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The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God spacer The Vacuum - Issue 15 - God
On Eagle's Wing
by Paddy Toal
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First up I should say that this style of West-End big-number all singin' and dancin' thing is something that makes me want to run for the highlands with a bottle of Scotch under my arm, so I'm not going to even try to review the music, which just seemed awful to me, or the ridiculous Teflon performances, because I just don't get any of it. I get it that putting lots of young women in mini-skirts will excite most mass audiences, even if you have to take the liberty of having cheer-leaders in the nineteenth century, but that's got nothing to do with Ulster-Scots. In some promotional literature the show was described as 'Riverdance meets Les Miserables', and while that sounds plausible enough (I've not seen Les Miserables and only the ten minute bit of Riverdance in the middle of the Eurovision song contest) it just makes me wonder why on earth anyone would want to engineer such a collision. And it's this question of 'why on earth' that made me want to go; what is it that the Ulster-Scots, whoever they are, are trying to say about themselves in their new land-mark cultural production.
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On the back of the current Issue of The Ulster-Scot magazine there's an article in praise of General Francis Rawdon Hastings (in the series 'Famous Ulster Generals') lauding his achievements against the Americans in the American war of Independence. On the reverse of this page there's a prose hymn to the defenders of the Alamo, lead by famous Ulster-Scot (alright, have it your way, Scots-Irish) American heros such as Davy Crockett. There doesn't seem much doubt that old Davy Crockett if he'd have been born a few years earlier would have been on the other side of the barricades to General Francis. There are a couple of possible conclusions here; one, that being a good soldier is enough to get you into the Ulster-Scot historical canon, soldiering being an Ulster-Scot virtue; two, that no matter on which side of political or ideological divides you fall on any connection to Ulster will earn you your place up there on the pedestal. Except, it goes without saying, no Catholics/Irish need apply. On Eagle's Wing refuses this facile sectarianism by co-opting traditional Irish Catholic virtues as the most defining features of the central characters of the narrative line. The men are practically always drunk, which they accompany with dancing, singing, lying, moaning about the English or being hungry because the crops have failed. The women are long-suffering, sensible, gorgeous and pure when young, ruined by work and worry when a bit older. A big bloke wearing a collar strides about a lot trying to make them all pray, irrespective of gender, but as soon as his back has turned the men are on the bottle again, and the women are ineffectually trying to stop them.
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Admittedly, the costumes and the style of some of the dancing looked more Scottish than Irish, and the big bloke wearing a collar was always pushing the Our Father rather than Hail Marys, but these are mere details. More The Quiet Man than Les Miserables, I would have said. The defining moment of the relationship between the Scots and the Irish, the Plantation and all that, is all summed up by a modest comment that goes something like 'Some people might not be too happy we're here!' and a snazzy dance number with accompanying sticks that leaves a few dancers stretched out on the ground. This kind of historical gloss probably does us all a favour by putting the tragedies of division into more real perspective alongside the things like drinking and dancing that touch us all far more deeply. It was probably best also not to bother complicating the whole story of the Ulster-Scots in America with any reference to those pesky Injuns (although I was looking forward to how the dance routines for that bit would go) since they don't handle the bottle nearly as well as we Irish. Genetic stuff, they say. I must admit that I did feel a little bit short-changed (by now I was feeling entirely at home in the new inclusive Ulster-Scot all drinking and dancing and hate the English identity) at the way that the narrative shifted to America around about 1700 (rough guess) and didn't bother about us, the ones that stayed behind. While this did highlight how our departed brother and sister Ulster-Scots (alright Scots-Irish) had built America, it did also a little bit suggest that the ones who didn't go to America were, like, losers. Some of the narrative re-inforced this by having the existential probings of the characters into who they were, very much alive when they were on the unfriendly soil of Ulster, all resolved by the realisation that in America everyone's an Amurican. It all adds up to a story for American Scots-Irish about how important it is to know where you've come from and how marvellously well you've done, but I'm not sure that it does too much for us over here to know that we'd have been much better off emigrating about twenty seven generations ago and ceding this dreary turf to the dastardly English. If home is where the heart is, then the strong suggestion here is that Ulster-Scots, even now, aren't going to find it on this side of the Atlantic.
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But before getting too carried away with the welcome that awaits us in our true home over the seas, we should remember that the show was supposed to open in Atlanta but didn't because of abysmal advance ticket sales. Could it be the same old story of us being sold the American dream while the Americans dream only of themselves?
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