Donegal Gaeltacht community spirit rides high

I was delighted to write this feature piece for the ‘Donegal News’ recently supporting the hard-work, communal spirit and creativity of people in Gaoth Dobhair, Falcarragh and the Rosses in hosting their respective festivals.

For such a small rural area, often there are more diverse cultural activities – dance, theatre, sporting events, concerts, to be name but a few – than in major urban areas.

Delightfully, making choices as to which to attend can be the biggest challenge.

Sean Hillen Donegal gaeltacht, donegal gaeltacht,

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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

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.