‘Belfast Girls,’ a Powerful, Shining Work at the Irish Repertory Theatre
The phenomenal Belfast Girls in its New York Premiere at Irish Repertory Theatre takes place in 1850 during Ireland’s “An Gorta Mor” (The Great Starvation) on the ship the Inchinnan. Five women who have struggled through the Great Famine are chosen to leave Ireland. The trip will take them to the colony of Australia to embark on a better life. With dreams and hopes, the women undergo a three month voyage and mentally prepare themselves for the desires of their heart. What they discover on their journey is a personal and historical truth that they must confront the moment they disembark.
With Nicola Murphy’s incisive direction, the effective and keenly crafted, functional design of women’s quarters below deck (Chika Shimizu) creates a sense of the confined space they endure. The superb cast transports the audience into the minds and hearts of the Belfast Girls, the most raucous, riotous and infamous of the women accepted into the Orphan Emigration Scheme. The Scheme established by Earl Henry Grey in the 1840s sent 4000 orphaned women from Ireland to Australia to relieve Ireland’s overcrowded workhouses and poorhouses from the ravages of the Great Famine.
Under the largesse of Grey’s Scheme we watch as five women from disparate Irish backgrounds bunk together on the Inchinnan and travel for three months down the coast of Africa and around Cape Horn to become “rich” farmers’ wives, servants and workers in Australia.
Jaki McCarrick’s exceptional play profoundly delves into the lives of these five women. All relate the horrors, and organized terrorism of British landlord evictions and burning of homes they’ve seen or experienced. Later in Act II as the truth is gradually revealed to be more terrible, it is mentioned that merchants made money from shipments of grain for export instead of feeding those starving when the crop failed in what has been identified as the Irish genocide. Each of the women at the outset are grateful to be fleeing “An Gorta Mor” raging in Belfast. However, a few regret leaving what has been their home for more than two decades. They are anxious to face the unknown.
The play opens as the women settle into their bunks and unpack their meager belongings. We watch as they change their street clothes to the blue uniform “orphan” dresses the matron and officials have given them to wear on their journey. Immediately, from their behavior and accents we understand these women are from different backgrounds, ages and environs.
Judith Noone (Caroline Strange), a Jamaican mixed-race woman drips worldly experience. She exposes the fact that Ellen Clarke (Labhaoise Magee) and Hannah Gibney (the golden voiced Mary Mallen) are public women/prostitutes, despite their pretensions that they have lived otherwise. Importantly, with a sense of autonomy as sex workers, these three have staved off death and starvation where others, bound up by religion with no way out, died and were buried in mass graves. Of all of the five “orphans,” Caroline Strange’s Judith, is the most grounded, authentic and realistic. Blunt and directed, she is a natural leader who chides and commands the rest of the women, reminding them of their purpose to rise up from the lower classes to respectability and success, so they might forge a new identity with this incredible opportunity.
Gradually, as we watch their interactions and the dynamic of the group as they squabble, insult and demean each other with words and sometimes with blows, McCarrick reveals that each woman, save Judith, is unable to confront the dark hell of guilt and self-loathing within. It is obvious that they’ve had to compromise their autonomy, integrity, goodness and self-respect living a life of extreme self-loathing as men’s footstools. Clarke and Gibney are familiar with each other as they throw epithets and verbally attack each other’s vulnerability. Judith is no less insulting in reminding them that they must control themselves and not be physically easy with the deckhands and men on the ship because an unwanted pregnancy will destroy their chances to meet accessible men and marry. Clearly, Clarke, Gibney and Judith have shared understanding and experiences that have been traumatic and soul-crushing.
On the other hand Sarah Jane Wylie (Sarah Street, and the day I saw the production, Owen Laheen) is quiet and mild-mannered. She stays to herself, sews a bonnet and doesn’t interact or insult the others, initially. She shares that her brother has been in Australia for almost two years and has encouraged her with stories of success and the promise of a land of prosperity and goodness.
Into their midst comes another girl whom they must make room for in their small living space before they sail. Molly Durcan (Aida Leventaki) is from Sligo. The others attempt to make her as comfortable as possible, though she is not in a bunk bed. They give her a piece of bread which she devours immediately; her frail and extremely thin body indicate the troubles she’s experienced. As they rearrange their living quarters, the ship is leaving port and a few go up to say goodbye to Ireland for the last time.
Judith forthrightly declaims she will never miss Belfast and plans to bury all of the memories in her new life and identity in Australia. She suggests the other women do the same. Hannah Gibney forgets her misery and is sentimental, putting “a false tint” on her life in Belfast. Judith confronts Hannah with the truth. She tells the others that her father sold her into prostitution for alcohol and must forget the terrors of a culture which provokes such behaviors. This revelation strips away Hannah’s pretense and denial. Judith encourages her and the others to redirect and focus on her new goals and new life in Australia. During the three month voyage, they must mentally prepare themselves with plans and goals for their future.
Mallen’s and Strange’s performance of this scene make this into an important moment. Not only do we understand their mixed emotions, though the life they leave behind is full of misery. Nevertheless, it is the only life they have known. Now, they face uncertainty. They haven’t read any travelogs to understand what they will be up against because there are none. And indeed, Hannah can’t read. When the ship leaves port, there is no turning back.
McCarrick identifies the dangers of the emigrant experience which still pertains today (exploitation, uncertainty, loss of identity). She highlights two important conditions for these women. They have been prostitutes plying their trade and skills as the only skills they know. Secondly, they are third class citizens. Though Hannah speaks of the Englishman that she will marry, rejecting her own nationality, this fantasy is an extreme that the other women point out to her.
We realize these women are naive; they are not prepared for what is going to happen to them, floating on a “wing and a prayer.” That it will be anything but a bed of roses is inferred by the irony of Hannah’s hopes, the vacancy of the other women’s responses and the hidden clues in McCarrick’s writing.
What is clear is that each of them has already “jumped off the cliff into the unknown.” Hoping for something better is the tremendous risk they take, born out of courage to seek freedom from the enslavement of poverty, paternalism and oppression by the British in Ireland. However, will they be able to continue with the courage of their convictions in Australia?
When Molly sees a rat by her sleeping space in the middle of the night, other arrangements are made. Judith softens her persona and allows her to join her in her bunk away from the rat. Thus, begins a relationship between the two women which the others may or may not be aware of that blossoms into love and affection. The intimate scene between them is beautifully, tastefully directed by Murphy and the fight and intimacy director Leana Gardella.
However, there is the danger that the Catholic judgments of the other women will censure and condemn the lovers. As it turns out Judith becomes Molly’s protector and Molly gives Judith her books, one of which includes the writings of Marx and Engels. Reading these, Judith begins to understand what Molly mentioned to them when she first arrived.
Women deserve their own rights and autonomy. In fact as Molly discusses her bold yearning to become an actress and play Puck, she also reveals that in other areas of Europe and the United States, women are gathering in groups and organizing for the right to vote. And women are speaking out against male chauvinism, paternalism, colonial oppression and exclusion which keeps women powerless. Judith’s knowledge grows and we understand that she and Molly have formed a close bond. At the least, the others begin a period of enlightened freedom they were never aware of before they boarded the Inchinnan.
However, in Act II all of what has been a hopeful blessing on the voyage as the women begin to grow their new, free identities, is upended during a roaring storm at sea. The storm’s effects are stylistically staged and shepherded by Murphy with the help of the movement director Erin O’Leary. As the women pray together for support during the frightening hurricane that threatens to swamp the ship and kill them, another storm breaks out among them. Tensions and tempers rage. An unimaginable lie is exposed. The revelation destroys and exposes all of their lies. Judith who has become her own person and lies for no one, attempts to ameliorate the emotional explosions of the women against each other to no avail.
This is no spoiler alert. Act II brings a magnificent resolution to the mysterious threads that have been left undone in Act I. The violence that occurs is shocking and believable. The sound and lighting designers (Caroline Eng, Michael O’Conner) do a wonderful job of striking our imaginations with the storm’s effects. They help to create the terror in the scene and the resulting aftermath.
By the conclusion Judith puts the mysterious pieces together of why Earl Henry Grey has created the Emigration Orphan Scheme with the clerics. The final blow of reality is made manifest which Judith and perhaps Sarah and Ellen understand, but Hannah is too broken to receive. Nevertheless, Judith affirms she will never give up on her hopes and new found self-empowerment on the Inchinnan. She is resolute and will continue to take care of Molly Durcan and nurture her with her love. Confronting her own lies and devastation, Sarah becomes more accepting and forgiving. However, it is Ellen who leaves us with the most vital of thoughts. “Who knows what dreams were born on the Inchinnan. If it’s not us who will have those freedoms you talked of…then maybe our daughters will…”
Belfast Girls is rich with history and incisive with characterizations that keep us engaged in this real drama of passion, anger at injustice and powerlessness and hope. The characters are portrayed with spot-on authenticity, by the wonderful ensemble. Kudos to Gregory Grene the music consultant who drew on the songs “Sliabb Gallion Brae,” “A Lark in the Clear Air,” “Mo Ghile Mear” and “Rare Willie,” all traditional Irish folksongs. Kudos to all the creative team and to China Lee, responsible for costume design and Rachael Geier for hair & wig design.
This is one to see, especially if you have Irish ancestors. If you don’t, but have ancestors who emigrated on ships that crossed the oceans to bring their progeny a better life in a more prosperous setting, the experience depicted in this production is directive and should draw you to learn more. For tickets and times to see Belfast Girls at the Irish Repertory Theatre go to their website: https://irishrep.org/