Half million euro missing in Donegal, 250 euro returned

Half a million euro would be considered a miraculous life-saver by Mary, the tireless community worker struggling on behalf of cancer patients from Donegal who can barely afford the hefty cost of travel to Galway for specialised treatments.

If the hardworking managers of local community centres in the Donegal Gaeltacht received half a million euro, they could hire additional full-time Irish, and English-language, staff for several years and expand exponentially their range of services and activities in support of local people. 

If Amharclann, the Irish-language theatre in Bunbeg, received half a million euro, it could run an exciting cultural programme of dance, music, cinematic and theatrical performances for the next five years.

Not to mention how hard-pressed individual artists and musicians bereft of gigs due to Covid could use that money. Or indeed the Donegal office of Irish-language organisation, Foras na Gaeilge, whose local members help keep our native language alive here. And as for those unfortunate people whose homes and businesses have been destroyed by mica ….

But none of these groups have the luxury of half a million euro. 

Such a notion would be considered pure and utter fantasy, especially in the hard financial times in which we now live. 

Yet that is about the sum of money former Donegal Fianna Fail Senator, Brian O’Donnell, from Falcarragh in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht, has just wasted. ‘Snatched brutally, selfishly and greedily’ some are saying, from the public purse. Others use the term ‘stolen,’ but in this article I wish to be diplomatic.

How did he do this?

Ironically, over the Irish language.

O’Donnell was caught taking money from the public purse by duplicating travel and subsistence expenses as both board member of Irish-language economic group, Údarás na Gaeltachta, and Donegal County Council. 

The accusations – and this beggars belief – investigated by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) – was that it would have been impossible for him to have been in two different parts of the country at exactly the same time, at two different conferences. 

And there I thought teleportation – where matter is de-materialised at one place and recreated instantly at another – happened only in science-fiction movies and fantasy comics.

If that wasn’t enough, the former Fianna Fail Senator then cowardly left the scene of an accident while driving his car in a drunken state.

But that’s only the beginning of the saga.

O’Donnell, with the aid of well-paid lawyers, fought the accusations against him, not on the basis of whether they were right or wrong, true or false, but on the simple basis that the cases should be heard as Gaeilge (in Irish) not English. The fact that both languages are official languages of the Republic of Ireland didn’t matter a damn to him, nor them. Nor the eventual cost to ordinary Irish citizens, including those unfortunate people suffering from cancer.

The rest of the story is spread across years of newsprint.

After deploying numerous tactics to delay the ‘claims investigation’ many times, he then decided to do the same to the ‘leaving the scene of an accident’ investigation, not once but a total of 20 times.

As a result, the total bill to the ordinary Irishman, woman and child has been estimated at around – yes, you’ve guessed it – half a million euro, the amount the board of trustees of Amharclann, Donegal’s proud Irish-language theatre, the hardworking staff of the county’s community centres and the many severely sick people – all dream of having to help them.

In the meantime, craftily devising his delaying tactics, which eventually spanned a massive eight years, did O’Donnell quietly planned his ‘get-out-of-jail card’ – his emigration to Canada? In fact, O’Donnell being found guilty could perhaps have led to a short prison sentence and would have prevented him emigrating to Canada. And certainly would have prevented him getting a Canadian driving license.

Was his delaying tactics also related to avoidance of his share of the legal costs? For example, I’ve been trying to find out if he ever paid a legal bill placed upon him by three judges who threw out of court his claim that the SIPO was not entitled to investigate his duplicitous behaviour because, he claimed, the allegations arose from ‘an anonymous complaint by a member of the public.’ 

I’d like to know not only if Mr. O’Donnell has paid his full legal bill but how much it was. If Mr O’Donnell is reading this, please get in touch. It’s only fair to hear his side of the story. And transparency is something we all should strive for.

Mysteriously the court hearing that finally put an end to one of the most ludicrous and wasteful cases in Irish legal history, almost went under the radar earlier this month, slipped quietly and quickly onto the docket of a mundane court sitting.

How did this happen? Donegal media said simply that, “according to court papers.. O’Donnell’s case was not due to be heard until the Wednesday after during a sitting  of Falcarragh District Court.” That’s when his (O’Donnell’s) solicitor, Sean Cannon, “brought the matter up with Judge Paul Kelly …during a family law sitting of Letterkenny District Court.” And the judge conveniently and quickly moved the case forward.

‘Brought the matter matter up?’ What the hell does that mean? And does such a serious case merit being in a sitting on family law? The mind boggles.

And this Judge Paul Kelly? Who is he? Was he appointed under a previous Fianna Fail government? Does it look like it from this article? But then again, that doesn’t matter, surely. After all, the Irish legal system is separate from the political one, isn’t it?

Though, as we well know, it is not unknown in Ireland for political favours and indeed, brown envelopes, or both, to pass hands.

The result of the long-delayed case: a ridiculously low fine, in my opinion, of 250 euro for charges of drunken driving leaving the scene of an accident and providing misinformation the police. I dare you to find any court case where such a laughable decision has been made in such a serious case. 

As for the short ban from driving, does it really matter? O’Donnell is sitting pretty in another country. Did an infamous Irish ‘brown envelope’ pass hands to facilitate this convenient legal accommodation in Letterkenny? No-one knows, and unfortunately no-one will probably ever know. Is this just an example of the old adage, ‘there’s a law for the ordinary working citizen but a very different one for the elite, well-connected in Irish society?’ 

So, while O’Donnell enjoys his new life in Quebec, Irish men, women and children in his very own constituency in the heart of the Donegal Gaeltacht continue to struggle to make ends meet, people continue to suffer pain and hardship, some desperately trying to raise enough money to help them avail of specialised life-saving cancer treatments. And young, talented teachers from the Donegal Gaeltacht, and other parts of the county, are forced to go abroad, to places like Quatar in the Middle East, because there’s no money to employ them here at home.

Is this called ‘fairness’ in Ireland today? 

Among all this misconduct (there are stronger words to describe O’Donnell’s behaviour), there are two other guilty parties that should not escape blame and require stronger scrutiny by the public at large and by themselves. 

At the very least, both Údarás na Gaeltachta and Donegal Council obviously urgently require a proper Code of Practice for Good Governance. And, more importantly, to enforce it. Want to know more about the failings of Údarás na Gaeltachta, an organisation that receives tens of millions of euro from the public purse every year? Read more here. Has it cleaned up its act since then? Time will tell.

There’s little anyone can do now about the regrettable situation surrounding the O’Donnell controversy, except two things.

Firstly, as a citizen you have the right to appeal to the relevant authorities about a court decision you consider overly-lenient and unfair and to have the case reviewed. One place to start is writing to the Complaints Department of the Law Society of Ireland at complaints@lsra.iethe

Then the Judicial Conduct Committee established by The Judicial Council recently. You can write a short email to: info@judicialcouncil.ie You can ask to remain anonymous in both instances. It’s time to stand up and speak out, don’t you think?

I have already sent a complaint about Judge Paul Kelly’s decision as I consider a 250 euro fine to be utterly ridiculous and a 3-year driving ban to be insignificant, considering that Mr. O’Donnell can simply come to Ireland in the intervening years and drive with no problems using a Canadian driving license I presume he will obtain quite easily, thus posing a danger yet again to ordinary people on our roads. On both sides of the Atlantic.  

Secondly, when election time comes round, and it will come quicker than you think, consider carefully which political party and candidates you vote for. Is it not better to avoid the Brian O’Donnells of this world and choose others with a much greater sense of decency and honesty? 

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Traditional Irish group Arcanadh woos and wins hearts of audience

Another cultural entertainment success for Amharclann

What a terrific cultural contribution this historic theatre provides not just for Bunbeg, not just for the Gaeltacht, not just for Donegal but for all-Ireland, north and south.

world itineraries

by Sean Hillen

Six musicians-singers-songwriters with such a wealth of talent it seems blatantly unfair to the rest of us mere mortals – that sums up Irish-group, Arcanadh, which played to an enthusiastic audience at historic Amharclann theater, Bunbeg, northwest Donegal, Ireland this week.

Here I must admit my bias.

In a rare moment of wisdom, I invited this terrific group to tour Romania when I launched the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in that former-Communist country. It was a decision I’ve never regretted.

The result more than 10 years ago was the same as that at Amharclann 72-hours ago – a boisterous appeal for more at the end and an appreciative standing ovation after their final encore.

Members of Arcanadh have known each other for more than twenty years and this is reflected in their smooth light-hearted banter off-song and their seamless harmonies on-song. Their passion for their…

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Shit-smeared walls and degrading bum searches

Sinn Fein hosts fascinating ‘Living History’ talk on the 1981 hunger strikes
Organized by the Sinn Fein cumann in Cloughaneely, an engrossing talk by former Irish Republican prisoners, Danny Morrison and Breige Brownlee took place at The Yard, Falcarragh, Donegal this weekend as a ‘Living History’ event about the tragic 1981 hunger strikes.
Focusing on the deaths of 10 young men 35 years ago in the H-blocks (it’s shocking to think it was so long ago), the two speakers captivated their audience with their personal, graphic accounts of life behind bars during one of northern Ireland’s most turbulent eras and of the awful circumstances that led to those brave men giving up their lives in such an agonizing way to achieve political status. The event also featured screening of the documentary, “The Blanketmen.’ 
In face of mind-numbing prison conditions including humiliating bum searches and other abuse at the hands of prison officers and the awful stench of shit-smeared walls as part of the ‘no blanket-dirty protest,’ one had to marvel (regardless of political views) at the absolute resilience of this body of women and men enduring years of confinement, many incarcerated without trial, resolutely united in a common cause – the reunification of Ireland.

One also has to admire their abiding sense of humor – something not easy to muster in such despairing circumstances – that helped Irish Republican prisoners deal with the dark, depressing moments that must have visited them often in their cells, especially with ‘screws’ dragging them into toilets to shear off their hair and wash them in freezing cold water or when they heard about the slow deaths of their comrades, the first being Bobby Sands on the 66th day of his hunger strike.
Brownlee talked about life in Armagh prison, with both pathos and humor, about how women there reacted supportively to events in the H-blocks and were determined to show a united front to the authorities, especially as one of the women was partner to a hunger striker. “It was an awful time, for all of us, but we knew we couldn’t let the men down,” she recalled.
At times, Brownlee added humor to her recollections, saying, ‘with my luck, I was the first person needing to go to the toilet after we women decided to join the dirty protest. It wasn’t easy to wipe it (her own shit) all over the walls of my cell but someone had given me a bottle of expensive perfume as a present so I sprayed it everywhere afterwards. It stunk to high heaven, the perfume more than the poo.” She also talked about how, having gotten used to wiping their shit on the walls, she and her comrades would create ‘masterpieces’ of art, Sistine Chapel- Michelangelo-style, then admired and laughed about each other’s artistry, or lack thereof. “It helped ease the terrible tension and stress we were all facing and helped keep up our morale,” she explained. Brownlee is now working in support of diverse community projects.

Morrison, who was public relations director for Sinn Fein and editor of ‘An Phoblacht’ newspaper and is now an author and creative writing coach (he was guest trainer and speaker at northwest Donegal’s annual Ireland Writing Retreat) talked in detail about the reasons for the prison protests and how they developed. He offered powerful insights into the detailed discussions that took place among prisoners on the ‘inside’ and their comrades outside the H-blocks, as well as negotiations with various bodies, including the British Government and various peace, justice and human rights groups such as the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace.
As the only leading Irish Republican allowed into the prison to talk to the hunger strikers, the Falls Road man painted a striking picture of himself seated among six or seven of the hunger strikers – even pointing in the air to where each person was positioned around him in the prison hospital, including one, Joe McDonnell, in a wheelchair as he explained how negotiations on the prisoners’ demands were progressing. It must have been unenviable, utterly heart-breaking position for him to be in, seeing his friends’ bodies ravaged by hunger and sickness, some with mere days to live. Unfortunately, most of those men listening to him in that room, giving their views, would die. “To my mind, those Irish hunger strikers were just as heroic as the Irish leaders who died in 1916,” Morrison said.
Reflecting on how some people compare (unfairly in his view) the IRA of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to the rebels of 1916, he added, “If Republican leaders one hundred years ago had Semtex, they’d have used it, if they’d had cars that could be used as bombs, they’d have used them too,” he said.
I agree. To my mind, such unfair commentary from people, which we also hear often from supposedly intelligent commentators on national airwaves and in the print media, reflects a classic case of what I term ‘moral anesthesiology of time.’ That’s the main reason why Michael Collins is considered a hero yet Gerry Adams is demonized by some. War is war is war, awful as it is always is.

Living in Andersonstown then (though born in Ballymurphy) and just beginning my journalism career, I remember vividly the night Bobby Sands died. While working full-time on minor issues for Belfast Telegraph newspapers, I was also covering the hunger strikes for international newspapers in Australia and the US. Hearing the crash of bin-lids being banged on pavements outside my door in the early hours of that fateful May 5th morning, I knew it meant only one thing – the death of the 27-year-old Twinbrook man. I recall jumping out of bed, getting dressed and rushing down the Falls Road and an American columnist for the New York ‘Daily News’ stepping out in front of me outside the former Lake Glen Hotel asking if he could come with me to ‘where the action was.’ Later, pushed up against a wall near the Royal Victoria Hospital for a body search by a British Army snatch squad, we were told of ‘burning barricades and snipers on roofs’ and warned we’d be ‘taking our lives in our hands’ if we went on.
We ignored the warning, crouched close to the wall and made our way to the makeshift barricade at the junction of the Grosvenor and Falls Roads, filing our separate articles for newspapers after dawn. But within 48-hours I was receiving trans-Atlantic telephone calls at the Telegraph’s small Carrickfergus office where I worked (not the safest place in the world then for an Irish nationalist to be receiving such calls) from major newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, from well-known writers as Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, asking if I was with the columnist that night and what exactly had happened.
Seemingly, the inexperienced columnist had made up stories – not just that we had both heard soldiers saying words like ‘Don’t waste bullets. Aim for the head’ (which I hadn’t) but even naming a regiment and a particular soldier that were not even operating in the North at that time. Such inaccurate reporting was used as propaganda by the British media, especially the ‘red-tops’ – led by the Express Mirror, Mail and Sun – which tried to spin this reporter’s ‘figments of imagination’ to claim other reporters’ articles sympathetic to the Irish Republican cause were also based on lies. It made the gargantuan efforts by an overworked and exhausted Morrison and his staff in the Sinn Fein press office even more difficult, especially as they were already faced with such anti-Republican reporters as Chris Ryder of The Sunday Times and a ranting sensationalist Kate Adie of the BBC who Morrison said at the Falcarragh event, quizzed him mere hours after Sands’ passing about how he felt about ‘starving his friend to death.’
I also recall clearly making my way up the road from my Andersonstown home to that of Bobby Sands in Twinbrook for the wake and, with a heavy heart, seeing him laid out his coffin in the living room, then a few days later joining the tens of thousands of mourners who walked solemnly behind the cortege the few miles to Milltown Cemetery.   

Pearse Doherty, Breige Brownlee, Danny Morisson

(l to r) Pearse Doherty TD, Breige Brownlee, Tommy Francis and Danny Morrison at Saturday’s ‘Living History’ event at ‘The Yard’ Community Centre, Falcarragh. (Photo By Columbia Hillen).

In conclusion, the idea of ‘Living History’ events such as the one this weekend in west Donegal, chaired by Tommy Francis with fine organization by Eamon Jackson, his wife Eilis, and input by members of the Sinn Fein members including James Woods, is an excellent one. Wherever possible, we should have people involved in pivotal events in our nation’s history speak out about their experiences. It is a rare opportunity. This particular one on the 1981 Hunger Strikes, an event that attracted worldwide attention, was especially riveting and enlightening.
“With the hunger strikes now a topic on school curriculums, it was also an opportunity for young people to learn about specific aspects of our history straight from the mouths of those who were intricately involved and who are still alive to tell us what happened,” said Jackson.  
It is my fervent hope that such community events will also encourage more Irish people to openly discuss political ideas and electoral choices. Having had the good fortune to have lived in other countries, particularly the United States, I remain disappointed by the lack of lively, open political discussion among ordinary Irish people about the reasons for their choice of candidates. The longer Ireland remains a relatively closed society where people consider talking about their voting choice as akin to discussing their most intimate sex secrets, the longer corruption will continue and unsuitable leaders remain in the higher echelons of our government and civil service. We’ll all simply remain paralyzed in a time loop, with the same old ideas, the same parties, ruling the roost.
And just look what that attitude has cost us already.