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The multi-lingual play that tells of a forgotten tragedy

Theatre Gu Leor - Scotties - image by Mihaela Bodlovic

Director, actor and playwright Muireann Kelly is the Artistic Director of Theatre Gu Leòr, one of our Regularly Funded Organisations. Originally from County Mayo in the west of Ireland, Muireann studied drama at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Gàidhlig at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Her first play, Scotties, is currently on tour - celebrating the music and languages of Scotland and Ireland, written in English, Scottish and Irish Gaelic and Scots.

In an article originally published by Traverse Theatre, Murieann shares the process of co-writing Scotties and what drew her to write a play based on the story of the young Irish potato pickers who tragically lost their lives in the Kirkintilloch bothy fire of 1937.

History has an ugly habit of repeating itself if we don’t tell stories like these.- Muireann Kelly

What sparked the original idea for Scotties and how has it evolved?

I am from County Mayo, where the young tattie howkers who tragically lost their lives in the Kirkintilloch Bothy fire came from. I grew up hearing this story, I came to Scotland to train and have lived here now for over half my life and I am always shocked that so few people in Scotland know this story.

It evolved after I spent some time on a writer’s retreat at Moniack Mhòr where I met Frances Poet and I approached her to co-write the piece with me. National Theatre of Scotland’s head of Development Caroline Newall, supported a research and development stage and following that co-commissioned Scotties with Theatre Gu Leòr.

Theatre Gu Leor - Scotties - image by Mihaela Bodlovic

Can you tell us a bit about your writing environment?

Frances Poet and I spent some time in Achill Island, interviewing people there who had first-hand experience of tattie howking in Scotland right up to the late 60’s. We also interviewed some of the relatives of those who had lost their lives in the fire but also some relatives of the those who survived the fire. We spent time doing research in Kirkintilloch library, where they have an extensive archive collection on the tragedy.

We then worked towards a development week which took place in 2016. Finally, I worked closely after that development week with dramaturg Pamela McQueen honing several drafts post development and pre-rehearsals. Edits were completed with Pamela in the early stages of the rehearsals once we heard the cast read it.

Theatre Gu Leor - Scotties - image by Mihaela Bodlovic

Do you have a favourite line or moment in the play?

There is a moment in the play where one of the survivors comes back home to Achill and I am moved every time I watch it.

How do you want audiences to feel having watched the play?

I would like them to be moved and also inspired by the pride in the connection to Scotland which is felt by many in Achill, a small island on the west coast of Ireland. I’d love the audience to come away asking questions about our connected languages, music and culture but also ultimately questioning how we viewed folk who came to our shores to seek a better life, who maybe didn’t sound or look like us and if this has changed at all.

What has been your most memorable theatre experience – either as a member of the audience or as part of the creative team?

Playing Molly Bloom in the first ever stage adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses adapted by Dermot Bolger, in front of a packed audience in the Project Arts Centre, Dublin, a stone’s throw away from so many of the locations referred to in the novel. It was a very moving experience.

Scotties is your first play - what advice would you offer your young playwriting self?

Be brave.

Are there any websites, books or other resources that you find particularly useful as a playwright?

I have worked a lot with Playwrights’ Studio Scotland, they have have been really really useful in terms of resources, development, and advise on finding the right dramaturg.

Theatre Gu Leor - Scotties - image by Mihaela Bodlovic

Why is the story of Scotties important?

History has an ugly habit of repeating itself if we don’t tell stories like these.

Finally, what three words would you use to sum up the play?

From the heart.

Scotties continues its tour at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh from Thursday 27 - Saturday 29 September 2018, and then heads to Coláiste Acla, Achill Island on Friday 5 and Saturday 6 October.

Photos by Mihaela Bodlovic

This article was published on 26 Sep 2018