Dundalk Institute of Technology, Ireland | Published: 31 October, 2017
ISSUE 12.2 | Pages: 73-90 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-7587
2017 by Daithí Kearney | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
The Blasket Islands are located off the south-west coast of Ireland. No longer inhabited, the Great Blasket Island and its distinctive culture have been documented by a variety of writers and are celebrated today in an interpretative centre on the mainland and in performances by Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland. “Siamsa” developed from local initiatives in North Kerry during the early 1960s and is located today in Tralee, Co. Kerry. It aims to present Irish folklore and folk culture through the medium of theatre involving music, song, dance and mime but invariably no dialogue. In this paper, I focus on the production Oiléan, based loosely on the stories of the Blasket Islanders, which was initially devised as part of the fiftieth anniversary commemoration of the departure of the last inhabitants of the islands in 2003.
Las islas Blasket están situadas frente a la costa suroeste de Irlanda. Aunque ya no están habitadas, a lo largo de la historia distintos escritores han documentado lo más distintivo de la cultura de la isla principal o Great Blasket; asimismo, un centro de interpretación en tierra firme da testimonio de su legado, como igualmente lo hace Siamsa Tíre, el Teatro Popular Nacional de Irlanda. La compañía “Siamsa” se desarrolló a partir de iniciativas locales en la zona del norte de Kerry a principios de los años 60 del siglo XX y hoy tiene su sede en Tralee, en el condado de Kerry. Su objetivo es el de presentar el folklore irlandés y la cultura popular a través de un tipo de teatro que contiene música, canciones, baile y mimo, pero con ausencia de diálogos. Este ensayo se centra en la producción Oiléan, basada a grandes rasgos en las propias historias de los isleños. Este espectáculo se concibió para conmemorar en 2003 el quincuagésimo aniversario de la partida de los últimos habitantes de las islas.
Teatro Popular; Siamsa Tíre; Islas Blasket; Música Tradicional Irlandesa.
Siamsa Tíre, The National Folk Theatre of Ireland, has developed a form of folk theatre that aims to present on-stage material that draws from Irish folklore and traditions, not only in a creative and aesthetically pleasing manner but also in a way that presents opportunities for audiences to engage with folklore and stories of the past. In Oileán, a folk theatre production interpreted as “island”, the company draws upon the traditions, customs, narratives, tunes and sayings of the Blasket Islands and, in particular, the Great Blasket Island, as documented in the works of many authors who visited or lived on the islands in the first half of the twentieth century. Although the Great Blasket Island is no longer inhabited, the production Oileán provides an opportunity for a second life to the folklore and customs of the island and presents it for an audience that is often comprised of tourists from many different parts of the world. The folk customs of the now uninhabited islands are transformed by theatrical mediation and represented in a manner that celebrates what is gone and creates something new for a theatre-going audience in the nearby space of the Siamsa Tíre Theatre and Arts Centre in the town of Tralee, Co. Kerry, approximately 75km from the island.
The motivation for the production Oileán came in part from plans to commemorate the departure of the final residents from the Great Blasket Island on 17 November 1953, an episode that is represented in the production. The sense of loss and passing is expressed in the phrase “Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann”, translated as “there shall not be their like again”, taken from Tomás Ó Criomhthain’s Irish-language autobiographical novel An tOileánach (The Islandman) (1929). Ó Criomhthain (1856–1937) chronicled a way of life for the people of his community on the Great Blasket Island that gradually declined until it was finally evacuated in 1953. Ó Criomhthain’s books, along with those of Peig Sayers (1873–1958), Muiris Ó Suilleabháin (1904–1950) and others, may be termed the Blasket library and are hugely significant not only for scholars of linguistics but as a window into Irish folk culture and folk life. As well as providing a description of a way of life, the books provide an insight into meon na ndaoine or mindset and way of thinking of the people, which Siamsa Tíre founder Pat Ahern believes essential to understanding “folk”.1 As Foley (Step Dancing 215) notes, a sense of community is both a recurring theme in the productions of the company and a characteristic of those involved.
Oileán was first produced as part of the fifty-year commemoration of the Blasket Islands evacuation, which was prompted by official government policy. Echoing some of the complexity of commemorating the 1916 Rising, there is an attempt to balance the celebration of the islands’ culture with the loss and emigration entailed by the evacuation. Living through the government-appointed Decade of Centenaries, it is worth reflecting on Fintan O’Toole’s remarks:
The idea of an island had a special importance for the independent Irish state that was established in 1922. For the young country, the Blasket and Aran islands had, as well as their echoes of Greek myth, a more specific aura of pre-history. They were part of the creation myth of the Irish state in which, as John Wilson had put it ‘the western island came to represent Ireland’s mythic unity before the chaos of conquest … at once the vestige and the symbolic entirety of an undivided nation.’ They were a past that would also be a future. Their supposed isolation had preserved them from corruption, kept their aboriginal Irishness intact through the long centuries of foreign rule. (The Ex-Isle 112)
Alongside commemorations of the 1916 Rising and other events, it is imperative that the importance of commemorating what it was that people were fighting for is remembered. That includes the survival of Irish culture as exemplified in a regional form by the writers of the Blasket Islands and presented today by Siamsa Tíre. On their website and promotional material for Oileán, Siamsa Tíre state:
This production celebrates life on the Blasket Islands in times past, exploring the way of life of the islanders and their spirit of survival. Oileán captures the essence of this island community, their traditions and customs, their wealth of song and story, their love of life and their strong kinship with one another. (Siamsa Tíre)
This description mirrors the earlier productions of Ahern’s, notably Fadó Fadó, in which the customs and ways of life in a North Kerry farming community are brought to life on stage with scenes representing thatching, milking cows and making butter with accompanying Irish-language song.
Siamsa Tíre has developed its artistic craft along similar patterns and paths to those employed by other international folk dance companies of the latter half of the twentieth century, presenting on-stage dramatized folk culture using traditional music, song and dance but, as Foley asserts, developing as a folk theatre rather than a folk dance company (Step Dancing 147). In many instances, they move beyond the folk dance remit of numerous other European folk dance groups to develop a form of staged “folk theatre” that embraces the potential of theatre and the development of narrative (see Shay). The Irish language is central to the philosophical roots of Siamsa Tíre, which retains a training centre at Carraig in the West Kerry Gaeltacht, although many of its members are not fluent in the language. While the majority of the song repertoire used by Siamsa Tíre is in the Irish language, the majority of productions do not employ spoken dialogue, instead presenting narrative through dance, mime and gesture.
In this paper I briefly consider the development of Siamsa Tíre and the form of folk theatre that it presents, acknowledging the position of Oileán within the wider repertoire of the company. Throughout the paper I consider the potential use of music, song and dance in commemorative theatrical productions, primarily from the perspective of an ethnomusicologist informed by ethnographic research that includes reflecting on participant observation “at home” with a community that I was a member of, prior to engaging in fieldwork (see Titon). At the beginning of a number of sections, I provide some short ethnographies of performance drawn from my experiences of the production. The process of devising folk theatre productions is itself a learning experience through which cast members rediscover meanings or translate old customs and stories for a contemporary audience. In turn, the audience interpret the experience from their perspectives, hopefully enjoying the inclusion of music, song and dance as part of an aesthetic experience. While Runia suggests that the often positivist approach to commemoration has deterred historians from engaging in thorough studies of commemoration, through a critical evaluation of the creative and devising process, as well as performances of the production, I will examine how the company have removed the focus from the departure from the Great Blasket Island in 1953 to a celebration of the unique culture and creativity of the people who lived there. Oileán provides a frame through which the stories of the Blasket Islanders may be re-read and experienced afresh. There is a sense of a timeless world lost in time brought to life by the characters that inhabit this dimension and are present in front of an audience. The islands, now abandoned, live on in a stylised and theatrical manner in the performances of Siamsa Tíre.
Siamsa Tíre, the National Folk Theatre of Ireland, developed from community-based activity in North Kerry in the early 1960s under the direction of a local curate, Pat Ahern (Foley, Step Dancing; Kearney, “The Evolution”, “Siamsa Tíre”, “Pioneer”; Phelan). Ahern’s initial appointment to St John’s parish in the town of Tralee in 1959 required him to establish a choir and, over the following decades, he would conduct this choir and develop a number of pageants on religious themes. A television series, Aililiú, a type of variety show based on traditional themes and first broadcast in 1965, marks the establishment of a folk theatre company, Siamsóirí na Ríochta, which went on to present on stage a musical culture and way of life lived by people in Kerry in the early twentieth century. They began performing full-length stage productions during the summer of 1968 and the “summer season” performances have continued into the present (see also Motherway; Foley, Step Dancing; Phelan). The company has developed and expanded over the past six decades but remains located in Kerry, largely comprised of a community (non-professional) cast. Renamed and reconstituted as Siamsa Tíre and acquiring the title of the National Folk Theatre in the 1970s, the company has a purpose-built theatre in Tralee, two training centres and an ever-increasing repertoire. The theatre is an important element of local tourism and audiences during the summer months are comprised largely of tourists, requiring consideration of the impact of tourism on local culture.2
The early productions of the group that became Siamsa Tíre were inspired by the lives of the people involved, in particular Pat Ahern. A fiddle player himself with a strong interest in the Irish song tradition, Ahern combined music, song and dance with theatricalised representations of Irish rural life, which included various tasks and social aspects common in rural north Kerry in the early twentieth century. Amongst the productions are Fadó Fadó (1968) and Ding Dong Dederó (1991) which focus on the experience of life in North Kerry; the latter representing the life and legacy of the North Kerry dancing master Jeremiah Molyneaux (from whom Ahern himself had learned). Particular influences that become identifiers of Siamsa Tíre’s performance practice are the use of the choral arrangement of traditional songs in the Irish language (often arranged by Ahern), the Munnix style of dance and the development of contemporary choreography incorporating Irish traditional step dance. Oileán too draws on the lives and memories of real people, representing their stories and culture on stage.
Described as “
- Over the course of a number of years, in conversations with myself and others, Ahern has sought to develop a concept of “folk” that informs much of what has been presented in the productions of Siamsa Tíre. [↩]
- In this context, the work of Barbara Kirsenblatt-Gimblett on museums may be applied as a lens through which to critically examine the works of Siamsa Tíre. While a report written by Ahern in 1972, which led to the establishment of Siamsa Tíre, recognises the potential for the company to attract and entertain tourists, and while much funding for the company may be related to tourism initiatives, tourism was not viewed as a core focus for the development and presentation of folk theatre. Despite some criticism, the continued relevance of traditional themes for tourism in the twenty-first century and the compatibility of rural Irish folk imagery for entertainment with the promotion of a modern, educated and cosmopolitan Ireland for business is highlighted by Cronin and O’Connor. [↩]
- Debates on tradition and innovation in Irish traditional music abounded in the 1990s, in part exemplified by the proceedings of the Crossroads Conference held in 1996 (Vallely et al). Siamsa Tíre’s experimentation with the integration of contemporary dance approaches alongside local traditional dance in pieces such as Idir Eatartha / Between Worlds (comp. Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin) and the exploration of other folk traditions including Spanish Flamenco and Bulgarian traditions, as well as involvement in The Seville Suite (comp. Bill Whelan) locates Siamsa Tíre within contemporary creative arts developments and relates their work to the discourse that emerges in response to concepts of tradition and innovation at this time. [↩]
- The importance of place names in Irish culture is widely examined but the inclusion of place names as part of the soundscape in Oileán is undeveloped and the full meaning is not grasped by the audience. [↩]
- I was the piano player in the initial production and later played many of the male roles on stage in over 100 performances in Tralee and on tour throughout Ireland. I also observed many performances as Season Director during the summer of 2012. The short performance ethnographies presented in this paper represent an amalgam of notes and reflections spread across the first ten years of the production Oileán. [↩]
- The production would also appear to be informed by the booklet Na Blascaodaí / The Blaskets, written by Pádraig Ua Maoileoin (1913-2002), from Dunquin, which provides information on, amongst other things, the way of life of the islanders, social activities and recreation including a section on songs and dances, and information on visitors to the island and their legacy. [↩]
- A brief promotional video by the company may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4EXAZ8XuQo [↩]
- Referencing the work of Nuala Johnson, Brian Graham emphasises “…the hegemonic image of the West of Ireland as the cultural heartland of the country was an essential component of the late nineteenth-century construction of an Irish nationalism which, in its dependence on a Gaelic iconography, was to prove exclusive rather than inclusive, particularly when its representations became fused with Catholicism. Strongly reinforced by the intellectual elite of early twentieth-century Ireland, the ‘West’ became an idealised landscape, populated by an idealized people who invoked the representative, exclusive essence of the nation through their Otherness from Britain” (7). [↩]
- Robin Flower (1881-1946) was an English poet and scholar who visited the Blasket Islands where he acquired the name Bláithín (little flower). His works include a translation of Tomás O’Crohan (1955) and a memoir entitled The Western Island (1944). [↩]
- While the game of Gaelic Football is most often associated with Co. Kerry, the custom of playing hurling at Christmas on the white strand is included in the writing of Tomás Ó Criomhthain. [↩]
- In a pamphlet available from the Blasket Centre, Pádraig Ua Maoileoin (1913-2002) wrote: “While the mainland depended on the Jews harp or melodeon, they had the fiddle on the Island, and a unique style of playing. It was a soft gentle style that would waken the dead from the grave with its serenity and tenderness. It had an otherworld quality. The Súilleabháin, Catháin and Dálaigh families were the fiddlers. Some musicians managed to craft their own fiddles. They had a great abundance of songs: Raghadsa is mo Cheaití ag Válcaeireacht (I Will Go Strolling with my Katy), Bá na Scaelaga (Skelligs Bay), Réchnoc Mná Duibhe (The Dark Woman’s Smooth Hills), Cailín Deas Crúite na mBó (The Pretty Milkmaid), Beauty Deas an Oileáin (The Fine Beauty of the Island), and the many other songs composed by Seán Ó Duinnshléibhe. They had many more songs, too numerous to mention, and no shortage of singers either. Tomás Ó Criomhthain sang Caisleán Uí Néill, a much-loved song, at his own wedding. They liked to dance a set, or perhaps an eight-hand or four-hand reel, but only a few of the Islanders maintained the tradition of dancing solo”. Available from http://www.dingle-peninsula.ie/home/the-blasket-islands/history-heritage-of-the-blasket-islands/11-blasket-islands-na-blascaodai.html (accessed 20 May 2016). [↩]
- Hugh Shields comments on Ó Criomhtainn’s use of “Caisleán Uí Néill” and the context or motivation for singing it in Narrative Singing in Ireland (79-80), which is also taken up by Lillis Ó Laoire in On a Rock in the Middle of the Ocean (206-210). [↩]
- Keening traditions, where women gather and wail or vocalise in lament at a funeral, are described in Ó Madagáin. [↩]
- For example Robin Flower and Carl Marstrader. [↩]
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