“Identifying the things we have in common rather than the things that are different about us,” is the phrase which resonates most with me after an open and insightful exchange with Muireann Kelly, Artistic Director of Theatre Gu Leor, regarding her new play Scotties.
Taking the 1937 Kirkintilloch disaster as its focal point, the play intends to confront increasingly relevant themes of prejudice, immigration and Scottish-Irish relations. It is split between a storyline following the fate of ten young Irish workers burnt to death in a bothy fire, with a parallel narrative tracing the life of a young Glaswegian in the modern day, which brings the tragedy into a contemporary context.
The past can, all too often, feel like an isolated and inaccessible reality as Muireann points out; “although it’s important to tell these stories, it felt even more important to convert it to now”. This subtle urgency to portray the state of Scotland’s relationship with Ireland and the reactions of Scottish communities to migrants can perhaps be explained by Muireann’s own personal connection to both countries. A native of County Mayo, the birthplace of the boys lost at Kirkintilloch, but with a rich personal history steeped in Scotland, she represents both the past complexities and the existing state of Irish connections with Scotland. Equally, as a speaker of both Irish and Scottish Gaelic, she is able to give the play’s characters a voice in what would have been their language at the time. Despite the potential language barrier here, Muireann is keen to reassure non-Gaelic speakers. Describing the process of co-writing the work she jokingly adds, “Frances [Poet, co-author] doesn’t speak a word of Gaelic and she wrote half the play with me!”
A mixture of alternative mediums is also used; the production employing music, dance and song to communicate with the audience. It is by this endeavour of inclusivity that I’m reminded again of Muireann’s previous sentiment – that which unites us can transcend our differences. Particularly pertinent today, she explains, when many of us are dealing with issues surrounding immigration. The play thus seeks to go beyond the theme of Irish immigration, “asking questions about Scotland, the UK and the wider world; questions about folk and how we treat them.” Questions, it seems, that are being asked at precisely the right time.
Hopeful that the play is embraced by an Edinburgh audience, given its reputation as a cultural hub, we end our interview considering the reception such a demanding theme will provoke. Muireann, however, is resolute in stating “there are points in the story that are uncomfortable to hear, but if you don’t tell those stories you never really learn.” A noble effort. Are we ready to learn?
Runs 27th-29th September
Image: Mihaela Bodlovic