When Muireann Kelly moved to Glasgow from County Mayo in her native Ireland, she was all too aware of some of the differences, as well as the similarities, between her birthplace and her adopted home. One of these was in the way history and mythology is dealt with, particularly in relation to how incomers from other places are treated.
More specifically, while the actress and theatre director had long been aware of a major tragedy in 1937, when ten young boys from Achill island in County Mayo were killed in their bothy in a fire in Kirkintilloch during potato-picking season, she discovered that few people she met in Scotland had heard of the story.
The 1937 Kirkintilloch disaster is at the heart of Scotties, a new play co-written by Kelly with Frances Poet, which opens in Glasgow next week as part of a tour presented by the Kelly-led Gaelic-based company Theatre Gu Leor (Theatre Galore). Supported by the National Theatre of Scotland and the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, Scotties aims to put this piece of hidden history under the spotlight in a way that taps into current concerns regarding the way migrants can sometimes be treated.
“I grew up with the story of the Kirkintilloch tragedy,” says Kelly, “so when I moved to Glasgow, I knew the connection between the two islands. For me, why I couldn’t let the story go, I feel half Scottish and half Irish, my kids have all grown up in Glasgow, and they go to Gaelic schools, and I wondered why me and everyone in Achill knows about what happened, but nobody in Kirkintilloch does.
“That sits uncomfortably with me, because everyone in Achill is aware of their Scottish connections. That’s where the name of the play comes from, because Scotties is what they’d call themselves when they came here, and spent half the year here. Out of that, I kept on thinking that how people from other cultures are treated, nothing’s really changed.”
Kelly discussed the potential for a play with fellow writer Poet, and the pair visited Achill together so Poet could get a sense of a community and a story that had been with Kelly her whole life.
“Frances was catching up with what I’d been carrying around in my head,” says Kelly.
It was important for both writers when putting together their bi-lingual collaboration that the umbilical links between the events of 1937 and today were explored in a way that made it even more pertinent, as well as much closer to home.
“The story is seen through the lens of a fourteen-year-old boy today,” Kelly explains. “He’s first and foremost a Glaswegian, but he’s a Gaelic speaker as well, and we see the struggles he has with why he’s learning Gaelic today, and he discovers the Kirkintilloch story almost by default. Through that process he finds he has more connections to it that he thought, and by the end he feels really connected to it. It feels very important for a young lad from now to tell that story. When Frances and I went to Achill, my sister, who lives there, and who was commissioned to compose a piece of music for the seventy-fifth anniversary of what happened in Kirkintilloch, she has a son who was fourteen at the time, so it was interesting seeing that first hand.”
With music and movement integral to the production, including a bagpiper onstage performing alongside the show’s seven actors, Kelly and Poet are effectively giving voice to other ways for people to connect that go beyond words.
“The physicality of the piece becomes another language,” says Kelly. “It becomes a kind of time twister that takes the boy back to the time of what happened in Kirkintilloch. The movement, music and the words are all rooted in the contemporary, and they’re all used theatrically as well. We’re writing a piece of drama that has to have something that you feel strongly about today, and hopefully by the end the boy realises that’s not just about speaking Gaelic.”
In this way, the play broadens things out as a way of illustrating the hardships of migrant workers across the generations. As history continues to show, this has seen them marginalised by ingrained prejudices and resentments which still linger today in glaring and sometimes brutal fashion.
“We need to be not so quick in making judgements about people who look and sound different from us,” says Kelly, “and I suppose the boy in the play is looking into the future, so it’s not just about Irish tattie howkers. It’s about people coming here, and living and working in terrible conditions, and the play is asking who we think we are to be making judgements in the way we do.”
While Scotties won’t be playing in Kirkintilloch as part of its tour, it will travel to Achill, effectively taking the story home in a reflection of how the dead boys’ bodies were in 1737.
“On one level the play is redressing the balance in terms of getting the story out there,” says Kelly, “but I’d really like people to be moved to ask themselves questions about how they respond to people who aren’t like them.
“It’s easy to think that Irish and Scottish people are the same, but if they were we wouldn’t be in a position where this story needs to be heard, and that people in Kirkintilloch are heard as much as people in Achill. It’s really about how we’re all jumbled up in this, and how maybe we all need to ask ourselves a few questions about how we look at people. There is joy there as well in the way things connect, and in that way it’s a celebration of how people and communities from different cultures are connected, and to embrace that.”
Scotties, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, September 13-15; Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, September 19; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, September 21-22; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, September 24; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, September 27-29; Colaiste Acia, Achill Island, Co. Mayo, Ireland.
The Herald, September 6th 2018