Belfast Girls – Solstice Arts Centre, Navan

Reviewer: Louise Tallon

Writer: Jaki McCarrick

Director: Anna Simpson

Just as Roald Dahl’s BFG could hear “all the secret whisperings of the world” – murmurs along the North East Network have reached the ears of the great and the good of County Meath and they are out in force at Navan’s wonderful Solstice Arts Centre this evening for the penultimate performance of Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girls. The production is presented by An Táin Arts Centre and Quintessence Theatre Company.

The premise of this play is immediately interesting. It apprises the audience of an important and momentous time in Irish history to which many of us were unaware.

McCarrick was researching her family’s links to the famine when she came across the name of one of her ancestors, Margaret McCarrick, within a Sligo register of girls transported to Australia under Earl Grey’s ‘Female Orphan Emigration Scheme’ of 1848.

In 2011, drawing parallels between the impact of the potato blight in 1845 on Ireland’s starving population while large amounts of food were being exported on the orders of absentee landlords, and Irish people having to endure austerity, evictions and emigration, once again, in the wake of a decision not to “burn” senior bondholders during the bailout of our banks in the recent recession – the award winning writer was inspired to pen Belfast Girls.

It’s 1850 and in a small representation of the 4,114 females who were shipped abroad to relieve Ireland’s heaving workhouses, five young women take to the stage, enveloped by Stephen Bourke’s superbly constructed ship’s bilge (belly). Tonight, they set sail from Belfast dock aboard the Inchinnan, bound for Sydney. It will be their “one and only chance” to start their deeply troubled lives over.

Except Judith (Donna Anita Nikolaisen), Hanna (Leah Rossiter), Sarah (Carla Foley), Molly (Siobhan Kelly) and Ellen (Fiona Keenan O’Brien) do not appear to be the type of women the Australian colonial authorities had in mind. They don’t seem to have the domestic skills required by future employers or husbands nor are they “imbued with religion and morally pure”. Anything but. The bawdy cohort bunking down in their walled off corner of the ship are uncomfortably familiar with “the back alleys of Queen Street”.

Led by Judith, their Kingston-born Oystercatcher, the band of sisters from Sligo, Louth and Belfast bicker, laugh, cry, dream, sing and dance their way across 10,000 nautical miles. They make the best of bland food rations, sea-sickness, rats, boredom, storms, and intense heat, “I miss the smell of rain”. Their exchanges are sometimes hilarious; “Close the door, me tits are frozen off me” (Ellen) and “he sold me because he loved me” (Hanna) – “Give me a fuckin’ break” (Ellen). The actors are in their stride and each gives an accomplished and compelling performance. Lighting and sound design does a terrific job effecting and supporting the changing moods and tensions.

One wonders if McCarrick has ever second guessed her decision to make Belfast the embarkation point (albeit historically correct) and not a southern port as although the lyrical quality of the northern accent is lovely to listen to, when spoken quickly it can be difficult to understand.

Anna Simpson’s direction is excellent. This is a meaty play, there is a lot going on and a lot to unpack. The running time at two hours is quite long. Between the dialogue and to a backdrop of haunting ballads, the girls are constantly in motion. Their faces, hands and bodies continually expressing. The action is physical. Very physical. But it is well choreographed, except, perhaps, for Molly’s piece in the prelude to the lynching which, though beautifully danced and executed, feels slightly incongruous. The players’ costumes are authentically on point thanks to Sinéad O’Donnell-Carey on set and costume design and dressmaker, Niamh O’Brien.

Belfast Girls is an exploration into the everyday horrors experienced by Ireland’s famine victims. The last ‘reveal’ from Sarah is particularly gruesome and discomfiting. This is a play of secrets. In the first half, the characters reveal their backstories willingly as they seek to connect with each other and forge relationships. In the second half, hidden shame is excoriated in violent and shocking ways.

Judith rages, not against the “why” but “how” in a time of Karl Marx and revolutions throughout Europe, can this have happened to the Irish people? McCarrick holds up a mirror and forces her audience to bear witness, not only to this grim and bleak aspect of our past but to what famine victims, refugees, emigrants and immigrants endure to this day.

Runs Until 17th February 2024.

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The Ireland team is currently under the editorship of Laura Marriott. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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