Shipwrecks, puppets and mechanical creatures – opportunities for cultural tourism

An earlier post – Cultural tourism: its time is nigh – highlighted the immense potential for cultural tourism in the Donegal Gaeltacht to help fill the vacuum left by failed government policies, mainly by Údarás na Gaeltachta, to provide jobs and prevent the departure of our dynamic young to foreign shores.

With the pursuit of major manufacturing companies a lost cause mainly due to difficult and expensive transport logistics and call centres being a short-term band-aid, cultural tourism has been an underused weapon in the battle against rising unemployment and severe economic decline in the Gaeltacht.

While some say a minority of people such as language-based entrepreneur Liam Cunningham in Glencolmcille have become tourism millionaires, mainly based on national and international grants with Cunningham perhaps reaping the benefits of his chairmanship of Údarás for over a decade (whether questionable or not, meaning within ethical parameters, is a topic for future discussion), the depth of funding to other local cultural tourism entrepreneurs has been sparse.

The reason, according to Udaras officials, is that cultural tourism doesn’t create long-term jobs. Asked why, officials are at a loss to explain, so what this long-held and somewhat irrational attitude is based on is a matter of pure conjecture, with some critics saying the real reason is unrelated to accepted principles of economic development but rather linked to cronyism, influence peddling and continued support, financial and otherwise, to Fianna Fail, a party that ruled the roost for so long and put certain people in key executive positions.

While the accuracy of this allegation requires further investigation, what is important to note is what other parts of Ireland and beyond have done – and are doing – to reap healthy benefits from committed policies to cultural tourism development and analyze whether the Donegal Gaeltacht has – to put it succinctly – ‘got what it takes.’

At a largely EU-funded conference earlier this year under the auspices of CeangalG and with the catchphrase ‘Selling Our Story,’ speaker after speaker talked about interesting cultural tourism ideas that have produced positive measurable results, including increased job creation. Many of the speakers agreed that key components for such success include ‘identity,’ ‘authenticity’ and ‘memorability.’

In my opinion, the Latin term ‘genius loci’ (spirit of place) best describes what the central element is – the specific nuances of any given place that separate it from the rest of the world.

So, does the Donegal Gaeltacht have what it takes?

In a word, yes!

Cherishing an ancient language that proudly holds its place among the oldest in the known world; with the singing tradition of sean-nós, whose ornamented, rhythmic intimations are an inspirational reminder of the primordial beginnings of Man; and with the area’s unique traditional dance and music, disparate elements of ‘genius loci’ are plentiful. Not to mention the intriguing Celtic legends such as those related to Balor and Lugh, thus the Mount of Lugh (now called Errigal) named after the ancient Sun God.

Having had the privilege over the last 30 years of travelling as a journalist on assignment to many parts of the world, I considered some of the places I’ve visited and successful cultural tourism projects there, projects that have not only strengthened the economic vitality of deprived areas but also uplifted the innate spirit and pride of the local population.

Here are a few, some which might just provide models of excellence for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

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Creative engineering in Nantes, France, has led to economic revival based on cultural tourism.

Nantes, France – Earlier this year, I travelled to this western town in the Pays Loire region to see such a project. Faced with empty industrial estates, local officials had decided to invest in cultural tourism to create jobs using the existing space and infrastructure.

Realizing how watching ships return to this riverside port with exotic cargo from around the world inspired a young Jules Verne to later write science-fiction classics as ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’ and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ the officials embarked on a project that now attracts tens of thousands of visitors annually. Entitled Les Machines de L’Ileand opened in 2007, it is a 21st-century mechanical wonderland consisting of monumental structures including the, ‘Grand Elephant,’ ‘Mantra Ray,’ ‘Sea Snake,’ ‘Heron Tree,’ and ‘World Carousel’ in what is known as the ‘Gallery of Machines’ upon which visitors enjoy adventure rides and experiences. Last year alone, almost 100,000 people rode on the Grand Elephant; 190,000 people visited the gallery and 250,000 the ‘World Carousel.’ Total investment – in various stages – was 17.7 million euro, a sum that was recouped within a few years. In comparison, according to Údarás, Largo Foods received around seven million euro in funding and left the area earlier this year.

Not only did the project increase business revenues, it also created permanent, long-term new jobs in central workshops employing such tradespeople as plumbers, carpenters and engineers. Could a project like this – using local legendary Celtic figures as central subjects – not help deal with the empty industrial spaces throughout west Donegal, while attracting more tourists to the area?

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Puppetry, an age-old tradition in Sicily, attracts tourists and locals alike, providing both entertainment and cultural education.

Palermo, Sicily – Like west Donegal, this rocky island at the toe of Italy has generally been ignored by the central government in Rome. Faced with worsening employment, local officials took matters into their own hands. Seizing on a peculiar and unique vein of cultural heritage dating back hundreds of years to the time of Socrates – puppetry – they created a flourishing tourism attraction that has boosted business and employment.

Opera dei pui’ (puppet theater) has a long tradition in Sicily, reaching its peak around 100 years ago on the island. With support from the Association for Conservation of Popular Traditions, visitors to the downtown Palermo puppet museum can now see hundreds of beautifully designed puppets, their masters’ equipment (mestiere), as well as other memorabilia, and regularly-staged shows involving cultural characters and chivalrous heroes such as Orlando, Rinaldo and Gano di Maganza. So strong has been the resurgence of interest in this long-held tradition, puppet theatre performances – that also play an important educational role in highlighting the island’s history –take place in other parts of Sicily. Again, using local legendary figures and stories, can the Donegal Gaeltacht not avail of a similar cultural tourism initiative? A creative team under the guidance of Kathleen Gallagher has already shown the level of know-how required for such a project.

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Donegal flag flies high over one of the area’s most well-known shipwrecks opposite Ostan Gaoth Dobhair. Many others lie offshore, spanning centuries of history.

Key West, Florida – before it became a hotspot for tourism, this area on the tip of the peninsula was a backward, forgotten place in the 1800s where local fishermen and their families led difficult hand-to-mouth existences. Only when the phrase ‘Wreck Ashore!’ rang out did hope for better things arise. ‘Unloading’ the many ships that ran into difficulty was a chore, but a most rewarding one.

Seizing upon this colourful aspect of the area’s history, local officials decided to create an attraction that would be both entertaining, as well as educational. Thus, the ‘Key West Shipwreck Museum,’ where visitors step back in time to discover Key West’s unique maritime heritage. The museum combines actors, video and actual artefacts from the rediscovery of wrecked vessels such as the Isaac Allerton, which sank in 1856 on the treacherous Florida Keys reef.

Narrator and master wrecker, Asa Tift, and his wrecking crew tell the story of how this unusual industry created livelihoods for the early pioneers of Key West. Visitors can even climb a 65-foot lookout tower in search of wrecks.

West Donegal, with its rich maritime heritage and its record of shipwrecks, including the sinking of Spanish Armada galleons off Tory and Gola Islands plus other vessels, both military from the two world wars and commercial, offers a similar historical backdrop to Key West. What’s to prevent officials funding such a project – except, of course, narrow-minded thinking and lack of specialised business acumen?

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‘Stirring up a Hornet’s Nest?’ Or open public debate on a key issue?

I’ve just finished a radio discussion today on the Shaun Doherty Show on Highland Radio with Udaras board member and Fine Gael local council candidate, John Curran, on the proposed drug and alcohol addiction clinic in Falcarragh in west Donegal.

While I meet with John frequently – and admire what he is accomplishing in the voluntary sector and wish him every success in his upcoming political campaign for local council elections on behalf of Fine Gael – his describing me as “stirring up a hornet’s nest” by bringing to public attention an important project near the main crossroads in Falcarragh was disappointing, especially coming from someone who stated on his Facebook a day ago when launching his campaign, “I have pledged to make no empty promises, all I will say to anyone who has an issue or a suggestion is thank you and that I will try to address your issue if and when I am elected.

After all, this clinic, which is expected to cost hundreds of thousands – perhaps over a million euro – in public money, has important long-term repercussions for the local community in west Donegal, socially, culturally and economically, including:

  • restricted future access to this lovely area for members of the public;
  • perhaps (no guarantee), decent paying jobs;
  • far less money for tourism projects, cultural, arts or others, as promised by John and his fellow board members when appointed two years ago (in a beautiful and inspiring area as west Donegal such clean, environment-enhancing development could be enriching if funded is on a serious scale);
  • added trauma for local clerical abuse victims (unfortunately, the highest rate of such abuse per population is west Donegal) due to the involvement of Catholic Church-operated Cuan Mhuire, the company who will run the clinic, and which is alleged to have allowed such offending priests to say Mass at their centres.

For all of the above reasons, and more, the proposal for this clinic and its ramifications on the local community should be discussed openly. And as often as possible.

Unfortunately, the term ‘stirring up a hornet’s nest’ stated by John seems to echo a sentiment prevailing at Udaras – namely that the less the public knows about how its money is being used the better. A public body, using citizens’ hard-earned money, this economic group still refuses to reveal specific job-creation figures on a company-by-company breakdown of the ones it funds. Or the amount of money paid out from the public purse to its present and former top executives, locally and nationally, in pensions and other benefits.

John mentioned on the Shaun Doherty Show Highland Radio programme less than an hour ago that public information meetings have been held regarding the addiction clinic project. According to people who approached me, this is an erroneous comment and should be withdrawn. If such meetings had taken place, such a project – costing so much money and with such important social ramifications – would have made its way into the public arena, via media reports. Instead, the idea has remained in the realm of rumor and counter rumor and, until the story broke last week with details, might have remained there.

As a journalist and concerned social commentator, I can only do so much to highlight key issues affecting our community. It is important that others speak out (otherwise we cannot completely blame politicians for making bad decisions).

Therefore, if anyone wishes to comment, please do so – either for or against the project – on my blog or on that of other local media such as Donegal Daily, which published the story yesterday), or Highland Radio, which aired the debate today. Or directly to John Curran.

Only by voicing opinions strongly along whichever pathways open to us, can we influence what is happening in our own community. And with local elections coming up soon and campaigns well underway, there seems no better time.