Maggie Cronin and Carol Moore tell the story of Ireland's militant suffragettes
'There is only so long one can ask for something politely.' So speaks the character of Lillian Metger in Shrieking Sisters at the Linen Hall Library in the wake of International Women’s Day, celebrated each year on March 8.
The play or rehearsed reading in this case, written by Maggie Cronin and Carol Moore and today performed by both with Laura Hughes, tells the story of Ulster and Irish suffragettes in the early years of the 20th century, a period in history which is very much the focus of commemorative events at the moment.
Between the Easter Rising, the Home Rule Crisis and the First World War, it was a period of extraordinary upheaval, and it is almost understandable that the struggle to win the vote for women has not been so much in the forefront of memoralising events.
Shrieking Sisters goes some way to redress the imbalance, portraying as it does a host of significant characters in the early women’s movement in Ireland and elsewhere. Emmeline Pankhurst makes an appearance, as do lesser-known but no less important figures in Irish suffrage.
The story revolves around Lillian Metger, who, like Pankhurst, was born into a family of some privilege and wealth. She fought, nonetheless, for a woman’s right to vote, initially supporting passive action to make the point, until nothing less than militant, illegal action got the attention of the male-dominated governing establishment. They threw stones, damaged property and burned buildings.
Fortwilliam Golf Club was targeted with an acid attack on the green and Abbeylands House in Whiteabbey was destroyed by fire. A bomb attack on Lisburn Cathedral in the early hours of August 1, 1914 is described in some detail, as is the subsequent trial of the alleged bombers, one of whom was Metger. For her efforts, she and a number of other female protesters were thrown into Crumlin Road Gaol.
The play uses a variety of media to tell the story. Music and recorded sound augment the actors onstage. We hear a ballad of women’s suffrage sung by an opera singer and also sounds connected with the force-feeding that was a practice of prison doctors when women prisoners went on hunger strike.
A voice-over talks of a woman’s pain and terror as her mouth is forced open and a tube is pushed down her throat. Along with the audio, a PowerPoint presentation shows images of the numerous characters played by the actors, as well as text further explaining their role in the struggle and wonderfully evocative photographs of relevant buildings and monuments of the time.
Most effective are the women themselves, who, by various regional accents and subtle shifts in demeanour, change character and scene. Their chameleon ability to portray a dozen or so different people – including at one point, a man – is impressive, if at times a little confusing.
If there is a fault in Shrieking Sisters, it is that there is too much information conveyed in just over an hour, and at times the audience is in danger of being overrun with facts and feminists. Add to that the well-researched information about the way in which Home Rule, the Irish struggle for independence and the First World War all fed into and influenced the tenor of the times, and we’re in danger of historical overload.
Nevertheless, this is a fascinating, if demanding, piece of theatre – there is a radio play to be made of this, if not a film.
We take for granted now the measure of equality that women enjoy, and rights, which on paper if not in practice, are equal. The upheavals of just 100 years ago resonate with our own times, and provide a fascinating backdrop to present struggles.
Never mind Pussy Riot, it is the Shrieking Sisters who did what had to be done, and this play / rehearsed reading / call it what you will, does much to illuminate an essential part of all our histories.