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The Family Tree - February/March 2003
Ulster-Scots gets its Riverdance

Chris Ryder

AN ULSTER-SCOTS musical is set to be staged in Belfast next June, and its producers hope it will boost the much-derided dialect in the way Riverdance put traditional Irish dance and music on the international stage. The show will feature 30 singers and dancers, a 300-strong choir, an orchestra, pipe band, fife players and Lambeg drummers.

John Anderson, who has written and produced the show, said On Eagle's Wing will tell the story of how lowland Scots settled in Ulster in the 16th century and then emigrated to the United States. "It's set in Scotland, Ulster and America and will attempt to answer the question 'who are the Ulster-Scots?' " Anderson said.

"It will demonstrate the indelible mark they made, creating some of the greatest business and political dynasties in North America.

"Just as Riverdance celebrated one aspect of the rich heritage of this island, I hope that, in the spirit of respect for cultural diversity flowing from the Good Friday agreement, On Eagle's Wing will be recognised as an expression of another major strand of our history and lead to greater understanding of it."

The lead role in the production is to be taken by Peter Corry, who will narrate the action and play a series of parts, including that of President Andrew Jackson, one of a dozen American presidents with Irish roots. There will be period-dialect among the 24 new songs Anderson has written for the show.

The producer is currently finalising the budget and negotiating with potential financiers, with the intention of premiering the show in Belfast's Odyssey auditorium next June. "It is an epic story of emigration, separation, love and loyalty, themes which are timeless and universal," he said. "I have high hopes it will be enjoyed not only in Belfast but in America and around the world."

Anderson is a music graduate from Queen's University and gave up a teaching post at Methodist College, Belfast, to become an acclaimed band leader, record producer, songwriter and musician, once topping the charts with Jive Bunny.

He broadcasts on Radio Ulster each week and produces the Ulster Television Choir of the Year contest, with 10,000 participants, one of the largest events of its kind. He had the idea for the musical 10 years ago.

Lord Laird, chairman of the Ulster-Scots Agency and joint chairman of the North/South Language Body, said: "I think the project is a timely and magnificent reflection of the overwhelming resurgence of our culture. John Anderson told us about this project he has been working on for so long and we hope that when it is staged it will be seen as a major contribution to the healing process in Northern Ireland explaining Ulster-Scots history and tradition in a friendly and entertaining way."

Ulster-Scots was officially recognised as a language after the Good Friday agreement and receives significant funding from the British government. Many people's reaction to this is "och aye, it's work for sweeties" (yes, indeed, it's work for little or nothing) because Ulster-Scots is generally regarded as little more than English spoken in a strong north Antrim accent.

Several translations hardly help the case of afficionados who insist this is a language that should be taken seriously. The translation of fish and chips is "fish supper", a wastepaper basket is just a "bucket" and an effeminate man is a "big Jessie".

Many expressions, such as "Thon's a powerfu wet dae, hae" are easily understood by English speakers. Ulster-Scots phrases such as "girnin" (complaining) are already part of everyday dialogue in Northern Ireland.

According to the Ulster-Scots Heritage Council, up to 150,000 people living along the Irish coast, from east Donegal to the Ards peninsula, spoke Ullans up until the 1960s, when the last serious research into its usage was carried out. It is now accepted that the number has fallen to 50,000 or less.

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