Belfast Girls – Between a Rock and a Hard Place


The Great Famine tore through Ireland from 1845 to 1849. Potato blight, absentee landlords, and single-crop dependence were exacerbated by Britain’s lack of aid. A million people died, a million more left the country. Workhouses swelled in numbers adding the aged and infirm, orphans, and abandoned children to the destitute. They were harsh and prison-like.

Residents “were expected to work for a roof over their heads and the work was hard and monotonous. Common tasks included treadmills or breaking apart old ropes into fibre. Women might be employed in sewing tasks, but certainly in Dublin, also used the treadmills. Food was also monotonous and basic. Stirabout, a watery gruel was common, as was bread.” (Find your ancestors in Dublin Workhouses Admission & Discharge Registers 1840-1919.)

Mary Mallen, Aida Leventaki, Caroline Strange, Sarah Street, Labhaoise Magee

Earl Grey, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, made a deal with Australia to send women from workhouses in order to reduce overcrowding and help supply female labor where there was chronic shortage. The latter government funded it. From 1848 to 1850, 20 ships carrying 4,114 so-called Irish “orphans” arrived in Australia. (British girls didn’t want to immigrate because so many of the male inhabitants of Australia were convicts.) 

The girls were supposed to be “imbued with religion and morally pure,” preferably between the ages of 14 and 18, in good health and possessed of industrial skills. Instead, many of those who initially arrived were beggars, thieves, drunks, and prostitutes, uneducated to the point of illiteracy. Others fled home with the hope of gainful employment or lonely potential husbands. The government struggled to screen those traveling. The scheme ended in 1850 as funds ran low, morality became an issue, and new settlers complained about Australian prejudice against Catholics.

The Play

Ada Leventaki and Caroline Strange

Ellen Clarke (Labhaoise Magee), Hannah Gibney (Mary Mallen), Judith Noone (Caroline Strange), Sarah Jane Wylie (Sarah Street), and Molly Duncan (Aida Leventaki) occupy a bunk bed cabin on the (ship) Inchinnan bound for Australia.  The girls change out of street clothes into more practical workhouse uniforms. Strong minded Sarah takes charge. “From now on, we’re mistresses of our own destinies,” she declares. A survivor of abject poverty, Sarah would be numb were she not so angry. She hopes to be a teacher.

Hannah’s father sold her for liquor. She sings (well), drinks, fantasizes about wedding a wealthy farmer – “I’m a good worker” – and has her eyes on the cook, as does Ellen. The latter’s prejudice against Protestants is deep and volatile. Both have birthed babies. Sarah has a brother in Australia who will ostensibly help the girls. She reads and rereads his letters when not repairing two bonnets the others call out as unaffordable except by a whore and prays not to be scrounging for scraps. Sarah’s judgmental.

Molly faints from hunger when she enters the room from a second wave of passengers. She isn’t just smart, she’s educated (by her mistress). A suitcase full of books includes Shakespeare and Marx. She knows Irish history and is aware of women’s changing rights issues. The firebrand starts to influence Judith. They grow unexpectedly close. Molly wants to be an actress. She has a secret.

Labhaoise Magee, Sarah Street, Aida Leventaki, Caroline Strange, Mary Mallen

The ship tosses. Women are sick. When nerves are high, they talk a little about pasts they’d sooner forget and snipe at one another. More history of the destitute state of the country is illuminated than personal backgrounds. (This is too bad.) When Judith quotes Marx, Ellen snaps, “How does your man suggest we improve the potato harvest next year…how should we have taken action, round up all the landlords and shoot them?” They sing and dance. Sounds and dialogue give one an impression of ship life outside the cabin.

Playwright Jaki McCarrick has done her homework. References to the girls’ lives in 1850 Belfast are accurate. Each is attributed enough character and background to make her credible. A few more details about the process that got them there would’ve served. The play’s emotional arc is otherwise skillful. If Act One feels a bit too long, Act Two is dramatically gripping.                                                                      

Aida Leventaki, Caroline Stange, and Mary Mallen

The cast is excellent. Only Caroline Strange is not at ease with her Irish accent and fades in and out with her focus. (Dialect coach – Judith Foh) Stand- outs are Aida Leventaki’s adroitly understated, multi-leveled Molly and Sarah Street’s gimlet eyed, eruptive Sarah.

Director Nicola Murphy exhibits a sure hand. The young women are credibly occupied when not directly conversing. A violent denouement is as deft as it is painful to see. Circling a table again and again in confined frustration is palpably empathetic. Attention is held. Use of songs either in person or recorded enhances atmosphere. Relationships seemingly develop. Ineluctable drum beats signify time passing.

Physical altercations and tender advances come across as real. (Leana Gardella – fight and intimacy director)

An excellent set by Chika Shimizu shows sparse upper deck and cabin with a few evocative props (Brandy Hoang Collier). If only it didn’t look quite so clean.

Costumes by China Lee are aesthetically pleasing and historically correct. Hair/wig design by Rachel Geier effectively collaborates. Sound design by Caroline Eng is marvelous.

Photos by Carol Rosegg
Opening: Labhaoise Magee, Mary Mallen, Caroline Strange, Sarah Street and Aida Leventaki

Irish Repertory Theatre presents
Belfast Girls by Jaki McCarrick
Directed by Nicola Murphy

Irish Repertory Theatre 
132 West 22 Street

About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.