Jaki McCarrick told David Hennessy about her play Belfast Girls which tells the story of the Irish orphan girls that were shipped out of Ireland during the famine and, having been performed in London, Australia, USA and Sweden, has its Irish premiere this month.
North West London- born Dundalk playwright Jaki McCarrick’s play Belfast Girls has its Irish premiere this month with a production touring Dundalk, Belfast, Drogheda and Navan.
Belfast Girls focuses on unheard voices of the famine, the orphan girls that were shipped off to Australia and forgotten from history.
Between the years 1848 and 1851 over 4,000 Irish females took passage on ships from Ireland to Australia under the Orphan Emigration Scheme established by Earl Grey.
Devised by the third Earl Grey, Henry Grey – the then British Secretary of State for the Colonies – in collaboration with the Australian government the Orphan Emigration Scheme was designed as a means of reducing pressure on the workhouses and relieving famine in Ireland, while providing Australia with much-needed labour (and, unofficially, wives for a population where men largely outnumbered women).
The play tells the story of five women who make the journey.
The play was developed at the National Theatre Studio in London and shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and the BBC Tony Doyle Award; it also won the Galway Theatre Festival Playwriting Prize.
It premiered at The Kings Head in London before being developed at the National Theatre Studio and going on to much critical acclaim as it has since been staged internationally, with further premieres in Chicago, New York, Australia and Sweden.
Belfast Girls had to go around the world before it could be shown in Ireland and the play will enjoy its long-awaited first showing in Belfast at the end of the month bringing a story home some 174 years after the women at the centre of its story were shipped away.
And that may not be the end of the story as Jaki has recently written a screenplay version of Belfast Girls which is currently being pitched to producers.
Jaki told The Irish World: “It just took just took a while to get here.
“It was really popular in the States and I don’t think that was just because of the diaspora.
“There’s probably an element of that but I think it’s because every time it was on, it seems to be constantly relevant.
“And that’s because- I hate the phrase- but it speaks to a state of flux in the world.
“In the States, it’s been picked up during the #metoo movement, when Trump was in power because of his anti-immigrant attitudes.
“And then maybe even Black Lives Matter because Judith, a central character, is mixed race so it just keeps brushing up against agitation in the world.
“I think when people see it and these things are going on, even with Gaza/ Palestine going on now, there is an element of recognising that the world of the play is in crisis.
“That’s probably why other countries have liked it but for some reason, to Irish people in Ireland, it’s just the famine.
“That’s our history.
“But every time it was on people kept saying to me, ‘I really want to see this play, when is this play on in Ireland?’”
What reactions are you expecting in Ireland?
“I honestly feel the reactions in Ireland are going to be exactly the same.
“I feel that we’re so removed from our past here now that maybe it will touch on some kind of ancestral memory or something like that maybe but by and large, the reactions have been to the characters, to their sense of hope, and to the sense of the system against the individual which is really big in in Belfast Girls.
“I think maybe that helps people to feel the experience of these characters who are speaking up and fighting back because once they’re on this journey, the girls really come to understand what’s happening.”
What inspired the story for you?
“I was looking for a female story.
“I won the Papatango Prize for New Writing for my play Leopoldville which is an all male play.
“And it’s a very violent, dark play.
“But during the rehearsals for that play, it dawned on me.
“I said, ‘I have to do an all-female story’.
“I knew I wanted to write a female story and I didn’t see too many of them going on around me.”
It was during the financial crisis that Jaki was first moved to write about the famine.
“I was looking for a story and then hearing all the stories of eviction when we paid the bondholders off, it was a terrible time.
“Loads of people I know, members of my family left, went back to London having moved over here (Ireland) for work.
“We all knew people who lost their houses.
“People were affected.
“It’s quickly forgotten, but it was a bad stretch of a few years.
“I would hear things about the famine a lot so I wondered to myself if any of my own family had left Ireland during the famine.
“I was just Googling and then I saw a Margaret McCarrick from Sligo leaving on a ship as part of a scheme called the Orphan Emigration Scheme- which I’d never heard of: 4,000 young women leaving Ireland for Australia.
“And then when I read the thesis, there was material in there about a group of girls who were known to be very boisterous and these were called ‘the Belfast Girls’.
“And I thought, ‘Well, there’s my story. There’s the female story that I’ve been looking for’.
“I just knew it then.
“And so I did more research and the characters came out of the research.”
They were troubled girls often weren’t they that were shipped off?
“Yeah, most of them were between the ages of 14 and 19 (as they were meant to be), but some were not.
“The workhouses come into Ireland, then the famine hit and they’re teeming, absolutely teeming.
“And some of these women, the ones that were known as ‘permanent deadweight’, which is a terrible phrase for them, were born in workhouses.
“And so the workhouses did not want the boisterous women, they wanted to get rid of them.
“So Earl Grey comes along and decided to kill two birds with one stone.
“The Australian farmers and labourers are kicking up a fuss. They want some help, they want some servants, probably wanted wives but they never pitched it as that because that’s trafficking. They can’t do that.
“So he comes up with a scheme to help Australia and help alleviate the overflowing workhouses and that’s the Orphan Emigration Scheme.
“The first batch of women who arrived, there were complaints about because they weren’t the virginal 14 to 19 year olds that they wanted.
“It’s funny because after the whole scheme is over, a lot of these guardians are charged with purposefully sending the wrong kind of women. They definitely did.
“And there’s a group who are not what they’re pitched to be, 14 to 19 and a lot of these are ‘the Belfast girls’.
“Some of them were married, and some of them were in their 30s.
“But as I said to people in rehearsals, ‘Wouldn’t you try to get out and say you were 19 if you could get away with it? If you thought you were gonna get away from Ireland in the famine and a free ticket to Australia?’
“So everyone used this scheme.
“Earl Grey used it to kill two birds with one stone, the workhouses used it to get rid of the women they didn’t want and then the girls used it to get out if they possibly could.
“There is a group of people, I know there’s a few in Ireland, that are very protective of these girls and they think they were all these virginal 14 to 19 year olds, but that’s not correct.
“There’s lots of records to prove that. I even actually had a conversation with a woman I met from Cavan and she said, ‘Oh, yeah, everybody knows in our local town all the workhouses just got rid of all the prostitutes’.
“So it’s sort of common colloquial knowledge in a lot of places and it was written about as well.
“And they did the same in Canada, the same sorts of schemes were set up to Canada.
“But then again, I don’t want to be calling the majority of these young women prostitutes because mostly they weren’t.
“Actually in Australia, there’s a woman who’s a massive fan of this play.
“Her great, great, great, great grandmother was on my ship and was one of ‘the Belfast girls’ so she just loves this play, she follows it everywhere.
“I must connect her with the cast in some way. They might be interested to hear from her.”
Aside from not being 14- 19 some of those shipped off may even have already had children.
“There’s another phenomenon.
“I hate the phrases but it’s just what they called it then, bastardy (illegitimate children).
“Apparently, the so called bastardy rate in Monaghan went up during one of the years of the famine by 197%.
“You think with famine there would be less birth, or less out of marriage.
“But, in fact, it was vastly more and this is because the men are leaving either for work or they don’t necessarily want to stay with this woman anymore because everything’s chaotic. They’re kicked out of their house so they go off.
“There’s so many chaotic things happen.
“The whole structure is broken.
“And often sex was used for rent so these crazy, chaotic things happen.
“The society collapses and it really collapsed on top of women then anyway, because where could they go?”
You say Judith is mixed race and that is based on fact too, isn’t it?
“Yeah, I was getting all the character information just from the research, I barely made anything up really.
“I found the registries of the girls on the different ships.
“And on the registries, I found one of the characters was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m having that piece of information. That is absolutely fantastic’.
“It’s funny because when directors have asked me about that detail, sometimes they think I made that up and I didn’t make that up.
“I’ve got photocopies of those registers and I send them back to them.
“I actually discovered two. So there were two girls born on the registry, one born Kingston, Jamaica and one says East Indies.
“I think it’s a lot to do with that they were trading routes so who knows what happens and that gives me some leeway in imagining Judith’s background.
“So I just have her mother a free slave and her father a tobacco importer and then she gets adopted in by a couple in Larne.”
Didn’t you develop the play at the National Theatre Studio? “I did.
“2012 we got this thing called an attachment which means the National gives you a few weeks, gives you an office.
“It’s fantastic thing actually to help you develop a new work and then they give you your pick of National Theatre actors and I worked with Charlene McKenna (Bloodlands, Holding), Clare Dunne (KIN) and Kathy Keira Clarke (Derry Girls).”
That was a hell of a cast…
“This is what happens when you do stuff at the National, they treat you so well and they give you space to work this thing out and so it was very good of them to do that.
“I was on attachment to them again actually.
“I was on attachment to them again in May of last year and we’re hoping that we can do something with them again later in the year.”
Jaki came to the Liverpool Irish Festival in 2022 to talk about the play.
“It was so fantastic.
“The audience was very engaged, asking brilliant questions.
“We really hammered some things out about the famine, colonialism and Ireland itself.
“I think Ireland has a few issues.
“I think the famine is really connected to us opening up to our colonial past because I think there’s an element, especially with our government, wishing that that wasn’t the case, that we were just the same as England or France.
“Well, we’re not. We are colonial, we have been colonised and there are issues and things to be resolved.
“South Africa, after apartheid, had a truth and reconciliation period that went on for a few years.
“I think this country needs to do that, especially about the north.
“We need some kind of truth and reconciliation.”
Jaki grew up around the West Hampstead, Kilburn and Gospel Oak areas of London before moving to Dundalk at the age of 12. She would later return to study. She now lives in Ireland.
“I’ve probably lived in London most of my life.
“When I went back again, I was Willesden.
“I love Willesden. And I miss Willesden.
“I probably spent more time in London than I have here so I very much feel that I’m second generation Irish living in Ireland.
“You know yourself there’s lots of those.
“I do feel Irish when I’m here but there’s a remove. There’s definitely a remove.
“If somebody was to say, ‘What’s your city?’ I will probably say London but the UK is not my country, Ireland is my country.
“I think a lot of Irish people would say that, even the ones living in London right now.”
Wouldn’t it be great to bring Belfast Girls to London?
“It had The King’s Head run in 2011, 2012.
“That’s really where it started life before it did development at the National.
“I’m still trying to see if it can have a West End run.
“Before COVID, myself and a director were talking to somebody that was interested and it might have had a small west end run, but that didn’t happen.
“That may well (still) happen.”
You had a Derry Girls cast member in the development of the play, didn’t an interviewer compare the two projects when speaking to you recently?
“I was on BBC Radio Ulster this morning and the guy kept saying, ‘So did you write yours before Derry Girls?’
“And I said, ‘I think so but I’m not sure’.
“But then somebody checked.
“So yeah, Belfast Girls is before Derry Girls.
“There’s room for both.”
An Táin Arts Centre and Quintessence Theatre Company present Belfast Girls at An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk 25- 27 January, The Lyric Theatre in Belfast 31 January- 3 February, Droichead Arts Centre in Drogheda on 9 February and Solstice Arts Centre, Navan 16 and 17 February.