Build it and they will come: the story of the Irish language in a disused airport

Branar’s Sruth na Teanga is an ambitious immersive month-long experience in Galway

It’s a wild, wet and windy February day in the west. Some 10km east of the city in Carnmore, Co Galway, the Galway Airport signs still grace the high locked gates of the small regional airport that has been closed since 2011.

Inside, another world is being created in the dead air. The usual airport areas – baggage hall, check-in, shop and cafe, complete with intact signage – are being swallowed behind the scenes to create Sruth na Teanga, an ambitious and absorbing immersive theatrical experience telling a story no less epic than the Irish language, from its very first utterance to the present. One of Galway 2020’s flagship commissions, Sruth na Teanga (stream of language) is Branar Téatar do Pháistí’s latest project and a big step beyond previous shows by Galway’s theatre company for children.

A bit over a week before opening, Branar’s Marc Mac Lochlainn, devising and directing Sruth na Teanga, walks me through the show-in-creation. The language is “not just the words. It’s our heritage: it’s the way we speak English, the way we think, the way we work together as communities. It’s embedded in everything we are.”

The sruth is metaphor for a complex journey, influenced by other languages and cultures, and welded to our history. “Simplifying it into the journey of a river helps to create a narrative.” Early on, visitors get a small stone with an Ogham word, and move through a long dark tunnel delineated by rows of lights, emerging into a woodland. This area was once the gift shop – “An Siopa Bronntanas” is barely visible as carpenters create a magical forest from real branches embedded in 2x2 framed “hillocks”. There’s a lacy canopy of leaves overhead, and 60 metres of hand-painted canvas providing depth. With the light trickling through leaves as woodland takes shape, you can imagine the magical world taking shape.

This first “room” starts the journey. Irish has “no factual beginning”, says Mac Lochlainn. “The beginning as we know it is in story form.” Visitors will happen upon those early stories in shadow theatre and puppetry illuminated among the trees, animated by puppeteers – the Bradán Feasa (Salmon of Knowledge), Diarmuid agus Gráinne, Tuatha Dé Dannan, Deirdre of the Sorrows.

Back through the tunnel and continuing the river motif, the golden era of Irish begins in the fourth century with Christianity and the beginning of writing our stories down, followed by the Vikings, and Normans whose early French and English enhanced the vocabulary. This second room will be an immersive digital space with animation on six walls as the audience moves through a hexagon, “like the river is in full flow, strong and powerful as the language for hundreds of years”.

Today, though, that hexagon is marked in tape on the floor of the airport’s bar. The room hasn’t taken shape, and for now we can see out the window on to the runway. The walls of the hexagon will shape designer Maeve Clancy’s watercolour-painted 2-D animation on six screens. For Clancy, who’s worked on previous Branar shows, this complex design – each “room” has a markedly different approach – brings together her mix of skills, from film and theatre design, to shadow cut-outs, animation, and paper installations.

The golden age ended with England’s decision to plant areas of Ireland and end Gaelic culture, which ultimately led to the plantations of Munster and Ulster, the breaking of the Gaelic kings, and lords forced into exile. Mac Lochlainn leads the way into the next room as the journey goes deeper, the river comes under pressure and is driven underground, moving “from a language of the political elite to the language of the people”. Here on a series of miniature islands the story of a coastal village echoes the language from the 1607 Flight of the Earls through the famine – a fatal blow to the language – mass immigration, and later, 19th-century recovery of language and heritage. Looking at Ger Clancy’s islands – the models were created by Maeve’s brother, who works in art effects – Branar’s Grace Kiely and Ionia Ní Chróinín perform. The dockside emigration scene is particularly evocative, as miniature figures turn to face the moored boat, dropping their “word stones” – their language – in a pile as they depart. The language barely survived this decimation , and became the language of poverty.

There’s another personal connection at the island exploring the Celtic revival, the era of collecting music, stories and language. We hear the crackly voice of Ní Chróinín’s great-grandmother, Bess Cronin in Ballyvourney, Co Cork, talking about where songs she learned came from, and recorded in the 1940s by Alan Lomax.

By room four the river is back overground into a “reservoir”, representing those collections – of music, song, film, the school collection, the GAA – in a museum-like panelled room of glass cases and interactive displays that will jump to life when approached. Visitors can leave their Ogham stones there for archiving, or can choose to bring them to the final room, in daylight, to decipher the word, and respond to the story by video or audio recording.

Mac Lochlainn is “fascinated by the space the language occupies in the history of Irish culture, and the attitude of Irish people to it. It’s somewhere between historical fact and mythology. I wanted to make this piece to allow the audience to experience the language in a holistic way, that removes the burden of curriculum or school memories, and bring them on a journey reigniting a sense of wonder and pride in the thing that has carried and shaped our culture.” He also wanted “to find a way to use the skills we have [in Branar] to let people see the richness of the language”.

The show is long in gestation; he has described it as “the show I was meant to make”. Growing up in Co Kildare, and going through the usual school experience of Irish, the language only clicked for him when he went to the Gaeltacht; he eventually did a master’s in Irish at NUI Galway. When he came to devise Sruth na Teanga, he found he had already “done all the research, had all the books”. He’s passionate about the language and its relationship to who we are and where we come from. “It’s the oldest vernacular language in Europe, one of the 10 oldest languages still spoken.”

For the month of March, every 20 minutes a group of 30 will set off through the hugely contrasting rooms, for 174 performances. Although Branar is a children’s theatre company, and 143 schools have fully booked the school slots, there are plenty of public performances; their attitude is if it’s good enough for children it must be good enough for adults too, says company manager Joanne Beirne. The immersive experience is for all ages, from eight upwards; there’s a complexity to the story, its concepts and implications, but also a simplicity in the narrative that is part of all of us. Like all Branar shows, it’s accessible: you don’t need to Irish to understand and enjoy it.

It’s just three weeks since Beirne and production manager Adam Fitzsimons (with six core staff, there’s 72 in the team overall) started the airport takeover; walls knocked, others built. An incredible amount of work, and a half-million budget, is creating this show, in this space. It’s startling that it’s a temporary “experience” , running for just one month; this shows the cultural skills in Galway, and what you could make for a permanent space, says Beirne. Maeve Clancy talks about being conscious it’s a show that won’t happen again.

There’s lots to do before opening to the public on March 3rd, but “Oh, we’re good here,” says Mac Lochlainn confidently. Amid the emerging world the airport remnants are fascinating. Behind the area where a “waterfall of books” will tumble, constantly feeding the archive, Fitzsimons points out the thick rubber flaps of the baggage carousel.

The privately-owned airport shut its doors to passengers in 2011. Galway City and County Councils jointly bought the 44.5-hectare (110-acre) site and buildings for €1.1 million in 2013 – “a very good price”, according to a city council spokesman. The two kitted-out aircraft hangars and a small runway have barely been used since, except for fire service training and the Fever Pitch summer music festival. In July 2019, Galway International Arts Festival presented Corcadorca’s The Same by Enda Walsh; set in the departure lounge, the silent airport was a memorably eerie venue.

The council didn’t buy it as an airport, the spokesman stressed this week, but as a bank of land for future use. In the intervening period there have been various plans and disagreements. The former airport is now subject to a county council masterplan, and discussions are “well advanced” for a TV/film production unit in the hangars. The large site, close to the M6 and M18 motorways, will be for economic development, and suggestions for a cultural use are not a primary consideration, the spokesman said.

Today, a lone jeep drives across the runway in the rain – possibly the local farmer with a right-of-way. When the Branar crew arrived, the airport was a bit like the Mary Celeste. The tiny pilots’ lounge still had half-drunk cups of tea on the table, as if someone had left for a few minutes, observes Fitzsimons. Up in the control tower we sit at the desk (“don’t press the red button”, I’m warned, several times) gazing at the runway in the driving rain. The radio crackles into life, startlingly. It’s a plane passing overhead, in contact with Shannon. It’s surreal and eerie, a remnant of a previous life.

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