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Friday, April 12, 2024

Escaping the Irish famine

Belfast Girls playwright comes to Vancouver for Canadian premiere

Just in time for St Patrick’s Day, Peninsula Productions presents the Canadian premiere of Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girls.

Set in 1850 against the backdrop of the Irish Famine, Belfast Girls follows five fictional young women who choose to leave that city’s workhouses as part of the real-life scheme to transport orphan workers from Ireland to Australia.

“During the Irish Famine approximately 4,000 Irish women took passage from Ireland to Australia, as part of the Earl Grey orphan scheme,” explains director Wendy Bollard.

Named after its principal architect Earl Grey, Secretary of State for the Colonies in British Prime Minister John Russell’s government of the time, the women were induced to travel to Australia with promises of passage and work. It was seen by many of these women as an escape from the Belfast workhouses.

Examining themes of class, race and misogyny, Bollard became fascinated by how the playwright wove heartbreak, humour and hope into their journey.

“I love this play because it explores the lives of five women who believe they have the right to choose their own destiny,” says Bollard. “As they travel, each woman unravels her idea of fortune and opportunity … yet as the ship closes in on the end of its voyage, they come to learn that things may not be as rosy as promised.”

For playwright Jaki McCarrick, the relevance of their story to politics today is striking. Similar to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, she sees it as an allegory of how the state takes advantage of the most vulnerable during a crisis.

“En route they discuss and analyze their plight and become radicalized,” says McCarrick “Via various discoveries, they come to the terrible conclusion that they have, most conveniently, been got rid of from a country they very much wanted to stay in.”

McCarrick is making the trek from her home in Ireland to be in Vancouver for the show’s Canadian premiere.

“I know a lot of writers don’t attend their shows abroad but I feel differently about this,” says McCarrick. “Firstly, I’m a female playwright and the work of female playwrights is performed abroad much less, especially if it’s from a relative newbie like myself or if the work is quite political like Belfast Girls. I want to be of support to the piece and the people pouring their heart and souls into it.”

Belfast Girls plays The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) from March 15-18. Visit for tickets and information.

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