Building a Nation

Martin O Connor’s Building a Nation explores word-loss, dialect, class, cultural self-loathing and swiftly changing identities norms and aspirations. To a packed audience at the Tramway, here acting as a neighborhood theatre, a show at the end of a long tour is received with rapture and recognition.

He explains: “My own performance included poetry and monologues that covered coming to Glasgow from the Highlands; industrial words in shipyards; trade unions; having two tongues; attitudes towards Gaelic and Scottish representations on television – all held together by the story of the Tower of Babel (where people tried to build a city and tower that reached heaven but were stopped by a confusion of language).

During the development I also became interested in the idea of leaving language behind, and together with my collaborator Rona MacDonald, we looked at the loss of words due to leaving the land behind. I presented this idea along with the loss of employment due to swift deindustrialisation and the impact this had on workers, families and communities. The piece ended with a reflection on my own mither tongue and looked at the Scottish cringe. The conversation recordings were transcribed and created into a 15-minute montage by sound artist Nichola Scrutton, and played at the end of the piece.”

The performance has just completed a tour (supported by National Theatre of Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig, and produced by Glasgow Life). It was presented as a double bill with Aisling Oidhche Meadhan Samhraidh – a one-man Gaelic Midsummer Night’s Dream. The double-bill toured both shows to An Lanntair in Stornoway, Carinish Hall in North Uist, St Peter’s Hall in South Uist, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, Webster’s in Glasgow, Mull Theatre and the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh.

The question keeps playing with the same issues over and over. The piece challenges perceptions of the Scottish cringe and the voice as class indicator and asks if Gaelic accents carry the same bias or marginalisation. Does coming from Uist, Lewis, Mull or Skye have the same provocation as coming from Pollok or Bearsden? And what does the Glaswegian Gael sound like?

The show has a definite bite and an edge to it, but it also has a wry smile at its own nostalgic self, mocking the repeated notion that “I remember when aw this was fields” and the mantra of things were better before.

The interplay between Scots and Gaelic and English is rapid and jumps between soulful humour and jarring observation that makes you clench your teeth in recognition.

 

In the Park Bar: “Oh, a laugh: Wis in the Park Bar the other night ye always get a good sing song there an a shindig. An there’s this aul fella called Donny fae South Uist. Catholic, he’s a catholic right they aw ur there an he’s a singer. He’s goat a song for anything. Ye ask like this:

Donny – gies that song aboot the guy on the boat.
Donny – gies that song aboot the deid mither
Donny – gies a song aboot a cow getting stuck in the mud

And there we wur like Donny – gies a song aboot Govan but it’s got a porpoise in it and a cave and it mentions wee planes and bones like ice and a suit a steel.”

Is this poetry? Is this theatre? Who cares? This is fine storytelling.

Two pieces stand out:

Concrete Earth

Do you remember the grip
Of toes on the cliffs
In St Kilda?

When our feet were useful
Our bare feet
Helped us eat

But we had to leave in a hurry
For the street
We didn’t have time for shoes

We just left
And now the hard street
Is hitting the bottom of my feet

And it’s sore and wrong, not soft.
Like sand or bog.

Concrete.

And years later
My feet
Still don’t like
Walking the pavements, the beat

It was hard enough in shoes on peat
I used to walk the sand
My bare feet
The sand my street

But we had to walk for a new work
Where things are hard
And don’t change with the seasons

My feet left the shore
For the concrete
For the fucking concrete

Now the concrete.
Helps us eat

A Launch

Below zero. Horizontal rain
Hull Stern. Dry docks.

Spreadin Gougin Pumpin drillin
Steerin Burnin Stampin Screivin
Cloamin Furrin Mouldin Sidin

Steel Copper Brass bronze
Screw Weld Solder Rivet

Handrail Guardrail Bulkhead Platform

Pipe Valve Blower Heater
Plate Shaft Crank Cleat

Bull Rope Ballast Jackyard Clew
Chainplate Freeboard Futtock Fid
Fay Gaff Hold Keel
Rudder Saddle Tiller Pitch

Waist Warp Strake Thwart
Scuttle Pillow Parrel Shackle
Mainsail Topsail Capstan Leech

Halyard Larboard Pawl Peak
Rigger Lagger Stager Slinger
Shipwright Loftsman Caulker Striker

Mast Stem Well Yawl
Beam Block Bow Boom

Fur coat champagne smash
I name this ship the Queen whatever the fuck

I name this ship The Royal Hingmy QE fuckin Pleasure Cruiser

Well I name this ship my life’s work
I name this ship efter the guys that died makin it
I name this ship Bloody Hard Work that’s what I’d name it.

I’d name it blisters on my neck fae the sparks fae the welding
I name this ship fawin tools that slip oot yer hauns and kill yer pals

I name this ship a mouthful a snow
I name this ship wet decks.
I name this ship the drowned leaf

I name this ship an duilleag-bhàthe
I name this ship an iasg mhor
I name this ship am pios mhor meatailt
I name this ship mac an duine

I name this ship

Airson a shin-sheanair, ‘s a shin sheanair, ‘s a shin sheanmhair,
Airson a shin-seanair, ‘s a shin seanair, ‘s a shin sheanmhair,
Airson a shin-seanair, ‘s a shin seanair, ‘s a shin sheanmhair,

Flush, Fuel, winch, Launch.

Much of the derision that is heaped on Bella for publishing in Scots and Gaelic is caught in this show. It’s lines are drilled out by O’Connor with just enough venom and just enough of a grin:

“Ah’ve got ma mither tongue an I’ve got ma ither tongue” he says.

“Speak fucking right. We live in Scotland. It’s English. If yer gonnae live in this country at least learn the language.”

 

Comments (4)

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  1. Wullie says:

    VERY GOOD! Sad day when we left the croft! Who remembers nooadays!

  2. Ally says:

    THAt soundcloud clip was ace, transported us oot ma High-rise office. Sorry tae hae missed the show

  3. Crubag says:

    Not to be pernickety, but the construction of the Tower of Babel was going well. Too well.

    It was God who came on site and decided that the people were too united by having a single language and might succeed. He made them polyglots and work soon ceased and the people were scattered.

    Personally I’ve always liked the saying that learn another language and you gain another soul.

    1. Josef O Luain says:

      An fair point, well made.

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