Brushing Up On Our Gaelic

Aisling Ghéar are bringing Irish language theatre up to date, writes James Gracey

The Aisling Ghéar theatre company began more than 20 years ago as an amateur drama group known as Aisteoiri Aon Dráma (Actors of Any Play). Its aim, maintained today, is to provide high quality theatre productions in the Irish language. After successfully obtaining funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, first production Dialann Ocrais/Diary of a Hunger Strike was attended by thousands, suggesting that Irish language theatre could thrive in NI.

Developing a reputation for quality productions and eclecticism, Aisteoiri Aon Dráma decided that to secure its future it needed to become a professional company. Aisling Ghéar was therefore established in 1996 – its name taken from the work of the late Aodhán Ó Raithille, a renowned wordsmith and poet. Aisling Ghéar's first production was Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo. 

With the 2001 census in Northern Ireland establishing that 167,487 (10.4%) people 'had some knowledge of Irish’ and the claim that Belfast represents the fastest growing centre of the Irish language usage in the whole of Ireland, Aisling Ghéar believe there is a definite need to provide quality, Irish-language drama to NI audiences.

‘It's important that a language has access to all the arts and to provide cultural events for Irish language speakers,' says Aisling Ghéar general manager Anne McAlonan-McCrudden. 'This in turn impacts on the tourism experience, which enhances the area and has a positive social impact.’

Catering for Irish speakers doesn’t mean that non-Irish speakers can’t enjoy Aisling Ghéar productions. The Good Friday Agreement's provisions on 'parity of esteem' have been used to give the language an official status in NI. Belfast City Council has designated the Falls Road area (from Milltown Cemetery to Divis street) as The Gaeltacht (Irish speaking) Quarter of Belfast. In March 2005, the Irish language TV service TG4 began broadcasting from the Divis transmitter near Belfast, as a result of agreement between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Northern Ireland Office.

What of those who cannot speak Irish? This need not be a barrier for theatre-goers, as Aisling Ghéar use state-of-the-art translation system. Headphones provided to the audience enable them to hear a translation provided by a speaker seated in another room while the proceedings unfold onstage.

Scene notes are also provided, creating a review of each scene, freeing up your time to enjoy the performance. McAlonan-McCrudden adds, ‘The fact that it’s in Irish shouldn’t be seen as a barrier. It’s another aspect of the diverse culture that we have in this country.’

Gruagairí/Hair, the latest production by Aisling Ghéar, has been written by Derry's Dave Duggan. Among Duggan's many works are the Oscar-nominated Dance Lexie Dance, Tumbleturns and The Shopper. A fluent Irish speaker, Waterford-born Duggan is also co-founder of Sole Purpose Theatre Company. He has also taught playwriting at the University of Ulster.

His new play, specially commissioned by Aisling Ghéar, is entitled Gruagairí/Hair. A comedy based in contemporary, urban Belfast, the play focuses on the misadventures of two friends who open a hairdressing salon, only to discover that they want very different things from life. Throw in a lusty landlord, a doting mother and a hurling fanatic, and the result is a heady concoction of sly wit, dark humour and fire-fuelled quips.

The setting and period of Gruagairí/Hair was a deliberate move to take Irish language theatre out of the countryside and into the urban metropolis.

According to director Bríd O’Gallchoir the director of Gruagairí/Hair, ‘I wanted to give audiences something that reflects their lives as Irish speakers in Belfast.’

Aisling Ghéar are hoping to reach out to both Irish speaking and non-Irish speaking audiences. That the play is in Irish should not deter audiences from going along and enjoying it.