Giant rhubarbs, faeries and other enchanted species on ‘Wild Atlantic Way’

Invasion by giant rhubarb plants throughout Donegal’s Gaoth Dobhair region captured the imagination of international writers during this summer’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – with intriguing stories involving faeries and magical creatures emerging onto blank pages. Some of the stories are soon to be published on the Ireland Writing Retreat Blog.

And such far-fetched tales weren’t due to the influence of the whiskey, poitín and pálinka served up at various events throughout the enjoyable week-long event, even though such potent liquids have been Muse for generations of great novelists and playwrights including James Joyce, George Bernard Shaw, Ian Fleming and Mark Twain.

wild rhubarb Donegal, faeries in Donegal

Faeries and other magical creatures hide among the giant rhubarb leaves.

Call it a combination of fresh sea-air along the ‘Wild Atlantic Way,’ excellent writing guidance from published authors and a wee drop or two of uisce beatha, some of the inventive stories focused on faeries planting the giant rhubarb to warn humans about how they are polluting and destroying the natural environment around us,” said one of the retreat organizers, delighted with the week’s success. “The writings were really fun to read and bringing such a diverse group of fine international writers here also helps promote this lovely area through literary tourism. One participant summed it up brilliantly when she said, ‘I came to Donegal searching for inspiration, and instead found magic.’  That makes me proud. I know we’ve achieved our goal.

The stories also included a mysterious faerie named after the gigantic rhubarb, called Rhu, who can produce a flame by simply cupping her hands together and a secret, white-washed faery-home hidden among the plants themselves.

Sliabh Liag Distillery, Donegal whiskey

Ian Smith plays his own composition ‘The Holy Hour’ as Sliabh Liag Distillery managing director, James Doherty, and international writers listen intently.

With Donegal having its first distillery for more almost 200 years, the annual ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ – at which I’m proud to be one of the tutors – collaborated with the Sliabh Liag Distillery to create a hearty ‘Céad Míle Fáilte’ for participants.

Taking place at Teac Jack, a popular boutique hotel in Glassagh, and with the distillery’s chief executive James Doherty at the helm, writers from places as diverse as Wyoming, Alaska, Newfoundland, California, Ohio, Wisconsin, Belfast and Ballybofey sipped whiskey cocktails with the surprising flavors of rhubarb (not the infamous rhubarus gigantus variety) and orange.

We want to reclaim part of the lost heritage of Donegal, to replicate the uniqueness of whiskey-making, a skill that was an integral part of life here two centuries ago,” Doherty said, as he described the subtle taste of his company’s ‘Silkie’ brand to his attentive audience.

Not only but guitarist-singer-songwriter Ian Smith entertained guests with some of his very own compositions, one appropriately entitled ‘The Holy Hour,’ about whiskey, that will feature next year in a special musical show he stars in that will tour Germany, entitled ‘Whiskey, You’re The Devil.’

Teac Mhuiris Donegal, An Crann Óg Donegal

Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg serves up a tasty feast for international poets and novelists at the Ireland Writing Retreat.

Bringing even more good cheer, writing retreat participants – most of whom had never been to Donegal before – also enjoyed traditional foods ranging from delicious home-baked breads and scones to carrageen moss and dulse in the traditional thatched cottage ‘Teac Mhuiris’ with panoramic views over Bloody Foreland and the islands of Gola, Inismeain and Umfin. Here, local people, Mairead Uí Dhugáin from An Crann Óg, the Bunbeg community center, her daughter Alanna, experienced seanchaí-historian Antoin MacAodha, Anna Ní Bhroin from Foras na Gaeilge and music teacher, Caitlín Joe Jack, related the history of the cottage, taught basic Irish words and phrases including the meaning of place-names, as well as Irish dance steps in advance of a lively cèilidh that evening at Teac Jack.

The week-long writing retreat also featured a host of other activities including nightly music concerts, a boat trip to Gola Island on ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat’ captained by Sabba Curran and a talk by uncrowned King Eddie Joe McGee, as well as a tour of Glenveagh National Park and Castle.

boat to Gola Donegal, Gola Island Donegal

Captain Sabba Curran of ferry-boat, ‘The Cricket’ alias ‘The Love Boat,’ at Magheragallon Pier with international writers headed for Gola Island.

As for classes, participants completed assignments on many of the excursions they experienced during the week which were then critiqued by published authors and editors, including Anthony Quinn, author of five books, ‘Disappeared,’ ‘Border Angels,’ ‘The Blood Dimmed Tide,’ ‘Blind Arrows,’ and ‘Silence’; Mark Gregory, a forensic word editor, and yours truly. Tuition focused on strengthening key writing skills such as character development, dialogue and importance of landscape.

I was delighted to host a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ highlighting the importance of questions (thus IQ meaning ‘I Question’) and the five journalism Ws – ‘who, what, why, where, when’ with the all-important sixth W, ‘what if,’ in the development of strong plot and character. And to use my recently-published novel ‘Pretty Ugly,’ linking Donegal with New York, Washington and Kansas City, as an illustration of that.

Pretty Ugly a novel, Sean Hillen author, IQ for Creative Writing

No greater joy than being surrounded by friendly, talented writers – except maybe winning the national lottery.

Without public funding of any kind, ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ now in its fourth consecutive year, has gone from success to success, with a second Autumn Writing Retreat taking place late this September.

Advertisements

Howls of Halloween are upon us….

With the spine-chilling howls of Halloween approaching and the door between the living and the dead opening ever so slightly, I’m reminded of midnight hours cutting my teeth on research for a proposed book later published under the title ‘DIGGING FOR DRACULA.

I had been living in Romania for several years, wearing two hats – professor of journalism at the University of Bucharest and foreign correspondent for The Times – when a fax came through from the news desk in London (those were the days before emails).

Halloween gift, book in a coffin

Funky Christmas gift for vampire-lovers! A book-in-a-coffin.

Under the headline ‘First-ever World Congress of Dracula’ were details of an upcoming, week long international event focusing on those strange Long-Toothed creatures that simply refuse to die.

Being from Ireland, the homeland of the famous vampire’s maker, Bram Stoker, I was intrigued, so much so I promptly set off on an adventure – to find out why his classic character created more than a century ago could attract such global fame.

Whitch trial, Transylvania vampires stories

Daily Telegraph, London. I ended up marrying this sexy witch. It was the only way to save her from being burned at the stake. Or worse.

That adventure brought me through the breathtaking landscapes of Transylvania to the princely lair of Vlad the Impaler within the craggy peaks of the Carpathian Mountains; to a seat beside Bram on a cliff-edge in the eastern port of Whitby, England, a place pivotal in the unfolding vampire drama; and to ‘Tinseltown’ Hollywood where Stoker’s creation won immortality on stage and screen.

Along the way, I visited the Mummies of Dublin; the ‘Agony Aunt’ of vampire lovers in New York; voodoo artists in New Orleans; a Los Angeles graveyard filled with larger than life characters; and the world’s largest garlic festival.

On a search for literary truths and the meanings of centuries-old myths, I learned that Celticism might just explain the elusive meaning of the word ‘Dracula’ – ‘droch fhola’ (pronounced ‘druc ula’) meaning ‘bad blood’ in Gaeilge, the native language of Ireland.

Forrest Ackerman science fiction, Los Angeles science fiction museum

Hollywood, California. Forrest Ackerman (left), known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction,’ famous collector of vampire books and movie memorabilia, shows me how vampires trap their prey.

As for the ‘First–ever World Congress of Dracula,’ it attracted many idiosyncratic people from all walks of life – professors, psychologists, writers, historians and teachers from many countries including Japan, France, Canada, Germany and the USA.

Some had their teeth artificially sharpened. Some slept in coffins. One man offered 10,000 dollars for anyone who could bring him a vampire, having arranged doctors in California to verify the find.

Digging for Dracula book, Vincent Hilliard Los Banos

Vincent Hilliard (left) offered 10,000 dollars to anyone who’d bring him a vampire. He lined up some doctors to verify the find. Here he poses in his home in Los Banos California, with Columbia, a Transylvanian visitor.

Those were just some of my experiences. So grasp your garlic and join me on a journey. Prepare to enter the ‘Lovable House of Horror’ and the ‘Land of the Living Dead.