Gaoth Dobhair – Leicester City of the GAA

It’s not just the historic football win, brilliant though it is. It’s the wonderful lifting of community spirit it will create.”

Such were the words of Bun na Leaca based Sinn Fein county councilor John Sheamais O’Fearraigh after Gaoth Dobhair’s exciting, extra-time Ulster club football final win over Monaghan’s Scotstown this week.

And events since have proved him right.

Gweedore win in Irish Examiner

Upon returning to Donegal with the coveted trophy, the entire squad have generously given of their free time to share their celebrations, bringing the silver cup to all corners of the community, including the Ionad Lae Gaoth Dobhair local daycare centre, Siopa Mhicí, the ‘Happy Days’ store, Teach Mhicí, and local schools and medical centers.

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Seniors at Ionad Lae Gaoth Dobhair Daycare Centre share celebrations with their gallant footballing heroes.

Support for the team has been terrific, and rising, with the GAA club brimming with celebrations until the wee hours of Sunday morning.

Thousands of people, both here and abroad in other countries, who couldn’t attend the tight, nail-biting game, watched and listened to it on TG4, Raidió na Gaeltachta, Highland Radio. Or any other media outlet they could find on the dial.

Take Sabba Curran, for example.

Crossing the Irish Sea didn’t stop the long-distance, truck-driving Dore man – captain of ‘The Cricket,’ the ferryboat that brings people back and forth from Gola Island – from tuning in.

I was lying in my lorry on the top deck of the Belfast-Cairnryan ferry and had the radio on RnaG in one hand and my app on Highland Radio on the other,” he said. “There was a five second delay so that added even more to the tension.  What a game, eh. Brilliant. The victory has done wonders for the morale of the parish. Everyone’s behind them. They deserve every credit for what they’ve achieved.”

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(photos – left to right) Danielle Ni Earlaigh (Sraith Mairtin), Brendan O’Baoill (Machaire Chlochair), Pat McGarvey (Glassagh), Myra Siddique (Bun na Leaca), Brendan O’Baoill, Jimmy Mhici O’Gallachoir (Sraith Mairtin) and John Ivors (Cnoc Fola) – all helping celebrate historic Gaoth Dobhair’s footballing victory.

Meanwhile, Brendan O’Baoill, whose son, Daire, the hat-trick hero against Crossmaglen in the semi-final, has been doing an outstanding job all week photographing members of the community, be they old, young, male or female, hoisting the cup high. I met him at several places and I could see plainly he was clearly delighted and proud. And rightly so.

Monday morning all talk at the check-out counters at Siopa Mhicí in Gaoth Dobhair – little wonder – focused on THE sporting event.

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Siopa Mhicí manager, Brendan Gallagher with members of his staff stand proudly with the victorious Gaoth Dobhair football players. Family trio. (l to r) Joe, who travelled all the way from New York for the Ulster final, with Paul and Ciara McFadden.

As blonde-haired Jackie Harris, the helpful check-out lady, listened intently, Fanny McGee, a gray-haired woman spoke as expertly as Pat Spillane, Joe Brolly, or any of the other well-paid RTE pundits. “The going was tough, there was no bounce in the ball at all,’ she said, reliving key moments of the game. A man beside her chimed in enthusiastically, “It was nail-biting stuff alright. Some people haven’t recovered yet.”

Baker Miriam Campbell from Meenaniller was checking her freshly-baked scones. Mid-morning and most of the daily supply of 170-plus coconut, raisin, blueberry, raspberry and white chocolate ones gone. “Good absorption material for the liquid celebrations last night at the club,” someone somewhere quipped. Colleague, Anne-Marie McGee from Arduns, glanced over, smiling.

John Sheamais O’Fearraigh Sinn Fein

Councillor John Sheamais O’Fhearraigh from Bun na Leaca shows his support for his local team, proudly wearing the Gaoth Dobhair jersey.

Suddenly, quiet banter rose to a lively buzz. Eyes turned to the front door. Standing there, dressed casually, looking relaxed, were the footballing heroes of Gaoth Dobhair, their prized trophy, the Ulster club championship, held proudly aloft – in Donegal for the first time in 43 years. Quiet-spoken, good-humoured, jostling each other. You’d never have believed they’d battled the day before through a pulsating, extra-time victory in wretched, wet, muddy conditions.

Word spread quickly. A table was set up for the silverware, three gleaming silver trophies – the Ulster Senior Club Cup, the Donegal Division One and the Championship. Mobile phones popped out of pockets. Selfies, family groups, a free-for-all. Players, customers, staff, intermingling, all in rousing celebratory mood.

Store manager, Brendan Gallagher, whose family-owned supermarket is a lynchpin in the community, summed up everyone’s feelings, “It’s a fantastic achievement for all the players, coaches and backroom management. They’ve put a lot of pride back in the parish winning in such a brilliant way. We’re all now hoping we’ll be enjoying a wonderful occasion at Croke Park on Saint Patrick’s Day for the All-Ireland final.

gweedore wins game gaa, sean hillen writer

If football followers be truthful, many wouldn’t have given the team a hope in hell last year of making it to the Ulster final. “But isn’t it great when a team defies the odds, especially when it’s your home team?” someone chipped in. “Gaoth Dobhair’s the Leicester City of the GAA.”

Gearoid McFadden, owner-manager of Teac Jack in Glassagh, was doubly delighted. Two of his bartenders, Seaghan Ferry and Gavin McBride, are in the squad, with the former scoring the winning point. “Absolutely delighted,” he said. “The bar was packed, a huge buzz about the place. It was a riveting game, very tense. This team’s got huge potential.

Máire Graham, 60, from Corveen, recently elected chairperson of Gaoth Dobhair club, one of the few women in such a position within the GAA, said the team’s “incredible performance has brought tremendous positivity to our club in all the multi-faceted activities we do in promoting traditional Irish culture, from football, hurling, camogie, handball and rounders to singing, set dancing, recitation, drama and of, course, the Irish language itself.”

gweedore winners of ulster championship

Can Gaoth Dobhair now become the first-ever Donegal club team to reach the All-Ireland final? “It won’t be for lack of trying,” says county councillor, Sinn Fein’s John Sheamais O’Fearraigh who lives in Bun na Leaca and has been a football coach for many years. “Come mid-February there’ll be a lot of voices hoarse from shouting for them. What has been achieved already is a credit to everyone, manager, coaches and players. There has been a huge drought over the last few years in terms of championships and league wins, so all these people are true history-makers.”

The team’s most devoted young trio –  Paul Joe McFadden, Declan Sailor and Eamon Sweeney – all three an integral part of backroom support, don’t doubt the team will be number one in the nation on March 17. Their motto, ‘We’ll be there!’

And so will many, many more. Cheering wildly. And maybe eating scones by the thousand afterwards.

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Are yoga, thai chai and reiki dreaded Druidic distractions? Is the anti-cervical cancer vaccine, HPV, the Devil’s poison?

Glancing through last Friday’s edition of the ‘Donegal News,’ I was dazzled by the sheer creativity of people from Ireland, (see a particularly interesting article on page 47 focusing on a man who lasted 70 days in prison without food and is now a Doctor in Sociology and a well-known Irish playwright and film and documentary script writer).

It’s as if the artists of every shade throughout Ireland and particularly in my resident county, Donegal – musicians, actors, painters, dancers et al – feel they have a deep, abiding, age-old responsibility to uphold our ancient rich Gael culture, and in doing so, prevent its dilution.

And I don’t mean – wonderful though it is – simply the native folk music and song of the lauded, award-winning Frosses-native Rita Gallagher and Gaoth Dobhair’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh (who play this Thursday at the Balor Arts Centre as part of the Bluestacks Festival).

rita Gallagher, Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh

Winners of TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards.

I mean our vast spread of artistic talent, first brought here to these shores when definitive Celtic traditions arrived from places such as Romania and Gaul (Gallia) in the fourth century B.C.

Then, unlike all other islands, Alice Stopford Green tells us in her work ‘Irish Nationality,’ Ireland, “was circled round with mountains, whose precipitous cliffs rose sheer above the water standing as bulwarks against the immeasurable sea, providing a bulwark – though sadly not an invincible one – against invaders of all kinds. And certainly, helping far-flung places such as Donegal escape foreign domination.” (unlike the Pale of Dublin which followed a completely different tract).

Irish chroniclers tell of a vast Celtic antiquity, with a shadowy line of monarchs reaching back some two thousand years before Christ: legends of lakes springing forth; of lowlands cleared of wood; the appearance of rivers, the making of roads and causeways, the first digging of wells: the making of forts; invasions and battles and plagues.

The Celts or Gaels exalted and encouraged learning in national life. Professors of every school roamed freely here and the warrior’s duty was to protect them. There were periodical exhibitions of everything the people esteemed—democracy, literature, tradition, art, commerce, law, sport, the Druid religion, even rustic buffoonery. The years between one festival and another were spent in serious preparation for the next.

Innovative arts programme at the Balor Arts Center, Ballybofey, Donegal.

The law of the Celts was the law of the people. They never lost their trust in it. They never followed a central authority, for their law needed no such sanction. A multitude of maxims were drawn up to direct the conduct of the people.

While the code was one for the whole race, the administration on the other hand was divided into the widest possible range of self-governing communities, which were bound together in a willing federation. The forces of union were not material but spiritual, and the life of the people consisted not in its military cohesion but in its joint spiritual inheritance—in the union of those who shared the same tradition, the same glorious memory of heroes, the same unquestioned law, and the same pride of literature.

So deeply was their importance felt, the Irish have kept these tradition diligently, and even in the darkest times of our history, down to the 17th century, still gathered to ‘meetings on hills’ to exercise their law and hear their learned men.

Not-to-be-missed performer.

So please think of this rich vein of cultural tradition that we’ve inherited when you read this week about the wealth of artistic talent on display here in Donegal and throughout Ireland – the multi-talented Pat Kinevane from Temple Bar-based Fishamble enacting not one but three separate one-man plays beginning this Friday with ‘Forgotten,’ at An Grianan in Letterkenny, a fine venue under the organization of Patricia McBride, Helene McMenamin, Daithi Ramsay and other staff members; Fishamble’s literary officer, Gavin Kostick, hosting playwriting masterclasses this Saturday there; the Regional Cultural Centre in Letterkenny, under the direction of Shaun Hannigan, presenting a feast of autumn concerts, kicking-off with the duet of Eliza Carty and Tim Eriksen this Friday evening; and ‘The Ghostlight Sessions’ at the Balor Arts Centre in Ballybofey tonight, an evening of original music curated by Nikki Pollock (Mojo Gogo) and Dean Maywood and featuring ‘In Their Thousands’ and ‘Without Willow.’

Not to mention ‘The Donegal Voices’ this Friday in Ballyshannon performing Handel’s magnificent ‘Coronation Anthems’ and the ‘Hallelujah Chorus.’ Many of the performances are funded by the Donegal County Council/An Comhairle Ealaion.

First Lady of Celtic music – Donegal-born Moya Brennan.

And if you missed Moya Brennan of Clannad performing a few days ago with her husband, Tim, daughter Aisling and son Paul, in Teac Leo in Crolly, in support of the Inishowen Floods Fund, you’ll surely get the chance again to hear this brilliantly talented family in the future. The same goes for ‘Shoot The Gear,’ a fine piece of theater with a fishing-community based theme facilitated by the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organization, written by An Grianan Theatre artist-in-residence, Guy Le Jeune, and performed by a cast of local actors, singers and musicians including Fionn Robinson, Louise Conaghan, Orlaith Gilchreest and Ronan Carr.

Speaking of music, what a terrific accomplishment by Donegal Music Education Partnership (DMEP) manager, Martin McGinley, and his team, including tutor and pianist, Ellen Quinn, Maureen Fryer-Kelsey and James Sarsteiner , with help from Marianne Lynch of Donegal County Council Library Services in putting together a new online library of more than 1,500 musical items that the public can easily access.

Martin McGinley (left) – Journalist, editor, fiddle player par excellence, now manager of Donegal Music Education Partnership.

However, as we rightly attempt to emulate our rich, multi-layered Celtic past, I would issue a sharp warning. While the keystone of our proud ancestors’ beliefs was based on the premise of democracy, each individual having a fair say, let us beware.

The Catholic Church – so long dominant in Irish society after vanquishing Druidic life, more so in rural Irish society – must now learn to accept – in turn – its rapidly changing place. And that place is no longer its own self-styled, unquestioning right to direct all community groups, especially on sensitive matters of finance. Too often have I heard complaints here in the Donegal Gaeltacht and elsewhere in Ireland about frocked priests and bishops sitting at the heads of tables, making vital decisions, often cunningly in an underhand way ahead of the formal committee meetings, on where vital monies should go. And not always to the benefit of the community as a whole – but to the church in particular.

My own area, Cnoc Fola, has just received a grant of 40,000 euro from Fine Gael Minister Joe McHugh. Considering the rather incestuous relationship between the Catholic Church and successive ruling political parties in Ireland – Fianna Fail and Fine Gael – is it reasonable for me to expect there is no payback expected, from both church and state, for this money, in terms of votes and support?

Is it also reasonable for me to trust the word of men in long black coats who describe yoga, thai chai and reiki as activities that ‘endanger our souls’ and who also discourage women from taking the HPV vaccine against cervical cancer, saying it simply encourages widespread promiscuity and immorality? And who move child abusing clergy from parish to parish?

Some months ago in a previous blog, I invited a well-known, rather affable west Donegal Gaeltacht priest, Brian O’Fearraigh, to join community members in our weekly yoga sessions at An Crann Og in Gaoth Dobhair. He hasn’t made an appearance yet. My offer is still open. He’d receive a warm ‘Cead Mile Failte’ from very friendly people there.

What do these seemingly unrelated issues – yoga, thai chai, reiki and the HPV vaccine – have in common, anyway? Freedom of mind and body, of course. And such displays of individual identity are perceived as hot, red-light dangers by most major corporation and institutions, especially the more conservative ones.
Wait for it, it’ll be swimming, cycling, swing dancing and jazz next. Oh, I forgot, the latter was already forbidden by the Church to all God-fearing people some years ago.

Does that mean God-loving people can enjoy such relaxing music? Even if they are Druids, Pagans, atheists, agnostics or pantheists and their God is Mother Nature herself?

Notes 

Hope you like my latest published novel, the suspense Pretty Ugly, linking Donegal and other parts of Ireland, including Belfast, with the US cities of Boston, New York, Kansas City and Washington DC.

Interested in creative writing? A novel? Biographical memoir? Play or movie script? See Ireland Writing Retreat

Sea of Santas parade through Dungloe protesting government water charges

Ignoring doomsayers who said very few would turn out for a protest on a damp Saturday afternoon just before Christmas, organisers of an anti-water-charge protest in Dungloe, Donegal placed trust in the will of the people and deservedly enjoyed even greater success than they expected.

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Independent local councilor Michael Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig, Thomas Pringle Independent TD, social activist Brigid O’Donnell and all those organizing the enduring ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ campaign stood on a rise opposite the Garda Station in Dungloe and watched proudly as a lively group of several hundred people marched determinedly through the town centre.

Many wearing decorative Santa hats – some even dressed in the Bearded Fellas’s full bright-red regalia – the marchers called out the names of those TDs who voted in favor of the water charges, including Donegal TDs Joe McHugh and Dinny McGinley, and encouraged everyone to face up to them and not pay.

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Pringle said his home had been metered but added that he would not pay the bills when they arrived next year due to their unfairness.

“It is very gratifying to see so many people here so close to Christmas, it bodes well for the success of this campaign,” he said addressing the crowd. “We will fight this throughout the coming year, and the year after if we have to.”

Mac Giolla Easbuig, who has put himself in the forefront of the protest by blocking workmen trying to install the meters locally, said, “Even if they go ahead and install meters, we all have the choice whether to pay or not. Boycott is a long-held tradition in Ireland and by doing that we can frustrate a government that continues to impose unfair taxes, hitting those who can least afford them.”

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Starting from Ostan na Rosann, the marchers, young and old alike, with children holding parents’ hands, walked to the top of the main street, past the library, then along to Lidl’s supermarket and back again, before stopping to hear a number of speakers, including O’Donnell, who had called for the protest and who’s birthday it was that same day.

For her efforts, she was greeted by warm applause and an impromptu chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ from all those gathered.

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As we move into a New Year, we all nourish the hope of better things ahead. But sometimes hope is not enough. There has to be real discussion and there has to be real action. That’s why my wife and I showed our solidarity and marched with so many other people who turned out on a cold, damp day this past weekend when they could so easily have stayed snug at home beside a warm fire.

In passing so many stealth taxes since it came into power and failing to raise a wealth tax or deal properly with cronyism and the banker-cum-Irish-Water-bonus mentality, the government relied on people’s apathy.

But they severely underestimated the depth of feeling of the electorate and have paid a hefty price for that failure thus far. If opinion polls are anything to go by, they’ll pay an even bigger price when national elections come round again – unless they start doing what they promised to do – to create a more equitable society in Ireland than there has been in generations.

Let’s hope 2015 proves to be a momentous watershed in this regard, and certainly a big improvement over this past year.

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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