Play unites Belfast in shipyard memories

13th February 2009 at 00:00
Titanic home dock is background for school drama that seeks to revive Ulster-Scots language

It is an exploration of local history, a chance to learn how the experiences of past generations shaped the present. But, for many of the children staging The Boat Factory, it is also an excuse to watch the film Titanic and call each other "eejits".

The Boat Factory is a play being rehearsed at six primary schools in Belfast as part of a project, funded by the Ulster-Scots Agency, which aims to revive the traditional Northern Irish language and celebrate local history. It tells the story of Willie McCandless, a 14-year-old apprentice at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in the 1950s.

Each school has been given Pounds 1,000 to stage the play, as well as 30 hours advice from a professional theatre mentor.

The first performance, later this month, will be at Black Mountain Primary, in an area of Belfast still dominated by Samson and Goliath, the two towering shipyard cranes.

Billy MacAuley, the headteacher, said: "An awful lot of learning is once or twice removed from the children. It never really belongs to them. This is the opposite. The children are completely enmeshed in it. It's part of their lives.

"Normally, whenever you see a school play, it's delivered in a mid- Atlantic accent. This is an occasion where children can really yell out their own accents."

The play is peppered with Ulster-Scots colloquialisms: words originating among the Protestant settlers, but used throughout the city. They include guddies (trainers), eejit (idiot) and gulpen (idiot again).

Philip Crawford, the director, hopes it will not be seen as purely Protestant. "It's giving the Protestant community something to celebrate about their culture," he said. "But it's an Ulster heritage, not just a Protestant thing."

This was one of the reasons that the play appealed to Nigel Arnold, head of Glengormley Integrated Primary, which educates Protestant and Catholic pupils together.

"We've had a lot of involvement from nationalist organisations," he said. "So we wanted to balance it, to appeal to both sides."

Some words are already familiar to his pupils. "Eejit is my favourite," said Dylan McKenna, 11. "My mum and dad call me that a lot."

The shipyards also have a more contemporary significance. Carla Buckley, Dylan's teacher, points out that the Titanic was built by Harland and Wolff: a fact of which all her pupils are aware. "It's a way of being connected to the film Titanic," she said. "It gives Belfast its place. It's part of their history. They're recapturing their past."

In all schools involved in the project, geography, history and ICT lessons focus on the shipyard's history. Pupils have been encouraged to interview relatives who once worked there. Others have imagined working there themselves.

"I wouldn't have liked it," said nine-year-old Glengormley pupil Aoife Dunlop, without hesitation. "You have to do the same thing every day. And you have to clock in and out at the right time. It's a bit like school registration."

Lost and found

In the 1600s, tens of thousands of Scots crossed the Irish Sea to settle mostly in Antrim.

The majority spoke Scots, the language of the Lowlands: a Germanic language closely related to English. Its Irish descendant is Ulster- Scots.

In the recent past, it was labelled "poor English" in schools. More recently, there has been renewed interest - and many are determined to preserve and revive its traditions.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 mentioned Ulster-Scots as "part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland". In 1992, it became an officially recognised regional language of Europe.

Ulster-Scots meaning

Da-dilly feckless, useless person

Game lame, crippled

Keechle, giggle

Sappy magnanimous, generous

Wach slight, thin person


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