Georgia Rhoades on the Bishop of Derry's Cook

A new play by Appalacian State University professor Georgia Rhoades explores the tragic story of Cecily Jackson

'Take a salt eel and boil it tender, being flayed and trust round with scuers, boil it tender on a soft fire, then broil it brown, and serve it in a clean dish with 2 or 3 great onions boil’d whole and tender, and then broil’d brown; serve them on the eel with oyl and mustard in saucers.' (Mark Kuralsky, Salt: A World History).

Ten years ago, at the request of Pauline Ross of The Playhouse in Derry~Londonderry, I began researching life in Derry in the early 1700s for a play about Cecily Jackson, the cook in Bishop Nicolson’s household, who was executed for child murder by burning.

Colm Cavanaugh, in investigations on his history of the Derry Jail, became intrigued by the brutality of the punishment and Jackson’s connection to the Bishop’s household, and believed that Jackson’s story deserved fuller exploration. His research suggested that the nephew of the Bishop, who was sent away during Jackson’s arrest, might have been the father of her child.

While there were no newspaper accounts of the time, excerpts of the Bishop’s diary survive. The Cook is inspired by the few facts we have about Cecily Jackson, who was burned at the Bishopquay Gate in Derry in 1725. In his personal writing, Bishop Nicolson tells us of the arrest and execution: the charge against Jackson was petty treason, applied at that time for infanticide.

The Bishop is appalled by the poverty he sees and recounts an incident in which his damaged horse was attacked and butchered in the street, hinting to the great discrepancies between the classes in the early 18th century. He also indicates his love of food and remembers specific dishes, suggesting that being his cook required expertise.

I was aided in researching this material by staff at the University of Ulster's Magee campus library, Trinity College, Dublin, the Tower Museum and St Columb’s archives. Some aspects of Bishop Nicolson’s tenure were available: after Jackson’s execution, the Bishop died before taking up a new position at Cashel.

I turned to period sources for the texture of 18th century gossip, the rules and customs governing servant life, sexual conventions, details about the pastimes of the wealthy, and the kind of food they ate.

For this work, Mark Kuralsky’s Salt: A World History, Angelique Day’s Letters from Georgian Ireland, Maureen Waller’s 1700: Scenes from London Life, and Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives, and Nurses were helpful in offering a sense of the time, and of women’s lives.

The food that Jackson cooked and the gentry enjoyed is also important to the play, which relies on 18th century recipes and menus.

The play is directed by Dennis Bohr. With Mary Anne Maier, Bohr and I are Black Sheep Theatre, which has offered original political drama at The Playhouse since 1995. Black Sheep is based in Boone, North Carolina, and has produced several plays at The Playhouse, premiering Bohr’s Pope Joan: The Hiss of the Snake at the start of an Irish tour in 1996.

Among other shows, my play Witchwork, and Bohr’s The Play that Dare Not Speak Its Name, were performed at The Playhouse in 2010 and 2007, with casts from the US, and other Black Sheep Playhouse productions have blended Derry and US casts. The Cook is the first Black Sheep production to be performed only by Derry players.

We are indebted to Aine McCarron, Kieran Griffiths, and Fiona Lauglin for their work in casting, assembling the production team and making arrangements for the work. As always, we are also indebted to Pauline and The Playhouse for offering us a Black Sheep venue.

We always think of a production in terms of performance in North Carolina and Derry, hoping to bring it here to see old friends and to work in a world-class venue with savvy audiences. This is at least our 15th visit to Derry, and we are proud to watch its metamorphosis into the UK City of Culture and to offer this production as part of the wonderful celebration.

Georgia Rhoades is a Professor of English and the Director of the Writing Across the Curriculum Program at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. The Cook runs in the Playhouse, Derry~Londonderry from June 26 – 29.