West Donegal whale protection group formed as threats to human health resurface

Following an often emotional public meeting held at Teac Jack in Glassagh earlier this week, a wildlife protection group has been formed in west Donegal to lobby for government policy changes towards stranded marine animals and to promote specialized training.

The ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group,’ which was established at the Tuesday evening meeting, follows concerns by many local people about the treatment of a pod of 13 pilot whales that were left stranded on Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, which all died of slow suffocation after five days. It is the 13th such stranding this year in Donegal, including a sperm whale stranded off Machaire Rabhartaigh beach. Around 32 other whales died off Rutland Island two years ago and were cut up and transported to Cavan where they were incinerated.

Meanwhile, concerns have arisen as to what caused the mysterious deaths of all the whales amid a recent rise in the numbers of marine animals being stranded off Donegal’s coast.  And that, whatever it is, may also be a hazard to human health.

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A stranded pilot whale struggles for life at Ballyness beach near Falcarragh, west Donegal. (Photo by Antonia Leitner).

Chairperson of the meeting, Amanda Doherty, with Selkie Sailing, who has also launched a petition that has attracted more than 230 signatures on the issue, said she was pleased by decisions those attending had made together.

“We want to raise community awareness and have the current policy regarding cetacean strandings in the area reviewed,” she said. “It should be a more flexible policy to allow for the particulars of different situations that occur. This is best practice according international standards and Ireland should follow it.”

Some people at the meeting – many of whom tried their best to save the dying whales – became emotional as they described the traumatic situation at Ballyness beach and the agony of the cetaceans as they slowly died of suffocation in shallow water.

Members of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), led by Dave Duggan and Pat Vaughan, decided “to let nature takes its course” rather than try to save the whales or apply euthanasia to reduce the whales’ suffering. They also did not ask the coastguard for assistance to bring the whales out to sea, as has happened in other parts of Ireland. The state-funded Donegal county veterinary office under the leadership of Charles Kealey, chief veterinary officer, has also come under criticism for refusing to get involved in any way to help the whales, including making sure the mammals were dead before they were buried. (In contrast, see photo below of a cetacean (dolphin) being treated more humanely in another part of Ireland, with vets and the coastguard involved).

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Westport-based Irish Coastguard assist with a stranded Common Dolphin which could not be refloated. A Mayo vet administered an injection to humanely end its suffering. Photo by Shay Fennelly

Pearse Doherty Sinn Fein TD for west Donegal, who has submitted a number of formal questions over the last week in the Dail to Ministers regarding the treatment of stranded whales and other cetaceans, attended the meeting and gave his advice on the best way forward for the group. Doherty said it was important the new group work with current organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and suggested a two-pronged approach – making sure policy at the IWDG matched international standards, and the establishment of  ‘first responders’ in the local area, recognized by the NPWS and IWDG – people who could take the lead in developing situations.

The newly-formed ‘North West Whale & Dolphin Support Group’ decided to hold monthly meetings and invite Simon Berrow, founder of the IWDG, to provide specialized training for members on how to best help stranded whales and other cetaceans and to meet with a small working group on the same day to discuss further action. Clare-based Berrow is a full-time lecturer at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology teaching on the Applied Freshwater and Marine degree course and project manager of the Shannon Dolphin and Wildlife Foundation.

After being contacted about the meeting, Berrow told the author of this blog, “We are delighted to hear of the formation of a local group. We look forward to working closely with them to prepare a better response to stranded cetaceans in the future and also to encourage local recording.”

Offshore toxic waste dumping? Military submarine activity?

At the same time, concerns regarding the health hazards to human life – as well as marine – from toxic dumping at sea and military submarine activity and experiments that may have caused the strandings have resurfaced locally.

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Oceans that become graveyards for poisonous debris that pose dangers to human as well as marine life.

International regulations state that discharges of waste material – often poisonous by nature – should not be made within a certain distance of any landmass, according to the Seas at Risk. But who’s watching? Some major ports have cleaning facilities such as Edinburgh, Belfast and Dublin, but this costs money so some incorrigible corporations say ‘why bother’? As the coast of Donegal is in direct line of most transAtlantic ocean traffic between Europe and the Americas, the amount of waste dumped offshore is probably immense, one respected scientist saying ‘enough to create mountains under the sea.’ Much of this material contains cancer-causing chemicals (carcinogens) such as manganese, benzene, coal-tar, radium, petrolatum, parabens, vinyl chloride lead and zinc. With recent technological developments, many of these chemicals are in the form of deadly nanoparticles (particles less than the size of a human or animal cell) which, airborne, can then penetrate the cells, causing untold damage.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Nanoparticles: Technological and industrial development has outstripped health research into their potential dangers in everyday foods and consumer products.

Could this be the cause or partial cause of disease in whales and other marine animals? Researchers say they have found large quantities of these chemicals in the whale tissue samples taken and tested. And doctors report larger than normal incidences of human cancer in local people.

In addition, some of the waste is in the form of non-biogradable plastics. Because they don’t dissolve but break up into smaller elements, these plastics have formed what scientists now call ‘plastic islands’ – often the size of countries, one is larger than the US state of Texas, which in itself is 17 times larger than Ireland – that float in our seas, causing disruption to the normal flow of currents. Consequently, the dangers to both human as well as marine animal health is high. For a long time, many people in northwest Donegal have suspected such dumping to have taken place offshore, with menacing results (see further information here).

A special group was established within the last two years at Ionad Naomh Pádraig in Dore by Freddie O’Donnell and Aodán Ó’Gallchoir to examine correlations between high levels of cancer in the Gaeltacht area and dumping of waste in coastal waters nearby. Known as ‘Scaoil Saor ó Ailse’ (Break Free from Cancer’), the group’s public relations officer, Joe Diver, said former local doctor Paddy Delap, said such waste was affecting peoples’ health, particularly cancers of the skin, lung and brain, with an abnormally high level of fatalities. A deep-sea diver then broke his decades-old silence on Raidó na Gaeltachta, describing how he found a large area of the sea bed littered with large black drums with hazardous signage on them in the waters off Tory Island, adding, “We were looking for shipwrecks, went down 40 to 45 metres and came across black drums with green stuff growing on them. There were a few thousand of them. They were heaped in a hill-like structure and had skull and crossbones on them. The diver said the drums would have since disintegrated and their hazardous material dissolved into the ocean off the Gaeltacht coast.”

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Military submarine activity and experiments at sea: what are the hazards for Man, Plant and Animal?

Areas affected could include Gaoth Dobhair, Cloughaneely and The Rosses. Calls for greater funding for a more comprehensive analysis were ignored by the relevant authorities, mainly on the instructions of Dublin, some say for economic and political reasons. Further, fearing such research could stir up waves of protest if the result became known, efforts were made by authorities, mainly Fianna Fail, then in power, to trivialize what little had become known. Politics and money trumped peoples’ health and once again the ‘Forgotten County’ was forced to live up to its unfortunate title.

Damage control became main concern for a certain cadre of elite: the party in power in the Dail and its big-business supporters. “This situation has been going on for far too long,” said one medical practitioner who has treated cancer patients in the area. “It is long past time national funding was made available to investigate this situation thoroughly. If it happened in certain other parts of the country, it probably would already have taken place long ago. Surely the deaths of so many marine animals and the high number of cancers affecting people means the issue should be looked at very closely.  To some extent, it’s in the hands of ordinary people. They should be lobbying their government representatives by e-mail, phone and letter. If not, nothing will be done.”

Several of the whales at Ballyness beach were found to have lesions, blemishes and lumps on its skin, but National Parks and Wildlife Service officials declined to say where any disease may have originated. As whales are highly social creatures that travel in communities, some say healthy whales may have refused to abandon sick or injured pod members and followed them into shallow water. “We can’t say for certain,” said Pat Vaughan, district conservation officer for the NPWS. “What we do know is that whales and other marine animals can have high levels of certain toxic elements in their bodies.”

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Whale-protection group offers complimentary specialized one-day training in west Donegal

Meeting to take place at Teac Jack, Glassagh, this Tuesday (July 22) at 8pm

Officials with the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) have offered to host a complimentary one-day whale life-saving course in Falcarragh, Donegal over the next month for those interested in helping any struggling mammals that become stranded on the county’s beaches.

To avail of this offer, please contact directly Simon Berrow, founder of IWDG at coordinator (at) iwdg.ie

In addition, as part of a larger lobbying campaign for changes to the government’s policy on cetacean strandings, a meeting is being organised at Teac Jack in Glassagh, Donegal, under the auspices of Selkie Sailing and Gareth Doherty, environmentalist and wildlife enthusiast. The meeting is due to take place this Tuesday (July 22) at 8pm.

The generous offer of training from the IWDG comes as the well-respected organization denied vehemently that any call was received from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) for help in dealing with the 12 stranded pilot whales that died at a west Donegal beach last week.

Berrow, who will visit west Donegal this weekend, said, “In contrast, it was someone from our group, Brendan Quinn, who called one of our senior members, Mick O’Connell, who in turn called the wildlife service in Glenveigh and got no response. Mick then called David McNamara, a wildlife service ranger, who went to the scene at Ballyness beach and observed the situation from a nearby hill with hundreds of people gathered around the beached whales. He then waited for them to leave the scene.”

Members of the family of pilot whales stranded off Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal, last week.

Members of the family of pilot whales stranded off Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal, last week. Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing

Voicing his disappointment that Dave Duggan, the acting NPWS regional manager in Donegal, nor Pat Vaughan, a NPWS conservation officer, requested help from the IWDG, Berrow said, “No call was ever received by us asking for our assistance. We would have come up – or at the very least have given advice on the phone. We also have detailed guidance on our website about how to handle a stranded whale situation, which could have been easily accessed and followed. We could have saved some of these whales.”

He also said a statement by Vaughan that nothing could be done for the dying whales but “let nature takes its course” and let the 12 whales die from slow suffocation over five days is ”pure rubbish.”

Another pertinent question to be asked: Where was the state-funded Donegal county veterinary office, run by Charles Kealey, chief veterinary officer, and his staff in all of this? With the local and national media attention the situation received, they would have to have been deaf, dumb and blind not to have heard of the tragedy, and if concerned in any way, should have been at the scene pronto to assist. And definitely, to make sure whales were not buried alive, which expert sources say – without veterinary expertise – could well have happened.

In Berrow’s view, “Everything went pear-shaped because nobody, no group, took ownership of the situation. The wildlife service won’t take responsibility for stranded whales. The IWDG is a small NGO, manned mainly by volunteers but we help where we can. Lack of responsibility at Ballyness, Falcarragh, meant that well-meaning members of the public had to step in. Unfortunately, most of them did not have the proper expertise or training. People like Amanda and Gareth Doherty deserve great credit for what they did, and are still doing, to help protect our marine wildlife.”

Photo by Antonia Leitner

Stranded pilot whale at Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, west Donegal (Photo by Antonia Leitner)

Berrow said the IWDG offers training in both identification of cetaceans (mainly whales, dolphins and porpoises), as well as one-day courses on effective methods for dealing with stranded whales “but no-one in Donegal has asked us to do such training. We could bring the equipment, we even have a life-size, inflatable pilot whale that we use for simulating saving techniques. All we need is for someone to organise a venue and a place to stay overnight for trainers.” He said trained IWDG volunteers “are thin on the ground in Donegal.”

Berrow also said the Donegal wildlife service’s contention that there were no vets with sufficient expertise about whales and that no adequate drugs in the county to euthanize the 12 whales was also misleading. “I’d be shocked if there is not enough Pentabarbitone in Donegal. Anyway, they could have contacted us or the Dublin Zoo which uses the drugs on large animals such as giraffes or even Tony Patterson, the relevant officer across the border in Northern Ireland who I’m sure would have gladly helped.”

In the Republic of Ireland, Pentabarbitone is administered by “a 14 gage needle, the longest one possible, preferably over six inches.” Around 60 to 80 milligrammes are used per kilo of animal. Pilot whales are on average between 1,000 and 1,800 kilo.

Regarding the alternative option for euthanasia, Berrow said, “The wildlife service at Glenveigh Park – due mainly to the deer population – have several persons well-trained in gun and rifle use. Using a .303 calibre rifle with solid bullets fired through the blowhole into the heart chamber, the unfortunate whales could have been put out of their misery within two minutes, instead of them having to suffer for five whole days with blisters on their skin the size of footballs.”

An international petition launched last week calling for more humane treatment of stranded whales in Ireland has already attracted more than 200 signatures (see petition here)

Local people gather with Native American Indian Gary (White Deer) for special prayers and a blessing of family of whales that died at Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal (photo courtesy of Sarah Sayers).

Local people gather with Native American Indian Gary (White Deer) for special prayers and a blessing of family of whales that died at Ballyness beach, Falcarragh, Donegal (photo courtesy of Sarah Sayers).

Berrow said a small government grant was awarded to the IWDG for 2011-13 to run a stranded whale scheme but only to monitor the mammals and handle data on them. There has been no funding for training courses.  This year the contract went out to tender, then withdrawn in May. “With the increase in sightings of whales and dolphins off Ireland’s coast, it is crucial to have protocols and funding in place now,” he said.

He added that there is no national policy on taking tissue samples or conducting post-mortems on the mammals to find out what caused them to strand. “We have an agreement with the National History Museum and take samples wherever possible and place them there in a freezer,” he said. “But there should be a more concerted, organized effort by the relevant government authority.”

Meanwhile, Donegal Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty said, “I have huge concerns regarding the policy enacted by the National Parks and Wildlife Service when the pilot whales were beached in Falcarragh recently.” He added, “It is my belief that locals with knowledge in this area should have been assisted in their further attempts to rescue the whales and I commend them for their heroic efforts. I support the petition calling for this review of this policy and I have submitted a number of Questions to the Minister calling for this review, which are due to be taken tomorrow.”

Doherty has submitted several formal written questions to the Dail, including one viz-a-viz, “if there is an official policy in place within his Department which outlines the procedure for the rescue efforts of beached whales; if this policy is circulated to the various stakeholders such as Local Government and the NPWS and if the Minister will make a statement on the matter?”

Formal protocols and increased government funding are necessary to save the Irish whale population (Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing)

Formal protocols and increased government funding are necessary to save the Irish whale population (Photo courtesy of Selkie Sailing)

A second question asks, “if it is best practice to allow beached whales to perish without any intervention in order to ease the suffering of the animal; if it is standard practice to prohibit volunteers from making rescue efforts ; if the Minister intends to review this policy in the near future in light of the distress of the whales beached in Falcarragh, Donegal recently and if the Minister will make a statement on the matter?”

A third question deals with lack of equipment, in which he asks for “the reasons why the necessary equipment was not available to the NPWS in Donegal to allow them to humanely put the beached whales in Donegal to death by chemical injection and if the Minister will make a statement on the matter?”

The worldwide organisation, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation group, active in over 25 countries globally, has also waded into the controversy, officials from its headquarters in the UK stating, “It’s a real shame that there is not a strandings network in Ireland as there is in for example the UK. Here there is an incredibly well set-up and coordinated network of volunteers (BDMLR) that are trained in what to do in the event of a stranding and are first responders to any live (and sometimes dead) stranding.”

It continued, “By having these volunteers in place around the country any whales and dolphins that strand have the best possible chance of being refloated and surviving the ordeal. In a nutshell, what needs to happen is a) Interested Irish citizens need to come together and try to recreate what has been achieved in the UK via BDMLR, and b) the Irish Government need to commit to providing funds to set-up a programme similar to the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP) here in the UK.” (see HERE example of how strong organisation and proper protocols can save some members of the whale population).

A Better-Informed Donegal is a Better Donegal

Finally, greater public debate has begun about the financial operations of Udaras na Gaeltachta, an organization rapidly acquiring the sobriquet ‘the secret society,’ and more specifically about spending on a church-run addiction clinic in Falcarragh.

Udaras, having managed to keep the lid on potential spending of between one and three million euro on the centre at Ballyconnell House, had board member and Fine Gael political candidate, John Curran go on the local airwaves over the last few days.

Instead, however, of presenting relevant information on the proposed project’s costing and benefits, he used valuable airtime on Highland Radio to personalize what is a legitimate community issue and attempt to tarnish it as an isolated ‘Sean Hillen‘ one.

Let me make it perfectly clear, if I have not done so already: I am not against or for an addiction clinic in Falcarragh. I have no implication, financial or otherwise in this project (can pro-addiction clinic supporters say this, hand on heart?). Golden axiom in journalism: ‘follow the money.’

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Ripples of democracy begin to spread.

Another axiom for journalists, ‘if they cannot deal with the story, they will try to deal with the story-teller,’ seems more than obvious in this rather unsavory situation. I have heard myself referred to on Highland Radio by Mr. Curran as someone ‘stirring the hornet’s nest’ and as ‘an agitator’ (I have complained formally in writing to the station’s managing director, Shaun Doherty, whose daily news and chat show and Friday morning ‘press round-up’ I have appeared on several occasions, about these personal attacks). In a strange twist to the tale, there was also a reference (a cross between Harry Potter, Star Wars and superhero comic books) on Mr. Curran’s Facebook page to ‘dark forces’ behind me. All in all, it seems spin-doctoring is the unfortunate path Mr. Curran and his political advisers – and those faceless men with most to gain from the addiction clinic – have taken. That’s their prerogative, but it is unprincipled. And utterly untrue.

Owen Curran (no relation to the above), a well-respected community leader in the vanguard of the four-year long Cloughaneely ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign against household and water charges, told me this week Udaras na Gaeltachta should release immediately costs and benefits information on the proposed church-run addiction clinic and was in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ saying so again (page 17 – by the way, the story headline says 90 people, but I could only count 35 in photo, can’t believe someone would be left out; see also letters page 18, ‘Abused while on the canvas’). “Unfortunately,” he told me. “We live in a time of austerity, a time when there is not a lot of money around, we also live in a time when there has been a severe lack of transparency and accountability in Irish state and semi-state bodies. As such, and with the local Udaras office in Donegal receiving millions of euro every year, it is only fair that ordinary people – whom this proposed project will affect dramatically – be given as much information on the size of the investment and the benefits, including what guarantees there are for what of jobs. Open forums are obvious avenues for discussions to which all members of the community should be able to attend and voice their opinions.

Not only.

Sinn Fein local council candidate, John Sheamais O’Fearraigh, who appeared on national television (TG4 ‘An Nuacht’ last Saturday evening) on the addiction centre issue and is quoted in the ‘Donegal Democrat’ today, also called for greater transparency from Udaras. “I have been reliably informed this project will cost between one and three million euro,” the local Gaoth Dobhair-based youth worker told me. “This is yet another example of a very costly project that has not been fully considered, with a marked absence of open public debate involving local people. A lot of money will be spent on this one, single project. As there is not a lot of funding around nowadays, local people have the right to know how much public money exactly will be involved, if this money is being well spent and how many other projects will suffer funding loss as a result. Also what affect it will have on the image of the community. They also need to know what guarantee, if any, there is for local people and what quality and pay-scale these jobs will be.

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Spring at Ballyconnell House

Not only.

Fianna Fail local councillor, Seamus O’Domhnaill, has now also called for Udaras to hold a public meeting to discuss the Cuan Mhuire addiction project. As the Donegal Gaeltacht is much more than just Falcarragh, it is important that ‘meetings’ not ‘meeting’ be held, to give the 16,000 people in other parts of the county’s Irish-speaking region (including its three main areas, Na, Rosa, Gaoth Dobhair and Cloich Cheann Fhaola), a chance to air their views on such a costly venture.

Last Friday afternoon, an open-air petition-signing took place at Falcarragh crossroads calling for more funding for cultural tourism projects in the area and greater public debate over the proposed addiction clinic to be run by Cuan Mhuire, a church-run company, drew open, lively debate. Among concerns voiced were the project’s impact on the safety of local children; future restricted access to the estate’s grounds, the location for a series of annual community events and festivals; and resulting reduced funding for other projects, including those for cultural tourism.

Mary McGarvey, who claimed she owns property on Falcarragh’s Main Street, said at the petition-signing table that the centre would be good for the town’s business while a mother and local festival committee member said while she would “prefer a well-considered leisure facility, especially one for children, something should be done about that derelict house.” Cloughaneely Golf Club members at the petition table complained of reduced funding from Udaras and feared for the club’s survival.

It was, to use an ancient Greek term, ‘agora’ day in Falcarragh and in the classic Greek version of democracy, it was ‘agora’ in terms of open debate and exchange of views.  Why could Udaras not have done this? Why not now in open forums, especially as the seal of secrecy has been prized open?

Sadly also, people on Friday afternoon said they would like to sign the petition but were afraid to do so – including someone (whose identity will remain anonymous for obvious reasons) representing a local arts and cultural project – saying she feared being punished by Udaras and receive no funding in future from it for projects she might put forward. One person even called me after signing the petition (adding that he thought Udaras should “be disbanded”) saying some people had “approached” him and that he feared he might lose business (he asked me for his name not to be mentioned here).

Is this the kind of society we want – one where people are afraid to present their opinions openly, and be listened to; prevented, indirectly or directly, from doing so by a powerful, economic group such as Udaras? I thought, especially since we gained national independence, that the days of humiliating people by making them tug their forelocks was over.

As for Udaras and its spokesperson, Mr. Curran. Instead of presenting specific answers to specific questions on the project’s costings and benefits, all he would say on numerous Highland Radio sound-bites was that he supported the project and that it would not detract from Udaras’s overall budget spend locally (hard to believe when the budget has already been slashed and that other Gaeltachts in Ireland will hardly be so generous as to give Donegal much more money over the addiction centre’s high cost).

Mr. Curran also declined to give investment figures saying, “To date, no contracts have been signed, no budgets have been agreed, so there really isn’t any really figures to be spoken about.” Yet he was adamant forty-five jobs – note the figure is an exact one (for what reason?) – would be created. He also did not know how many of these jobs would be local and what kind of jobs they would be.

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Flowers and forest at Ballyconnell House

And finally, to Udaras HQ in Galway, and communications and marketing manager Siubhán Nic Grianna. Some readers may remember I sent 12 formal, written questions a couple of weeks ago, with a set deadline, to her and to all Donegal members of the group’s national board, namely John Curran, Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin and Daithí Alcorn, as well as its Arranmore-born chairperson, Anna Ní Ghallachair (see post here). Of all the board members and chairperson, only Eunan Mac Cuinneagáin had the professional courtesy of responding in person.

As Ms. Nic Grianna’s provision of relevant information on Udaras’ use of public money has been less than co-operative in the past, I am sad to say her responses show that position has remained unaltered, with no details on the investment (estimated or otherwise) or the true benefits, including jobs, of the proposed addiction clinic. Nor other key details on other aspects of Udaras’ financial operations. I will detail each response to the 12 questions in a future blog.

It is worth noting here that prominent leaders in the addiction field say two such clinics in a rural area such as Donegal is most unusual and, as such, detailed market research would be required to justify it (the other center in Donegal is in Muff). Even in Ireland, there is no such situation.

In conclusion, I believe an important step has been made to open discussions about this proposed addiction clinic – but as well respected community leaders have now said –  release of pertinent information is necessary for a more agreeable and equitable outcome for all concerned.

Questions still unanswered –

  • How can Udaras promise so categorically 45 jobs if, as its spokesman, Mr. Curran, says, no budgets have been agreed, no contracts signed?
  • How can Udaras guarantee more funds will be allocated for other projects (as Mr. Curran states on Highland Radio) when the organisation’s budget has already been severely cut?
  • How exactly will this project impact on the Donegal Gaeltacht-Cloughaneely-Falcarragh community at large?
  • What kind of addictions will be treated within the proposed clinic – drug, alcohol or/and sexual addictions?
  • What other proposals have been put forward for Ballyconnell House as stated by an Udaras spokesperson in today’s ‘Donegal Democrat’ (after Udaras tourism officer, Gearoid O’Smaolain, said previously ‘no’ proposals were put forward)?
  • What are the reasons these proposals for Ballyconnell House were rejected in favor of an addiction clinic?
  • Which company conducted the feasibility study?

Happy “May Day’ Weekend to Everyone!

Stark racism rears its ugly head in west Donegal

Sadly, an ugly racist incident took place Friday afternoon that brings the notion of ‘Ireland of the Welcomes’ and the reputation of the Donegal Gaeltacht into severe disrepute.

In trying to encourage more open public debate on what she considers is a serious community issue – Údarás spending of what is believed to be between one and three million euro on a proposed drug addiction clinic in Falcarragh and the need for greater funding for cultural tourism projects in west Donegal – my wife, Columbia – an emigrant to Ireland, now a proud Irish citizen and happy living in the Gaeltacht – was racially abused and told to “Go back where you come from. We don’t want you here.”

The person who shouted the abuse was a man, driver of a car with the registration plate 08DL5251 who stopped as he passed by a petition-signing table my wife was manning as a volunteer at Falcarragh crossroads around 3.30 pm this Friday.

This man’s distressing contribution to what he might well call ‘community development’ is all the worse considering how so many men and women from Ireland down through the generations, including the present one – and unfortunately, many from west Donegal – are emigrants themselves, in search of a new life in other countries, including England, Australia and the US. In this context, isn’t it sad such attitudes of discrimination as this man’s still exist here? Not only were his cutting and insulting remarks an example of stark racism right here in the heart of the Gaeltacht, but also utter hypocrisy.

My wife, Columbia, is a well-educated woman, a former secondary-school language teacher, one of two sisters from an ordinary working-class family in Vișeu de Sus, Maramureş, northern Romania, a small town very similar to Falcarragh itself  – both in terms of population size, pretty, rural location and indeed, economic difficulties it faces. Like many others, Columbia and her family suffered severely under Communism there until dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was ousted from power in December 1989. Such suffering included lack of basic freedoms and constant food shortages – reminders in themselves of what our ancestors right here in west Donegal suffered.

Columbia raised herself from humble beginnings, won a scholarship to university and finished not just one degree but a number of qualifications in journalism, teaching and business, finally becoming for a number of years managing director of a company employing more than 30 full-time people. Not only do I love this lady very much, I am also extremely proud of what she has achieved in her life thus far.

If anyone should know the identity of the person driving car registered 08DL5251 on Friday afternoon through the centre of Falcarragh, please tell him an apology is in order. Doing so is the mark of a real man.

Alternatively, if he happens to pass you on the road, sound your horn – it might just act as reminder to him of the reputational damage he has done to the people around him and the place where he lives.

In defending spending on the Falcarragh addiction clinic, an apparent platform for his political career – and instead of dealing with the issue at hand – Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran, labeled myself and my wife on Highland Radio as ‘agitators’ and as people ‘stirring the hornet’s nest,’ rather than as concerned citizens.

Personalizing an issue in this way and using such incendiary terms often lights dangerous fuses in people. Ugly things – such as outright racism and violence – can occur as a result. Whether he meant to or not, Mr. Curran should now take steps to avoid such words for fear they are taken on board by such people as the racist car driver. In fact, perhaps, he should devote his attentions to dealing with such racial outbreaks, isolated though they may be.  And, of course making sure as a government-appointed Udaras board member that there is greater transparency and accountability when it comes to the organisation’s operations, and this addiction clinic specifically.

Sadly Yours,

Concerned Husband and Citizen

Bun na Leaca, Gaoth Dobhair

Support funding of cultural tourism projects in west Donegal

Protest and petition signing at Falcarragh crossroads today (Saturday) at 2pm

With west Donegal’s natural beauty, inspiring landscapes and rich heritage, this area is in an extremely favorable position to create jobs and a strong economy based on cultural tourism.
Such initiatives – of which there are plenty by local people – have the potential to attract tens of thousands of visitors to the area every year, creating a ‘clean’ industry as strong as in other parts of Ireland, including Cork and Galway.
Nowadays many tourists, national and international, are seeking greater ‘authentic’ experiences when they travel for leisure whether those experiences be based on natural scenery, history, archaeology, language, music or dance.
West Donegal offers these elements in abundance including being part of the ‘Wild Atlantic Way.’ What is lacking, however, is a committed long-term strategy incorporating generous funding to get these ideas off the ground and strengthen them.
Until now, funding has amounted in effect to ‘mere pennies’ when considered within the overall size of annual multi-million euro budgets of organizations such as Udaras, the largest economic group in the area (for the last two years, cultural tourism spend has amounted to less than three (3) percent of its budget). It is also interesting to examine the projects funded by the multi-million euro, EU-backed Donegal Local Development Company Ltd (DLDC).
In contrast, most Udaras funding has poured into industrial estates that now lie derelict and almost empty, yet still cost lots of money every year simply to maintain; largely outsider-owned manufacturing units, which simply pack-up and leave when free grants finish (Largo Foods); and call centers, many of which are short-lived before they move off to other cheaper places such as India.
While other areas of Ireland are creating strong environmentally-friendly economies and many jobs for their people within the hospitality industry based on cultural tourism – in cafes, museums, hotels, bars and bed and breakfast operations – west Donegal is lagging far behind.
It’s time we – all of us living here, wanting ourselves and our children to have decent, well-paying long-term ‘non-cabbage’ jobs – stood up and aired our views to the policy makers, including Udaras and DLDC officials as well as those standing for the upcoming County Council elections.
If we don’t speak out, we have less basis for blaming them for making decisions on economic development we disagree with.

Come to Falcarragh today between 2 and 4 pm to hear more about this subject or sign the online petition here.

This petition will be presented to our local political representatives as well as to leaders of key economic organizations such as Udaras and the DLDC.