The Irish language was once seen as the language of poverty in Ireland. Perhaps, Irish was seen as the language of a shared trauma that is better forgotten as the nation moves on after independence.
But Gaeilge is also at the core of this independence; a cultural independence. This is an independence that is still expressed through the medium of Irish language theatre today.
This contemporary movement is one tied to Irish heritage. It is one of the truest expressions of Irish national identity today, as Irish culture and heritage meet. Irish language theatre isn’t just a drama told in Irish to spread the language — it’s an expression of the world as Irish people experience it.
The foundations of Irish theatre are at the turn of the twentieth century with the Gaelic Revival; a cooperative movement between the Abbey Theatre, the Gaelic League, and the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society. The aim was to encourage the growth of Irish culture and community across Ireland — both rural and urban — and create a cohesive sense of Irishness that had been lost.
“Money spent in theatre is money well spent”
Its effective organisational roots are still in practice today. With theatre companies like An Taibhdhearc, Fíbín, Moonfish and many more working through the Irish language, the theatre’s foundations lie with community involvement. Many involved in the industry see this community building as one of the most rewarding parts of Irish language theatre.
“Theatre creates a community based around the language,” said Eoghan Mac Giolla Bhríde, a Donegal writer and translator involved in a number of productions for stage and screen.
“It’s quite an involved experience, from the point of view of the audience, and the point of view of those making the play, so the actors that come together in writing the play and discussing the play; it’s all really important in building a community.
“So, money spent on theatre is money well spent, as it creates something that other mediums don’t. It creates a sense of community that you don’t get from television, that you don’t get from film or literature,” said Mac Giolla Bhríde.
Communities are built throughout Ireland in the medium of theatre. For some, most importantly, the language and culture are spread creatively. This is a manner that changes the narrative of Irish being inaccessible or intimidating.
Branar, a theatre company in Galway, are renowned for some of the most exciting productions being made today. The work is focused on creating “big stories for little citizens.”
Branar focuses on creating work for young people. By using creative methods, like interactivity to spread the language, Branar is looking to break down the perceived barriers. Barriers that, it is worth mentioning, are something native speakers don’t see.
The contemporary movements
Morgan Cooke is another theatremaker, actor, and teacher involved with some of the Irish language plays transcending the traditional boundaries with an observation that theatre as Gaeilge is becoming about “quality over tokenism.”
“The same could be said across a lot of Irish theatres, but I see it a lot more in Irish language theatre,” said Cooke. “For me, something big happened in the early 2000s when Darach Mac Con Iomaire took over.
“He started to produce work that was modern, and if it was old fashioned work, he would question the place of this old work in the modern context.”
Mac Con Iomair’s work and belief is continued across Irish language theatre by many others. Branar was, of course, one of the places bringing this new eye to our shared heritage. Challenging the norms of theatrical delivery and making audience participation a key element has brought the most rewarding reactions and feedback from those involved in cast and crew.
“The knowledge base has widened and there’s an increased professionalism,” said actor Tara Breathnach on the changing face of Irish theatre. “This has translated into increased quality. Some people might expect a simple direct translation but then they go and see a contemporary dance piece.”
The Irish language today offers a foundation for contemporary theatre. This is a fundamental framework from which the artists can draw inspiration. For Breathnach, “even within the constraints of that framework; you have to find the colour and variety to get the thrust and cut of a scene across. Otherwise, how horrendously boring would it be?”
And boring isn’t a word that comes associated with Irish language theatre too often. Far be it from the experience in the classroom, Irish language theatre is some of the most engaging work offered by theatre companies today.
The boring old tongue
The audience is a part of the production in a way that was seen in European theatre in the past. However, the engagement is different from those traditional means of laughter and even heckling in some cases. Branar’s production ‘Sruth na Teanga’ is an immersive experience like no other.
Combining live performance, music, animation, and interactivity; ‘Sruth na Teanga’ is an immersive experience that brings the spectator through the journey of Irish language history. From the folklore, to the famine and right up to the modern day, this is a journey through etymology that promises to be entirely unique.
This all comes from a place of not only spreading Irish, but exploring the Irish experience also. That being said, the promotion of the language remains at the core of these pieces. For Morgan Cooke, who worked with the much-applauded Moonfish on the bilingual ‘Star of the Sea,’ there was an observed sense that after Irish speakers leave school there’s a tendency to “lock away the Irish learned.”
“For Star of the Sea, we just gave them the necessary words so that they knew what was going on,” said Cooke. “We gave a lot of thought to how much the audience should be fed, and how to feed them. So many were surprised that they could follow the Irish”
The power of Irish language theatre is such that it can strike those places where language lies dormant. Most languages aren’t lost after leaving school, but there is a notable tendency to forget Irish when it isn’t needed in the day-to-day. But through the story, the acting performances, the body language of those on stage, and in the musical and visual cues – the connection with the language becomes clearer.
“I’ve seen very little Irish language theatre that’s your regular kitchen sink drama,” said actor and Gaeilgeoir Muireann Ní Raghaillaigh who notes that Irish language theatre is also cutting-edge in terms of its content.
“It ties in with our landscape and there’s a darkness there, but I don’t know if that’s a language thing or an Irish thing,” said Ní Raghaillaigh. “There’s definitely a melancholy there, but the humour is outstanding and, I suppose, that’s to bring a balance to those sides of being Irish.”
The language may simply lie as a medium to express the new wave of Irish theatre. A creative and burgeoning side of the industry and one that perhaps has been ignored more often than not.
Although the language is Irish heritage, it meets with today’s fluctuating culture. It meets with the new Ireland, the experience of immigration, rather than emigration. The experience of alcoholism, rather than hunger. And the notions of Irish as an ‘intimidating language’ might be left around from the days of the leaving cert, there’s enough creativity and energy to say that Irish language theatre isn’t just changing that idea, it might be changing the whole theatre industry with it.