THE Gaelic bards of old divided their craft into three fields of endeavour: the geantraí, goltraí, and suantraí – broadly equivocal to songs of joy, songs of tears and lullabies. But even they didn't have the courage — or, as some might say, brass neck — to combine all three in one fantastical creation.
But then they didn't have the twin talents of Fionnuala Kennedy and Tony Devlin, writer and director respectively of West Belfast's Brassneck Theatre Company, who have brought the Project Children story to Féile 35.
Their mission: to pay tribute to the action men and women in the Big Apple and West Belfast who with nothing more than their unstoppable resolve and boundless determination to do better by our young people conjured up the biggest summer scheme ever linking Ireland and the US.
In total, 23,000 youngsters, largely in the period from 1975 to 2015, swapped a summer amidst the bleak battlegrounds of Belfast, Derry and parts in-between for the 'vacation' of a lifetime with American host families.
Their stories are deftly told through the experiences of Project Children grads brought to life by Terence Keeley as James and Nicky Harley as Maggie/Rachel (who hit the highest note of the night with a Patsy Cline hush-a-bye). They are ably supported by the compelling performances of James Doran, playing the no-nonsense but big-hearted bomb disposal New York cop Denis Mulcahy, and Laura Hughes and Mary Moulds in the parts of Andersonstown wonder-women Monica Culbert and Sally Brennan.
Fast-paced and furious, the action switches from the horror of the Shankill fish shop bomb – seen through the eyes of a schoolgirl who goes on to champion the rights of the abused – to the pristine wilderness of Montana. That the audience find themselves immersed in both landscapes is a tribute to not just the Brassneck troupe but also to the lighting team and stagehands who have created a mammoth platform for the actors in the shape of the Statue of Liberty crown. Indeed, for this week only, the biggest stage in the North will not be at the Lyric but at St Comgall's.
Above all else, Project Children is a tribute to those who moved mountains to make this summer exodus possible. The pledge of Monica Culbert and Sally Brennan was to insist on something better for children who presumed that, as Maggie (Nicky Harley) recalled in harrowing detail, a man getting shot dead as he waits for a bus was normal.
The transAtlantic programme wasn't an exchange in practice as the American families didn't get to send their kids to spend summer in Andytown, but it was certainly a fair swap as the friendships formed were enriching for both parties. Indeed, as this theatrical tour-de-force shows, the relationships with “my American family” endure to this day for many of the tens of thousands who made the trip west.
Perhaps Project Children's greatest triumph is in demonstrating that the craft of storytelling – of telling the world how we saw it, in fact how it was – is as alive today courtesy of Féile an Phobail as it was when the Gaelic bards plied their trade. And for that, as well as the cast's stirring performances, Brassneck should take a bow.
Project Children runs until Sunday, August 13. Tickets can be purchased via the Féile website.