Lion-tamers, nude concert-goers, the Rolling Stones, one-clawed lobsters and terrific Irish music

How can small boxes of air that fit neatly between one’s hands create the haunting rhythm of a heartbeat, the roar of an angry sea and the chanting of cloistered monks at prayer?

Ask the talented, five-member ‘Irish Concertina Ensemble’ who captivated a packed audience earlier this week at Teach Hiudái Beag, a popular traditional music venue on the main street of Bunbeg in the Donegal Gaeltacht (a region that features prominently in new suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ (Easons, Gallaghers/Matt Bonners Bunbeg, Amazon) and where the Irish Writing Retreat takes place every year).

Such wondrous music left me bemused about how such a rich diversity of melodies can emerge from such a tiny bellows-buttons-reed instrument. The ensemble, with members from different Irish counties, was one of many performances at this week’s ongoing annual ‘Scoil Gheimhridh’ (Winter School) in Gaoth Dobhair (the festival continues right through Sunday, so buy your show tickets now).

Composed of Tim Collins, Padraig Rynne, Micheal O’Raghallaigh, Caitlin Nic Gabhann and Edel Fox – the musicians brought this popular, cozy pub to a hushed and appreciative silence. So exhilarated were affable pub manger and owner, also himself a fine musician, Hugh Gallagher, my wife, Columbia, myself and others, we gave them a hearty and well-deserved standing ovation.

Irish Concertina Ensemble, Scoil Gheimhridh

Boxes of air that produce mellifluous music.

Drawing on a wealth of melodies, some old, some new, some composed for other instruments such as the fiddle, flute and uilleann pipe, the group displayed the surprising and immense versatility of the concertina.

Not only were there versions of tunes by such iconic instrumentalists as Turlough O’Carolan, (1670–1738), a blind Irish harper and composer, but also their own compositions. Highlights among the latter were a series of mellifluous waltzes in honor of Kathy, a friend and admired social activist who died from cancer, and also a dreamy melody inspired by watching the sunrise with Oisin, the young child of one of the group members.

The opening night of the festival was a veritable cabaret of myriad talents at Ionad Cois Locha in memory of well-respected community and media leader, Seamus Mac Géidigh, broadcaster and manager of RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta‘s northwest service in Donegal, who recently passed away.

Such is the interest in preserving local Irish heritage, fiddle player and teacher Róisín McGrory who is also co-founder of the Inishowen Traditional Music Project established in 1999 to preserve the music of the region, also performed at the festival.

Another highlight of this week’s festival and music school so far has been the double-bill of Carlow-based brothers Diarmuid and Brian Mac Gloinn who perform as ‘Ye Vagabonds’ and star fiddle-player and ‘Hobbit-lookalike’ Frankie Gavin, who played alongside bouzouki-mandolin player, Brendan O’Regan. The former, resembling young, bearded troubadours, moved effortlessly from ballad to toe-tapping melodies, from the ‘Lowlands of Holland,’ a soft air about a man lost at sea, which they learned from Donegal-native Paddy Tunney, the same county their mother hails from – Arranmore Island – to a lively finale that included ‘The Lark In The Morning.’ They sang songs in both English and Irish.

While he strikes a remarkable resemblance to one of my heroes, the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, the affable Gavin’s blinding bursts of speed reminded me more of ‘The Fiddler of Dooney,’ the character in the W.B. Yeats poem of the same name whose fiddle playing ‘made folks dance like a wave of the sea.’

Frankie Gavin, Brendan O’Regan, Donegal Irish music

(l to r) Frankie ‘Bilbo Baggins’ Gavin and Brendan ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan display their ample talents at Teac Jack.

To say Gavin’s bow tripped lightly over the strings would be a severe understatement. Skipping, dancing, somersaulting even, would be much more appropriate descriptions – from hornpipes and reels to jigs and highlands; from Donegal composition, ‘Strike the Gay Harp’ to ‘The Old Grey Goose;’ from tunes by well-known Irish musical ambassadors such as fiddler Tommy Peoples and music collector and uilleann pipe player, Séamus Ennis; to others learned from fellow musician, Dermot Byrne; and still others he performed previously with French violinist Stéphane Grappelli in a ‘Jigs and Jazz’ show.

Gavin’s ludicrously fast fiddle-playing may have seemed eye-to brain-to-fingers neurologically impossible but when he picked up the flute he really put the emotional brakes on his packed audience at Teac Jack in Glassagh (which also features prominently in ‘Pretty Ugly‘), leaving them glassy-eyed with his version of the classic slow air, ‘Boolavogue,’ about Father John Murphy and the Wexford uprising during the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Not only, but the founder of the well-known group, DeDannan, is also a natural raconteur and effortlessly entertained his listeners with an assortment of jokes, ranging from lion-tamers to one-clawed lobsters. Alongside him, ‘Speedy Fingers’ O’Regan displayed his musical virtuosity with a simply brilliant solo of his own competition on mandolin.

The festival’s energetic and committed organizers deserve great praise.

They include Conor Byrne, accomplished flute player who was mentored by west Belfast musician Frankie Kennedy (who tragically died from cancer at a young age and for whom the festival was originally named after); Cathal Ó Gallchóir, who is also manager of local community center, An Crannog in nearby Derrybeg, where varied activities ranging from yoga to Irish language and music classes take place; their excellent, friendly support team; and special guests such as fiddle player, music teacher and journalist, Martin McGinley, who opened the festival this year and who conducted a most interesting, light-hearted and insightful  afternoon interview with Gavin at PobalScoil Gaoth Dobhair (more on that, including naked Danish concert-goers and sessions with Jagger and Co. of The Rolling Stones in an enlarged festival review on World Itineraries later this weekend).

Scoil Gheimridh, Irish music festivals, live Irish music

Cathal Ó Gallchóir introduces festival musical performers.

‘Scoil Gheimridh’ has now rightly become a prominent feature of national Irish cultural life. Students and teachers, men and women, schoolchildren and retirees, both national and international, lovers of instruments ranging from the bodhrán, an Irish hand drum, to fiddle, flute, uilleann pipes, accordion, concertina and even traditional sean-nós singing and dancing, gather every year in this beautiful north-western region known as the ‘Forgotten County’ to attend classes taught by leading musicians and to enjoy the many concerts and seisún.

Here, in this most northerly region of Ireland, interest and pride in the native Irish language, Gaeilge, and the rich cultural heritage of their forebearers remains impressively strong, especially in the face of the fickleness and superficiality of modern-day life.

The festival ends this weekend with a concert tonight (Friday, 8.30pm) by Dublin four-piece band, Lynched, at Teac Jack; an exhuberant New Year’s Eve celebration at Club CLG Gaoth Dobhair with Kerry-based Polca4 and local band, An Crann Óg; and two seisiún mór (big informal music/dance sessions) at Teach Hiúdaí Beag Saturday and Sunday, plus the classes.

Sponsors of the annual winter school include The Arts Council of Ireland.

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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).

Strandedwm_shay-fennelly_2007

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.”

submarine

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.”

Many challenges facing Donegal Gaeltacht and Udaras

Fresh from her first meeting recently as board chairperson of a revamped Udaras na Gaeltachta, Anna Ni Ghallchoir faces discouraging news – the number of fluent Irish speakers in Gaeltacht areas is falling and urgent measures are needed to reverse the trend.

“Without doubt, Irish is in decline, we must realise that and put in place a concrete plan to deal with it,” said Ni Ghallachoir, director of the Languages Centre at the NUI in Maynooth.

Meanwhile, a strategy, enshrined in the 2012 Gaeltacht Act and a 20-year strategy plan, is in place, with twin aims of promoting Irish and creating dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Minister of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, told the Donegal News he remains “open and flexible” in his approach. “If the system supporting the Irish-language and economic development in Gaeltacht areas requires streamlining or enhancing for greater efficiency and more effective use of public money, then we are certainly open to doing so.”

Promoting Irish

The proposed plan under the act has several strands, including support for Irish-speaking families and a greater role for community groups such as co-ops, schools, sports and music clubs in each Gaeltacht area, Ni Ghallachoir said, adding, “Local Gaeltachts must take ownership of the plan, be the foundation upon which growth takes place. With different socio-linguistic-economic factors in every Gaeltacht, each must be analysed and area-specific programmes initiated so they become pivotal drivers. ”

Referring to the act, Eoin O’Murchu, former political editor at Raidio na Gaeltachta  and a national commentator on Irish-language affairs, says, “all that reads well, may not be so,” adding, “It comes down to value for money, especially important in the present difficult economic times. Before, there was a lack of purpose from the State, with no clear vision. Co-ordination could have been more efficient with recognition of the specific differences in each Gaeltacht. Now, with a chance to implement a specific strategy, politics unfortunately has entered the fray and that opportunity is being missed.” Added Concubhar O’Liathain, board member of TG4 and former editor of La, the Irish-language newspaper, “Some appointments to important Irish-language boards such as national funding body, Foras na Gaeilge, are being made on party political grounds. People on boards should be challenging officialdom. Those interested in the language but not in party politics are more likely now to be overlooked.” Officials at Foras, who direct a multimillion euro annual budget, said all projects are selected on merit before funding.

Salaries, transport, board fees and pensions

O’Murchu also said what happened in the corporate world recently in Ireland now happens in the Irish-language one. “A small handful of the same people are on boards, each supporting one another’s projects. This prohibits substantive evaluation of Irish-language project proposals. A person is hardly likely to turn down another’s project for funding when they know that person may be voting on theirs at the next meeting. Such meetings are often merely a way to mark time, nothing more.”

Third-level education in Irish in Donegal is also a challenge. Ionad an Acadaimh, established in Gaoth Dobhair in 2004, has received generous funding but cannot recruit enough students. “It is a problem, we need improved marketing, better outreach,” said former Udaras chairperson, Liam O’Cuinneagain, whose language organisation Oideas Gael, which employs four full-time people, received over 350,000 euro from Udaras and more than that from Foras and other sources.

Jobs: tourism or industry

All those involved in Irish-language planning consider job creation key in preserving it, describing it as “an essential element of dynamic Gaeltacht communities.”

“If we don’t succeed in keeping Irish-speaking population in Gaeltachts, how can we possibly expect to maintain the language,” said Dinny McGinley, Minister of State for the Gaeltacht, saying he reduced the Udaras board from 20 to 12 because it was “too large, too expensive and too political.”

But what sort of economic development meets Gaeltachts’ needs? Lacking proper infrastructure especially rapid transport such as motorways, rail-lines and a multi-destination airport that major manufacturers require, the odds are against rapid employment pick-up in this sector in the Donegal one. “On supply chain factors alone, a long-term, job-creation strategy based on manufacturing was, and will be, insane,” said a leading Dublin-based academic whose research has focused on Udaras over several years. “Look at the fate of Fruit of the Loom to see the consequences. Many call centres have also failed, with some still owing Udaras lots of money on outstanding loans.” She added, “Much of what Galway-Connemara – where Udaras is headquartered – got, would help Donegal greatly. Many people there got clean, well-paying, long-term jobs in sectors such as IT, Irish translation services and media, while Donegal, the poor cousin, ended up with lower-paying, short to medium-term, conveyor-belt type jobs in factories.”

The consequences of manufacturing failure dot the Donegal Gaeltacht landscape today, with Sinn Fein TD Pearse Doherty pointing out that almost half of the industrial parks there lie empty, estimated to be around 45,000 square meters. “Manufacturing in the Donegal Gaeltacht is not sustainable,” he said. “We don’t have the necessary transport links and the government’s withdrawal from the Dublin-Donegal A5 project means we are hardly likely to get them any time soon. That means looking for alternative ways to encourage young Irish speakers to stay here and help create dynamic Gaeltacht communities. Broadband offers one solution. It’s like electricity and running water was years ago, ‘must-haves’ in today’s modern world. With it, the Gaeltacht here can chase the jobs the Connemara Gaeltacht got.”

Instead of easy-to-build ‘mortar and metal’ industrial estates, which analysts said made “fabulous profits for builders and developer,” Udaras chairperson, Ni Ghallachoir, board member, Sean O’Cuirean from Falcarragh and TD Doherty point to tourism, particularly the environmental and cultural variety.

For decades, west Donegal tourism relied on northern Irish holiday-makers flooding across the border, local officials said. That ended with the arrival of low-cost airlines. The entire hospitality sector in the Gaeltacht has declined rapidly since.

“Cultural and green tourism offer tremendous opportunities but its potential has not been exploited enough here,” O’Cuirean said. “Udaras has an important role in this, by supporting large and small tourism projects across the Gaeltacht. Compared to places like Galway and Kerry, we lag far behind. We should adopt environmental tourism models, Norway and Scotland, for example. Mayo hosts meditation retreat type holidays. Whether they are participatory projects in re-afforestation or archaeology, we should be offering them.”  Sabba Curran, an angling tourism entrepreneur in Dore, agrees. “We have all we need, the ocean, the islands, the fishing grounds, but we need Udaras help to develop the sector.”  Added Doherty, “West Donegal has so many tourism pearls scattered around – Errigal, Glenveigh, Dunlewey, Glencolmcille, Tory, Gola – but we have failed to make a necklace out of them. They can’t stand alone. With peace in the north and an all-Ireland tourism body established, now’s the time to act.”

Udaras staff in Donegal declined to talk about tourism development nor job-creation statistics here. When contacted, Micheal MacGiolla Easpuic, acting regional manager based in Gaoth Dobhair, told the Donegal News, “We’re a centralised organisation, you’ll have to call Galway.” But Siubhan Nic Grianna, Udaras communications director in Galway, also declined to provide details as did Gerry O’Smaolain, who oversees Udaras tourism projects here.

Budget constraints

Challenges to Irish-language development include a much-reduced Udaras budget, but also that most of its budget goes towards staff salaries, expenses and pensions rather than supporting job creation projects in Gaeltacht areas. Nic Grianna declined to give specific figures on pensions, even though it is public information. A Joint Oireachtas committee, however, learned recently that pensions of 136 people take up half the current Udaras budget. “Pay levels at Udaras are the envy of people in the Irish-language sector and the pension situation needs looking at,” said O’Liathain, “There could be less bureaucracy in terms of funding also. Udaras has its weaknesses, but it’s not so drastic it can’t be fixed.”

Those interviewed for this three-part series on Udaras na Gaeltachta over the last few weeks were agreed on one thing – Gaeltachts require continuing support. “Promoting Irish in the Gaeltachts may seem like selling coal in Newcastle,” O’Liathain said. “You’d think people would have enough of it. But it is very important in preserving our native culture and heritage.”

Published in Donegal News