Wednesday 24 January 2018

Bringing heritage to the heart of communities and people

Donegal and Sligo have an exciting schedule for National Heritage Week in the north-west, writes Celine Naughton

‘A Gathering Storm’ will chart the events of 1588, when a number of Spanish Armada ships sank off the Sligo coast
‘A Gathering Storm’ will chart the events of 1588, when a number of Spanish Armada ships sank off the Sligo coast

Celine Naughton

In 1976, Seamus Heaney visited a bog in Donegal for a TV schools programme in which he described "the dark wound of a turf bank or the sturdy form of a turf stack" as "natural works of art".

Forty years later, the late poet's lyrical words still resonate with the people of Donegal and neighbouring Sligo, who revel in the rich cultural heritage of the landscape of the north-west.

And as National Heritage Week (August 19-27) begins today, Donegal Heritage Officer Joseph Gallagher points out the county has more events per head of population than any other.

What's more, the vast majority (104 out of 124) of scheduled events are being organised by local volunteers and community organisations.

"They're the real ambassadors," he says.

"Credit must go to the people who engage in these activities, and the communities that support them."

During the week, a number of historic homes will be open to the public, including the traditional farmhouse Teach John Mhicí Bán in Carrigart, open daily from 11am to 6pm.

And today, from 10am-4pm, Dr Clive Symmons, co-author of 'The Disappearing Irish Cottage', will open the doors to his property, Bridie's Cottage in Roshine near Dunfanaghy, and will be on hand to talk and answer questions.

Heritage Week promises to be a lively one, but when it ends, the county's creative pursuits will continue to flourish with a number of projects focusing on the wellbeing of its people.

One of these, 'Lived Lives', uses art to break the silence surrounding suicide. Led by artist Dr Seamus McGuinness and psychiatrist Prof Kevin Malone, the exhibition was first shown in Letterkenny and now, with the support of Creative Ireland, it's being run in a number of other locations, making it accessible to people throughout the county.

"It's a demonstration of how the arts can help heal communities," says Donegal Creative Ireland co-ordinator Eileen Burgess.

"We run it in a very structured way, because you can't put on an exhibition like this without looking at the impact it may have on those whose lives have been directly affected by suicide. That's why we have bereavement counsellors present whenever it is shown, offering support to those who need it."

In association with Jigsaw mental health service, the county's 13 libraries promote recommended books on bullying, anxiety, panic attacks and other mental health issues, as a kind of 'shelf-help' for young people.

And for the sheer joy of it, young readers can look forward to the biggest Wainfest Arts and Book Festival yet (October 7-15).

Having been scaled back in recent years due to lack of funding, this year's event is set for a welcome revival with an expanded programme that includes creative habitat workshops, readings, comedy, storytelling and other events inspired by the theme 'Unleashing the Magic'.

Of interest to an older audience is 'A Vanished World - the Landed Gentry of Donegal', a free exhibition exploring the Downton Abbey world of the 'Big House' in the years before the foundation of the State.

Taking place in Donegal County Museum (September 16-December 31), it contains never-before-seen documents, photographs and letters from landlords and ladies, tenants and workers.

"We look at the social whirl of those living lives of leisure, and the struggles of those who worked in the houses and farmed the land at a time of huge social change," says museum curator Judith McCarthy.

"The exhibition is a window into a world of its time, one that doesn't exist anymore."

Next door is Yeats County, synonymous not only with the two famous brothers, poet William Butler and artist Jack B, but with a thriving contemporary arts scene.

According to Sligo Creative Ireland co-ordinator Donal Tinney, the county has long since passed the point of critical mass of culture and creativity, and is now self-sustaining.

People flock to its galleries, theatres and museums, including the Hawk's Well, the Model, Blue Raincoat, Sligo Art Gallery and more. Then there are its famous festivals, not least the Yeats International Summer School and Sligo Festival of the Arts.

"One of the many great projects we've had recently was the spine-tingling insta llation 'Entirely Hollow Aside from the Dark' by Alan James Burns," says Mr Tinney.

"This psycho-acoustic performance took place at night in the Kesh Caves, with the audience walking through uneven terrain, while atmospheric sounds and spoken word created a unique, and quite unsettling, experience."

Upcoming highlights include 'A Gathering Storm', an international conference in association with Grange and Armada Development Association, at the Clayton Hotel Sligo (September 22-24).

This charts events of 1588, when a number of ships from the eponymous Spanish fleet sank off Sligo coast, with the loss of 1,100 lives. The conference features Irish and international speakers, with music, poetry, guided walks and visits to the wreck site at Streedagh.

The entire county is set to come alive on Culture Night (September 22) when the fun starts in the afternoon with a 'Big Street Play' experience at Rockwood Parade in Sligo town. Young and old are invited to come and play old-time favourite games like hopscotch, tug-o-war and skipping, accompanied by street rhymes and songs.

At PowWow in the Yeats Memorial Building, the poetry of Yeats and others will be translated into different languages and recited, while cafés will showcase the work of six local artists in a project called Café Culture.

From September to November, the 100th anniversary of the death of renowned historian and archaeologist WG Wood-Martin will be marked with a travelling exhibition celebrating his life and work.

"We're also proud to have been named Volunteering Capital 2017, and we'll have a very special closing event in December, showing how the designation enhanced our communities and encouraged creativity throughout the year," says Mr Tinney.

Irish Independent

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