Friday night we went to the Odyssey to see the world premiere of ‘On Eagle’s Wing’, which had been billed as a musical show that celebrates the history of the Scotch-Irish. My surname indicates that I’m a touch Scotch-Irish Presbyterian myself but I was born a Catholic nationalist and am too adapted to Ireland to feel the need to plug some hole in my ancestral identity.
Anyway, the Ulster-Scots lobby’s leading spokesperson, Lord Laird, hailed and embraced ‘On Eagle’s Wing’. This lobby makes the case that Protestants have a distinct culture which isn’t properly recognised and is being discriminated against by the NIO in favour of Irish culture. They claim that for every 1 pound spent by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure on Ulster Scots, DeCAL spends 56.50 pounds on promoting Irish culture.
Those figures strike me as a gross exaggeration, but at least every 1 pound spent on Ulster Scots today is 1 pound more than ever the old Stormont government devoted to the issue when Lord Laird was John Laird MP, and his father before him, Dr Norman Laird MP. In 50 years of Hansard one can find no mention of Ulster Scots, the ‘rediscovery’ of which represents a negative political reaction to the rise of the Irish language in the North.
‘On Eagle’s Wing’ was due to have its world premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, on May 7 and travel on to Jacksonville and Baltimore. But two major investors pulled out. They failed to say if the #1.5 million musical lacked commercial appeal or sense. Regardless, they pulled out and the production had to come limping home.
Not all seats in the Odyssey last Friday night were filled, despite the distribution of many free tickets. It was performed again on Saturday night with more empty seats. Although there is a plan to produce a television documentary, using drama and historical commentary which will flesh out the story, it is doubtful if the stage production can be rescued and become commercially viable.
John Anderson, a talented local musician and producer/director for Ulster Television and the BBC, mulled over the subject for many years before sitting down to write an original score to match the story of the people from Scotland, largely Presbyterians and Episcopalians, who came to Ulster in the 17th century as part of the Plantation project undertaken by King James I.
They settled on land confiscated from the Gaelic Irish. It is not a noble story. From the land the native Irish population was to be cleared, the principle of ‘segregation’ underpinning the settlement project.
There were not enough settlers and so the native Irish remained as labourers and became tenants of the worst lands (and have been causing us problems ever since). However, the Presbyterians, as non-conformists, suffered discrimination and persecution for their religion at the hands of another group of Planters of English origin, the Anglicans, who belonged to the established Church of Ireland. Some Presbyterians planned to seek relief in the American colonies and so set sail from Groomsport in 1636 in a ship called Eaglewing. Halfway across the Atlantic the ship was damaged by severe storms and had to turn back. Most of the would-be immigrants then made their way to Scotland. (So, that’s twice Eaglewing hasn’t made it to America.)
Others, though, successfully immigrated to the American colonies and played a major part in the struggle for American independence, bequeathing to America at least 17 Presidents. And herein lies the great anomaly - and great tragedy for us in Ireland. The immigrants to America assimilated and decided they were American first and foremost, but the immigrants to Ireland have decided to this day that they are British.
John Anderson - perhaps with an American market in mind - chooses to concentrate on the less controversial American half of the story, rather than the history of the Presbyterians in Ireland: though the Siege of Derry, a true epic, gets a scene. Had the history of the North been explored in the musical it would have had to include Presbyterian, republican involvement in the 1798 rebellion (better forget about that), and the role of ‘hellfire and damnation’ fundamentalist preachers in the subsequent grubby history of sectarianism, right up to the Holy Cross attacks on schoolgirls (better forget especially about that).
But even having made that choice, Anderson merely skims the surface of the American history - and fairly disjointedly at that, with a 1920s Prohibition scene actually being followed by the American War of Independence in 1776!
That scene is actually one of the best and depicts, in an almost Brechtian way, a singsong in a speakeasy bar. Yet one wonders if these particular patrons, our Bible-quoting Presbyterian characters, would have been seen dead in such a place?
‘On Eagle’s Wing’ suffers from being a hugely ambitious and expensive production, using choirs, bands, pipes, drums, actors, dancers and an orchestra to portray what is a thin storyline. Out in the real world it is competing against giants such as ‘Les Miserables’, and certainly many of the dance scenes, whilst brilliantly performed, appear derivative of River Dance. (‘The Guardian’ called it ‘Shankill Dance’ and somebody beside me described it as ‘Lagan Dance’.)
The show is described as having been designed to have the widest possible appeal, with “universal themes that will speak to dispossessed peoples all over the world. Its tone will be inclusive; its purpose is to reach out a hand of friendship and understanding.”
A worthy sentiment, but one which, I said, fails to match the mark. A contemporary Scottish writer described the seventeenth century English and Scotch settlers who came here as “generally the scum of both countries... abhorred at home”. That’s no way to describe my fine great, great, great, great granda... but we Morrisons take no personal offence. We were obviously crap farmers and had to throw in our lot with the Fenians.
Finally, ‘On Eagle’s Wing’ is bound to disappoint unionists if they are seeking to have their sense of dislocation reversed. It provides little sense of identity, no cultural security and grants no catharsis. On the other hand, it is a good musical - with some of the great drumming speaking to me from the home across the North Channel...