Belfast Girls, Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick’s 2015 play about five young women aboard the Inchinnan, a ship bound for Australia, opened November 17–with high hopes on the part of the voyagers, and fistfights. It is the first play in Corrib Theatre’s 2017-18 season, and this is its U.S. West Coast premiere.
The play documents the plight of poor young Irish women during the Great Hunger, 1845-1852, when potato crops failed throughout Europe, and up to a million people starved to death in Ireland alone. Another million or so left the country. Among them, more than 4000 females ages 14-20 boarded ships bound for Australia after Secretary of State for the Colonies, Earl Grey, developed the Earl Grey Famine Orphan Scheme. It was meant to empty out the overcrowded workhouses which were flooded with young women from the country who hoped to find survival in the cities.
The girls who volunteered for relocation, and made it onto the ships were able-bodied dreamers willing to work themselves into a better life. But they were also upper-crust Ireland’s undesirables–particularly the “Belfast girls” who made their living on the streets in the world’s oldest profession.
We join the girls in their bunkroom. Judith (Anya Pearson) part-Jamaican, establishes herself as the leader. Feisty Ellen (Brenan Dwyer), brash, street-savvy Hannah (Summer Olsson), and the withdrawn, sullen Sarah (Hannah Edelson) choose their bunks and begin dreaming aloud about what they believe will be brilliant futures in a new land. And then Molly (Tiffany Groben) arrives in the bunkroom. She is different, educated and soft-spoken, a modern woman with books and nice manners. While the others are curious, they also distrust her.
I found this play fascinating from a historical perspective. It’s a story of forgotten, “disposable” women. Nobody wanted them, even their new land, as history tells us if we pursue the story to its end. And yet, the story abounds with growth and hope and spirit in the face of adversity. It also is the story of “the other” in our midst, and how society responds to someone who doesn’t fit the expected mold. It’s a story of how cruel governments, religions, societies, and individuals can be to their fellow human beings.
Corrib Theatre engages, inspires, entertains, and challenges audiences with theatrical productions filtered through the Irish experience, and with a focus on contemporary and lesser-known voices. Director and Corrib’s founding artistic director, Gemma Whelan, holds a BA from Trinity College Dublin, an MA in Theatre from UC Berkeley and an MFA in Cinema from San Francisco State University. She is a member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC).
Belfast Girls runs through December 10 at the Shaking the Tree Theatre venue, 823 SE Grant.
(Summer Olsson, Hanna Edelson, Tiffany Groben, Brenan Dwyer, and Anya Pearson in Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girls. Photo by Adam Liberman.)