Words by Maria Bakkalapulo (Twitter @mbakkalapulo)
Original broadcast on The World (PRI/ BBC).
Formed in 1981,Oi Polloi are championing a Scottish Gaelic punk movement. The Gaelic language was introduced to Scotland by Irish settlers around the 4th century and was spoken across the entire country for a time, but it was deliberately suppressed, and then usurped by English. Today there are approximately 60,000 Gaelic speakers, a figure lower than Cantonese, Punjabi and Bengali in the U.K. But the language has a very strong culture, and has staved off extinction for the moment, with a consistent presence in schools and the media. Oi Polloi recently released their second full-length LP of original songs completely in Gaelic and are taking their Gaelic punk songs on tour now through Europe, with shows coming up in Canada later this year. Maria Bakkalapulo met up with the group in Edinburgh, Scotland to find out more …
Original broadcast on The World (PRI / BBC), for the full radio + video feature, click here – THE WORLD / Oi POLLOI
TRANSCRIPT: (The below is a transcript of the audio story. Be sure to click on the above link to hear the voices, music and sounds on-location.)
“Does anyone here like whiskey?” Shouts Deek Allen, lead singer of Oi Polloi, over the microphone. “Yeah, that was the correct answer because at the end of this song, there’s gonna be some free whiskey for the punks!”
Oi Polloi has been around since the early years of punk in Scotland. Deek Allen played his first gigs at 15-years-old, though the music didn’t sound quite like this. Too young to enter pubs, he and his band were booked to play at kids fashion shows and youth clubs. Deek was also playing bagpipes in the school pipe band. And a lot of the names of the tunes were in Gaelic. Deek decided he wanted to learn it. “I’d always wanted to learn Gaelic when I was in school,” says Allen emphatically. “But, unfortunately, back then in the ‘80s, it wasn’t an option. And this is even in the capital city of Scotland, at a so called, ‘good school.’ It wasn’t possible to learn the native language of the country,” he explains.
Speaking Gaelic was frowned upon and discouraged up until the 1970s. “You’d be beaten, if you were heard speaking Gaelic in the playground or something,” says Allen. “And some places had a sort of macabre way of doing things where a human skull would be hung around the neck of some child caught speaking Gaelic.” Simmering resentment led Deek Allen to ‘go Gaelic,’ as it were and, in 1996, Oi Polloi released their first all-Gaelic EP. He wanted to show it was a living language. “Many times it is presented almost like some kind of museum piece,” explains Allen. “We wanted to say, ‘look, you don’t only have to sing about crofting and sheep and your grandfather’s old days.’ You can sing songs about going down to the pub and drinking with your mates, or whatever. We want to show that Gaelic is a living language. Also want to try and make it a bit more cool. Dare I say it, sexy.”
But not everyone is enamoured by Gaelic. Outside Oi Polloi’s live show, Gibby, from the group Overspill, says he’s indifferent to the language. “I don’t understand a word there. To be honest, Gaelic doesn’t really affect me in the 21st century,” Gibby professes. “I don’t see the importance of it, the relevance, I should say. No-one I know speaks it, apart from Deek,” he laughs. “It would be sad if it was to disappear, but I don’t think it will.”
The members of Oi Polloi are politically active, and can even be found burning flags at their shows, though in a somewhat ironic style. Deek stops by his local bakery to pick up decorative flags on toothpicks, Union Jacks and Stars and Stripes – which he burns on stage with a cigarette lighter.
“What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna put this in flames with your help,” Deek says on stage with a flag in his hand. “And then we’re gonna sing this song called Union Jack, Away Ye Go!”
Politicians in Scotland have made Gaelic key to their push for Scottish identiy and independence from Britain. So, when Oi Polloi sing their Gaelic punk songs in England, Deek Allen says the response is occasionally hostile and people complain that they’re anti-English. “We’re not anti-English, obviously.” Allen says sarcastically. “We find that a bit ridiculous considering that usually the majority of our set is in English anyway. But I think people feel we are having a go at them,” he continues. “If anything, it should be the other way around, given what has happened in Scotland.”
The Scottish National Party (or SNP), currently in power, is pushing for a referendum returning Scotland’s independence after nearly 300 years in the United Kingdom. “I think it is about time that we have this referendum at last,” says Deek Allen with deep conviction. “It will be an absolute tragedy if we do not get independence. We think it is absolutely crazy that Scotland is run from London, the idea that people in London know what is best for Scotland.”
Their new album is out now. It’s called “Dùisg!” – Gaelic for “Rise!” To show Gaelic in a modern light and challenge assumptions, they sing about unexpected subjects like open source programming – LINUX.Deek Allen says by presenting Gaelic in a punk format, it’s reaching people who might not otherwise hear the language. And claims it’s catching on. It’s not a dead language. “Actually on our next record, we’ve got a song in Latin so we can say, look, THAT is a song in a dead language, unless you work in the Vatican or something,” he says “This is Gaelic, this is a living language.”