From Transylvania to Gaoth Dobhair

In this week’s edition of The Third Degree, Paul Bradley chats to Columbia Hillen, writer, photographer, and herbalist about her interesting career and making Gaoth Dobhair her home.

Columbia, you’ve led an interesting life. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself please?
Transylvania was where I grew up and my parents being geologists, I and my younger sister, Ingrid, spent school holidays climbing and camping in the Carpathians. I became a teacher of English in my small town and after Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed on Christmas Day 1989, I made my way to my native Romania’s capital city, Bucharest, where I gained a university degree in journalism.
Afterwards, I was lucky to work on a newspaper for UNICEF as well as media projects supported by international development organisations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Soros Foundation, USAID and various United Nations agencies, either teaching journalists in the new post-Communist era or training emerging charities in media skills such as organising news conferences, giving sound bites, writing press releases etc. A scholarship to Washington DC for on-the-job training with a leading NGO helped me.
After meeting Sean, my husband, then foreign correspondent for The Irish Times and chairperson of the US Fulbright Commission, we established a publishing and events company together in Bucharest producing a national business newspaper, magazines and an overnight news service, with around 35 full-time staff.
We also launched the first-ever St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Romania, bringing musicians from Donegal, combining it with Civic and Corporate Citizen Awards. A lot of fun with Presidents, Prime Ministers, Mayors and thousands of people present in seven different cities. That introduced me to wonderful Irish music. In 2008, we moved to Bun na Leaca in Gaoth Dobhair and made it our home.

You write, take photos, and work as a herbalist – is any one more fun or more satisfying than the others? Do you see them as overlapping or separate aspects of a whole?
Writing, photography (https://www.columbiahillen and herbalism (https://www.anamcara require keen use of senses – vision, smell, taste, touch, plus imagination – so there is overlap. Always interested in alternative approaches to health, medical herbalism provides a strong avenue for me. As for photography, I was fortunate to combine both interests and win last year’s national photography award from the Irish Registry of Herbalists.


You founded the Ireland Writing Retreat 10 years ago. What was the inspiration for that, and how did you attract so many people from so many places?
Gaoth Dobhair, indeed much of Donegal, is an artist’s dream palette, the land and seascapes being so inspiring. Being interested in books, I felt it the perfect place for an international writing retreat. And so it has proven to be.
Celebrating our 10th anniversary next year, we’ve attracted people from all walks of life and from countries as diverse as Iceland, New Zealand, the US, Germany, Australia, Canada, the UK, and of course, Ireland. Keep in mind, this is not Dublin, London or even Galway. This is a little, often-ignored corner of Ireland, so I’m proud to show off where I live to so many people from so many different backgrounds.
Starting with a single, week-long retreat, I now host three every year in Donegal, one in Paris and another in Languedoc. To my delight, The Guardian newspaper in London voted ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ among the Top Ten artist retreats of any kind in Europe. During Covid, I also launched an international writing competition, the ‘Wild Atlantic Writing Awards (WAWA),’ now in its eighth successful edition with thousands of entries worldwide.

For anyone thinking about it, what sort of things happen at a retreat?
My retreat (https://www.irelandwritin ) is unique in several ways. I combine cultural excursions with author-led, writing workshops and assignment critiques. Reflecting the phrase ‘if you want to be a writer, write,’ participants develop stories in any genre – romance, murder, sci-fi, fantasy – from experiences we provide. In Donegal, these include Irish language lessons, visits to Glenveagh National Park, Gola and Inis Bó Finne islands and author Micí Mac Gabhann’s 19th century thatched cottage, even music seisiúns and dance performances at Teac Jack in Glassagh and Leo’s Tavern in Crolly.

What is the main aim of the retreats: to develop ideas, to make something marketable, or just to polish the language itself? Or just to make writing feel a bit less lonely?
Firstly, to share the beauty and cultural richness of northwest Donegal with like-minded people. Secondly, to create an environment where people who enjoy writing or have dreamed of finishing a book can improve their skills, find inspiration and their own voice, without the pressure of being judged or compared to anyone.
Is it the case that, since phones became popular, people are forgetting how to write? Or has Covid, which redirected us to more thoughtful pursuits, helped revive an interest? In the manuscripts you are given to guide or correct, what are the main kinds of issues you find?
Technology has made us more impatient. Writing short texts on messaging services has reduced people’s ability to complete a book. But there are ways to encourage writing, such as our idea in focusing our WAWA competition on flash fiction and creative nonfiction, with a 500-word limit. This encourages people to condense their meaning, make it more powerful. Our satisfaction derives from helping participants transform good ideas into good stories.

In terms of photography, what sort of equipment do you use?
Olympus mirrorless cameras for the last 10 years. Versatile, light and user-friendly. Often involved in travel photography, I find the OM camera E-M5 Mark III with pancake lens and macro (for food photography) easy to pack. It’s also good for nature shots and landscapes.
What kind of photography appeals most to you? I often feel the skills for, say, landscape photography and street photography are quite different.
Lacking the skill for street photography, which requires deep interest in city life and up-close people, I’m more comfortable around trees and plants. With them, I’ve no problem getting up-close.

Do you think AI will kill photography?
The jury is still out on AI but my feeling is that a robot cannot imitate human passions and creativity, key ingredients in artistic pursuits, whether painting, photography or writing.
Are there any local issues you would like to draw attention to?
I’m disappointed environmentally-friendly tourism hasn’t developed as much as it could in the Donegal Gaeltacht, a region more beautiful than Cork, Kerry or Galway. Developing this sector will create jobs and keep Irish-speaking people here, thus keeping the native language alive.

Quick fire:
The book or the film?
Book, especially ‘Pretty Ugly,’ a novel by my husband. It links Donegal and the US.
Your perfect night?
Cosying up with my husband and our three dogs – Einstein, Siog and Lugh – with wind and rain beating down on our ‘home on the hill.’ And cooking – I’m a pretty decent chef.
Favourite film?
‘A River Runs Through It’
My musical hero is Freddie Mercury, but also James Blunt, Pat Gallagher/Goats Don’t Shave, Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi. Jazz for relaxation.
Your nickname at school?
The Boss
What do you look for most in a friend?
Loyalty, thoughtfulness and a sense of humour
What angers, frightens, or disappoints you?
People mistreating animals, they’re sentient beings like us after all.
How do you relax?
My Garden, ‘Anamcara Healing Herbs,’ is my Eden.
Do you have a particular motto/belief that you try to live by?
“Obstacles are not opposing you, but merely and gently re-routing you.” Neale Donald Walsch

If anyone else would like to take part in this interview, to raise a profile or an issue, or just for fun, please contact Paul at


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