Sea-Arch), its russet-red rocks sliding smoothly to the sea.
sunset on the wild atlantic way, Donegal boat trips,
Interestingly, as Pól Ó Muireasáin, our Gaelic linguist on board, pointed out, the island of Iompainn may have derived its name from the older spelling, ‘Iompthoinn,’ meaning ‘turning wave.’ Opposite Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin is where I normally fish off the side of my boat ‘Radharch na Coco’, catching sizeable pollock, but also losing plenty of lures and weights in the process, tangled in the heavy seaweed there.
Pól Ó Muireasáin, Gareth Doherty, Selkie Sailing

(l to r) Sea-mates Gareth Doherty and Pól Ó Muireasáin enjoy a light-hearted moment. Photo by Sean Hillen

Dare I say it for fear of ridicule, but once I even lost a fine rod there – left unattended in the stern of the boat, a group of conspiratorial avenging fish dragged it down to the murky depths before I could scamper back and rescue it.
From Béal Scealp Uí Dhúgáin, we floated gently on the placid surface for a while indulging in a spot of fishing while marveling at the glittering plankton in the water beside us dancing mightily as if high on ecstasy at a fairy rave party.
Our night tour then took us to Gola (Gabhla – the place of the fork, alluding to the two hills as seen from the mainland); Tororragaun (Tor Uí Arragáin, Harrigan’s Outcrop); Inishmeane (Inis Meáin, Middle Island); and Inishsirrer (Inis Oirthir, East Island).
sailing in Donegal, boats on Wild Atlantic Way

A chat at sea with local coastguard, Joe Curran (in orange) and Antonia Leitner from Austria (front left) helps pass the day away. Photo by Sean Hillen

There’s nothing as peaceful on a lovely evening than to be on a boat on calm seas in good company, chatting idly about this and that. And that’s exactly what we did, with subjects ranging from the fate of the Irish language to the wealth of wildlife off Donegal’s shoreline and Gareth’s peck on the nose from a nervous gannet (And, on a more cultural vein, needless to say Daniel ‘Travolta’ O’Donnell’s chances of capturing the Sam Maguire Cup of classical dance for the glory of Donegal – just joking).
Several things impressed me about Strabane-born Gareth Doherty on this trip.
The slim, bearded sailor loves the sea and all things associated with it, including a heartfelt concern for the environment and the birds and sea creatures that inhabit it.
 As a keen naturalist, the bird and wildlife around the coast here is truly spectacular,” he says. “And there’s so many different ways to enjoy them. Every time I cast off from the shore I have a feeling of anticipation, knowing the rewards that await me. The moment I switch off the engine and hoist sail, this transformation encapsulates for me an ancient tradition.”
Fishing on Wild Atlantic Way, Gareth Doherty

Gareth hand-catches a 15-pound sunfish near Umfin. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Illustrating his concern for wildlife, Gareth and his wife, Amanda, from Sunderland, helped establish the ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ consisting of local like-minded people keen to learn how to save stranded sea mammals. The initiative followed the ill-treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales left to suffocate after five days on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh. It was the 13th such stranding last year in Donegal.
wild life northwest Donegal, birds and sea life

Gareth’s son, Aran, watches over a young Great Black-backed Gull. The bird’s tongue got tangled in fishing lure, which Gareth skillfully removed. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth, who lived in Black Isle, near Inverness and Dunoon in Argyll before moving to Donegal seven years ago, (his three children are named after Scottish islands – Skye, Rona and Arran) is a gold mine of marine information.
Well-qualified – he is a dinghy instructor, day-skipper, offshore yachts-master and is trained in advanced power-boating – his deep knowledge ranges from details on wildlife to be found around the Continental Shelf lying 50 miles off the Donegal coast to the characteristics of the waxy oil that dripped from a sperm whale stranded on Magheraroarty (Machaire Rabhartaigh) beach several weeks ago.
The 44-year-old’s passion for the sea originates in great part with his grandfather, Paddy McCauley, who spent much time in Inver, Donegal. “As he was a keen sailor and fisherman, some of my earliest memories are of being on the sea,” he recalls.
Now Gareth has transformed his indefatigable passion into a creative entrepreneurial venture. Aside from the Drascombe long boat, Selkie Sailing, based in Derrybeg, has many other craft – a gaff rig, topper sailboats, a catamaran, kayaks, a rib and a banana boat: more than enough to host guests on adventurous excursions among the many islands, sea arches and caves. Sailing classes take up much of Selkie’s activities.
Gareth Doherty saving sea life, Donegal wild life

Gareth caresses a blue shark, four miles off Inishsirrer near the wreck of the steamship, Boniface, torpedoed during World War One. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Gareth says different seasons bring different sights. “Spring sees a migration of Arctic Skuas, Sandwich Terns and Gannets with occasional rare visitors like the Short-Eared Owl,” he explains. “Summer days are filled with the song of the Skylark and ground-nesting birds like Oyster Catchers and Ring Plovers, with sea-cliffs harboring colonies of shags, cormorants and fulmars. Chances of seeing an otter, a basking shark, a bottlenose dolphin or a porpoise are higher then. With autumn come Sandlins and Dunlins while seal pups rest on the rocks and the sandy beaches of the islands. Brent and Barnacle Geese rule winter, taking advantage of the sea swells to feed. Sometimes, a long-tailed duck may make an appearance.”
Two proposed projects excite Gareth. One is in education – to teach children in local schools about the marine environment and its sea and air inhabitants. The other focuses on Minke whales. “They’ll start to appear over the next month and I’ve organised two underwater photographers and a cameraman on a drone helicopter to shoot their behaviour,” he says excitedly. “It may be the first time this has ever been done in Ireland.”
whales Donegal, Minke whales

Efforts by Amanda and Gareth Doherty aim to save many stranded whales, dolphins and other sea life such as this.

As to the name ‘Selkie.’ It’s a mythical creature; half man, half seal which comes on to the land and removes its outer layer of skin to reveal itself as a beautiful, dark-eyed human. Like the mermaid, selkies have been both praised and feared. Stories describe how they helped sailors in rough storms but also how they lured people into the sea. Another yarn tells of a man stealing the skin of a female selkie to trick her into being his wife.  
As Selkie Sailing’s motto states – “Where the shore ends, the advenure begins,’ you never know, perhaps a trip with Gareth might end up in a fortuitous meeting with one of these intriguing creatures.