The play's the thing, in any language


Seán agus an Fathath - aka Jack and the Beanstalk - is the children's Christmas production at the interdenominational and bilingual Gael Scoil Na gCeithre Máistrí in Donegal town, writes Mary Russell

'I'm the bad goblin," says Fearghal Ó Gaibheacháin and though he knows what bad is - indeed, he's even done a few bad things in his time - he just can't for the minute remember any of them. In any case, he has more important things to think about: Gael Scoil Na gCeithre Máistrí, in Donegal town, is rehearsing its Christmas production: Seán agus an Fathath, which roughly translates as Jack and the Giant, aka Jack and the Beanstalk and it's all in Irish. Furthermore, not only does the Four Masters Gael Scoil conduct all its business in Irish, it is also interdenominational.

Fearghal has so much to say for himself that I ask his age. " Seven," he says promptly.

"No, you're not," says another scholar just as promptly but Fearghal smoothly trumps this challenge: "God made me the right side of seven," he says firmly. I later check with his teacher and find that he's six but who's going to argue with God? Oliver McGinley, head teacher at the school and a native of Gweedore, explains a little about the role of religion in the school: "All the children attend the same classes, each learning about the other's religion. If it's (Catholic) First Communion class, everyone stays - Catholic and Protestant. And the same for (Protestant) Confirmation." There are a few children - maybe three or four out of a total of 76 pupils - who are nothing at all but no, there's no special word for them. And when it comes to clergymen, Oliver is totally ecumenical: they're all referred to as ministers.

There was one local minister - useful word that, since I couldn't tell whether he was Catholic or Protestant - who was a bit worried by the fact that the children weren't segregated according to their religion but it turned out he simply hadn't understood the true meaning of interdenominational. Once the ideals of the system were explained to him, he was reassured.

There are only nine Gael scoileanna in the country that are also interdenominational and staff meet regularly in Dublin to discuss issues and strategies. Over the next few years, they are planning to bring out a book covering both the Catholic and Protestant syllabus, which can be used as a resource for teachers new to the idea of interdenominational education.

Teacher Roisín Ní Chumhaill from Gweedore trained at the Froebel College in Dublin where she took a module on the theory of multicultural and interdenominational education: "It was good," she said, "but it was all theory. Now I have to put it into practice."

Using Irish as a medium is another challenge. One minister, whose Irish was a bit ropey, decided to brush up on it. "Because," as he told Oliver, "I'd better know what they're saying about me."

There are a total of 141 primary Gael Scoileanna in the 32 counties, providing places for 22,000 children. In fact, between 60 per cent and 65 per cent of the world's children are bilingual and an increasing number of children in Europe are now being educated through a second language. Oliver McGinley is a believer in starting early: "If they begin learning and talking Irish from day one and continue on through classes two, three and four, they just suck it up without knowing it."

Some 90 per cent of the parents at Scoil na gCeithre Máistrí have no Irish. "But we give them all the help they need," says Oliver. "They get the readers the children are using and two of our board members, who are Irish speakers, run classes for parents. Plus, of course, they learn from the children themselves."

The three other teachers in the school - two from Gweedore and one from Kilcar - worked out a way of helping the children stick to Irish even when in the playground: "Whoever is in charge," says Oliver, "initiates a game in Irish which they all want to play. It's a great system because you're both supervising and listening out for the Irish at the same time."

Not that English isn't spoken; it crops up during the regular 40-minute English language class. In fact, on the morning of the rehearsal, everyone was working on a poem entitled Mo Pheata, some composing in English, some in Irish: Sun is anim do mo mhadra, writes Seán Ó Faigin, age 8, Tá sé dubh agus donn, is maith leis úlla agus tá dhá súile aige. Titeann sé a chodladh gach lá, ach ní maith leis bó.

The school is doing Seán agus an Fathath rather than a nativity play because it reflects the outlook of the teachers and also because the children are more interested in doing something they enjoy. And enjoy this play they certainly do. Besides, the nativity play, explains Oliver, isn't really part of the Irish tradition: he certainly never did one when at school in Gweedore.

Last year, they did An Turnipa Mór. The approach to the teaching of Irish is far from pedantic. Turnip is turnipa and bible is bíobla, which makes it easier for the children. What they pick up gratis, of course, is a Gweedore dialect, courtesy of their teachers.

In the John Bosco Hall - they also use the Methodist Hall in the town - performers are dressed up in their costumes, faces made up, lines learned and spoken with confidence. A row of smaller children in their red school sweaters and red Santa Claus hats, make an ideal audience, sitting on the floor in rapt attention while Oliver puts their elders through their paces.

Ciara O'Donnell (9), playing Jack's mathair, is a pro, tapping the microphone for a sound check, reprimanding Jack with her wooden spoon and giving a solo rendering of An Crann Nollaig (O Christmas Tree) sounding every bit as sweet as her grandfather in nearby Dunkineeley used to in the old days when you could sit in on a session in a Donegal bar that lasted until dawn.

THE bigger boys are busy, running onstage to shift the scenery - a couple of cardboard boxes masquerading as props - while someone else has the job of lifting and lowering the beanstalk. And in between, there's the chat. One little girl is sporting the remains of a black eye: "My brother kicked me". I'm impressed by her sibling's obvious mastery of Kung-Fu techniques, but a loyal friend interrupts: "Her brother's only three".

There's also talk about the proposed school bus. It's arriving in the new year and if you live more than two miles away you can get on it. Someone comes all the way from Mountcharles which is three miles away. So why come to the Gael Scoil when you could go to the local school? "Your parents decide," says Rebecca Kavanagh. Conall Mac Suibhne, who plays "The Bean Man" with gusto and a green face, says he's here because his father is an Irish teacher.

The school itself opened four years ago, with Oliver McGinley in charge of the lone class. Now they have four, housed in prefabricated classrooms which are warm, bright and lively, if cramped. The school has no hall, which is why everyone has to walk through the town to rehearse in borrowed premises. Not that the children mind. The play, after all, is the thing and, being Christmas, Donegal town is the place to be with its crib in the Diamond, every shop lit by fairy lights on trees and Santa Clauses, a brilliant blue sky overhead and the sure promise of a night frost.

Alannna McNamara - an maistreas ceoil - gets the children lined up for the final song. She was forced into retirement when she reached the age of 65 but now works voluntarily, teaching singing and setting Seán agus an Fathath to music. Her Irish is Monaghan Irish, near enough to Gweedore not to matter.

Jack's mother continues to wield her wooden spoon. Jack has been a bad boy and will have to be dealt with: "Right!" Ciara cries, "sin é!" and sets off to chase her errant stage son round the stage. The audience roars with laughter. This, after all, is what Christmas pantomime is all about - in any language.