Fancy Mexico? Photo essay by Kate McCheyne


Weekend in Prague

 Pictures by Olivia Gough and Bill Heaney


MT Rainey: Picture essay of Australia in October


Good morning Vietnam

Photographer, author, military historian Aaron Edwards checked in to Da Nang, Vietnam. First thing that came to his mind was this: “Good morning, Vietnam! Hey, this is not a test. This is rock and roll. Time to rock it from the delta to the DMZ! Is that me, or does that sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang. Oh, viva, Da Nang. Da Nang me, Da Nang me. Why don’t they get a rope and hang me? Hey, is it a little too early for being that loud? Hey, too late. It’s 0600 What’s the “0” stand for? Oh, my God, it’s early.” This was Adrian Cronauer aka Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam (1987). Aaron, an author on mainly military matters, is on the big tour with girlfriend Charlotte Britton, even taking in that church on the Highway of Horrors, where civilians took refuge in the intense fighting of 1972 – not even holy places were respected. He also took pictures in Hué and the Imperial City. This is a taste of Vietnam exclusively for readers of The Democrat. Aaron said: “The 13-hour ‘sleeper’ train from Hanoi to Hué was an experience to behold.”

Words and photo essay by Aaron Edwards

Half a century after war ravaged Vietnam, Aaron Edwards discovers a vibrant country on the rise.  I’d started off my 12-day holiday to Vietnam in the south-western city of Ho Chi Minh after two weeks spent travelling in Thailand and Malaysia.  Vietnam has always fascinated me. Like most people in the West, I’d been subjected to a negative Hollywood representation of it for years. What I discovered was something very different.

“I can see this country becoming an Asian powerhouse in the near future,” remarked a friend of mine who had accompanied me on the first few days of my trip. We were sitting on a rooftop bar in the upmarket Silverlands Hotel at the time. All around us were flashy Canon and Samsung billboards littering the skyline of a city that could easily pass for Hong Kong.  Vietnam is undoubtedly rising. Its 95 million people appear self-confident and enterprising. What I saw in Ho Chi Minh City and later in Hanoi suggests that time does not stand still here.

Vietnam might be under one party Communist rule but take away the flags and emblems and you’d be hard pushed to find anything overly oppressive at street level. I’ve been to a few countries in recent years where policemen grumpily wave their rubber truncheons, questioning your every move. Not here. Vietnam is definitely open for tourism.

Behind the scenes, there’s a thriving market economy. The government seem tolerant of free enterprise. Even the internet is fairly open.

After a visit to a few war-related sites – hard to avoid in a country with a long history of colonialism and resistance – and the extraordinary Fine Arts Museum in Ho Chi Minh, we moved on to a very wet Hanoi and a mix of peculiar national memorials and a street food tour.

The food in Vietnam is delicious and simple. Beef noodle soup, Ban Chi and spring rolls are the staple diet. A few eateries have even incorporated Western style dishes like hamburgers and fish and chips but on the whole the cuisine remains distinctly Vietnamese.

From Hanoi, I travelled with my girlfriend Charlotte on a 13-hour overnight sleeper train to the old Imperial City of Hué. The soft four-berth cabins aboard Vietnam’s reunification railway express are reasonably comfortable but there’s no telling what kind of berth buddies you’ll get. Two Vietnamese families were crammed into two single-person berths and the noise was extraordinary but it is all part of the experience. Our reward came when we arrived in Hué and checked into the French colonial style hotel Saigon Morin. Built in 1901, the original decor has been carefully preserved. Outside the hotel on the other side of the Perfume River, the rest of the city has been mostly rebuilt, having been practically destroyed during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

A day-long tour of the Demilitarised Zone, which once divided north and south Vietnam along the 17th Parallel, allowed us to appreciate the real costs of the Vietnam/American War of 1965-75.

Our last stop was in Da Nang, a place bordered by breathtaking jagged mountain ranges and the South China Sea.  All in all, a wonderful holiday to an up and coming tourist destination. If you ever get the chance, go.

Weekend in Lisbon

Photo essay by Claire Morrison

Coming home to Connemara for the Clifden Arts Festival …


At the very top – Clifden Arts Festival takes place in September.

By Bill Heaney

The theme of this year’s Clifden Arts Festival in Connemara will explore the concept of “home” as well as showcasing Ireland’s diverse and artistic culture through compelling events which promise to enchant and educate people of all ages.

Brendan Flynn, Festival Director explained: “The physical place of birth holds a special place within us, while for others it isn’t physical but rather the feelings, the emotion, the character, the people and the culture, that shape it and make it. We hope to capture that feeling and explore a sense of home and how it is unique for each of us.”

The line-up at this year’s Clifden Arts Festival is very strong with a handful of names that would have headlined at much larger events over the years.

This festival in the heart of Connemara had humble beginnings when it was conceived 41 years ago by a small community committee who wanted to give local artists a public platform and provide a small programme of cultural events.

It has gone from strength to strength and made its mark on the annual calendar of festivals around Ireland with more than 11,000 people expected to attend the various events.

A mixture of traditional, classical and C&W as well as contemporary music is on the menu among the 200 events over the twelve-days of the festival.

It will take place in a number of venues and around Clifden, the capital of Connemara.

Among those events are poetry and prose readings, art exhibitions, book launches, theatre and talks.

The RTE Concert Orchestra and RTE’s Contempo Quartet both make the journey to Clifden this year. Other big names in Irish music performing at the festival are Aslan, Máirtin O’Connor, Maighread Ní Dhomnaill, Martin Hayes, Bill Whelan, Lisa Hannigan, Declan Nerney, Frankie Gavin and Fiachra O’Regan, Seán Keane, Charlie McGettigan, Andy Irvine, Donal Lunny and Paddy Glackin to mention a few.

Aosdana members, Paul Durcan and Rita Ann Higgins will give poetry readings and new novelist, E.M. Reapy, a Mayo native, whose novel Red Dirt is set in Australia, gives a reading alongside Sligo born Galway based, Michael Gorman.

The literary line up is varied and rich with Food for Thought, a talk by former editor at Country Living magazine in the UK, Margaret Hickey and additional helpings from Connemara based food writer and photographer for The Sunday Times – Cliodhna Prendergast.

Fergal Keane, journalist and author, will also provide give an insight into his work as a foreign correspondent for the BBC, reporting on issues including the conflict in Northern Ireland, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the Rwandan genocide, his talk is titled wounds: a memoir of war and love.

The Long-Lost Short Stories of Gearóid P. Mannion is another gem, which was hidden in a cupboard under the sink for over a quarter of a century.

Enter the world of a precocious teenager growing up in 1980s rural Ireland. These stories are made all the more poignant because their author, in spite of having a life-limiting illness, illuminates his incredible mind.

Gearóid P. Mannion died at just 21, but his legacy lives on in this funny, heartfelt, warm collection of essays written when he was a teenager. The reading will be by his sisters Karen and Sinead Mannion.

There’s a one-man play, ‘Padraig Potts’ by Séamus O’Rourke and there’s a monologue about Constance Markievicz written by journalist Mary Kenny and performed by Cleggan author Jeananne Crowley.

If you want to hit a funny bone, fresh from his tour at the Edinburgh Fringe, award winning comedian Danny O’ Brien his ‘best of’ show to Clifden.

The visual arts programme will showcase a major exhibition by Irish artist Brian Maguire. The exhibition brings together Maguire’s latest body of work from his visit to Syria in 2017. The Aleppo Paintings document the ruined buildings of the city, offering a visceral and stark insight into the physical consequences of war and the international arms trade that fuels all conflict. Maguire’s approach has led him into settings usually regarded as remote from the rarefied domain of the art world, the result of which is an emotionally evocative exhibition.

Highlights of the visual arts programme also include exhibitions from internationally renowned Mick O’Dea, the current President of the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA), as well a spectacular collection from the acclaimed Connemara based Dorothy Cross.

There’s loads to do and see for family entertainment, like Fidget Feet’s spectacular acrobatics, free activities and workshops. Fidget Feet are a pint-sized aerial circus company from Ireland. They tell stories from anywhere they can think of; from cranes, forests, or swinging from buildings. In recent years the Festival Finale has established itself as one of the must-see events.

The festival kicks off on September 12 and continues daily until September 23.  For further information please go to

Wild Atlantic Way from Donegal to Connemara in the West of Ireland …

Pictures by Bill Heaney and Heather Greer

Call in at Cleggan for the craic

Cleggan Bofin road signCleggan is a fishing village on the road to Inishbofin, an island on the Wild Atlantic Way. There are some great places to stay such as Josephine DeCourcey’s B and B and Oliver’s, the village pub which has great food and accommodation. There’s also the Pier Bar and Newman’s which is famous for its music sessions. Not forgetting Mary Sweeney and Malachy King’s Strand Bar over in Claddaghduff. Josephine’s Hazelbrook Farmhouse is at; Noreen Higgins is at Oliver’s; Bernie Hughes is at; Marian Feeney is at; Eileen Mulkerrin is at +353 (0)95 44679 and Loretta O’Malley is at      These are all handy numbers for a comfortable place to lay down your weary head for a night, a week or a fortnight in a place that’s blessed with quiet when you want it and full of music and sport when you don’t.

Pictures by Bill Heaney

Clifden is icing on the Connemara cake

Clifden is the capital of Connemara. It’s the place for food, fashion, fishing, fun and the Arts, which has a festival all of its own – probably one of the best in Ireland – every September with poets, musicians, choirs, writers and theatre groups. It has one of the best hotels in the country, The Station House. And some of the finest restaurants. The Abbey Glen Hotel and the Alcock and Brown are first class. But if you’re just a coffee and scones woman then there is Walsh’s bakery, where the selection of bread and cakes is outstanding. They do all day breakfasts there, of course. There are art galleries and in Millar’s of Connemara, the proprietor Triona Sweeney has state of the art fashions from Ireland’s top designers. Stanley’s has all the kit you’ll ever need for hill walking and fishing – and tweeds and Aran jumpers.  The Clifden Bookshop has a electic selection of books and special greetings cards. Nicole or Maire will welcome you there. Golf can be wonderful at the Connemara Club, a championship course to test the skills of the lowest handicapped players. Horse riding is a a given. And there’s the annual Connemara Pony Show. Bikes are for hire at Mannion’s.

It’s a grand way to see the Sky Road and the unsurpassed views from the top of the hill looking out to the Atlantic. EJ King’s is one of the most popular bars and it has a colourful history which you can learn all about over pint of stout and a half dozen oysters. Mannion’s, Griffiths’, Vaughan’s, Tom King’s and other good pubs have been there since cattle were sold in the street outside St Joseph’s Church. The Station House Hotel has great food and drink, a museum, its own busy theatre and cinema. If you want to have dinner then Mitchell’s , Marconi or Guy’s are amongst the best places. Gifts from Connemara Blue glassware created before your very eyes are most unusual and you’ll get something for a sore head or sunburn at Noreen Casey’s or Moran’s Medical Hall. Book now at the Station House Hotel – and tell them I sent you round. Enjoy a nightcap listening to Barry Ryan on the grand piano and songs from his girlfriend Sally which range from Paul Simon to Paul Brady. There are no strangers in Clifden, just friends you have yet to meet. Oh, and there is complimentary WIFI in every warm and comfortable bedroom. Bill Heaney

Clifden Station House Hotel is at or e mail

Top chefs serve up a new series of their culinary road trip, as they explore Canada

Chefs with starter

TOP chefs, Paul Rankin and Nick Nairn, set off on their latest epic culinary road trip and cultural journey of discovery in their new series, which starts this Friday, 10 August at 8pm on STV.

Paul and Nick’s Big Canadian Food Trip sees the popular Michelin-ranked pair, who are best buddies, exploring their shared Ulster-Scots heritage whilst touring Canada’s New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and greater Toronto areas.

Following the trail of the Ulster Scots who travelled to the New World to start a new life, and having met a variety of fantastic food producers along the way, Paul and Nick cook a special three-course meal for some descendants of Canadian history’s intrepid Celtic settlers.

Paul, who was born in Scotland and brought up in Ballywalter, County Down, became the first chef from Northern Ireland to be awarded a Michelin Star when he won the prestigious accolade in 1999. He quickly became one of TV’s favourite chefs after appearing in a variety of cookery programmes including Ready Steady Cook and the Great British Menu. The author of five cookery books, Paul also made his name running The Rankin Group chain of cafes and restaurants which included the acclaimed Cayenne and Roscoff in Belfast.

Nick became the youngest Scottish chef to win a Michelin star in 1991 after opening his first restaurant, Braeval near Aberfoyle in Stirlingshire. His successful TV career began a few years later when he appeared on shows includingReady Steady Cook and Great British Menu (cooking lunch for Her Majesty The Queen on her 80th birthday) as well as his own Wild Harvest, Wild Harvest 2 and Island Harvest series. The author of 11 books, he also runs Nairns Cook School in Port of Menteith and Nick’s Pizza Bar in Aberdeen.

Nick Nairn said: “Paul and I first met at a dinner in London over 20 years ago and have been the best of pals ever since, so we love working together. We had lots of fun making our three previous series and touring Scotland, Ireland and America to learn all about the stories of the Ulster Scots whilst indulging our passion for great local produce and fantastic cooking. Our latest adventure in Canada, was no different – it was an absolute delight to make and a joy to explore such a beautiful part of the world.”

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