In the mid 1800s, the Inchinnan sailed for Australia transporting a large number of young Irish women. Belfast Girls, on tour at The Lyric Theatre last week from the An Tain Arts Centre, tells their story. Jacki McCarrick’s play is based on fact and you can tell as there’s the whiff of authenticity throughout. In the opening scene we meet four of the five characters, one or two spatting already. ‘Fat’ Hanna (impressive Leah Rossiter) gets in an argument with Ellen (Fiona Keenan O’ Brien) over who caught the cook’s eye. The air turns blue but Judith, a natural leader and excellently played by Donna Anita Nikolaisen, sorts them out.
It's a three month voyage, part of the Earl Grey Scheme to provide the colony with workers and potential farmers’ wives, so what would occupy them? After the arrival of the fifth voyager, Molly (luminous Siobhan Kelly), the slightly unlikely answer is politics. Cleverly, her true identity is hidden but this educated maid bring Marx and universal suffrage on board. Judith proves an apt pupil and wakes up to the evils of capitalism. There are other awakenings too, and the love story between the two women is subtly done.
The physical acting style works well during a big storm, and during the high, tragic point of the narrative. For this is a near disaster as these young women, stuck between past and future, contemplate their back stories.
On the basis of Belfast Girls you could almost call author Jacki McKinney a Dickens or a Robert Tressell, of Ragged Trousered Philanthropist fame. She charts a harrowing slice of 19th century Irish history with women sold into prostitution and children buried before quite dead. Those escaping the Famine on the boat were supposed to be under 20, of good, honest character and wife fodder but a different reality emerges. All five have had to deal with the darkest situations via often painful survival techniques yet want to be “mistresses of their own destiny”..
Sarah (Carla Foley) pretends her successful brother, already Down Under, will help them, yet he’s in prison for theft. She had to bury her dead child and although she sews her bonnet and has airs and graces, she was an unmarried mother with little prospects. Her family was evicted by aristocratic landlords, so Marx had a point. When Molly is revealed to be one of the aristocrats travelling under false colours, she is nearly lynched.
Yet survival is the continuing theme and Molly does survive, just. Where this play scores is in revealing the dark secrets of the five young women. There’s an extra character, the human spirit, that enables Ellen to greet their new life with hope at the end.
Anna Simpson directed with energy.
Belfast Girls travels to Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda on February 9-10 and Solstice Arts Centre, Navan on February 16-17.