Aisling Ghéar's Search for Robert McAdam

Aisling Ghéar Theatre Company celebrates the little-known Ulster personality at the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival

He collected songs and folk tales, ran an iron foundry, spoke 13 languages, wrote a large, unpublished dictionary of Irish, and spoke it fluently. He also founded the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, co-founded the Ulster Gaelic Society and the Belfast Museum, was involved in the Linen Hall Library and Belfast Literary Society, and hosted the Pasha of Egypt in the city.

His name was Robert McAdam, and despite the formidable roll call of his civic and scholarly achievements, he remains a relatively obscure figure in his native Ulster. Perhaps that’s because he was also a Presbyterian, and saw no contradiction in combining his religion with a fervent interest in all things Irish, and a passionate commitment to perpetuating indigenous traditions.

Such easy bestraddling of cultural boundaries seems less fashionable nowadays, and makes McAdam difficult to pigeonhole. It also makes him a richly rewarding character to study, and it’s probable that nobody knows more about McAdam than actor, Noel McGee, whose one-man play, Seo Robert (Here’s Robert): The Search for Robert McAdam is coming to The Baby Grand, Belfast from May 8 – 10 as part of the 2013 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Bríd Ó Gallchoir, artistic director of the Aisling Ghéar Theatre Company, which staged the premiere of Seo Robert at last year’s Féile an Phobail arts festival in west Belfast, recalls the enthusiasm the play instantly created in those who saw it. ‘What’s really interesting about it is that it’s one of those shows where the audience want to hang around afterwards and talk about Robert. The proof of the pudding is that everybody found the story as fascinating as myself and Noel did.’

Fascinating McAdam’s story may well be, yet for many he remains a largely unknown quantity. ‘I suppose because in one way he’s very public,’ Ó Gallchoir speculates. 'He was involved in a lot of societies, and he was an industrialist. But at the same time he kept no diaries, there are no photographs of him, he never married or had children. So he’s also very mysterious, which is why we call our play The Search for Robert McAdam.

‘Noel's been researching McAdam's life for 15 years, and what personal information we have from him comes from his brother’s diary. So we’re looking at him, and the city that he grew up and lived in, which changed so dramatically. It went from being 20,000 people in the year he was born (1808), and 87 years later when he died it was 200,000. That’s an extraordinary time to have lived through.’

Ó Gallchoir emphasises the importance of McAdam’s personal and political credo in the broader historical context. ‘He was an inheritor of the broken dreams of the United Irishmen,’ she comments. ‘Sectarianism was alive and well back then, and he really believed that culture and the Irish language were the way to unite people in Belfast and in the North. He really wanted to change and improve the society that he lived in.’

Mention of the Irish language brings Ó Gallchoir to a unique feature of Seo Robert – the fact that it is a bilingual production, with actor McGee communicating in both Irish and English. How does that work? Is it not a little complicated for McGee to negotiate?

Not at all, according to Ó Gallchoir. ‘It’s very simple,’ she says. ‘Because McAdam is a Presbyterian, and because the Irish language is mainly the preserve of nationalists and Catholics, we really wanted the play to be available to people who don’t have Irish. So the play is 80% in English, and the performer translates the Irish sections for the audience. It’s part of the experience, you know.’

In the 16 years since Aisling Gheár’s inception, the company has constantly striven to present productions in Irish, in line with its core mission to be ‘the Irish Language theatre company in the North of Ireland'. Has the inclusion of such a high proportion of English in Seo Robert proved in any way controversial?

‘We’re happy with it, we’ve had no complaints,’ Ó Gallchoir responds. ‘Our normal audience would be very passionate about the language, would think it’s very important to have theatre in Irish. But nobody’s come up to me and said “Hey, that was largely in English, what do you think you’re doing?”

‘Possibly because the play is very much about a passionate advocate of the Irish language, and a unique person. I think it’s very important that a company like ours crosses sectarian boundaries, and we’re doing that.’

There’s more bilingualism in The Full Irish, the second show that Aisling Gheár is contributing to this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. It’s an evening of song and comedy, very different to Seo Robert, but Ó Gallchoir is equally enthusiastic about it. ‘It’s fabulous!’ she says. ‘We did that during Féile an Phobail as well, and everyone was delighted. It’s a really fun, relaxing night of comedy and music.

‘We’ve got a stand-up comedian who does his act bilingually,’ adds Ó Gallchoir. She’s referring to Paddy McDonnell, a west Belfast taxi driver described as ‘one of the fastest rising talents on the Northern Irish comedy circuit'.

‘He’s a perfect example of what’s happening in Belfast today. He’s a man who didn’t grow up speaking any Irish, his kids are going to Gaelscoil, so he’s been trying to learn and improve his Irish. And he’s brought that into his stand-up act.’

Also on the bill is JJ O Dochartaigh from Derry~Londonderry, described by Ó Gallchoir as ‘a fabulous musician and an amazing performer'. O Dochartaigh’s speciality is translating songs by the likes of Damien Rice, Coldplay, Ed Sheeran and Bruno Mars into Irish, putting his own spin on them in the process.

Ó Gallchoir is also promising a sketch show from the company, where the content is instantaneously translated from Irish and relayed via headphones to those who prefer to listen in English. Add a good old-fashioned raffle – for which a bag of turf, a side of ham and a bottle of whiskey are among the prizes on offer – and you have the makings of what Ó Gallchoir calls ‘a really great night out'.

‘Our venue and our hall is on the Falls Road,’ she says, ‘and it’s brilliant to get into the city centre for this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. We get a different audience in there, and new people. It’s a delight.’

Seo Robert: The Search for Robert McAdam runs at the Baby Grand, Grand Opera House, Belfast from May 8 – 10, and The Full Irish is at the Grand Opera House on May 11.