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Ending the silence

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.

Playwright Jaki McCarrick will be coming to Liverpool Irish Festival to speak about her play, Belfast Girls.

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.

The play tells the story of five women who make the journey.

The play was developed at the National Theatre Studio 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 in Chicago in May 2015 to much critical acclaim and has since been staged widely internationally, with further premieres in Australia and Sweden.

Jaki told The Irish World: “I will explain a lot about the play and the research that went into it.

“Australia calls the Irish orphan girls ‘the mothers of Australia’, because they have a lot of respect for what they had to go through: Having to leave their homes and their very difficult reception when they got to Australia, and then making lives on their own.”

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A group among the girls on the boat were referred to as ‘the Belfast Girls’.

Jaki’s story would focus on these feisty characters.

“Overall 20,000 girls went on schemes during the famine and 4,000 went to Australia, but then quite a lot went to Canada, and to America, on different types of schemes.

“My story focuses on the Australian trip.

“Most of the supposedly young girls who went to Australia were exactly who they were supposed to have been. They were between 14 and 19, but a lot weren’t.

“And these were the ones that I was interested in and via their voices would speak about the whole 4,000 and all the women that would have left Ireland during that time.

“There were examples of swapped identities in my research, there was someone pretending to be someone else.

“There were wrong records, women who had children- They weren’t supposed to have children because they’re supposed to be young and virginal.

“If you had grown up in the workhouse, they called you ‘permanent deadweight’, which was a terrible phrase.

Jaki McCarrick

“They just wanted rid of you.

“So the workhouses were full to the brim.

“Basically, the leaders of the workhouses had a choice, ‘We’ve got to get rid of so many young women, and which ones do we try to push out? And which ones do we keep?’

“So it’s quite logical that they were going to try and get rid of the ones they considered trouble even though they were going to tell the British Crown they were the best, but they weren’t in their eyes.

“A lot of them were feisty women or prostitutes or illiterate, they certainly weren’t ready to be maids in big houses, they had no skills.

“So where were they gonna learn these skills?

“And a lot of the girls would have played along with that, because they wanted out. They wanted to get out of Ireland.

“When I was sort of putting this whole story together, I was getting more shocked.

“I really was getting very angry hearing the authorities would even consider morality of the girls, but they did.

“I was so annoyed with that.

“But that sort of spurred me on to write the play.”

Many characters in Belfast Girls have experienced prostitution which says something of the desperate times.

They may also want to leave this behind but sadly research shows that many found nothing better on their arrival in Canada.

“If you read about the Canadian women, research shows that most of the women who were prostitutes there during the Irish famine years were Irish.

“They didn’t all find good work and live wholesome lives unfortunately.”

When she started her research, Jaki could find little information on the famine.

There is more now and Jaki believes it is only now that many are beginning to talk about the famine.

“We’re starting to talk about it now.

“I think, for a long time, we haven’t spoken about famine in Ireland.

“When I wrote Belfast Girls, which was ten years ago, there was very little information about the Belfast girls who were on those boats.

“The famine really wasn’t spoke about that much.

“It is spoken about, it could be spoken about a lot more.

“There are some brilliant books, even brilliant books written since I wrote Belfast Girls.

“So you can see that lots of people are going to the famine, gathering up the scholarship, making sense of it.

“Slowly but surely, we’re starting to get a much better picture of what happened.

“I also think there’s an element of when something terrible happens, it is followed by a long period of silence.

“I think that’s called ‘The Great Silence’, the period after the famine.

“People just don’t want to talk about it.

“And I think it’s the same with COVID as well. We’re not talking about it too much, because we’ve just gone through it.

“I think once you’re through it, you don’t want to go there.

“The letters that some of the Belfast girls sent home very rarely mentioned the famine, and they would have gone through terrible things, but they didn’t mention it.

“The premise that I took in the play is they’re so glad to be rid of it and so glad to have escaped and it’s the moment when you start to miss home and some sort of emotion kicks in, then you start to connect that to what you’ve gone through.

“And that trauma kicks in and the pain kicks in.

“It’s when you feel safe that they feel trauma. I don’t think you feel the trauma when you’re trying to survive.

“It really is only as they get closer to Australia, the more they feel the pain and the trauma of what they’ve left behind.

“And what I gleaned from the letters is the absence of talking about the terrible things that they’ve gone through is unbelievable.

“You read about what they went through and it’s like, ‘How can you not talk to your sister or your mother?’

“But of course, why would they when their mother or their sister has also seen it?

“There’s very strange statistics like what they call the ‘bastardy rate’, which is illegitimacy. Awful word, isn’t it? The ‘bastardy rate’ in Monaghan during the peak famine went up by 190%.

“So you think during a famine, there’s going to be less children.

“So, that just means it’s chaos. And this happens in times of I think this happens anyway, in times of war, all sorts of crisis.

“Women just fall to the bottom of society and a lot of the times their only ticket out is sort of prostitution. It still happens, of course it does.

“The other element race comes into the story as well.

“And this is because when I was researching, I found two women born in the East Indies.

“So two women born in the East Indies got on a ship from Ireland to go on the orphan immigration scheme to go to Australia.

“So who were they?

“What can be shocking to people- and it is really shocking, the things that you find out.

“The Irish people at that time were nearly naked, they literally had no clothes so they would walk around barefoot.

“They would sell clothes and- still a lot of pride- they wouldn’t tell people a lot of the time, ‘I’ve sold my dress or whatever’.

“It’s just unbelievable and then all these women arriving in Canada ended up prostitutes, quite shocking to be told.

“These are cold facts.

“I do weave in some anecdotal evidence, but most of the stuff is hard scholarship.

“And then you put a picture together, and you do realise that it was really, really terrible.

“Women were on their own, it was broken family: Men going off to work, picking potatoes in Scotland or somewhere else or emigrating.

“Some families stuck together but a lot of people were broken up and on their own. That’s chaos, isn’t it? A complete picture of chaos.”

Jack McCarrick speaks about Belfast Girls at 7.30pm on Tuesday 25 October at Liverpool Everyman Bistro as part of Liverpool Irish Festival 20- 30 October.  For more information, click here.

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