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Our friends in the North

Actress Rachael Rooney told David Hennessy about The 4th Country, a new play set in 2019 Northern Ireland that deals with the issue of abortion rights as well as Bloody Sunday.

Plain Heroines theatre company and Park Theatre present a new play that looks into life in modern Northern Ireland and who should tell its stories.

The 4th Country, a written by Kate Reid, is set in Derry in 2019 and tackles Northern Ireland’s complex politics and history, from Bloody Sunday to abortion laws.

The play follows Niamh and Conor, a brother and sister, who struggle with his lawyer fiancée’s role in defending a man who bears some responsibility for Bloody Sunday, an incident that is close to their family history.

It seems that even in 2019, Niamh and Conor can still never quite escape the echoes of their family’s violent past.

Niamh then finds herself with nowhere to turn when she falls pregnant due to Northern Ireland lagging behind both the UK and Ireland in decriminalising abortion.

Rachael Rooney, who plays Niamh, says the play gives a look at the true Northern Ireland which is one that is seldom seen on stage.

Rachel told The Irish World: “Niamh’s an incredibly vibrant character with a lot of personality. It’s really hard to see what she’s pushed to.

“Niamh is this girl in her 20s from Derry. She is married, hasn’t ever really left the town.

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“Her brother comes back from having worked and lived in England for a few years and he controversially brings back an English fiance, Anna.

“The family are quite well known within the area because their grandfather was a Bloody Sunday victim, and he’s bringing back a very English lawyer who keeps herself firmly set away from the family.

“Niamh places a lot of trust in her community and places a lot of trust in her family and the people around her.

“And by the end of the play, we see where that trust gets her and we see her face something that a lot of women in Northern Ireland have had to face.

“When the play is sat in 2019, it (abortion) was an extremely contentious issue.

“She finds herself in a situation where she has to deal with the regulations that Northern Ireland in 2019 was placing on women with abortion, and the injustice of it and hopefully, the audience will see how it can destroy lives.

“She was a happily married woman who wanted a family, and there’s so many layers to the abortion discussion and I think Niamh’s is particularly heart breaking because no matter what side you’re on, I think you’ll see she faces a really tough decision.

Rachael Rooney in character as Niamh.

“We watch a woman whose central belief is that her family and her community will look after her and by the end of the play, she’s failed by everyone around her.

“She’s pushed to an extreme that no woman should have to face and we see the repercussions for her, but also for those around her.”

Women in Northern Ireland were denied abortions until 2019 when it was decriminalised.

Rachael points out that there are still not enough clinics more than two years on.

“I remember this all happening in 2019 and how big the issue was at the time.

“I’m the only woman in the cast who was born and raised in Northern Ireland so it’s particularly like a punch in the gut for me because it’s a very real reality that any woman who was raised here could have potentially had to face.

“Researching the other side and seeing how personally affected I would become seeing these other people who would argue against my right to choose- It was really interesting and could be quite hard.”

Performed by a Northern Irish and Irish cast, the 4th Country has been reworked for 2022 following its original VAULT Festival 2020 run.

“We started rehearsal for the original show for the Vault Festival in 2020, just before the pandemic hit and now we’re coming back to it two years later and seeing publicly how far we’ve come. But I’ve been doing research into it and there’s still not enough clinics for women in Northern Ireland for us to be as far ahead as we should be two years later.”

References to Bloody Sunday can become especially poignant due to the play being set before any mention of a possible amnesty for such cases.

“We also discuss Bloody Sunday and also with Bloody Sunday, from 2019 to now, the announcements that have been made and the setbacks.

“We really look into the core case that was happening at the time, Soldier F finally being discussed.

“And now, all of us knowing where we are today, it’s quite heart-wrenching.

“Kate Reid has been writing this for two years now and seeing how it’s adjusted and changed and grown with the politics, throughout the tears, I’ve loved it.

“I feel like people (in the UK) are starting to get more interested in Northern Irish politics, which I think is great.

“But that also opens up the discussion of who’s right and who’s wrong? And how do we accurately discuss these issues in a one-hour play?

“And how do we accurately represent Northern Ireland in a one-hour play, and the conclusion was that it’s not possible and we shouldn’t try to come up with a solid idea of Northern Ireland.

“We don’t look for answers. We look to start a conversation.

“We just want to focus in on this one family in particular, and what conversations that opens for those watching.”

The cast is completed by Cormac Elliott playing Conor and Aoife Kenna and the playwright Kate Reid.

Writer Kate Reid said of the play: “I’m so excited to put these often-overlooked Northern Irish narratives on a London stage. The 4th Country looks at the year 2019, a year which saw Stormont shut down for a third year running; the painful aftermath of Brexit; a spike in paramilitary shootings and attacks; and – at last – the decriminalisation of abortion.”

Rachael says the strength of the play is staying away from often seen stereotypes.

“I think Kate Reid has been incredible with how she has managed to stay clear of that completely.

“That’s been a real privilege to work with because it can be quite jarring when you’re just watching people do a ceili in the middle of the thing, and you’re like, ‘Well, that doesn’t really happen but okay…’

“Plain Heroines have gone to above and beyond to make sure every aspect of it is honouring Northern Ireland and not just using it as a tool to get a good ‘think’ piece on to an English stage.

“And I feel like Northern Irish people will come and see people they met in their everyday lives walking through Belfast.

“But also an English audience will come and hopefully get a real accurate idea of Northern Ireland and the people that live in it.

“We faced a lot of as a little nation and we’ve gone through a lot, we’ve achieved a lot as a community.

“A lot of the time our government’s let us down and I think in Northern Ireland, we’ve placed a lot of emphasis on family and community because of that.

“And that’s why your neighbour is the one that you’ll go to.

“We all know each other, and we all look out for each other.

“It’s the first time I’ve really read a script and where I’ve gone, ‘Oh, I can see that in it’.

“I’m really excited for audiences to see that no matter where they’re from.”


It was not so long ago that the Irish World interviewed Rachael Rooney about the Girl Who was Very Good at Lying. While they are both Northern Irish stories, this play is far removed from its more whimsical predecessor.

“However, there is something that I have taken from the two characters playing Catriona in the past and now Niamh: The idea of these two women for different reasons being trapped in a small area, and being suffocated by rules and regulations surrounding them that they have no control over, and the impact that those rules have on them.

“Catriona had rules placed on her by her mother and by doctors and people who were looking out for her.

“Niamh is being incredibly controlled by laws that women today are still facing and still having to come up against in Northern Ireland.

“And it’s heart breaking to see how it affects both of these women individually.

“And I think it’s a brilliant part of a bigger discussion about women in Ireland and how so much of the time we are spoken for and not given a voice.

“That would be a theme I’d say connects both of them.”

The 4th Country runs 12 January to 5 February at Park Theatre.

For more information, click here.

For more information on Plain Heroines, click here.

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