Belfast Girls

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 27, 2017

Anya Pearson and Tiffany Groben
Anya Pearson and Tiffany Groben  

The world's history of migration is riddled with stories of flight, trickery, desperate hope and enslavement. "Belfast Girls" traces the emigration of five women from Belfast, Ireland to Sidney in 1848. Part of the Famine Orphan Scheme that sent thousands of able-bodied young women to male-heavy Australia, the journey challenges these young women in unexpected ways.

Playwright Jaki McCarrick plumbs diverse human frailty with her five women in the crucible of small quarters. The five each come to the ship from different paths; workhouses, poorhouses, fleeing horrors of the famine. All hope what they find at the end of the three months at sea is better than what they left.

And the circumstances are dire; one is involved in a suspicious death, a couple is sent directly from the workhouse, where they were sent after being arrested for breaking the laws of the day, and the greed-driven famine has made refugees out of millions of Irish. Like the poem "No one puts a child on a boat unless the water is safer than the land," desperation drives these women to seek their survival thousands of miles away.

As usual, women bear the brunt of the brutality of famine and economic strife. "We (women) are as the peat: to be used up and walked on." Hannah (Summer Olsson) and Jane (Hannah Edelson) bicker as siblings scrabbling over petty morsels, a duo that starts in lighthearted banter. "She never said no to an urge in her life," says one to the other. "Your mouth could fit a whale in it!" These two trade some of the brightest lines in the play, underpinned by a vicious anger that multiplies as the strain of the journey destroys camaraderie, leaving claws and teeth. Olsson delivers a zealous, fearless portrayal of the bawdy and slightly simple Hannah.

Judith, the Jamaican and Irish woman twice unhomed, is the story's anchor, sturdy and intelligent. She meets an intellectual spark in Molly, who shows her social and political awareness, broadening her horizons with books Molly carried on board. Judith (Anya Pearson) holds on warily to hope, played with keen intelligence by Pearson. When she sees a new world of possibility in the words and ideas of philosophy and social thought, life briefly expands before her eyes. Delicate Molly (Tiffany Groben) upsets the tenuous peace of the quarters by introducing intellectual ideals.

A study in human behavior like "Lord of the Flies," "Belfast Girls" trains a magnifying glass on women's history, using the additional lens of Irish diaspora. We hope and plan and strive to change our lives, but when dragged to emotional limits, who we really are is revealed in how we react.
Overlaid on the exposed human nature is the heavy reminder that it is men who caused the strife the women are left to manage or escape. "(Men) run the world!... And look at the world!"

"Belfast Girls" starts slow, unsure on its feet. The puzzling opening moments, in which Judith is onstage in complete silence for a few moments until the music starts playing loudly as she starts inexplicably moving luggage around the stage, felt awkward and confusing. Some lighting cues were odd, not clearly tied to action or plot.

The strength of this play is in the lyrical writing, supported by convincing accents among actors whose confidence grew as the show went on. At its apex, the story is marvelously dispatched, its themes of self-determination and futility wrestling to mutual destruction.

"Belfast Girls" runs through December 10 at Corrib Theatre, Shaking the Tree Theatre, 823 SE Grant, Portland, OR. For tickets and information, call 800-838-3006 or visit

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.