By Jaki McCarrick
I wrote Belfast Girls for a number of reasons. Firstly, around 2011, I was specifically looking for an all-female story. I’d just won the Papatango Prize for my all-male play Leopoldville, and after a long period with this work, from writing to performance, I began to think about writing a ‘sister’ piece, similar in energy (Leopoldville is feisty and quite dark), but for women rather than men. Secondly, having returned to Ireland from London in 2007, I saw the terrible effects of the country’s now well-documented bail-out programme as a result of paying international bondholders after the the crash of Lehmans’ Bank in 2008.
I came across the history of the Orphan Girls by chance, on the internet. Because of consistent references to the Famine in the media during this stark period of austerity in Ireland, I began to wonder if any of my own ancestors had had to leave the country during the Famine. I’d often asked my now late father who hailed from Sligo about this but he had little information for me, despite having researched the McCarrick family tree a number of years before. So, I Googled ‘McCarrick’ and ‘the Famine’, surfed the net for a while, and chanced upon a register of young females leaving for Australia in 1850. One of the names was Margaret McCarrick, from Easkey, Sligo. I read more, and discovered that over 4,000 young females had left Ireland between 1848 and 1851 as part of a scheme called the Orphan Emigration scheme, established by Henry Grey, the 3rd Earl Grey. It was a chapter of Irish history I knew nothing about.
At the time there seemed to be little information available about such an important event (there is a lot more information available now, and more recently: documentaries have been made, novels and other plays written), so I read what books I could find on the subject, including Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, Thomas Keneally’s History of Australia, Trevor McClaughlin’s Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, and Irish Women and Irish Migration, edited by Patrick O’Sullivan. Thomas Conway of Druid Theatre also mentioned to me that he’d written a thesis on the story of the Orphan Girls for his Masters Degree. In my reading of these books and articles, I discovered that a particular group of orphans were considered to have been especially feisty and colourful, known for their wild behaviour etc. These were known as ‘the Belfast girls’. Right there I sensed the makings of the story I’d been looking for. But the truth is, I’m not usually drawn to historical fiction – nor do I write it (much), especially in terms of playwriting. I like to write about today, about what is happening in my world, right now. I’m drawn to modernist and post-modern structures and ideas. With regards to plays, I’m a fan of Annie Baker, Sarah Kane, Edward Bond and Jean Genet. In fiction, I gravitate towards David Foster Wallace. So I think there were two very big reasons why I set about telling the historical story of ‘the Belfast Girls’ – and these are:
1. Because of the parallels I saw between austerity Ireland and the days of the Famine: the apparent return to Ireland of the policy of ‘laissez-faire’ in the shape of ‘light-touch regulation’, the allowing of emigration to solve a crisis (over half a million Irish people left Ireland between 2008 and 2012); the policy of shipping out grain and cattle and people – which to me looks a lot like the ‘exporting’ of taxpayers’ money (which was clearly needed to run the State) to pay bondholder debt.
2. Because the Belfast girls were feisty, three-dimensional women (not all, according to nineteenth-century Australian newspaper reports; of the arrivals in Australia of fragile young orphans there were some who were hardened, who were boisterous, some who had clearly calculated their way out of Ireland). Ultimately, I felt that these women would be good vehicles to explore the politics of ‘laissez-faire’ – and the strange boom and bust economics that seem to plague Ireland no matter what the era or who is in power.
Along the way came contributions that were fortuitous. For instance, my meeting with a Cavan schoolteacher who told me that in her home-town local myth has it that, with reference to Earl Grey’s Orphan Emigration Scheme, the Catholic Church colluded with the workhouses to purge her particular Cavan community of prostitutes and ‘fallen’ women. Again, I became angry listening to this woman’s story. I could not believe that the morality of women might be something to consider during a Famine! Further reading confirmed the veracity of this local story – backed up in various essays in Famine, Land and Culture in Ireland, edited by Carla King. A fascinating fact also emerges in Liam Kennedy’s essay, ‘Bastardy and the Great Famine’, that, during the Famine, in some parts of Ireland such as Monaghan, the so-called ‘bastardy (i.e., illegitimacy) rates actually shoot up, often by as much as 180%. Kennedy writes,
It was certainly the case that some unmarried mothers, including prostitutes, made use of the new poor-law system as a means of survival. It was said of the Lurgan workhouse: ‘The house appears to be a most convenient place of accommodation for the cure of disease, and delivery of illegitimate children; and the facility of going in and going out, has very considerably increased the number of unfortunate females, who live by the wages of sin in the populous parts of the union.’
Obviously, for many women at this time, there were very few choices indeed. During the Famine years women’s bodies became their one reliable currency for payment of rent and food. Often marriages were cancelled, either because the grooms-to-be had emigrated or because those men who were left behind could have their pick of wives. Many women had children outside of marriage, some committed suicide or/and infanticide. After getting a sense of how the entire social fabric of Irish life had been damaged by the Famine, I also realised that my play could tell the story of the Famine years from a purely feminine perspective – a perspective that had not previously been taken in famine fiction or theatre – and that in many ways, the more I explored and read, the more I realised that to a huge extent the Famine is very much a female/feminine story.
By now it was pretty clear to me that the Earl Grey Scheme had been abused by many: by the Church and workhouses who had quite probably colluded, at least to some extent, to get as many ‘unwanted’ women out of Ireland as they could; that Earl Grey himself and the Victorian British administration capitalised on the Famine environment in Ireland to enrich Australia with female servants and workers; and that here and there the women themselves abused the scheme in order to seek a way out of Famine-ravaged Ireland. Though most of the orphan girls were exactly who they said they were, and were supposed to have been, the ones I was interested in were at the bottom of that pile: the Belfast girls.
And so, with several months of reading and research percolating in the back of my mind, I wrote Belfast Girls in a white heat period of a few weeks. I sent the final play out to a couple of people in 2011 and was contacted in July that year by theatre director, Robyn Winfield-Smyth who said she would like the play for a new season called ‘Without Décor’ at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. The Without Décor season of plays was inspired by the early days of the Royal Court when new work was staged without costume or set etc. The play had a short rehearsal period and was shown without set or costume or lights. It proved a great success and soon the play’s director, Svetlana Dimcovic, and I found ourselves on attachment to the National Theatre Studio to develop the piece. Over three weeks I did more research – mostly at the British Library – and developed the play to a nine-character piece. But after the attachment period, I felt that the original ensemble of five women was better, and I settled on that, though the Studio work has proved invaluable in terms of writing the screenplay.
With thanks to Fishtank Theatre, KCMO http://www.fishtanktheatre.com
Actors: Erdin Schultz-Bever, Lindsay Nelson, Annie Kalahurka, Rasheedat ‘Ras’ Badejo, Kaitlin Gould
Belfast Girls has since been shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award, the BBC Tony Doyle Award and won the 2012 Galway Theatre Festival New Play competition. In 2013, Artemisia, A Chicago Theatre company, gave the play a staged reading in Chicago, and followed this in 2015 with its American premiere. The production received rave reviews. It has since premiered in Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Portland, Oregon, Kansas City Missouri, Canberra, Queanbeyan and Stockholm, with a number of other productions to announce soon. The text was published by Samuel French in 2015. I’ve also recently adapted Belfast Girls as a screenplay, with help from Screen Ireland.
It has been interesting to note how critics have received the play, particularly in the US. Unfailingly, the #MeToo movement has been mentioned, as has the current US policy on immigration. It’s as if audiences have seen in the play how women historically have struggled to find agency, how they have had many obstacles in doing so and how they return to the bottom of the pile in crisis situations. Two feminist artists that I like, Nancy Spero and Faith Ringgold, have both asserted that women will be the last ‘marginalised’ group to be truly liberated and I believe this also. The fact that there is a mixed-race character and lesbian relationship central to the play has also been picked up on often in reviews, and hence Belfast Girls has been judged by many to champion the marginalised – which of course it does.
In 2019, Belfast Girls premiered in Australia, at the Q Theatre in Queanbeyan, New South Wales. Produced by Echo Theatre and directed by Jordan Best; this production did fantastically well and received a number of glowing reviews. I was so sorry to miss it and really hope that Jordan and the cast get to do it again. There is a strong possibility that this production will soon tour Australia.
The European Premiere was staged by the Swedish company, Batalj Scenkonst and took place in Stockholm in November 2019. This production marks the first production of the play in translation and, luckily, I was able to attend the opening night. Malin Erikson directed an absolutely stunning cast, and I thought this was a beautiful show: very physical and visual, with brilliant use of lighting and music. Even though I don’t speak or understand Swedish, I was moved by the show and really hope the company get to do it again. This production also received remarkable reviews and lots of press.
In December 2019, there was a reading of the play in Washington DC, directed by Shanara Gabrielle for Solas Nua, a Washington-based theatre and arts company. There are further productions of the play in 2020/21 and hopefully also in 2022, as the play continues to speak to audiences (and readers) about the attempts of marginalised groups to find agency in a world that historically – and seemingly still – would like to crush it.
Jaki McCarrick is an award-winning writer of plays, poetry and fiction. Her debut short story collection The Scattering was published by Seren Books and was shortlisted for the 2014 Edge Hill Prize. The collection includes her story ‘The Visit’, which won the 2010 Wasafiri Short Fiction Prize and was included in Best British Short Stories (published by Salt), 2012. On the basis of her debut collection, Jaki was longlisted in 2014 for the inaugural Irish Fiction Laureate. Her play LEOPOLDVILLE won the 2010 Papatango Prize for New Writing, and her play, The Naturalists, premiered in 2018 in New York to rave reviews: ‘Impeccable, a gift to its actors’ (New York Times); ‘Beautifully performed’ (The New Yorker). Her play Belfast Girls, developed at the National Theatre Studio, London, was shortlisted for the 2012 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the 2014 BBC Tony Doyle Award. It premiered in the US in Chicago in 2015 to much critical acclaim and has since been staged widely internationally with recent premieres in Australia and Sweden. In 2016, Jaki was selected for Screen Ireland’s Talent Development Initiative and has recently completed the screen adaptation of Belfast Girls. She is currently working on her second collection of short fiction and her first novel, The Family Wolves. Jaki also writes critical pieces for the Times Literary Supplement, Irish Examiner, Poetry Ireland Review and other publications.