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  • Writer's pictureWillie Drennan

Journey of the Ulster Muse

Courtyard Theatre, Mossley, 27th May 2023. - (Review by Prof Wesley Hutchinson)

Willie Drennan’s new show, “Journey of the Ulster Muse,” tells the story of the many sources that have inspired the musical traditions of this part of Ireland from before the arrival of the Gael through Saint Patrick and the Williamite Wars up to the present day. That story is told in Drennan’s typically relaxed style - sometimes seriously, sometimes tongue in cheek –calling on a variety of different media ranging from the spoken word and music to song and dance. Drennan, the master of ceremonies, is accompanied on stage by an impressive line-up of highly versatile performers: three singers, two dancers and seven musicians, each of whom plays a range of instruments in an exciting variety of styles. The performance, sometimes fast-moving and energetic, sometimes reflective and wistful, is engaging and thoroughly entertaining throughout.

The story line brings out a number of recurring themes that give the show its cohesion.

Unsurprisingly, one of the most important themes is the strength of the links between Ulster and Scotland. Through tunes like Burns’ “The Lea Rig” or “Flowers of Edinburgh,” the show underlines the fundamental importance of the east-west link that facilitated the constant movement of people back and forth over the centuries and that has produced this hyphenated “Ulster-Scots” tradition.

There is also a very strong spiritual strand running through the show. And there again, the Scottish link is very much to the fore. This comes out in the simple and highly moving rendering of the 23rd Psalm sung unaccompanied by all the performers on stage, a tribute to the Covenanters who had such a profound impact on the Presbyterian tradition in the north-east of Ulster. It comes out also in the excellent version of “I’ll fly away,” done in the Mountain Gospel style of singing, so closely associated with the Scotch-Irish emigrants from Ulster who settled in the Appalachians from the early 18th century.

Interestingly, the show underlines the importance of the working world to the musical traditions that underpins the Ulster-Scots story. This comes out through Drennan’s interest in the weaver poets and how they used the rhythm of the loom as a spur to their poetry as well as through the references to the ship yards that formed the bedrock for Belfast’s industrialisation. But it comes out again in other, more subtle ways, such as the story of the 16-year old shipyard apprentice from the Shankill, James Crozier, who volunteered for the Irish Rifles at the start of the Great War and who was court-martialled and shot for desertion just two years later.

At every turn, the story line underpinning the show reflects Drennan’s inclusive agenda. This is evident not only in the musical instruments on stage, which range from the fife and drum to the bodhrán and uileann pipes, taking in the double bass, the harp and the electric guitar on the way, but also in the dancing, with two outstanding young performers, one an Irish dancer, the other a Scottish dancer, doing parallel interpretations on stage. The breadth of his agenda is also evidenced in the music itself. Drennan insists on how the same tune can be played to different words. Thus, he explains how the Irish language song, Rosc Catha na Mumhan ("The Battle Cry of Munster") is the same as the Protestant, loyalist song The Boyne Water,” and invites the members of the audience to put in whatever words to the tune they like the best!

Overall, the show demonstrates that Drennan’s highly personal brand of Ulster-Scots music is confident enough in itself, in its own origins, to enter into an inventive dialogue with a whole range of other influences and traditions. One of the final pieces in the show, “Lambeg Boogie,” created by Drennan and the rock guitarist, David McClean during lockdown, drew some highly complimentary reviews from The Guardian (25 June 2021) when videos of a performance went on-line. And little wonder - it is simply terrific! It is exactly this sort of innovation, this sense of devil-may-care fun and self-assuredness, that the tradition needs today if it is to continue to re-invent itself in an increasingly complex and multi-faceted cultural environment.

Wesley Hutchinson, June 2023.

Wesley Hutchinson, Professor Emeritus (Irish Studies) at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris is a native of County Antrim and is a well-known speaker and published author.

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