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People worldwide attend writing retreat and learn how to tell the sex of a lobster

More than 30,000 kilometres.

That’s the combined distance people worldwide travelled to attend the annual week-long ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ that just ended, as they embarked on the challenge of penning memoirs, novels, short stories, and even some poetry.

And learned more about our marine crustaceans including the sex of a lobster, and various edible local seaweeds.

From places as diverse as Haifa, Israel; Nova Scotia, Canada; US states such as Missouri, Colorado, Minnesota and New Hampshire, as well as Cork, Dublin and Donegal, participants enjoyed practical workshops on topics ranging from landscape description and character development to mastering dialogue, editing and developing story plot. Classes were hosted by author and playwright Danny Morrison; broadcaster, poet and newspaper columnist, Frank Galligan; Mark Gregory, a forensic editor from Belfast.

Writing assignments proved imaginative, innovative and interesting and the craic was mighty. Lovely Theresa Kavanagh from Gortahork came to Teac Jack to teach international participants basic phrases as Gaeilge which they used throughout the week in conversation and Irish dancing steps in advance of the traditional week's ceilidhe hosted by Mary McFadden, where everyone enjoyed a lively night. Theresa also played wonderful fiddle music to the international group while explaining the inspiration behind some of her intricate melodies.

Spots of rain didn't dampen the spirits of Pól Ó Muireasáin who was his usual effervescent self as walking guide on Gola Island where he explained to everyone the history of the island and its people, the origin of the Irish place-names and even how to tell the sex of a lobster ('Little Larry' seemed to enjoy being the center of attention).

Participants also visited the Famine Museum in Dunfanaghy and went exploring as far as Malin Head (though they didn't meet any Jedi from the recent filming of "Star Wars' there). A bus trip to Glenveagh Castle and tour completed the outdoor activities for the participants with a stopover beside Errigal and the Poisoned Glen to learn more about the ancient mythical rivalry and legendary battle between Lugh and Balor and a return trip via the 'Bridge of Tears' from which emigrants departed across the Atlantic over one hundred years ago.

One international participant, Nina Shapiro from Israel, said, “I always wanted to write but didn’t have either the time or the confidence. From the moment of arrival at the ‘Ireland Writing Retreat,’ friendships materialized, stimulating conversations began and peoples’ personalities unfolded. Interesting outside activities and local sightseeing created nice changes of environment. I left this retreat charged with positive energy, feeling ‘yes, I can do it.’”

Amber O'Hearn, living in Boulder, Colorado, said, the retreat, “caught my eye as something unique and I was not to be disappointed. We were encouraged by diverse masters of the written word to foray into our own artistry. Immersed in the elements of local culture, we were guided into language, music, and landscape. I will be leaving Donegal reawakened, but Donegal will not be leaving me.

Genevieve Essa from Dublin added, “I’ve been to many writing retreats - in places as diverse as Bali, Sydney and London – but this one in Donegal is by far the best I’ve been to. Organization was superb with wonderful presenters who mentored throughout the week, as well as an excellent mix of leisure activities of ‘caint, craic agus ceoil.’”

Pat McIlvenna from Minneapolis said emotions were high as participants delved deep inside themselves for inspiration. “We laughed a lot, cried a bit, and even sang – and not just later in the pub but during daytime working sessions. The deep, informed sense of place permeated many pieces we studied and wrote about. Magic happened. Words flowed more easily. When read aloud, prose verged on poetry. Gaelic sounded like something I knew. Landmarks familiar to those in the area showed up in our writings.

Libeth Tempero from Liberty, Missouri, said, “This retreat has gone very far in providing the writing experience I needed. It was great in many ways - the exercises we did, the fun group of people who attended and the workshop leaders themselves. The overall experience exceeded my expectations, one I would not have wanted to miss.

Susan Bartlett from New Hampshire said “I loved my time in Glassagh with you, the other attendees, Danny Morrison and the rest. I found the progression of the week to be particularly helpful: from Danny's prompts, through the forensic editing workshop and wrapping it all up with critiquing our assignments at the end of the week. It was great to have the opportunity to work with the raw material collected from impressions of a totally new and intriguing environment and then share our work with the group. I came away from the week with new confidence, looking forward to a fresh start and completely in love with Donegal.

Mary Hopkins from Cork, Ireland said " The Ireland Writing Retreat in Gweedore, Co. Donegal in July 2016 allowed me to finally realise that I could write, and write creatively. Most importantly, my peers and facilitators at the recent workshop praised my work and this affirmation enabled me to move forward with confidence. With two well-known authors, Danny Morrison and Frank Galligan and Mark (our forensic editor who cut us to shreds), the total experience was educational, hilarious, serious, emotional and so worth it. My fellow students on the retreat were drawn from all over the world and I can honestly say that a real sense of camaraderie prevailed, with friendships forged for life. Columbia and Sean’s attention to detail and their personal interest in our welfare and progress was evident every step of the way. They have a great love of Donegal and ensured we got a flavour of its amazing culture and scenery during our stay. I wonder what they are planning next as I hope to be there for it?"

Galligan was impressed by the focus on participants’ work, “Genial hosts, Sean and Columbia Hillen insisted on prioritising the demands of the fledgling writer. I agree wholeheartedly with that modus operandi. Too often, creative writing retreats end up as exclusive forums for visiting poets or novelists. The fruits of this Donegal retreat’s methodology were writ large in the marvellous variety of completed work.


Morrison, who used a painting as a character development exercise, added, “What a wonderful course. Along with other mentors, I feel writers benefited greatly from our exchanges. Whilst we dealt with the serious and lonely business of writing, our hosts made sure that all of us had fun in this beautiful part of Donegal.

Even 12-year-old Molly Greene from Gaoth Dobhair, a volunteer with her mother, Sheila, was delighted, “I had never done anything like it before. There were people from all over the world and the classes were light-hearted yet educational. The trips were wonderful and even though I live in Donegal, it was nice to see another perspective.

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