With its clear water, impressive sea arches, interesting monuments and meandering stone pathways leading to a rustic cafe-cum-information centre, Gola Island is an idyllic, picture-book getaway from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
And if it wasn’t for Captain Sabba Curran and his daily ferry service, few people would be able to enjoy this west Donegal island’s rugged beauty.
Many’s the time, stiff from sitting on a chair in front of a computer, I’ve jumped in my car and driven the ten minutes from my home on the slopes of Bloody Foreland towards Magheragallon Pier near the Gweedore Golf Course to catch Sabba’s regular crossings, greeting an old acquaintance on board or meeting a new friend ‘up from the country’ or from another country altogether.
After a short hike and a refreshing seawater swim if the notion takes me, I head to the Uncrowned King of the Island, Eddie McGee, sup an cupán tae and enjoy his lively raconteurship at one of the outside cafe tables overlooking the back pier near the toppled stones of the old schoolhouse.
So enamoured am I of the island and its quiet, unassuming personality, I included it as a key location in my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly.’
In honor of Sabba, Eddie and the beauty of the island, I penned this short news story for the ‘Donegal News’ this week.
People welcomed the re-launch of the ferryboat service to Gola Island this week following easing of Covid restrictions, with some hailing it as a major boost for tourism.
Captain Sabba Curran, 58, from Dore, began the Gola Island Ferry Service five years ago after he purchased and renovated a 38-foot, 300-horsepower Aquastar, named ‘The Cricket’ (also known as ‘The Love Boat’) with 12-passenger capacity.
“There was a great need for a regular ferry service and as I have a strong interest in boats it was a good match,” said Sabba, who operates his service every day until September, leaving from Magheragallon Pier beside Gweedore Golf Club. “I’m delighted how things have gone so far though I encourage the county council to recognise the island’s tourism potential. It’s been twenty years since the council maintained the roads and the island has only one Portaloo. More are needed, as visitor numbers have increased.”
In addition to individual sightseers, Sabba caters to school groups, as well as hikers, rock-climbers, paddle-surfers, and those attending the island’s festival. Estimates vary but at least several thousand people, including visitors from the US, France and Germany, go to Gola every year. Among island highlights are old schoolhouse ruins, sea arches and monuments to victims of 9/11 and local people aboard the Asgard, used in a gun-running operation for Irish Volunteers in 1914.
Sabba provides other services to the council including transporting the island’s only Portaloo twice a week to the mainland for cleaning. He also brings leftover rubbish to a skip on Magheragallon Pier, thus keeping the island tidy.
Margo and Paul McGinn from Rathcoffey, Kildare, often travel to west Donegal for holidays. “The Gaeltacht region offers some of the best scenery in Ireland, with Gola, ten minutes by ferry from the mainland, a jewel in the crown,” said Margo. “I like seawater swimming and the island has some of the clearest water I’ve ever been in, as well as sandy beaches. We’ve also enjoyed hiking there and have been rewarded with wonderful views. As a tourism destination, it’s greatly underrated.”
Added Eddie McGee, who manages an island information center-cum-cafe, “It’s great the ferry is back running again. Gola is becoming better known, with many Irish people coming for the first time after Covid prevented them travelling abroad.”
Local Sinn Fein Councillor John Seamais O’Fearraigh said, “without the ferry service, the island wouldn’t have developed as it has over the last few years. I will be pushing the council to fund better amenities to support this. I expected road funding this year but it went to three other islands.”
But a group of immensely talented women Friday night at Amharclann theatre in the Donegal Gaeltacht invited it to join them – transforming it into a celebration of life, community spirit and artistic triumph.
Devoted to Fiona Carr, popular singer and dancer who fell victim to cancer at the young age of 30 and others like her who bid their last farewells under tender care at the Donegal Hospice, local performers known as the ‘Wild Atlantic Women’ gathered together for a heartfelt musical tribute.
And what an uplifting evening it turned out to be.
Regardless of your favorite musical genre, this special concert seemed to have it all – soul and folk, traditional and country, the popular and the newly-penned.
Lead organiser, teacher-multi-instrumentalist-singer-cum-songwriter Brí (Brighdin) Carr with many local female musicians have already raised more than 15,000 euro for Donegal Hospice and the Oncology Department in Letterkenny University Hospital through such events and a double CD.
Few better ways to open such a concert than this admirable group of women together in harmony led by Emma Ní Fhioruisce, Maria McCormack and Bernie Doherty on the haunting folk ballad ‘Caledonia, the unofficial anthem of Scotland written by singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean.
And few better ways to end it than their touching interpretation of ‘Grace,’ written by Frank and Seán O’Meara, telling the tragic story of Grace Gifford who married Irish rebel leader Joseph Mary Plunkett, in Dublin’s notorious Kilmainham Gaol shortly before his execution by firing squad in 1916.
Between these songs, an appreciative audience enjoyed two hours of inspiring entertainment by women, young and old, who displayed remarkable vocal range and musical prowess, drawing a standing ovation for their efforts.
With so many highlights, it’s impossible to describe them all, but here’s a flavour of the evening –
Noeleen Ní Cholla, Gaoth Dobhair-based award-winning sean nos singer-songwriter-instrumentalist, whose angelic voice can be heard on her album ‘An Mhaighdean Mara,’ performed pitch-perfect the Irish-language version of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ the ever-popular song written for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. How she managed to reach those high notes is beyond me.
Glasgow-born singer, guitarist and lawyer, Jacqui Sharkey, with three albums already to her name, sang ‘Never Be The Sun’ by Donagh Long from Cork. Recorded with her friend and fellow singer Caitlin Murtagh from county Down, and produced by Pat Gallagher of ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ fame who also plays guitar backing. This song will be officially released on February 28 and a video aired on Sky TV this week.
On keyboards, Brí Carr, who founded Blue Ribbon, a performing arts group for children, sang a song she wrote, simply entitled ‘Home,’ as well as a duet with Claire Ward called ‘Second Violin,’ by Irish band, Bagatelle, one Fiona Carr herself recorded aged 14 for Blue Ribbon.
‘H.o.m.e,’ Brí’s next album will be released in May. Her song, ‘Árainn Mhór,’ was the first iTunes chart song as Gaeilge in the Top 200 in Ireland, peaking at number 3. Bubbly Brí, who keeps a ‘big blue book’ of songs she has composed over the past 25 years, also participated in ‘South Of The Border’ festival in Ardara this past weekend. Her first album, ‘Full Circle/Rotha an tSaoil,’ is on iTunes and Spotify. Bernie Doherty sang a beautiful rendition of the wistful ballad, ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’ by English folk-rock singer Sandy Denny. Bernie is now involved in the formation of the ‘Choir of Ages’ its members ranging in age from 5 to 80.
Accomplished pianist and keyboardist, Kelli Nic Ruaidhri, from Fanad who teaches in Ballinamore and supported many of the songs on the evening, also sang ‘Sanctuary,’ which she translated into ‘Beidh mé Ann.’
Maria Mc Cormack’s contributed to the evening’s success with a song about her own personal experience of lost love. Entitled ‘Stratford to Stansted,’ about someone moving away to London for work, it will feature on her second album, her first being, ‘I Choose To Love.’ Aside from gigs this year in Slane (Purple Sessions), Drogheda (Fireside Festival), and even a St. Patrick’s Day festival in Germany, Maria will also play at the Letterkenny Jazz and Blues Festival on July 4th Maria has set up a fundit page to help support her upcoming recording.
Looking like a sultry Marilyn Monroe in black silk on stage, Rachel Akkoç, actress, singer and member of the Letterkenny Musical Society, transported listeners to a smoky uptown New York nightclub with her soft, seductive interpretation of soul song ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ from the musical ‘Hairspray.’
Highlighting the difficulty of ‘letting go,’ and having special meaning for me as my mother died last week, Clare Ward sang ‘Reflections’ in remembrance of her friend Manus Kelly, killed tragically last year in the Donegal International Car Rally. Claire’s album is called ‘Bite the Bullet,’ an eclectic mix of folk, Celtic and easy rock music. Recent solo recordings include ‘Eye of the Storm,’ and ‘Remember,’ about a friend’s journey with Alzheimer’s.
Last but certainly not least were what could best be described as ‘the Little (Wild Atlantic) Women’ – girls, aged six and upwards, namely Caela Carr, Siofra Harvey, Clodagh Mooney, Mia Clarke, and Hannah NicPhaidín, all award-winning singers and musicians. They drew enthusiastic applause from the audience with a rousing medley that included ‘I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me,’ ‘Rós na Seirce,’ “Christmas Letter,’ ‘Fear a’Bhata,’ ‘Angels Among Us,’ ‘Liom Féin’ and finally, ‘Home To Donegal.’
Other excellent singers included –
Trish Rodgers, whose albums include ‘This Is My Island,’ ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘The Gold Collection’ – singing, ‘Donal Óg.’
Deirdre Bonner, whose albums include ‘Remember When’ and ‘Atlantic Bridges’ – singing, ‘Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies.’
Maria McCool, whose albums include ‘Ailleog,‘ ‘Doagh‘ and ‘Shenandoah’ – singing ‘Teddy O’Neill.’
Gearóidín Breathnach, a leading sean-nós singer, whose album is ‘Ar Fhoscadh na gCnoc‘ – singing ‘Anseo I lár an ghleanna.’
and the velvety-voiced Emma Ní fhioruisce from Gaoth Dobhair – singing ‘Ar Ais go Gaoth Dobhair.’
Kudos to Áine Ní Churrain (Barrscéalta Raidio na Gaeltachta) and Karen Gallinagh (Speech and Drama Federation Ireland) who acted as excellent MCs and to Serenity Hair & Beauty Salon Gweedore which donated a 200 euro voucher to a lucky raffle winner.
Appreciation poured in for the artists –
“A great night had by all at the Valentine’s night concert by the ‘Wild Atlantic Women.’ We had a fantastic time. Such a talented group of singers and for such a worthy cause as the Donegal Hospice.” Simon Smith, Letterkenny, professor of nursing.
Friends obviously having a good time at Amharclann.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Wild Atlantic Women’ concert in the Amharclann, Gaoth Dobhair. It was an eclectic mix of musical genres, excellent song-writing and inventive reworking of older songs. A great night’s entertainment.” David McNally, librarian and researcher.
“A great mix of talents, and all age groups, both languages, and the modern and the traditional. Agus neart craic! I particularly enjoyed the translated songs such as Maria Nic Cumhaill’s ‘Grace’ and Noleen Ní Cholla’s ‘Thar an Tuar Ceatha’(Somewhere Over The Rainbow). Given the night that was in it, we had love-songs and songs of unrequited love such as the haunting and ancient Dónal Óg, Thíos i Lár a’Ghleanna and a new song about love lost to modern day emigration. Well done ‘Young and Tender Ladies’ of Donegal (one of ballads sung on the night) for sharing St Valentine’s evening and helping an important cause. Having the CD, I can now enjoy it all again.”
Reuben Ó Conluain, retired teacher Dún Laoghaire and Machaire Rabhartaigh
Sabba and Patricia Curran getting settled for an evening of music and song.
“A wonderful night of entertainment, so many talented singers and musicians on stage at one time. Truly memorable.” Sabba Curran, Captain of ‘The Cricket,’ Gola Island ferryboat.
Irish officials are soon to designate one of Ireland’s prettiest islands, Gola Island off the northwest coast of Donegal, as location for the nation’s first official nudist holiday resort.
The announcement comes after an exclusive article in one of the county’s leading newspapers.
“Nudism, or naturism as it is often termed, is one of the fastest growing niche segments in the tourism market worldwide and we consider Gola Island a suitable place for such development,” said a spokesperson for the newly-formed Irish Ministry, Roinn na nDaoine Nochta. “This innovative initiative is a creative extension of our highly-successful ‘Oscar Wilde Atlantic Way’ programme, one that will boost tourism revenues over the coming years for the northwest, an economically marginalized region that has not benefited as much as other areas such as Galway, Dublin and Kerry from the rising tide of visitors.”
She added, “With top foreign guests to Ireland being from the US, France and Germany where naturism is well developed, we expect rapid economic benefits. Stripped to its bare essentials, this is extremely positive news for the island.”
Funding for this naturist initiative will be substantial, added a spokesperson for Government Agency, An Roinn um Fhorbairt Mhíchéillí. “With the support of the World Bank and the IMF, an emergency budget of 666 million euro is being aside immediately for a wide range of substructure and superstructure works supporting this island project. We consider this a bare minimum to fully cover cost of materials and manpower necessary for upgrade of facilities. This project will provide gainful employment for construction workers including carpenters, bricklayers, plumbers, not to mention masseuses. It will also help redress the unfair balance in island funding nationwide. Under the present system, Donegal islands receive much less than islands in other parts of the country such as Galway.”
The spokesperson added, “Depending on the number of nudist visitors that descend upon Gola, we’ll consider further funding. If numbers rise as quickly as we expect, we may invite experts from Holland to advise on best methods for reclaiming submerged land and extend Gola out to the Three Sisters. That’s if they don’t mind, of course. Naturally, we’d seek their views before beginning such works. As Pagans, at One with Nature, I don’t foresee there’ll be any protest.”
Views from Gola Island in the future?
Officials from An Roinn um Fhorbairt Mhíchéillí, Roinn na nDaoine Nochta and Aire na Forbartha Craiceáilte are also seeking private investors for the project.
Four officials, two men and two women, visited Gola last weekend for final inspections, including the evaluation of existing accommodation, the cleanliness of offshore water and the suitability of beaches as nude bathing sites.
Could cruise liners such as this soon be anchoring off Gola Island?
A horticultural expert from the Irish Parks and Recreation Association and another from the Irish Bird Life Society have been recruited as consultants on the project.
“We are particularly worried about clegs, or horse-flies, which can leave severe red welts on the bodies of unwary victims,” said a government inspector with the newly-formed An Roinn Turasóireachta do Dhaoine Lomnochta. “If they are found to be in abundance on the island, absolute mayhem could result. Quite frankly, it could be a bloody unholy mess.”
The inspector added, “We’re also very concerned about corncrakes, an endangered species. They’re shy birds and we’ll be monitoring their reaction to flocks of naked people. Such trauma could cause their mass migration from Irish shores forever.”
Island households as well as boat owners, especially passenger-carrying ones, are being asked to convert all wooden furnishings to metal. “When it comes to people without clothes, we have to be careful about the dangers from wooden splinters, especially in certain sensitive areas of the body,” said a health and environmental specialist. “Splinteritis is a very dangerous condition, one that can be handed down from generation to generation.”
Could such facilities soon be common on Gola Island?
Gola, spelled ‘Gabhla’ in the Gaeilge language, lies about a mile off the northwest coast of Ireland, a region considered by many to be one of the most picturesque and attractive in the country. It may have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, ‘Treasure Island.’
Electricity connection to the island was installed some years ago but officials are now renovating an underwater cable supplying water as part of a general upgrading of facilities in advance of the naturist initiative taking effect.
Government officials said factors leading to their decision included Gola Island’s close offshore position, easy and convenient access by ferry, its many quiet coves and discreet beaches providing an acceptable level of privacy for both clothed and non-clothed people and, of course, its hot tropical micro-climate.
Other islands under consideration for the major economic boost included Inis Mór in Galway, Rathlin Island in Antrim, Clare Island in Mayo and even the Skellig Islands in Kerry, which gained famed recently as a location for the latest ‘Star Wars’ movie.
Naturism: now a popular practice in urban and rural areas.
While realizing the obvious economic benefits locally from the substantial cash injection, elected representatives are assessing the views of Gola islanders on the surprise initiative before making official statements, either for or against.
That’s when I woke from my dream. And into the bright light of reality.
It’s Saturday. It’s the first day of the annual Gola Island Festival. A committee led by Máirín Ui Fhearraigh has put together a wide range of enjoyable activities for both children and adults. Hard-working Sabba Curran, captain of ‘The Cricket,’ is busy ferrying passengers over.
Alas, Irish officials haven’t given the island 666 million euro for a ‘natural development’ or indeed development of any kind. Donegal still remains poor cousin to Galway, Kerry and Dublin when it comes to public funding.
Ah well, at least there’ll be a good bit of craic going on at King Eddie’s wee café.
I urge you. Go along and support this worthy community initiative.
For information on this weekend’s Gola Island festival, contact Máirín at 087 413 4244.
Shouts of celebration leaped from Donegal’s Gola Island ferry, ‘The Cricket,’ Sunday afternoon as holiday-makers from places as diverse as Cambridge, Brighton, London, Letterkenny and Belfast raised a warm cheer for newly-engaged couple, Donal McGee (29) from Falcarragh and Rosie O’Brien (28) from Dunfanaghy.
Being an incurable romantic, Donal decided an island was the best place to propose marriage to the woman he loves. But his good intentions almost fell asunder, giving the term ‘missing the boat’ a new meaning.
Having carefully planned his surprise and with beautiful engagement ring safely stowed away in his pocket, Donal – understandably somewhat nervous – called Sabba around 11 in the morning to ask if he was going to Gola.
“I replied I would be within the hour, and looked forward to seeing him,” said Sabba from Dore. “When he didn’t turn up at Magheragallon Pier, I was surprised and headed off with the other people waiting there. An hour later, I got another call from Donal saying he must have missed me. Again, I said I’d be leaving in an hour but again there was no sign of him when I set off. Then I got a third call from him saying he had been waiting for me at the pier but couldn’t see me. Puzzled, I asked where he was. That’s when the riddle was solved. He had been waiting all this time with his girlfriend at the wrong pier, the one in Bunbeg.”
A happy Rosie shows off her engagement ring as husband-to-be Donal smiles with contentment.
But love is strong. It conquers all, including time.
Within the hour, Donal arrived at the right place with his fiancée-to-be, poised and ready to carry out his heartfelt wish and make his life-changing decision. The cheers that went up as ‘The Cricket’ plied the waters showed his request was warmly accepted by a contented Rosie.
While it was the first time Donal and Rosie had been to Gola Island, it’s a place they’re never likely to forget.
This was also a first for Captain Sabba and ‘The Cricket.’ Never before have they brought anyone across the waters to be engaged.
“I’m delighted and thrilled and wish Donal and Rosie a long and happy life together,” said the generous captain, granting the young couple free passage – to the shores of happiness.
Now word around the Gaeltacht is that ‘The Cricket’ may soon be renamed – ‘The Love Boat.’
Gola Island is one of the locations chosen as an inspiration for participants at the annual international ‘Ireland Writing Retreat.’ It is also a place that features in recently-published novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking this area of Donegal with the United States.