Feeling the pulse of the community

They say a picture tells a thousand words so, following this credo, here are some for you to peruse –

They’re from last Friday evening’s funky ‘Dracula & Friends’ event at the Amharclann Ghaoth Dobhair in Bunbeg, Donegal, enjoyed by all who attended.

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The event featured a funny skit, a Houdini-like escape from a coffin by a vampire, played most credibly by talented actor, Tomás Mac Giolla Bhríde; a comedy drama entitled ‘He Is/He Isn’t’ adapted by Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhrighde and performed brilliantly by members of Aisteoirí Ghaoth Dobhair; and an on-screen multi-media presentation by yours truly entitled ‘Dracula: Legend Versus Truth’ based on my memoir ‘Digging for Dracula,’ with selected movie clips.

There were also make-up artists, a lobby transformed into a vampire’s den, as well as vampire-themed snacks and drinks.

The entire evening was devoted to two important causes – fund-raising for the community theatre itself, a key element of entertainment and education for the entire Gaeltacht region, and beyond, and promotion of the fine work being done by the Irish Blood Transfusion Service.

Preparations by everyone, the on-stage performers, and the hard-working off-stage staff, including chairperson Pól Mac Cumhaill and theatre manager, Manus O’Domhnaill, were superb.

It is important we all realize that the very life-blood (pardon the pun) of community theatre is ourselves, those living within easy reach of the venue.

It is fine for former Minister of the Gaeltacht, Joe McHugh, in face of stern opposition by some civil servants, to push through almost half a million euro for the resurrection of a theatre that lay dead for ten years. But for it to be sustainable in the long-run, people must recognize its value and attend, not one but as many events there as possible when possible.

Donegal is often accused of always having a ‘hand out’ for grants. Whether that is true or not depends on who you talk to and what statistics are presented. There is no doubt, however, that Donegal, especially the western part of the county, is largely ignored.

Political truth means any area with fewer voters will receive less attention. And less funding.

That means, for good or ill, we simply have to do it ourselves. To pull together.

Sustainability cannot rely simply on public money – and rightly so. Ultimately, a community must take care of itself. And there are many fine examples of that around Donegal. 

In essence, true sustainability means that venues, community centres or otherwise, must operate as if they were in the private sector. Basically, that they have products to sell, whether they be classes, concerts or cinema showings, and that they promote them in the right manner in the right place at the right price.

Tickets for ‘Dracula & Friends’ were priced at 8 euro for children and 12 for adults, with hefty discounts for parents with children. Is that too much to ask to support a local community theatre and promote blood donations, especially considering many of us may need both of them to flourish in mind and body? 

Van Morrison, Seamus Heaney and I….

Was Van ‘the Man’ Morrison inspired by Seamus Heaney’s delightful poem ‘Death of A Naturalist’ when the famed R&B singer wrote his timeless ode to youth, ‘Coney Island’?

And what possible connection could there be between the old Belfast street song ‘My Aunt Jane’ and the famous Derry-born Nobel Laureate?

And for goodness sake, what has butter melting over delicious homemade Irish soda bread got to do with a man who was such a venerated poet and professor at such august institutions as Queens University, Harvard and Oxford?

Sean Hillen speaking at Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Olivia O'Leary, Marie-Louis Muir

(l to r) Myself, Olivia O’Leary, Malachi O’Doherty, Marie-Louise Muir, Elaine Monaghan and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan – panelists at a recent conference at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace.

I was delighted to air these quirky questions and more during a most enjoyable conference at the impressive Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy last week. Eldest of nine children, Heaney won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 and is buried near the museum and conference center that bears his name which hosts a wide range of cultural events.

Seated on a panel with Olivia O’Leary, a ‘Grand Dame’ of Irish journalism, as well as popular BBC arts presenter, Marie-Louise Muir, multiple book author, Malachi O’Rourke, and two professors from Indiana University Bloomington, Elaine Monaghan, an experienced foreign correspondent, and Winnifred Fallers Sullivan who specializes in religious studies, we analyzed the links between Heaney’s writings and journalism, particularly on ethics.

Photos & videos by Center for the Imagination

Conducting research on the northern Irish poet ahead of the event, I came across a radio recording from 1989 when Heaney was being interviewed for the popular BBC program ‘Desert Island Discs,’ in which various celebrities are asked what music they’d want if stranded offshore. Sandwiched between two ‘heavyweights’ – Beethoven’s Quartet Nr. 13 and the choir of Magdalen College Oxford – as his favorite pieces of music was ‘My Aunt Jane,’ a little ditty I grew up with on the working-class streets of west Belfast.

Seamus Heaney HomePlace events, Seamus Heaney museum

On an impulse, in the crowded conference hall, I sang a few lines, receiving gracious applause for my rather off-tune efforts, then asked how many people remembered the song.

Hands all across the hall shot up, including those of the panelists, giving strength to the point I wanted to make: that Heaney, at his core, was a common man of the people, someone who grew up in a rather modest rural household steeped in tradition which was reflected bountifully in his poetry.

discussions on Seamus Heaney poetry and journalism, Olivia O'Leary, Marie-Louis Muir, Malachi O'Rourke

As for my ‘Van the Man’ comment. Having read the lines from Heaney’s ‘Death Of A Naturalist,’ the title of his first published book of poetry (by Faber & Faber)…

‘Here, every spring

I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied

Specks to range on window sills at home,

On shelves at school, and wait and watch until

The fattening dots burst, into nimble

Swimming tadpoles.’

I was reminded of a similar jampot/jamjar image from Morrison’s ‘Coney Island’….

‘On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
In the jam jar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
And all shining through

Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
Mussels and some potted herrings in case
We get famished before dinner.’

While my comment was tongue in cheek, interestingly, both men – arguably the most iconic artistic figures Northern Ireland has ever produced – managed, one in poetry, the other in song, to pay magical tribute to their respective regions through their journeys of nostalgia to childhood pathways and pastimes. Heaney to his native county Derry and Morrison to county Down.

Whether they ever met, I’m not sure. Alas, to my knowledge, they didn’t perform together – now that would have been a most memorable duet.

As for the melted butter over scrumptious Irish soda bread, watching one of the videos above you’ll see what I mean about ‘Show, don’t tell,’ a key element of both journalism and creative writing.

Join me on Saturday, May 12 at Seamus Heaney HomePlace where I will be hosting a workshop on “IQ for Creative Writers” (IQ meaning ‘I Question’).

My Peculiar Movie Story

It’s not often one watches an exciting suspense movie based on true events, then wander into a bar an hour later and meet some of the very people involved in the real thing.

But that happened to me recently.

It was an intriguing, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

And, who knows, may lead to my novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ being turned into a big hit at the box-office.

I’m not what you’d call a movie buff, in part because the nearest cinema is over an hour from my home along a winding mountain pass through Glenveagh National Park in the remotest northwest corner of coastal Ireland plumb on the Wild Atlantic Way. And I don’t have Netflix. And I rarely watch television.

But I’d met former prisoner and IRA hunger striker turned writer, Laurence McKeown, whose latest play had been performed at my local theater, which I reviewed, and we’d agreed to meet in Belfast, my native city, on my next trip there.

Laurence McKeown, Sean Hillen author,

Meeting Laurence McKeown (r) – a man who has achieved so much in a lifetime – was an absolute pleasure.

A week or so later, I went there to talk to Laurence about being a guest trainer at the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ that my wife, Columbia, and I host every year in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht (which he agreed to do and was a terrific success).

While chatting, he asked if I’d be interested in seeing the world premiere of a new movie entitled ‘Maze’ based on actual events about a mass breakout from a prison of the same name just outside Belfast in 1983, where he himself had been incarcerated for 16 years.

I remembered the break-out well for though I had by then emigrated to America and was working as a journalist in Kansas City, I’d read about it in the papers and my parents had told me details over the phone from their working-class home in west Belfast where some of the prisoners were from.

The Movie House on Belfast’s Dublin Road was packed for the evening premiere, with some former prisoners who’d been part of the escape and local political and social leaders seated in the audience. I came early and nabbed a central place near the front.

Maze’ is written and directed by Stephen Burke, known for ‘Happy Ever Afters’ (2009), ‘81’ (1997) and ‘After 68’ (1994). By chance, both Stephen and I attended the same Belfast school, St. Mary’s, during our teenage years. The movie is an engrossing cinematic accomplishment based on a well-written script. Created on a low budget, it is filled with emotion and raw passion, philosophical musings, exciting action and slow-fuse suspense focusing on the escape by 38 IRA members, the biggest prison escape in Europe since World War II, from what was then considered the best-guarded prison in Europe. The acting is superb, with Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Larry Marley, the mastermind behind the daring escape, and Barry Ward as a prison officer, Gordon Close, in the starring roles. The caliber of the supporting cast is equally impressive.

As the movie ended, I was delighted to see an old acquaintance, Brendan Gunn, whom I’d not seen in several decades, receive much-deserved mention in the credits. Brendan is a gifted linguist and dialect coach and his brilliant work helped the main actors, who are from around Dublin, adopt a broad northern Irish accent, pivotal for credibility and character backstory. A pioneer in this specialized movie-related field in Ireland when he first began his work in the mid-1980s, Brendan’s ‘students’ have included a remarkable list of mega-stars such as Brad Pitt, Robert De Niro, Edward Norton, Aidan Quinn, Cate Blanchett, Jim Sturgess, Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Natalie PortmanDaniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Saoirse Ronan and Colin Farrell.

Leaving the cinema after talking briefly to Stephen about my novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ based in part on the life of former US Senator Edward Kennedy, as a future movie proposal, and to Laurence who spoke on a post-show panel, I drove homeward through quiet streets.

Feeling thirsty after being inside for several hours, I decided to stop off at the Felon’s Club, a stone’s throw from my mother’s home in Andersonstown. The Felon’s is an important place in local Belfast folklore. It started life as a parochial hall before becoming a school and then being transformed into a local drinking club and, as its name suggests, a popular gathering center for IRA members, many of whom were avoiding – or had just been released from – prison. I’d heard Brendan ‘Bik’ McFarlane, a former leader of the Maze prisoners and a talented musician and singer, was playing there and I was curious to hear him.

As luck would have it, Bik had not started his performance when I arrived and I found him standing at the bar. We chatted, making our way back to the reception area to the security guard on duty. Telling both men I’d just come from seeing the movie they both suddenly became curious, asking me questions about it. Then they announced deadpan that they were among the 38 who had escaped. Excited and keen to learn more, I encouraged them to tell me their stories of what happened to them that fateful day.

Some of what they said was adrenalin-filled stuff, much of it more exciting than what we see in movies. About how they managed to smuggle guns into the prison ahead of the escape (the movie shows them doing this inside cans of paint, but actually Bik said the guns were smuggled painstakingly by their individual parts over a period of time, then put together inside the prison; how they surprised the on-duty guards at gun-point by timing their shift changes between cell-blocks; how unfortunately they ran head-on into more guards at the front gates of the prison and how a brawl broke out, with shots being fired;  how, rushing through the open gates, they were torn to shreds struggling through rolls of barbed wire outside, then fled madcap through fields searching for escape routes, with trained search dogs, armed soldiers and police hot on their heels). After our hour-long chat, one thing became crystal clear – fact can sometimes be stranger than fiction.

That’s my movie story – and more importantly – that’s their real-life story.


See the Winter Offer for ‘Pretty Ugly’

Launch of suspense novel linking Ireland, the US and Romania attracts arts, business and diplomatic leaders

I’m now enjoying the satisfaction of a successful official launch last night in Dublin, designated European City of Literature, of ‘Pretty Ugly,’ a novel I ‘ve been working on for a number of years that links Donegal and Belfast with the US and Romania.

I’m even more delighted that the celebratory event brought together diverse leaders in business, arts and diplomacy including Tony Canavan, editor of Books Ireland, the foremost literary organization supporting publishing here; Richard Moat, CEO of national telecoms company, eir; and the Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu, who all gave short speeches, with much-appreciated compliments about my book.

A perfect complement to my readings was the rich voice and fine guitar-playing of well-known musician Pat Gallagher, lead singer of ‘Goats Don’t Shave,’ including a song he wrote inspired by the tradition of turf-cutting in Donegal, entitled ‘Turf Man Blues,’ which matched several dramatic scenes that take place in the ‘Pretty Ugly’ linked to the bogs of Donegal.

The book launch event at The Gutter Book Shop near Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre even included a fun ‘test tasting’ of the first whisky made in Donegal in over 100 years, ‘Silkie’ from the new Sliabh Liag Distillery. With Boston, New York, Washington and Kansas City playing location roles in ‘Pretty Ugly,’ it was terrific US Embassy representatives could come along, as well as members of the Donegal Association and the Arts Council, all obviously enjoying themselves.

Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu, Sean Hillen

Her Excellency Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu

With my working as a reporter and editor in print, television and radio journalism in the US and Europe for so many years, I was keen to point out that – while such experience didn’t qualify me to write a novel – basic rules do link journalism and creative writing, especially adherence to the five ‘Ws’ – who, what, why, where and when. Adding another ‘W’ – the ‘what-if’ factor – to the equation can help make for interesting ideas for novels, as happened with ‘Pretty Ugly,’ when I learned how many people had been injured by chemicals in cosmetics yet the law regulating them had not been changed since 1938.

Sean Hillen author book launch, Pretty Ugly book launch Dublin

I was also delighted to mention the annual June international ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ in Gaoth Dobhair and hopes that ‘Pretty Ugly’ and novels by other authors in Donegal could help kick-start the concept of ‘literary tourism’ in the county. Everyone agrees. Donegal deserves a much stronger tourism industry than it has right now, one dynamic enough to support local hotels, B&Bs, pubs, cafes. It’s my fervent belief that literary tourism can help achieve this – if Donegal County Council, Failte Ireland, Discover Ireland, and other relevant organizations would simply take note of the success of this concept in other countries, particularly the US.

Book launch Pretty Ugly Dublin, Sean Hillen author

Sometimes, tourism promotion in Donegal is so far behind the curve, it borders on tragedy, as many frustrated tour tourism operators in the aptly-named ‘Forgotten County’ keep telling me. Novels written by authors of all kinds can provide intriguing literary road-maps to places of interest for people who come to visit, an added dimension to any trip.

Pat Gallagher musician

Much of the drama in ‘Pretty Ugly,’ which pits an unlikely trio of a skin specialist, a celebrity model and an investigative journalist against the might of a rich and powerful corporation in the American cosmetic industry, with high-level political and media intrigue, features such Donegal locations as the Poison Glen, Errigal, Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) and Gola Island.

Sean Hillen book launch Dublin, best Irish books, best Irish writers

On the links between journalism and creative writing, I’m proud to have the chance to teach a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writing’ at this year’s upcoming writing retreat at Teac Jack in Glassagh.

Pat Gallagher, Tony Canavan, Sean Hillen

…with a hint of time-travel

In a rather bizarre turn of events with a hint of time-travel, fiction has predicted reality.

In my suspense novel, ‘Pretty Ugly’ released several weeks ago, a key scene depicts a lead character on a plane crossing the Atlantic reading a travel guide about the place to which he is going – the northwestern region of the ‘Forgotten County’ Donegal.

Pretty Ugly novel, Fodor's top experiences

Donegal Fodors guide, Sean Hillen Fodors guide

Fast-forward several weeks and Fodor’s, the world’s largest English-language publisher of tourism and travel information, owned by Penguin Random House, released an article by me on, yes, you’ve guessed it, the very same place – with excerpts from ‘Pretty Ugly’ introducing the article. See the full article below that was published several days ago.

Sean Hillen Fodors, Pretty Ugly novel

As Fodor’s has such a wide reach globally, I’m hoping this article helps bring more international guests – many of whom have never been to Ireland – to enjoy this beautiful and lesser-known part of Ireland’s coastline, strengthen the hospitality sector in the hard-hit Gaeltacht and create more jobs for local cafes, pubs, restaurants, hotels and B&Bs.

First suspense novel links Donegal ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ with America 

Readers have asked me in reference to my recently-published suspense novel ‘Pretty Ugly’ focusing on deadly cosmetics and political and corporate corruption, linking Ireland with America, how I describe Donegal in the book.

Of course, as an author, I should respond “well, might I suggest you go out and buy the book and the mystery will be revealed.” (‘Pretty Ugly’ can be purchased at Easons Letterkenny, Gallaghers Bunbeg, or direct from Amazon).

But as this is the season of goodwill and the ‘Forgotten County’ plays such a key location role in the unfolding drama of the novel, I’m including two videos of readings from the novel that focus on Donegal that I made recently at a Berlin bookstore .

The context is that Colm Heaney, an investigative reporter, is on a plane over the Atlantic en route to Ireland, chasing after a world exclusive. He’s hoping to find a beauty queen, a former Miss USA, who is hiding from the paparazzi – in, of all places – the hills of the west Donegal Gaeltacht, in the shadow of Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) in Gaoth Dobhair.

Dare I be immodest and say it? Okay, okay, if you think I really should: ‘Pretty Ugly’ makes for a pretty good Christmas gift, with a pretty stunning cover and at a pretty decent price.

Looking forward to your comments and feedback on Facebook, directly on the book’s website or on Amazon.

I wish you and your family and friends a most contented and relaxed holiday season. The perfect time to settle yourself in a comfy armchair with a glass of something strong and an interesting book to delve into.

Visiting Berlin Wall speaks volumes for free thinkers

It was as cold then as it is now, I recalled, thick coat and woolly hat keeping my body and soul together, even though the ‘Cold War’ had just melted away.

Exactly 27 years ago, swaying atop the Berlin Wall, a bottle of champagne in one hand, the other firmly clasping that of someone unknown to me but equally as carefree and excited, both of us wildly celebrating a supreme historic moment.

Sean Hillen speaking in Berlin, Berlin books

Reminiscing: Quiet now but thousands clambered on to it and over it 27 years ago, myself included.

There were tens of thousands of us, stumbling over rubble, banging on the solid concrete with anything we could lay our hands on, hammers, candlesticks, shovels, pitchforks, pieces of metal piping. You name it, we were using it, desperately trying to dislodge pieces to take home with us.

In some ways, it seemed to me we were doing so not just to have a hard-won souvenir to show to friends and family but also because we felt we were facing a frenzied race against time, that we feared men in uniforms, with rifles and growling, muzzled dogs, might suddenly come along and order us down, telling us it was a bad joke, that the powers that be had changed their minds, that the exhilarating glimpse of freedom was over.

Sean Hillen author, books by Sean Hillen

Checkpoint Charlie: Tourist attraction now but filled with drama when I first visited it in the mid-1980s during the Cold War.

We were all of the same thought: the wall had to come down and it had to come down now before someone powerful somewhere changed their mind. After all, it had gone up fast, so down it must come – equally as fast. And boy, were we ever doing a helluva demolition job. With a capital ‘D.’

That’s why it was a delight to be there again last week standing beside the few remaining remnants of the wall, much of it covered by colorful graffiti, reliving those exuberant moments from years before. And an even greater delight to be talking not only about my experiences as a foreign correspondent covering the dramatic fall of Communism, then rushing by train to Bucharest, to the Romanian revolution, but also about my first novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ which deals with many of the same universal themes, freedom of thought and action.

Gazing around me as I walked to the Berlin Book Nook bookstore in the Neukoelin district, the American sector after World War Two, I was astonished to see how much Berlin had changed. Changed? Transformed would be a better description. Bright lights, lively pubs and cafes, the conversational buzz of shoppers filling the streets. Open-air markets like the Gendarmenmarkt packed with people drinking gluhwein and chowing down on currywurst, and carolers singing sweetly about hope and love.

Author talks Berlin, Berlin book shops

Enjoying a chat at the Berlin Book Nook about literature, art, travel and the German capital’s ever-changing face.

The overriding sense of togetherness and positivity was a vivid reminder to me of that same collective sense of well-being I felt all those years ago along the crumbling wall, the grim edifice that symbolized the very opposite of all that is good in Mankind.

As for my author’s talk, when is it not thoroughly enjoyable to speak to book-lovers about books? Even more satisfying as I had earlier that very day visited ‘The Story of Berlin’ museum where a pile of books tossed randomly along the floor was a sad reminder of the tragic ‘burning of books’ episode instigated by Hitler and his racist Nazi cronies intent on destroying any semblance of free thinking.

Sean Hillen author in Berlin, Pretty Ugly a novel

Books underfoot at ‘The Story of Berlin’ museum symbolizing the despicable Nazi ‘burning of books’ episode in 1933.

Talking about the inspiring land and seascapes of Donegal’s ‘Wild Atlantic Way’ (no wonder the county recently topped the National Geographic Traveller magazine’s ‘Cool List 2017’) where much of the dramatic action in ‘Pretty Ugly’ takes place and about how my main characters, both in Ireland and America, strive for justice in face of overwhelming odds, I felt like I was staging my own private revenge against the Fuhrer and his violent mob of senseless bullies.

Pretty Ugly book, Irish writers

Pretty nice to see ‘Pretty Ugly’ on the shelves of a popular Berlin bookstore.

I hope you feel the same, especially at this time of year when we think more of family and friends and how fortunate we are compared to others much worse off.

Have a most contented winter holiday season. I very much look forward to hearing your feedback after reading my novel.

Here’s where you can order your copy of Pretty Ugly.