Canada, Drama, Scotland

Gaelic Drama: Research To Do

While waiting innocently in a queue for tea at the 2010 annual conference of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies, I overheard the indefatigable Ian Brown speaking to Carla Sassi about the volume he was then editing about drama in Scotland. I asked him if he had any entries about Gaelic drama – folk drama in particular – and before I could finish my tea and biscuits, he had somehow pressed me into service for a chapter in his book (reference here).

Before the 20th century, Gaelic society was far more complex, multi-layered, and multi-textured than most people expect – including modern Gaelic speakers. There were a variety of cultural expressions and literary genres that have since dwindled out of existence, one of these being folk drama. I quickly gathered together materials on this topic for Ian’s volume – having squeezed myself in at the last moment – but given more time, much more could be said.

For example, the following is an interesting note about this genre that I came across recently (too late for inclusion in my chapter) in the book Co-chruinneachadh de dh’Oranan Taoghta, published in 1836:

The author of the humourous dialogue between Raghal agus Caristine is not known; but the piece was frequently performed in character, by two packmen, who travelled in the Highlands: one of them performing the part of Carastine, in women’s clothes, to the great delight of the audience.

The dialogue contains ribaldry, like we might expect from many other medieval performance pieces.

Gaelic Drama in Nova Scotia

In the course of the last five years of Gaelic research in Nova Scotia, I’ve also come across references to quite a number of Gaelic dramas performed in the eastern mainland and Cape Breton from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century. Most of these, it seems, were written by Nova Scotian Gaels (although there may be some influence from Scotland, especially via Donald Sinclair of Barra). They were often performed at social events organized by religious societies.

This is a ripe area for research which has never been touched (like so many others regarding Gaelic Nova Scotia). What was the purposes of these dramas? How popular were they? Are there elements of continuity from Gaelic folk drama, or are they Gaelicizations of contemporary popular dramas? What themes and morals are expressed in their content? Do they contain social commentary and critique?

This is yet another topic which I’ll never be able to look into in my lifetime, and there are many questions of this nature waiting to be answered by the scholar of Gaelic Nova Scotia willing to delve into this material and question contemporary assumptions and stereotypes.


3 thoughts on “Gaelic Drama: Research To Do”

  1. I would be very interested in what you have found. I have used Gaelic to a small extent in several of my plays and written (with the help of fluent speakers) 3 short plays based on Gaelic stories. In North River, a Gaelic play was produced and toured by a local group raising money for a community Hall in the 60’s. It was called the irish play. It gets revived and done in English by a youth group or seniors every once in awhile. It was called “Hiring the Housekeeper” and consisted of 2 bachelors and a series of interviews with a variety of applicants- all unsuitable. The script itself would probably run 7 minutes but the play done in Gaelic was at least an hour long consisting of improvised bits and local references, etc.. Unfortunately I have never been able to track down a script- if one even existed. Another play I came across was written by a man in Boston called the Reiteach. It was an interesting blend of English and Gaelic- even within the same sentence- written by a fluent speaker and written so English speakers could get the drift. It was performed in Whycocomagh – as were quite a lot of “skits” in that area.

    1. Thanks, Bev. Yes, the scripts might be worth looking at, although I hope that one day some Gaelic researcher might be able to look at these materials in the wider social and cultural context, as I suggest in the blog.

      There are several scripts for these Gaelic plays in the archives of the Beaton Institute. For example, in the index for Manuscript Group 6 there are 8 different plays (whose authors are not named in the index) under item #16. There are probably others in the archives as well.

      There are numerous reports about the performance of the plays in Mosgladh, The Casket and other regional newspapers.

      1. I was fortunate enough to be able to make my way to CBU last summer and look at some of the plays there. They actually have a whole section of Gaelic plays, some of which are from Scotland but many of which are from Nova Scotia. I wrote about several of them in my undergraduate thesis, but there’s definitely a) more to explore and b) more to say.

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