PLAYWRIGHT Arthur Riordan describes it as “one of the few successful rebellious gestures in Irish history”.
On a Saturday in May, 1971, a band of women representing the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement — among them Nell McCafferty, June Devine, and Mary Kenny — took off on a train to Belfast to purchase the pill, condoms, and other contraceptives that were then outlawed in the Republic of Ireland.
The women returned to Dublin that evening with their illegal swag in tow, daring the authorities to do something about it. It was a wonderfully subversive political stunt, one which exposed the hypocrisies and oppressive intrusions of a so-called ‘free state’ which operated beneath a cloak of restrictive Catholic mores.
Of course, 40-odd years on, in a contemporary Ireland that is vastly more liberated — and yet in which the populace are, in many respects, also vastly more sedate — the historical event of the ‘contraceptive train’ has a somewhat time-worn, sepia-tinted quality to it. It’s now official history — a little two-minute nugget we’ve gotten used to seeing wheeled out on Reeling in the Years.
Attempting to capture the original fire and subversive wit of the women involved, however, Riordan’s new satirical musical for Rough Magic — The Train — promises to breathe a little life back into the history, while providing a fair whack of merriment along the way.
For Riordan, that merriment is key. The Train, co-written with Bill Whelan of Riverdance fame, pays homage to “the spirit of mischief that drove the women”, he says. What the Cork writer admires most about the women, in fact, is “their passion for justice and at the same time their very playful way of confronting the authorities”.
It is hardly surprising that a satirist like Riordan, the creator of the wonderful Improbable Frequency, which hilariously travestied British and Irish relations during World War II, should admire the subversive waggishness of McCafferty and company. Not that Riordan is being too deferential to the event which inspired the musical either.
“When myself and Bill started writing it, we fell into a trap early on of being a little too reverential to the women,” he says. “But actually, while this is perhaps too simplistic a way of describing it, there was a certain ‘punk’ energy about the whole thing and that’s what the show needs to highlight. It was a big deal talking about sex in 1971, let alone taking a train to Belfast and getting contraceptives and shouting about it. So there was a real punk energy there that I’d hope to get across.”
Significantly, The Train is a fictionalised re-imagining of the original event. None of the actual personages involved in 1971 are represented onstage, although the characters do, between them, share many attributes of those women. Moreover, Riordan has also woven a spin on Paradise Lost into the mix, with the women of the IWLM serving as ‘fallen angels’ who provoke a middle-Ireland Adam and Eve (Emmett Kirwan and Clare Barrett) into sampling the fruits of knowledge.
“My character, Aoife, goes on quite a journey,” says Barrett. “At the beginning she takes her relationship with the church and state for granted: ‘This is the way it is and why would you question it?’ But eventually, as information filters through, she starts to question why all these other people are involved in her private relationship. So she goes through a real transformation when she decides to take the pill — the apple in the Garden of Eden — and she tempts her husband into going in that direction too. After that, there are the ramifications for her, the trouble it gets her into with the church and so on. That sounds very serious altogether, but it’s done in a very satirical way and it’s very funny.”
Born in the late 1970s, Barrett is old enough to have directly experienced the twilight years of an Ireland bound firmly to Catholic doctrine. The legislation around the availability of condoms in Ireland was only properly relaxed in the early 1990s, after all.
Similarly, as Barrett points out, legislation such as the marriage bar — when women teachers and civil servants were expected to retire upon marriage – was only abolished in 1973, two years after the contraceptive train had tooted its horn.
“The railroad that these women made into these issues are quite significant,” says Barrett, “I know that I probably took it way more for granted until I started researching this project. You realise how much these women had to overcome to get us as far as we’ve come.”
Riordan says he’s worked in many references to the double-standards that women endured at the time. “Women weren’t called for jury service until 1976,” he points out. “For younger people — and there’s quite a few young people in the cast — it must seem like a whole other planet to them.”
Barrett makes the same point, revealing that a gag in the script about ‘moving statues’ had to be explained to some of younger actors in the cast.
“I remember the ‘moving statues’ vividly because they were on the news,” says Barrett. “But if you were born any time after 1990 the concept of moving statues and of the whole of the nation grounding to a halt seems strange.”
Of course, it’s worth noting that The Train — a musical about an iconic feminist episode in Irish history — is written by two men. Riordan addresses that head-on in the script itself by including songs such as ‘Written By A Man’ in which Barrett’s character points out that she is indeed a female character written by a man.
In fact, as past shows like Improbable Frequency, Slattery’s Sago Saga, and Peer Gynt have shown, Riordan always subjects his material to many contortions, subverting convention as much as possible. Moreover, from his early days penning De Valera sketches for RTÉ’s Nighthawks through to the madcap historical parody of Improbable Frequency and now The Train, he has been one of the country’s most arch and incisive commentators on Ireland’s relationship to its past.
“I can’t resist picking at the fabric, I guess,” says Riordan about his skills as a satirist.
“I would hope that there’s a thread of seriousness running right through what I do, but I can’t imagine writing anything that first of all wasn’t geared toward making people laugh.”