In picturesque Mountcharles on a crisp July morning, former Fine Gael politician, Colm Gallagher, was buried with an attendance that came from having been a political mover and shaker for years, the sort of figure that brought two national party conferences to the area. Former ministers, old Council colleagues and a lifetime of contacts mixed with local people coming to pay their respects. In politics, it was a suitable ending to a long and distinguished career. It defied Enoch Powell’s infamous adage that ‘all political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs’.
His death reminded me of the photograph above of him in his prime back in 1982 when he was Chairman of Donegal County Council and the VEC and about to open the Abbey Vocational School in Donegal Town. Rounding the corner from the Ballyshannon Road facing the main building itself, all of the dignitaries in the picture are in good form as they share a joke. Handsome, confident, well-built men from the north west of Ireland. Colm, with Danny Ocean-like insouciance, leads the charge with a swaggering Clement Coughlan on the left; think Reservoir Dogs meets Ocean’s Eleven with a bit of Bracken thrown in for good measure.
1960′s Ocean’s Eleven cast.
Right beside them are a number of female students from the town – a deadpan Elaine Curristian, an enquiring Maria McHugh and a giddy Kathy Breslin, the cause of the men’s mirth I reckon as she’d have known them all from time served in the nearby family-owned Abbey Hotel, somewhat ironically as you’ll soon read. I’d reason to go looking for the photo recently when Kathy turned 50 and it served as the cover of the birthday card I sent her. Beyond its comedic value, its richness as a portal to another time and its historical redolence struck me. This was one hell of a photo.
It captured a big moment in the life of the Donegal Bay area; finally, after years of prefabs and delays, the opening of a brand spanking new school for a catchment area as far south as Ballintra, out to Barnesmore and all the way to Inver was happening and this was that far off day. All things considered, as a politician, this was as good as it got and they were rightly basking in the moment on the home straight to the new school, a sunny day full of celebration, of bunting, speeches and photographs, of knowing that this was the sort of milestone that people remember you for at the ballot box.
Groove Armada: play it loud and proud.
From the left, we have fixer and Fianna Fail apparatchik, Andy Brogan, Deputy Clement Coughlan, Minister Martin O’Donoghue, Bernard Kelly, one of the well-known Kelly clan and Cathaoireleach Colm Gallagher. July 2018 saw the passing of Colm Gallagher and Professor O’Donoghue leaving Bernard as the last men standing. In terms of ‘numbers being up’, O’Donoghue’s short six month tenure as Minister of Education had just over a month to run before being unceremoniously sacked by Charlie Haughey on the 6th of October 1982.
With the country on its knees, this opening was definitely one of the better days of his ministry. Despite being probably the best qualified person to hold the office since the State was founded, he was to lose out on purely political grounds. O’Donoghue was from the pesky anti-Haughey wing of the Fianna Fail party. Along with Dessie O’Malley and Bobby Molloy, they had had just about enough of Charlie’s GUBU shenanigans in the preceding months. Problem was that Charlie was tired of their antics too and out on his ear he went with Dessie from the Cabinet.
Unbeknownst to all protagonists in the photo, this picture serves as the calm before the storm. On the surface, it appears as a big day in a provincial town, but it also stands as a pivotal picture from the summer of 1982, weeks after Italy’s win at the World Cup and just days before Seamus Darby’s famous goal in the All Ireland final, a photo where two of its participants would go on to play an indirect role in recent Irish history. By the following Spring, there’d be a new government, the third in eighteen months and the protagonists’ regrouping was in considerably more sombre circumstances; a political life cut off in midstream, but not at a happy juncture.
Kingdom conquerer: winning by a point.
Keith Duggan in a 2009 Irish Times interview with Mary Coughlan encapsulated what came to pass: -
In order to understand the fatalistic nature of Mary Coughlan’s rise, you have to go back to a cold February morning a quarter of a century ago when, strangely, the Dublin establishment came to Frosses. The occasion was for the funeral of her uncle, Clement Coughlan. The TD was on his way to the Dáil when the familiar Irish tragedy struck: a bad stretch of road down the Midlands, a lorry rumbling the other way. His niece was a boarder in the Ursuline convent in Sligo when the news broke that Monday lunchtime – February 1st, 1983.
The previous weekend, she had been out running the roads and had bumped into her uncle. “He was the last man on earth you ever wanted to run with because he was seriously athletic. You knew when he was under pressure because that is when he went running. He went for a huge run that day – he ran to the port in Inver and swam across. I left his clothes down at the beach so he could run up home again. That was the last time I saw Clement.”
Although she was a member of Ógra Fianna Fáil, her uncle’s death was her first up-close exposure to the tricky machinations of Irish politics. The graveside mourners read now like a roll-call of the lions of late 20th-century Irish politics. The schoolgirl was present when the then taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, called into the house to pay his respects to James Coughlan, her grandfather. “I can still see Clement in the casket. It is funny how it comes back.”
Uno duce, una voce.
Dick Spring was tánaiste. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party was there en masse: Charles Haughey, Ray Burke, Ber Cowan, Pádraig Flynn, Bertie Ahern – the usual suspects. To deepen the intrigue, the party was engaged in one of its periodic leadership putsches against Haughey and it was reported that the TDs stood around the graveside in strategic alliance. The funeral lunch was held in the Abbey hotel in Donegal town, owned by Dom Breslin, an uncle on her mother’s side.”We were in the hotel for about an hour and a half when we discovered that Charlie had held a parliamentary meeting upstairs about these moves to oust him. And that was the end of the disturbances – for a while. But Clement, he was young. Only 40. They were only after bringing home a new baby, Alena – their seventh child. There was no life insurance there either. Since Clement was killed, it has been made compulsory that all Dáil members have to have life insurance. They never had any. It was ridiculous. There was a lot of chat then about whether Clement was for or against getting rid of Haughey. But who knows? Clement was his own man.’
They say all politics is local. The story of the Gillespie sisters from Bunbeg and Haughey’s kicking Coughlan’s concerns of their plight into the long grass may give a hint of what might have played out, but then again, ‘who knows?’ as the former Tánaiste stated. What is known is that prior to Clement’s sudden death, most agree that Haughey was certain to lose that no confidence vote. The funeral bought him time and ever resourceful, Charlie made the most of it and lived to fight another day. ‘Opportunity often comes disguised in the form of misfortune, or temporary defeat’ wrote Napoleon Hill. In the week that saw Shergar disappear, Haughey was being made an offer from the Gods that he couldn’t refuse. After the woeful concatenation of events from the GUBU days of ’82, Haughey didn’t need to think twice on what to do here.
Eventually the chickens came home to roost for Haughey with O’Donoghue and his ilk settling scores as the Progressive Democrats years later. For their continued support as governmental partners, they forced him to sack his Tánaiste, Brian Lenihan Senior, during the Presidential election of 1990 and when his erstwhile Justice Minister, Sean Doherty, claimed on Nighthawks that Haughey knew all along about the phone taping from those heady GUBU days of 1982, his own political ‘number was up’. Haughey’s political demise was less the service sentiment from Othello and more the detritus of Enoch Powell’s forecast in nature. Phone tapping, bully boy tactics and doing backroom deals at someone’s funeral sound like the nefarious deeds of Francis Underwood, but in Haughey’s world, it was par for the course. Bookending the poultry motif, a celebrated Laghey man chucked an egg from 50 feet and it hit Haughey slap bang on the face around about that time – a portent of things to come?
Et tu, Seanie?
Take note of the ‘Road Warriors’ in the background. This too was as good as it got for the local students – like some giant game of Pinball, they’d endured years of traipsing around eight venues in the town to get an education. Eight: Ard Scoil na gCeithre Máistri, The Technical School, the Clubrooms at Water Street, The Pavesi Ballroom/St. John Bosco Centre, at basement rooms in the Methodist Church, rooms at the Presbyterian Church, the Four Masters Cinema rooms and also at a small garage on the Clar Road. Like the nearby golf course in Narin with cows on the fairways of Farmer Boyle’s lands, it is another reminder that those were different times.
No more nomadic wanderings – this was the day when the State finally gave them a school that wouldn’t mean a 10 minute hike between Maths and English. 10 minutes by the time stop offs in Eileen’s, Uncle Larry’s, Pearly’s, Sally’s, Quinn’s, Mullin’s and The Scotsman were taken into account. How they’d a tooth left in their head is anyone’s guess. Back then, they could even buy single cigarettes! Gaming, such as the term could be used back then, was confined to the likes of Centipede or Pacman in Paul’s or Duffy’s; Play Stations and mobile phones were far off concepts and style was in short supply as those skirts will confirm. Teens were automatically programmed to retain and remember details, be it song lyrics or cool facts about that new DeLorean in Belfast because Google and broadband were years away. And yet with ‘The Eye of Tiger’ and ‘Come on Eileen‘ as the big tunes of the summer and E.T. and Bladerunner on in the local cinema, they were part of a year, and in time a decade, that is now regarded with nostalgic envy and wonder.
If you remember these, you’re ancient!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: for every chart-topping ‘Don’t you want me, baby?, ”Do you really want to hurt me?‘ or ‘A town called Malice‘ there was a ‘Seven Tears‘, ‘I’ve never been to me‘ and a ‘Save your love‘ back in ’82. Never-ending electioneering, Scalextric, the triumphant Ollie Campbell, the gorgeous Morgan Fairchild, the unstoppable Hurricane Higgins, First Blood, Beirut, Dig Dug, Kids from Fame, Knight Rider, The Black Adder, CND, Solidarity, Thriller, the ‘Big Snow‘, the Stones at Slane, the dire Duskeys, Princess Grace’s death, the first sighting of Wham!, the last sighting of ABBA, the swirling, curling list goes on in recalling that tumultuous year.
The photographer was an art teacher at the school, one Mr. Seoirse O’Dochartaigh. Seoirse felt the brunt of politics, well school politics at any rate. With some clear differences between himself and then headmaster, J.J. Harvey, Seoirse took early retirement and has flourished since in Inishowen as a painter, writer, musician, researcher, genealogist and general polymath. He helped me no end as the director of a radio series up there. Away from JJ’s dour gaze, the man thrived; what you might call the ‘Seoirse Redemption’.
That he had the eye to see that moment coming along is no real surprise. A good photograph captures a moment that is gone forever, one that is impossible to reproduce. In that fleeting nano-second, those suave gents, as well as Kathy and co., have been frozen in time in their prime. Against the backdrop of high tensions across the border some 13 miles away, of the Falklands some 13,000 miles away, a host of memories and tunes come flooding back; we look at that photo now with hindsight in assessing its place, its time, its people. Back then it was just men laughing and strolling on a sunny day. As Warhol said, ‘the best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do’.
The strollers’ view.
JW, Class of ’88.
About June 2015, a man asked me if I’d allow Star Wars to be filmed in my back garden. Well less a garden and more like 55 acres of scrubland at the most northerly tip of Ireland. Now he didn’t say he was from Disney, nor did he say he was filming Star Wars in Malin Head, it was more a case of joining the dots and playing along with the tacit understanding and what every local already knew. It got to the point where it would have been plain rude to talk about what was really going down. So no, the ‘S’ and ‘W’ words were never uttered during our correspondence, which might seem a bit strange, but he knew and I knew and sure wasn’t that enough? A sort of mini Jedi mind trick you could say or less fancifully, the result of some onerous confidentiality clauses in place until the film’s release!
In the very early hours of today*, along with a handful of nerdy night owls with fond memories of 1977′s original, I watched the result of that innocuous chat. And yes, it was a fairly surreal feeling to see a place I knew so well feature in such an iconic behemoth: Donegal was in a galaxy far far away. The hairs on the back of my neck duly rose to the first bars of John Williams’s famous theme tune and we were off into this fantastic world of wonder. The seven year old me from the 70′s was sitting there saluting that fateful decision of grown up me; honoured to have had a childhood dream come true by playing some small part in this epic saga; for just a brief while, both he and I were Jedi for a night. In truth, the scenes up in Malin Head are blended in with the other scenes along the Wild Atlantic Way, but I knew them when I saw them and yes, they looked stunning.
That they chose a scenic oasis I so loved and championed for years was confirmation of the fact that my grown-up dreams were not so far-fetched – one of my many hair-brained ideas from my time up in Malin Head was to have an amphitheatre as an attraction to the area, much like the Minack Theatre in Cornwall. It got me dusting down a rather dated, forgotten promo I made back in 2009 and sent to Failte Ireland, the Irish Sports Council, Inishowen LEADER, Donegal County Council, the Arts Council, the Abbey Theatre and anyone else that might consider bringing the wonder of that place to life. Think Borat with a brogue and bit of a gut, since gone(ish). My posh neighbour at the time sniffly called it ‘Ward’s Folly’ and in truth it was a stretch, but hey, what’s wrong with dreaming out loud? The amphitheatre part in the promo above appears around the two minute mark.
I’d like to think my good vibes about bringing the headland to life and getting it the recognition it so richly deserved did not just go into the ether, but were picked up somewhere by proper storytellers. The site of the Seashell Amphitheatre in the video would become the spot where the Millennium Falcon would land according to the papers’ pictures above (it doesn’t!) and so my borrowed ‘build it and they will come’ creed is not too far fetched in hindsight. Well, something Star Warsy was there and that’s still a Royal Flush in my book. Unfortunately, the amphitheatre idea fell on deaf ears, as did all of my efforts to get an eco park going along that beautiful coast – I did manage to get shortlisted for a national award by Failte Ireland for my efforts in promoting the area, but that story and the reasons I finally sold up and left Malin Head in 2015 are for another day! And yes, please note that the land is now private property - best to observe it from the tower at Banba’s Crown and get yourself a world-class coffee from Caffe Banba before lunch at nearby Kealy’s Seafood Bar.
I’m very proud to know and love the beauty of the whole of Donegal, its 1134 kms of glorious coast and its significant contribution to the Wild Atlantic Way’s success story. Moving on from the doomed Seashell Amphitheatre and the Malin Head Trail, I produced and developed the Donegal App, a free smart travel guide for the whole of the north west. I launched it on Leap Day 2012 and it has been downloaded several thousand times on Google Play and App Store platforms. All good things come to an end and I’m taking the opportunity of the launch of the film and the year end to call time on what has been a labour of love with nearly 600 points of interest on it.
A New Hope!
I’m working on a new and exciting project that will hopefully overhaul all the work I did in Donegal and beyond, but it needs to come down off its current third party platform come 1st January 2018. Feel free to download the Donegal App while still available in December, share it with friends then ensure you all come to the field of dreams that is Donegal in 2018. And yes, may the force be with you!
Star Wars fan and dreamer
14th December 2017
*For the record, my midnight viewing was in Munster. No invite was offered to me from either Donegal County Council or Disney to the exclusive cocktails and canapés ‘thank you’ premiere in Letterkenny that night run by the Council for all Malin Head locals involved in the film. Classy to the end those guys…✨
“Oi! Beware the GabbyEuroTalk, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch our lucre!
Beware the Merkel bird, and shun
The frumious Brussels Sprouters!”
Numpty took his voting card in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he in the Tumtum Tree Inn,
And stood his round; four pints he bought.
And, in oafish thought he stood,
The GabbyEuroTalk he did so blame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled ‘enchanté!’ as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal vote went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
“Oi! Has thou slain the GabbyEuroTalk?
‘Cos the nation’s up in arms, you clot!”
‘O fateful day! No more booze cruise to Calais!’
He cackled, having lost the plot.
On the 28th May 2016, my aunt, Sr. Dr. Ann Ward, died in Drogheda, County Louth – she was 87. To say she was an extraordinary individual who had done greater deeds than anyone I’ve ever met is by no means an exaggeration. In short, she devoted her life to others and used her immense medical skills to pioneer a technique that either saved or vastly improved the lives of many Nigerian women that society had abandoned. She worked around the clock saving these people. If they did not have money, it did not matter. At the funeral, I was told by a no nonsense sort of gynecologist that Ann was by far the greatest obstetrician and gynecologist to ever come out of Ireland. In talking about Ann before flying over to Ireland, a senior officer in the British Army who heard her story said no general ever did anything coming close to what she had achieved, nor could they – she was constantly saving lives, gratis. I was honoured to read her eulogy and repeat it here so that others may hear of how greatness can be achieved without fanfare, bombast or self aggrandizement: her accomplishments were all done with complete humility.
You can shed tears because she is gone
Or you can smile because she has lived
You can close your eyes and pray that she’ll come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all she has left
You can remember her and only that she’s gone
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what she’d do: smile, open her blue eyes, love and go on.
Auntie Ann would not thank me for saying anything too gushing or too complimentary about her – that was just her way. It’s a Donegal thing, or more probably, a Ward thing.
“Please don’t write about me,” she once protested. “The focus needs to be placed on the women who suffer this terrible condition, and on the services that need to be put in place to bring relief and proper treatment” she added.
She was talking about her pioneering work in the field of obstetrical fistula, usually vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF). In Nigerian communities where women’s rights were not valued, I’d like to think if there was any saving grace to these horrific situations, it was that someone as serene and kind as my dear aunt and her team were there to help these women at Itam. No one was turned away for inability to pay. Her work was what she was proudest of, not for any recognition for herself. She was blasé about the numerous awards and honorary doctorates she received, it was ONLY about her patients.
“The arch-enemy of compassion is pity” she once famously opined “Pity puts distance between you and the person you are pitying. Compassion puts the two of you on the same level, enabling you to work together to change the situation, or at least to make it more bearable.”
In those words, you have the essence of the woman – insightful, composed, candid, kind, profound and gracious. This was a woman who did not suffer fools gladly, there was little if any small talk with her and she wasn’t what you might call ‘touchy feely’ – on bounding towards her at a retreat in England in 2005 with my arms thrown open, I was crisply told that “Wards don’t hug“! She worked in an environment that few, if any of us, could possibly imagine, never mind endure; but she did so, year in year out with just a Summer break back to her dear old Donegal every second year.
All of Ann’s nephews and nieces loved her dearly and were extremely proud of her – the late Brendan, Jimmy, Marian, Peter, Kathryn, Ann and yours truly. My mother, Marion, and my aunt struck up a great friendship and were like sisters to one another, sharing many happy moments with chat, song, and bridge. I was lucky enough to be her trusty companion, her Man Friday on many such excursions in Donegal. On my travels with Ann, I knew I’d always see an older, gentler way of life, one with an easy charm and a coterie of school friends that you’d be happy to meet up with anytime.
My Uncle Junior owned a Ford garage in Castlederg and would usually give Ann a car with what he’d call ‘a bit of zip‘. Every second summer was free flowing full throttle motoring in a souped up 2-litre Capri and we loved it! We’d a few hairy scrapes, mainly through her abhorrence of using indicators, but our nearest disaster happened when I had started to take on the driving chores. Approaching Dungloe to see her beloved Daniel O’Donnell perform at the Mary from Dungloe festival, she let out a scream and showed me that Wards could indeed do hugs as she cowered at the sight in front of her. It was in fact a bungee jumper buckleaping from a crane as the sun set and was a scary reminder that her normal habitat was somewhere without such frivolity.
My late father, her brother Johnny, was never one to wax lyrical about one of his own, but I do recall him saying to me in a near reverential whisper that in travelling with Auntie Ann, I was in the presence of a saint. But lest we put her on a pedestal, you will no doubt know she was a woman of many more temporal talents.
Whilst we loved her dearly, we were not blind to the fact that she had the guile of a Medici prince, and had a will of iron. She got her own way through the force of her personality, but it was only because of her commitment to her work. She’d a slight maverick streak, My sisters Ann and Kathryn and cousin Marian were at her bedside on Friday recalling her insisting on Ann Jnr smuggling in her two dogs Buffy and Twinkle through the window who then curled up on her bed. Ann’s room reflected her right down to the little cuddly toys. There’s the famous photo of her and the Pope, but she only looked truly star struck in her picture with Daniel.
She could sing – oh boy, could she sing and when she did, like her driving and her smile, she could stop traffic such was its euphony and purity. George Eliot wrote “Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.” Ann was filled with such a deep love of music. For her, the hills were alive with the sound of it, be it classical or with her very own Daniel or Susan Boyle.
I’ve had the pleasure of seeing her get a hole in one in golf, at the 16th hole in Narin some time back. The fact that she went pin high onto the wrong green is but a minor technical detail and was quietly overlooked in the scorecard! I have a lot of happy memories from my times with her – she never treated me like a kid and could sense that I was always curious to see where our next adventure would take us.
Sometimes, those adventures involved sadder memories. Once we had an afternoon of ice cream eating planned after a visit to my Auntie ‘Peter’ Hally who was in hospital in Dublin. While Ann went to see the doctors, I chatted freely to her sister about important matters of the day such as Dallas and the rise of Duran Duran. When Ann came back, I sensed that something was not quite right. Ann of course carried on as before – engaged, chatty and interested. Only when we got to Bachelors Walk for the Knickerbocker Glories did she let her true emotions show as she broke down and cried at knowing that her beautiful sister had cancer.
I remember her calling me to say they’d taken her Daniel away. After getting her calmed, she told me she had being robbed yet again and the one thing she was heartbroken over was the theft of her signed Daniel O’Donnell picture. Daniel did of course replace it and would meet her in happier times. I recall festooning her room here in Drogheda with the Donegal colours of green and gold for the 2012 All Ireland final and we had a right good time along with Marian and Robbie Robinson shouting the house down as Michael Murphy and the lads soared to capture the Sam Maguire – my apologies again to the staff for our unrestrained exuberance!
Few of us will ever possess her prodigious skills – her great brain, her dedication, her sang froid, her great hearty laugh. What we can aspire to though is to emulate her own deep sense of compassion, of forgiveness, of reaching out to those less fortunate; the forgotten, the shunned, the condemned. Do some simple act of kindness once a day and when it’s done, smile and quietly salute Ann Ward.
After my grandmother left for London in the 1930s, my grandfather, the late great PJ Ward, reared the three Ward children as best he could with the aid of his two sisters, Agnes and Bridget, but there must have been a lot of hurt for the youngest child in seeing her mother leave them. With any luck, they are all reunited and at peace now. Some people get busy living and some get busy dying from hurt and wrongdoing: for Ann, that choice was the former. She told me herself that she remembers being woken up with a calling around the age of 16 and from that day forth, she knew she would devote herself to others as best she could.
‘As best she could’. Those words, that sentiment – ‘I did the best I could’, is sadly downgraded and diluted these days. It is used as an excuse for patchy work and mediocrity. Ann, however, was from another time and her work ethic and singular focus was phenomenal. As always, she was modest and pragmatic about what she had done. When her peers at University College Dublin, presented her with the Distinguished Graduate Award for outstanding achievement in the field of medicine, she told them, “If you found yourself in the same circumstances I work in, you would have done just as much as I have done.”
Dear sweet Aunt, for the countless thousands of women around the world whose lives you have improved through your pioneering techniques and devotion, let me thank you for all that you have done. Few get to make their mark on their world like you did. We live in dangerous times – we look helplessly at how ego and bluster is likely to be rewarded with high office in America. As is the way of the world, the true heroes and heroines, like you Ann, keep their heads down and just get the job done with zero fuss.
Let me also pay a quick tribute to some other heroines; those kind individuals who made her last years so peaceful and comfortable – the matron and the staff at Aras Mhuire. And to Marian, Kathryn and Ann who made sure she knew she was parting this Earth knowing that we all cherished her by bringing levity, joy and love to the occasion, as Ann would have wanted.
Saying hello to you was always a pleasure; saying goodbye to you now is an occasion I’m honoured, if saddened, to do on behalf of all those who’d the privilege of meeting you along the way in your many roles: -
pioneer, surgeon, Medical Missionary of Mary, youngest child, loving sister, valued colleague, friend of the forgotten, last hope for the despairing, Daniel O’Donnell’s undisputed No. 1 fan, chanteuse supreme, blue-eyed beauty, the ultimate cool aunt: goodbye and safe travels, partner.
The wording below was the introduction wording to ‘Return of the Mac: an evening to commemorate John McGahern’s 10th anniversary’ at 7pm in The Shannon Conference Suite at St. Mary’s University, Twickenham on Thursday 26th May, 2016.
In a year when several artistic greats have departed, when we have had commemorations coming ‘out our ears’, it may seem a tad indulgent to be remembering another dead hero. But the hero in question here is the late John McGahern. Consequently, my fellow Irish Studies student, Daniel Cassidy, and I are of the opinion that it is fitting that such a highly regarded wordsmith should not be remembered with just a minute’s silence or the raising of a glass of the good stuff, but with us remembering what made him so special in a more formal setting.
Thankfully, the great Pat Collins of Harvest Films was commissioned to make a documentary on McGahern, which was recorded in late 2004 and can be viewed in its entirely below (if you cannot make it on the 26th). As with all of Pat’s work, it is a carefully crafted vessel that captures the distinctive grooves and nuances of the artist that will form the main basis of our McGahern celebration, followed by a Questions and Answers section. Daniel and I are by no means doyennes of the man’s work, but we do appreciate a great Irish hero and the need to savour the accomplishments he, or she, has done once in a while.
Born on the 12th of November 1934, John McGahern died ten years ago on the 30th March 2006 after a long battle with cancer. I was lucky enough to hear him being interviewed in the months leading up to his death in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre. He had the capacity crowd in the palm of his hand from the off and got a standing ovation by the end of it by which time I witnessed Julian Barnes and others shed a few tears as we knew we had seen the last of this kind, wise, funny and courageous man. (The RTE archives below show that he really enjoyed a live audience!)
On being asked about whether he felt bitter at his father’s often-bizarre behaviour to him, he said with Zen-like composure ‘Bitterness is a part of my brain I have no reason nor desire to go to’. This was at the heart of why we admire him – he endured such pain and heartache and managed to write about it and the disappearing world around him with sensitivity, scrupulous precision and ‘minute realism’ to quote Brian Lynch.
In 2002, Declan Kiberd wrote ‘People first of all shuddered and then they realised: “my God, he has told our innermost story.”…I think people have that feeling when they read McGahern: in some way the stories of their own families has been told with a kind of tenderness and honesty and a mixture of wistfulness and longing, that is appropriate to the experience. So they actually feel ratified by him, they who once refused to ratify him’.
McGahern offered us a glimpse of what is the best and worst about his native land and its people. From the rural retreat of County Leitrim, he gave us a depiction of an Ireland that was slow to take to modernity and change.
He used a local voice that had a universality about it. His scenes were not confined to any one place or time much like Friel’s and Heaney’ work. But while Friel could be skewered and Heaney dense in their message, McGahern had a candour and a refreshing perspective that few others voiced:
‘I think the ordinary is the most precious in life. I think that either life is of no value or of absolute value; and I think it is of absolute value. And I think that in that sense, a woman combing her hair or a man eating an egg is as important an act as any other’.
RTE Radio’s Bowman: Sunday: 8.30 had a wonderful two part radio documentary on McGahern from their archives in May 2016.
Listen here to Part One from the 1st of May 2016.
Listen here to Part Two from the 8th of May 2016.
The New York Times Obituary of John McGahern.
The Guardian Obituary of John McGahern
The Independent Obituary of John McGahern.
The Daily Telegraph’s Obituary of John McGahern.
A subscription is needed to access The Irish Times Obituary of McGahern – here instead is some reader feedback to the paper’s response to his death.
John McGahern staged on his 10th anniversary by Maire J Doyle
A wonderful documentary, Three Days In Summer by McGahern friend and fan, Ronan Gallagher, featuring Declan Kiberd and others.
The opening of the local John McGahern library in 2007 by none other than Bertie Ahern.
A great blog by Trevor Cook on McGahern, McWilliam’s Stoner and other observations.
A review in The Irish Times of the excellent new Stanley Van Der Ziel book on MGahern.
Less polished, but one for fans is this interview with Terence Wench from 1993:
The Donegal App encapsulates the full wonder of nearly 5000 hectares of the most beautiful part of Ireland onto the device you carry in your pocket. Download it for free and plan your holiday by ‘favouriting’ all the places you liked the look of in one handy folder. When you get to Donegal it comes into its own as a practical guide to helping you find these places with ease.
On this Leap Day 2016, the Donegal App celebrates its birthday having launched on Leap Day 2012. At the time, it had only five tours, had a very basic website, a rather naff logo, no turn by turn guidance, no audio or video and only this somewhat zany promo video to accompany the launch. It was done on a budget of zilch by one fellow then living up in the wilds of Inishowen, with no support from either the Council or the State via Failte Ireland. Since the 2012 launch, the app’s production company, Headland New Media has become us, Racontour Productions and its founder, John Ward, now lives in London.
2012 was a good year to launch as Donegal managed to win the All Ireland Football Final in September. There was a great sense of excitement in the air and the countryside was resplendently bedecked in the county colours as everyone will remember from that Summer, Jimmy was winning matches and nowhere parties better than Donegal as we lifted the Sam McGuire cup on the 23rd of September 2012. We even managed to inveigle the then Donegal Senior Football manger Jim McGuinness to join in our guerrilla marketing campaign with this cheeky little presentation:-
Yes yes, we know – cheeky and a tad cheesy, but fun! Some fans might remember our more polished Play It Again Sam video that online sports journal Balls.ie called the most epic promo video in advance of an All Ireland football final ever made no less!
Over time and with the advance of technology, the Donegal App began using the full range of features a smart phone offered. You could see on a map where a location was and with the click a button that would give you turn by turn directions to that place. Liked the golf course you just read about? Click the phone number and you could make an appointment or you could email them or look at their website or a YouTube video on the course. It certainly seemed a long way from how the GPS travel concept appeared to the producer, John Ward, back in February 2010 when it was primarily designed for sat nav devices and apps were but a twinkle in the eye: -
Each year, we added new details and tours piece by piece. Commercial entities that feature on the app are either because they are highly rated on Trip Advisor, Facebook, have been visited by the app’s producers at some point or have a good reputation. A business can’t just get on it via a cheque and it is subject to annual review, but membership really is just a token amount to cover the cost of the annul badges that are sent to the members. Thanks must go to Kelly Group for sponsorship and Geovative in the US for back end development of the app. In 2013, we enlisted and indeed rechristened Don Draper to help us promote the app’s special appeal to those missing home. Give the video a minute and you’ll see what we mean: -
Today the app offers eight separate tours: -
In addition, the Donegal App website’s dropdown menu will give you access to our free sister app, The Bluestack Way App which is packed with over a hundred audio clips and every conceivable piece of information you could wish to know along the 51km route from Donegal Town to Ardara via Glenties. Primarily designed for walkers, it requires 70 meg alone for the audio and so it is a better fit as a stand alone offering.
Each tour on the Donegal App is deceptively simply at first glance, but there’s a lot of information to hand on further examination. Take your time to explore each one and use the Categories section, the Search section and click the star in the top right hand side of the actual point of interest to save that place in the handy Favourites folder. For 2014, to coincide with the official launch of the Wild Atlantic Way, we rebooted our 2012 tour of the Wild Atlantic (yep, two years before Failte Ireland got their act together!) and combined some places that are marked along the official route together with our own favourites along the way.
By 2015, we had added a full tour of the counties of Ulster, a tour of the wonderful peninsula of Inishowen in north Donegal and our Donegal Bay and Yeats Country tour to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Yeats’s birthday in nearby Sligo, his spiritual home. A full two day audio tour of the best Yeats sites is on offer and has gone down well with Yeats enthusiasts with the audio kicking in as you approach each and every place of interest. Nothing else quite like it exists in Ireland for combining stories with technology.
With the 2016 version of the Donegal App released this month, the north west offers the world a comprehensive multimedia smart travel guide with close to 600 places of interest included on it. Android and iPhone smart phones now have turn-by-turn technology just like Garmin and TomTom sat navs do with the app. Effectively with one handy device in your pocket, you can now do the following for free with the simple click of a button:
- Be guided turn-by-turn with a voice to your destination.
- Call your destination e.g. ring to book a tee time at a golf course.
- View your destination’s website or email them direct.
- Be up to date on that point of interest with their social media details.
- Read our informed review on what the point of interest offers.
- See a picture of what the point of interest looks like.
- Watch the most interesting YouTube video we could find about the place.
For 2016, we’ve added in an audio introduction to our Greatest Shrines tour as well as rebooting dozens of audio pieces from our Best of Inishowen tour. Fans of Inishowen might also enjoy our Rambling House radio series which explored the many stories of Inishowen over a six part series.
Both in helping you plan your trip (save what you like as a Favourite to build up an itinerary) and in helping you find the places when you get here, you are in great hands with the Donegal App. It’s really only the weather you’ll be leaving to chance on your trip to the north west! Spread the word, follow us on Twitter or Facebook and as you’ll see from our latest promo video, may the force be with you!
I’d promised earlier this month not to write another word about any more dead heroes of mine, but this will be the exception, as the person in question was exceptional. January finishes with the death of a true great, Terry Wogan. Friel was my favourite writer, Bowie my favourite singer, but Wogan was my favourite entertainer. Witty, wise, charming, eloquent, erudite, clever, gracious and kind – this was a man we could hold our heads up to and claim as one of our one; someone in fact we should endeavour to be more like. Wogan did something truly phenomenal every day at the crack of dawn without rehearsal – he made about 8.1 million people get out of bed with a ‘Muttley wheeze’ and a spring in their step.
The perfect face (and voice) for radio
As such, the man made this morning grouch ready for the world and that was no mean feat. What is staggering is that Wogan had the ability to make it all seem so easy – he was able to throw all of the listeners’ correspondence up in the air and have it land in the right order, with the right timing, mischief and intonation. I don’t ever remember listening to him and thinking he is having a bad day or that was a bad joke or that section isn’t working – I do remember listening every day and thinking that this show is a pure tonic. No other person could pull it off – or should attempt to now or any time soon. Like Bowie, his genius came from collaboration with others – a great wisecracking crew around him and hilarious material fed to him from his fanbase, Terry’s Old Geezers and Gals a.k.a. the TOGs. What he did with all that though was to forge it into radio gold every single day, live on air and without a script per se or cue cards. Wogan in full flight with the gang on board and the endless TOG material being brought to life was stop the car, gasping for breath, tears of laughter rolling down your cheek funny. Near the end of each show, he had a Pause for Thought section – even though he had no faith himself, he never betrayed his own doubts and was gracious and generous with whomever the speaker was. He could move seamlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous and into the spiritual, never missing a beat or fluffing a line.
Annual mischief with the Eurovision
What I’m going to write next might seem a tad over the top, but with his passing, Ireland and Britain have lost possibly the funniest man we will ever know. Now I’m sure some of you will say ‘hang on, what about Bill Hicks, Tommy Cooper, Flann O’Brien and so on…’. Well, they were funny men and Terry was in the ‘light entertainment’ end of things, but just remember no one else managed to deliver such a delicious medley of surreal humour, double entendres, wry observations and exquisite badinage as well as this man did. This tricky task was delivered day in day out for years and at an hour that the rest of us would rather not deal with the world at all at all. Tot all that airtime up and chances are that you and I have laughed more at Wogan’s wit than we ever did for Blackadder or The Two Ronnies. Essentially he made us laugh when we wanted to cry – on cold dark Winter mornings getting ready for another dreary day of work or packing lunch boxes for screaming ingrates or being stuck with fellow shoulder shaking TOGs in endless traffic jams. For that rare gift delivered with aplomb during daily domestic sagas, he surely is a contender for that coveted funniest man title. Eric Morecombe found an early grave trying to make every Christmas show funnier than the previous year’s show. Wogan just rocked up and rolled it all out daily as if he were cracking open eggs for breakfast – now that’s what I call real talent.
Anarchy in the UK, Wogan style
Just before Christmas, I was due to go to a carol service that a friend was organising – she had Terry on the bill as M.C., but he pulled out citing ‘back problems’. Like Bowie, his time was nearly up, but no one bar those closest would ever know. A class act right to the end. In writing about Bowie recently, I listed my other heroes – Cash, Friel, Presley and had Wogan in there (well, in the footnotes for the sake of rock and roll flow). I rated him that highly – the gift of making someone laugh is arguably the greatest gift there is and can only be achieved if the person in question is both clever and charming, which of course he was, but never arrogant, never condescending and never getting the tone wrong; that was just not his style. All of those heroes above had their ‘issues’ shall we say and of the whole lot, I think he is the only idol I would have wanted to meet. Certainly, the only one I’d want to be stuck in a lift with for six hours.
Kind words from his Radio 2 morning show successor
He had an inherent sense of mischief and is responsible for introducing the word ‘eejit’ to the British public, with him admitting to being the biggest one of all. His rendition of The Floral Dance at the height of the punk era was infinitely more anarchic a gesture to the nation than po-faced punk itself. Plus he just wanted to be on Top of the Pops for the craic and sure why not? Marcel Duchamp gave us his porcelain urinal in 1917, but Wogan’s larking about with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band was a bolder milestone in postmodernism in my humble opinion. His single-handed harpooning and slaughter of the giant whale that is the Eurovision freak show was the man at his subversive best. If the po-faced Eurovision lovers didn’t like that, too bad. Pardon the wide brush-stroking, but the Brits can take themselves too seriously at times; Wogan was the antidote and successfully de po-faced them over time, one by one. Radio 4 grandiosely stated that where the Queen was the centre of gravity of the nation, Wogan was the centre of levity. Not bad for a subversive eejit from the banks of the Shannon.
Only Wogan could have brought his magic to a simple putt
If you really want to annoy me in company, start off with the words, ‘do you know who you remind me of – Colm Meaney’. Never a good idea. On the odd occasion folk have said that I remind them of Terry Wogan and though clearly drunk and deluded, I salute these fine folk as it is the highest compliment I could ask for. To me he was a great fella to aspire to be like – if only. His modus operandi and in turn the secret to his success was described in typical Wogan style:- ‘Get on your toes, keep your wits about you, say goodnight politely and when it’s over, go home and enjoy your dinner.‘ Wogan was apparently the same off the mike as well – down to earth, affable, mischievous with an easy smile and a quick spontaneous wit at the ready. Very much a family man, I remember thinking how chuffed he was when his grandson Harry was born some years back – he played the song ‘Harry’ and I always thought it was such a lovely touch by a proud grandpa – and what a great song to have known thanks to him. We’ll overlook his championing of Katie Melua to the world and wryly roll our eyes to heaven at seeing his iconoclastic Floral Dance in all those tributes today. Terry famously signed off his final show by saying ‘thank you for being my friend’ but in truth, this TOG is very happy to say ‘thank you for being my friend’; it was a pleasure to wake up to you for so many years.
Daily magic conjured up out of nowhere
“We all knew something was amiss but this is more than just turning on your phone in the morning or turning on the television and finding out that another celebrity has passed on. I’m standing here, my hands are shaking, I feel as though I’ve lost something, I’ve lost something incredibly important today.” I never thought I’d quote Midge Ure in an article, but he sure nailed it on the head with a four pound hammer on this one.
I didn’t get up to speed on the early news today. I’d a late night in Canary Wharf and as I sat on the DLR train this morning, a giant electronic ticker tape frame coming into the Wharf station flashed the vague message ‘Bowie’s financially Hunky Dory to the end’. No panic. A quick look at social media didn’t get me any further until fellow music lover Damien Gallagher’s Facebook message confirmed it. Well, if you’re going to hear sad news, hear it from a good friend.
2000′s: Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis put Bowie in the same league as
Writing only last night in The Irish Times, Tony Clayton Lea’s rave review of Bowie’s 25th studio album, Blackstar, concluded with the ominous words ‘This is David Bowie still following the music he hears in his head; what comes after this is anyone’s guess’. The master of reinvention and surprise caught Clayton Lea and everyone out once again with the sudden departure from the stage. As he sings in his new song, Lazurus ‘ain’t it just like me?‘. It sure was.
I heard the man sing live, but I never met the man, I didn’t know him and yet I am truly gutted at hearing of the death of the ultimate purveyor of one of life’s great thrills – the gift of making great music. Here was a creative, profoundly talented rock icon, chameleon and talisman – rock’s all rounder. For melody, for lyrics, for comprehensive musical ability, for dexterity of sound, for swaggering delivery, for influencing other greats and for being the undisputed king of cool, there is only one David Bowie.
1980s’ curious gem: the last time David Jones and David Bowie shared the screen.
The last few days had me saluting Lemmy, Phil Lynott, my grandfather, James Joyce, John Huston and Donal McCann on Facebook. In amongst those posts were three about David Bowie – little did I know he’d be joining this pantheon of heroes so soon. One concerned some idiot* who had put together a website that let you compare where you were in life compared to where Bowie was at your age. My reaction was ‘As someone who shares the same date of birth as this fella (and Elvis) this week, I don’t feel in the least bit intimidated by his accomplishments. Thrilled, delighted and honoured to be in such august company more like – rock on!’ I’d made a note to myself that I really would have to get away from writing articles honouring dead heroes in 2016. I thought finishing up with my grandfather was a good way to leave it but above him, Johnny Cash, above Elvis Presley** and even Brian Friel, there is the pinnacle of artistic endeavour, David Bowie. I had to write a few words on this sad day.
With these Bowie words here, I think I’m properly done with salutes to the dead (thankfully!). Lemmy had attitude, Philo was one of us, PJ Ward had fortitude, Joyce wrote better than anyone else, but Bowie, ah Bowie really did have it all. As Joyce showed us in that famous short story, the dead in their eternal and gracious silence will always have a mystique, a potency and a hold on our hearts as the memory of their living deeds is savoured and magnified by their absence. That Bowie gave us some of his best work on Friday and was gone by Sunday ensures that the memory of his many living deeds vis-à-vis the pain of the permanent silence is being acutely felt by his many followers. Blackstar now serves as his own eulogy. He didn’t burn out, he didn’t fade away, he simply played one last masterclass in flair and originality; this time with his own death***.
At a lecture on creativity in 2014, ad guru John Hegarty opined to the audience that even the greatest minds had at best ten great years of creativity. While some might say Bowie peaked in the 70′s, he had six colourful decades of creativity – and he wasn’t afraid to branch out into other areas such as acting – see his Tesla in The Prestige, as producer to the seminal Transformer album or helping his Mott the Hoople mates out by donating his tune All the Young Dudes to revive their careers. ‘Lust for Life’? Yep, a present to Iggy. Let’s not forget all of the artists he influenced from Radiohead to Suede. The so-called apogee of British success, the knighthood, was offered and declined in 2003 when he stated: “I would never have any intention of accepting anything like that. I seriously don’t know what it’s for. It’s not what I spent my life working for.” Take note Jagger.
1970′s: The performance that startled a nation in one fell swoop.
One of my best friends has told me she has been crying this morning with the news. She also has a deep love of music and I wish I was there to give her a hug and turn on some Bowie tunes, get out some wine and dance ’til the serious moonlight is seen and then well into the night. Where theatre, poetry and prose take a fair degree of concentration to assimilate, music – no, let’s be clear, good music, doesn’t just seep into your soul; it dives in and creates a delirium and a sonic connection with the higher self like no other. Throwing on Bowie has never failed to allow a blast of serotonin surge through my system; he was, in musical terms, the gold standard.
This Bowie nerd won’t bore you with the minutiae of Bowie facts, his staggering modus operandi and his stellar output, but just watch the plethora of BBC4 documentaries on him, hoover up the coverage, but most of all throw on the sounds of Bowie and salute the fact that we had him in our lives at all and yes, feel ‘thrilled, delighted and honoured’ that we got to enjoy his talent. Some years ago, Ricky Gervais had sent Bowie a tongue in cheek birthday email saying ‘58, eh? When are you going to get a proper job then?’ Signed Ricky Gervais, 42, Comedian‘. Bowie got back as quick as a flash and said ‘I do have a proper job young man; David Bowie, 58, Rock God.’ Well played – long shall you rock in our hearts and souls.****
2016: ‘And like that *puff*, he’s gone…’
* A tad unfair – the underlying theme of the site is to get off your arse and get shit done. Good point.
** Terry Wogan is another bona fide hero to me, but I thought I’d leave him out for an easier flow. Day in day out surreal ad libbed humour is a real art to this early morning grouch.
*** Blackstar is littered with images of death, skulls and departure, but the refrain of Girl Loves Me with its ‘Where the Fuck did Monday go?‘ sure captures what happened on Monday 11th January 2016 thanks to you DB!
**** Er, dare I say it, but maybe (just maybe) dying on your birthday – Friday 8th January 2016 – would have been better DB; a proper weekend to really tear the ass out of celebrating your music with buckets of booze and whatever you’re having yourself. If you are a day in the week, it is Friday; a wet Monday really was blue blue electric blue with your departure.