Q&A with Jaki McCarrick, author of Belfast Girls

Acclaimed author and playwright Jaki McCarrick has achieved notable success with her award-winning play Leopoldville. I caught up with her recently to talk about Belfast Girls, which is currently touring internationally.

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Jaki McCarrick

What prompted you to write about Belfast Girls in the first place?

At the beginning of 2010, my play Leopoldville won the Papatango New Writing Prize. Based on a true story, the play is set in an Irish border town and explores a heinous crime committed at the tail end of the 1980s recession. It took a year to write and by the end of that year, 2008, Lehman’s Bank had collapsed, as had Anglo Irish Bank. This plunged Ireland into its next great recession, from which, nine years later, it has, arguably, still not recovered.

The cast of Leopoldville is all male (five young men, one older male) and in 2010 I began to think about writing something that would be the converse of this work: an all-female play. This thought grew especially during the London-based rehearsal period and performances of Leopoldville, when I considered I needed a serious break from the testosterone-heavy environment I’d been in for months. (The youths of my play are, after all, tough and violent and I’d already spent a year with them in my imagination!) I did not have a story at this stage, but knew I wanted to write something for and about women. Preferably a group of feisty young women – almost as a riposte or some kind of balance to Leopoldville. In this regard, this play and Belfast Girls are quite connected.

Back in Ireland, after the London production of Leopoldville, I began to notice the terrible effects of the Austerity measures that had been put in place after the 2008 recession. I became very angry. Everywhere, people around me were losing their jobs, their homes; their sons and daughters had to emigrate. People seemed to be leaving the country in droves – as I had done myself a few years before – but this time they were heading further afield, to Canada and Australia rather than to London. The now infamous ‘Guarantee’ made by Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen, which guaranteed the bondholders who’d invested in Anglo Irish Bank (many of whom were themselves banks, or billionaire investors from abroad), and the subsequent calling in of the IMF and ECB, and the ensuing bailout arrangements, simply drove me to distraction!

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I could not believe that elected leaders would so openly sabotage the lives of a populace – and be readily prepared to drain the country of its money for a guarantee arrangement that has since been deemed by Germany as ‘unnecessary’ (yet Ireland continues to pay it!). I began to think of the Famine – and noted that the effects of the bondholder payments and subsequent Austerity measures were being compared to the politics of the Famine period by economists such as Michael Lewis (for Vanity Fair) and Professor Morgan Kelly etc. Every day, the Liveline programme on RTE Radio One seemed to be full of accounts of evictions with historical comparisons to the Famine. I realised then that in Ireland, in 2010, the Famine, once again, held a prominent place in the public consciousness.

I began to wonder if any of my own ancestors had had to leave Ireland 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 Nora McCarrick, from Easkey, Sligo. I became excited.  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, which was established by Earl Grey. It was a chapter of Irish history I knew nothing about.

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At the time there seemed to be little information on the Net about such an important event (there is a lot more now etc, 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 Kennelly’s History of Australia, Trevor McClaughlin’s Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish Famine Orphans in Australia, 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 use of obscene language and riotous behaviour. 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 plays, I’m a fan of Sarah Kane, of 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:

  • Because of the parallels I saw between Austerity Ireland and the days of the Famine: the apparent return 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 have left Ireland since 2009), the policy of shipping out grain, cattle and people – which to me looks a lot like the ‘exporting’ of taxpayers’ money (which is clearly needed to run the State) to pay bondholder debt.
  • Because the Belfast Girls were feisty, three-dimensional women. (Not all, according to 19th century Australian newspaper reports, of the arrivals in Australia were 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.

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Most people vaguely recollect that a ‘Potato Famine’ occurred in the 19th century. What prompted some young women to travel to Australia, as opposed to America where Irish communities were establishing themselves?

Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies during this time, was the architect of the scheme to offer ‘free passage’ to the young women of the Irish workhouses to go to Australia. The scheme was, essentially, to kill two birds with one stone: alleviate the over spilling workhouses in Ireland and to provide much needed female labour in Australia. Between 1848 and 1850, over 4,000 adolescent female orphans emigrated from the Irish workhouses to Australia, arriving at Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

It was certainly the case that some unmarried mothers, including prostitutes, made use of a new poor-law system that would get them into workhouses 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.’

In my research it became clear that the women who applied for this scheme were not always of the required ‘type’ or age; in fact it also seems clear that many of the workhouses were quite aware of this and allowed for an unofficial ‘purge’ of unwanted females via the Earl’s scheme.

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 rent paying and otherwise. 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.

The play is set in 1850, a time of great political change across Europe, with revolutions dovetailing into campaigns for the ‘softer’ option – democracy. Even so, women were still at the bottom strata of society – denied rights because of their gender, class and lack of education opportunities. How do the personal lives of the characters reflect these issues?

In my research I read a great essay by Liam Kennedy, ‘Bastardy and the Great Famine: 1845-50’ included in Famine, Land and Culture in Ireland, edited by Carla King. Kennedy includes facts here about infanticide, abandoned marriages etc, and other compelling statistics such as: during the Famine the so-called ‘bastardy’ rates went up in some parts of Ireland by as much as 180% – as women used sex to pay rent or were abandoned by husbands etc.

I realised then that the female experience of the Famine was quite particular and this began to feed into the creation of the characters in my story. Three of the characters have had babies who died; another knows of a 14-year-old prostitute. One character has been ‘sold’ by her father, another wealthier character is just as neglected by hers. All the characters are victims of a particular time and event, and of a society which offers them little help or sympathy – hence their determination to grab the ‘opportunity’ they believe the Earl Grey Scheme represents.

How the personal lives of the characters in the play reflect the issues in the play is a very large component of Belfast Girls.

The women have three months on a ship to Australia in which to figure out exactly what has happened to them. One of the characters has brought some radical literature with her – the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, which becomes a means for the girls to realise that in this time of crisis they have been used and/or abandoned. Ultimately, they are glad that they have had the good sense to seek out this new life for themselves with better prospects.

Was Belfast Girls inspired in any way by the work of other female playwrights or was it a case of needing to write it because nobody else had written about this forgotten part of history?

Professor Regina Buccola (from Roosevelt University, Chicago) writes the forward to the published text of Belfast Girls. Here she refers to the play as a ‘materialist feminist play in the tradition of Caryl Churchill’s Fen’. I am a Caryl Churchill fan, but the female playwrights that I most admire are Sarah Kane and Annie Baker. My favourite playwright is Edward Bond. Even though I’m an Irish playwright – and frequently (but not always) my subjects are Irish, often the politicised border region etc – my influences do not tend to belong to Irish drama either. (Other than Tom Murphy, whose work I love.) So, yes I wrote this play because no one else did – or would, most likely. Tom Murphy, having said that, has written a Famine play.

The play is about five young Irish women from a specific point in history. What can women today, from other parts of the world, learn from it?

There have been quite a few productions of Belfast Girls in the USA. It’s been incredible for me to see how contemporary politics in the US has resonated so much in the various productions – which has not gone unnoticed in reviews and articles about the play. The desire of women to seek their rights and a better deal from life, generally, sings loud in the play and connects with current campaigns such as #metoo #marchforourlives #wakingthefeminists etc. The play also seems to resonate with current race issues in the US, too, as the lead character, Judith Noone, is originally from Jamaica. And under this Trump administration where there is much talk of ‘deportation’ etc, there are resonances in the play there too. Also, because this play has an all-female cast, and is about five young women who become aware and politicised on their journey to a new land, it has definitely struck a chord with a young female audience – which is a joy to observe from my point of view.

So often, during times of war or economic/political turmoil, events are only told from the male perspective. Are there any other forgotten chapters about “women’s history” and/or the Irish diaspora that you would like to write about?

That’s a great question. I’m currently writing something about the Irish Civil War and am looking at the role of women in this, and in the later writing of the Irish constitution, which ultimately has had a devastating effect on women’s rights in Ireland. It has taken close to a hundred years to resolve, but not sorted yet – for instance, this year there is an important vote on abortion in Ireland. I’ve also been commissioned to write a play about Eleanor Marx. I wrote a short play about her in 2016 and the company who have commissioned me saw this and want me to expand on her life etc. We are hoping for a 2019 production.

© Jaki McCarrick / Michael Davis 2018

Belfast Girls runs in Kansas City at La Esquina, 1000 West 25th St, KCMO 64108 on 7th-29th April. It will then transfer to Australia in May.

 

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