“Well-behaved women seldom make history” – so says the oft-quoted slogan by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Interweaving recorded historical events with a chronicler’s perspective on people’s lives, Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girls deftly demonstrates the universal relevance of a group of 19th century women, who were at the time deemed society’s precariat.
In its own way Belfast Girls is a microcosm of the turbulent times of the mid-19th century. While Napoleonic revolution was sweeping through much of Europe, famine (or the State-sanctioned ‘Starvation’ as Bernard Shaw more accurately described it) ravaged Ireland, precipitating the century-long diaspora. For the women who were the poorest of the poor, they had the choice ofresiding at the workhouses or if they wanted their ‘liberty’, working the streets for what little money they could earn. Small wonder then that during this period, the pregnancy rate of women within this period went up to a whopping 197%. That women should be put in this position – abandoned by the State and the fellow destitute countrymen is something that we sense angers McCarrick in Belfast Girls.
While most of the five young women who make up the Belfast Girls come from a similar position in society, McCarrick takes pains to flesh out their idiosyncrasies, which all have a bearing on the different problems and circumstances women faced at that time.
Hannah Gibney – or ‘Fat Hannah’ as she’s less delicately described – has been unable to feed her offspring and finds solace in Belshaft‘s (sic) no. 1 occupation. Ellen Clarke – another denizen of Belfast and Hannah’s partner in sparring banter – has a similar background, except she hasn’t had children and in relative terms kept her figure. Sarah Jane Wylie, a young woman from rural Ireland, still has the anger that starvation brings, but in some ways still inexperienced about urban living and the specific hardships this brings.
While these young ladies are of a similar intellectual disposition, Judith has a demeanour and outlook that sets her apart from the others. Even with the exclusion of her ‘activities’ in Belfast, Judith has has had more life experience than the other girls. A mixed race girl from Jamaica, she’s already travelled from the West Indies to Europe and to paraphrase her own words, not beholden to their “clannish mentality”. She’s also unique in her appreciation of things on a sociological scale and aware of the burgeoning proto-suffragette movements around the world.
Like Judith, Molly Durcan has a keen interest in books, learning and the world at large, but this kindred spirit also threatens to bring further division, simply by the other girls’ perception of what she represents… If Molly and Judith prove anything, it’s that education is of paramount for all women if they’re to be “Mistresses of their own destinies.” It’s a theme that runs throughout the play and it’s the one thing that these women, with very little in material comforts, can have to be empowered.
At this point of the 21st century, there has been a regression on many fronts. People (including many women and children) are still fleeing hostile environments, making treacherous journeys overseas. Meanwhile, in Russia, the illegality of physical violence aganst wives has been rescinded, as has women’s rights regarding abortions (and other civil liberties) in the U.S. Belfast Girls is a wake-up call to the world about where it has come from and where it is returning if ‘progress’ is left unchecked. Moreover, the optimism and sheer bloody-mindedness of those maritime voyagers to survive and fight on, before women’s rights officially existed should give cause for ‘celebration’: hope for the future and pause for thought about what can be achieved.
The first week of Belfast Girls’ run in Canada coincides with International Women’s Day and London’s Women of the World Festival, which has been gaining traction globally. There’s no better way of remembering those women from Belfast and honouring those women in the same position than by watching Jaki MacCarrick’s play. I only wish that I could see the production that’s touring in Canada in March. They’re in for a treat.
© Michael Davis 2017
Belfast Girls will be running at Coast Capital Playhouse, White Rock, Canada from 1-11 March and at The Culture Lab at The Vancouver Cultch, Canada from 15-18 March.