The Irish Famine Explored in New Play, Belfast Girls

Prizewinning playwight Jaki McCarrick premieres new play in London

‘It’s torture,’ says Jaki McCarrick, walking away from the Lord Wolseley in central London. ‘Rehearsing a play about the famine, in a room off a restaurant serving Thai Green Curry.’

Belfast Girls is due to open two days later at the King’s Head Theatre, and before breaking for lunch, McCarrick and director Svetlana Dimcovic lead four of the five actresses through scene eight. ‘One girl is revealed to have taken her maid’s identity to get passage on the ship. And they just go mental.’

Set in 1850 against the backdrop of the famine, Belfast Girls follows five young women who choose to leave the city’s leprous workhouses as part of an official scheme to transport orphan workers from Ireland to Australia.

When McCarrick began researching the period she discovered that between 1847 and 1850, 4,000 women left Ireland on ships. ‘I thought, that’s quite a serious number. Why hadn’t I heard this story before?’

The play, part of the King’s new writing season, marks more than ten years of collaboration between McCarrick and Dimcovic. The performances will be open to the public but closed to the press, and London-born McCarrick is preoccupied with all things Belfast. ‘Today I almost found myself talking in a character’s voice,’ she says.

We stop at a greasy spoon selling mugs of coffee for 70 pence. Its name? Café Titanic. ‘There have been so many coincidences,’ says McCarrick, explaining the development of the play. ‘It’s been unbelievable.

'When Belfast Girls was first sent to Robyn Winfield-Smith [Literary associate at the King’s Head Theatre] she was actually in Belfast. She had gone to see Catherine Cusack perform in Judith at the Lyric. And Catherine had appeared in The Mushroom Pickers, my first play. Lots of coincidental things happened and they happened very, very fast.’

The girls on the ship are played by Chereen Buckley, Angela Costello – and from Belfast, Victoria Armstrong, Martha Barnett and Amy Molloy. Their characters end up sailing as part of the scheme devised by Earl Grey, he of the tea.

As Ireland crumbled with hunger, the British colonial administration in Australia needed labour to cultivate untended land, which would be razed unless workers could be supplied. Seeking hardworking women, they appealed to the teeming Belfast workhouses, inducing applicants with comfortable passage across the sea and guaranteed work in the sunshine.

In contrast to the barren villages of famine-era Ireland, industrial Belfast experienced a frantic, pressured activity as people queued up seeking shipbuilding and linen work. But even as textiles and grain were exported, the amount of workers outweighed the amount of labour.

Women in workhouses would be given token jobs like dying muslin to keep them from falling idle. But as more people arrived, workhouse conditions deteriorated further. ‘A lot of the work was made up work,’ says McCarrick. ‘And if they could get in, you’d have prostitutes in and out of the workhouses.’

Amidst starvation and increased migration, McCarrick found that the illegitimacy rate for children born in Ireland during the famine years also went up. ‘The bastardy rate, as they called it, goes up 197%. How does that happen? I find that statistic incredible.’

So to qualify for Earl Grey’s scheme, an attractive escape route from the workhouses, women had to be aged 15-20 and have no living parents. They had to secure a certificate of good character from a local official or priest. But the rules were broken and the scheme was abused: ‘A lot of women would lie to get on the ship, and perform sexual favours to get their good reference. Which they did, plenty of them did.’

The story of the Irish orphan girls in Australia has been explored by academics and researchers including Trevor McClaughlin, author of the book Barefoot and Pregnant? Irish famine orphans in Australia. When McCarrick delved into the material she found detailed documents and registers for the women who left. But she also found evidence of a deliberate move by officials to purge the workhouses of prostitutes.

‘When I found this information I was so disgusted,’ she says. ‘People are dropping down dead in the middle of a famine, and yet they had this agenda. How could they be thinking, "well, we’ll purge the place"? How could you even have that thought? But they bloody did. Everybody abused this scheme, including the women.’ Although many truly hopeful girls sailed, when they arrived in Sydney and Adelaide almost all were disparaged, called whores and rejected.

Belfast Girls is a play born, in part, of anger. McCarrick’s previous productions, right back to the award-winning Mushroom Pickers, have tended to tell contemporary stories. She wonders why she was attracted to a famine play, especially when playwrights like Tom Murphy have been effective working in the same subject.

Unlike Murphy, McCarrick doesn’t seek to make overtly religious points, and as a child she wasn’t immersed in an Irish or Northern Irish religious culture. Her family moved from London when she was 12 years old, only after her mother inherited a house in Dundalk. Subsequently, McCarrick links her anger at the famine years with modern-day Ireland’s economic blight.

‘The reason I was attracted to this story, apart from the fury, is because of what’s happening in Ireland now. I’ve tried to either underlay or overlay Belfast Girls with what’s going on now. I love Ireland but I’m very angry at Ireland. Ireland is devastated right now, just devastated.’

Even in Cafe Titanic, McCarrick is at work, jotting stray notions in a notebook. As she offers her take on Ireland today, she makes light strokes and dashes with a pencil, keeping an ongoing ledger of linked words and ideas.

In terms of damaging Irish workers, she finds parallels between Earl Grey’s historical scheme and contemporary Ireland’s bank guarantee scheme, introduced in September 2008 to manage the national debt. As she tells a story about former Minister for Finance, Brian Lenihan, now-deceased after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the pencil sketches develop brackets and bubbles which fill the page.

‘Before Brian Lenihan came up with that scheme, there’s a famous occasion where he went to see one of Ireland’s top economists, David McWilliams, in the middle of the night. He literally knocked on his door, in his raincoat, and basically said, "What the f*ck am I going to do?" That night, he and this celebrity economist bashed out a plan to save Ireland.’

But as the guarantee scheme came together, assuring payment to all Anglo-Irish Bank bond holders, McWilliams expressed reservations. ‘He said we mustn’t guarantee payment for everyone: only senior bond holders. But at that time, we promised to pay them all. We didn’t have the money, hence the size of our subsequent bailout needs from the IMF and the EC.’

McCarrick thought the evening would make for a fine one-act play, but not because of the high economic stakes. ‘What attracted me was that through the night, Lenihan chewed on garlic. He had pods that he’d keep in his pocket. No doubt someone told him it was good for his pancreatic problems at the time, but he said it was to give him energy. To me that’s a great, great image.’

Although this time anger has been McCarrick’s animating force, her interest in Irish politics comes with an optimism held at an ironic distance. She favours figures like TD Richard Boyd-Barratt, who says that Irish people shouldn’t be left to pay off speculators’ debts. The economic blight has offered a kind of education, too:

‘Since 2008 a lot of people in Ireland have had an education in economics. They can talk about economics in a way that perhaps a lot of other people can’t because the radio and papers drummed it into us every day.’

But luckily it’s the optimism that spills over into her current projects. After Belfast Girls, she determines to finish a piece named The Bohemians, a play that’s a world away from both the famine and the economic crisis.

The idea began with a strange musical encounter in Dublin, during her MA at Trinity, when she found herself staying, for a few nights and on behalf of a friend, amongst elderly residents in sheltered housing. ‘I thought, "oh no, it’s going to be old people listening to showband music".’

At night she’d hear the sound of the zimmer frames on the floor, but one evening she heard ‘The Boxer’ by Simon and Garfunkel. ‘I listened to that – it was in our house. Everyone thinks old people are going to be listening to George Formby. But no, there’s going to be a time where you’re in an old person’s complex and they’ll be listening to the Prodigy.’

Then she explains that one day she happened to see a pair of punks walking along. ‘What happens when you’re locked into a youth culture, and then you get older?’ The pencil sets to work. ‘Punk was in ’76. That’s 35 years ago, so somebody who was, say, a punk at 25 is now 60. That’s strange. Punk pensioners, indeed.

‘Speaking of which, I’m sure I recently saw a couple of members of The Clash. I had been thinking about the music for Belfast Girls and I walked down the road and I saw them. That was mental. Another coincidence.’

Belfast Girls is at the King’s Head Theatre, London, on Monday August 15. Accidental Theatre are also hosting a rehearsed reading of McCarrick's The American Hotel on August 17. Keep up with Jaki McCarrick at