Meet the Shawlies, the Cork women who were ahead of their time in running a family and a business

A new play delves into the lives of the shawlies, the Cork women who were ahead of their time in running a family and a business, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Meet the Shawlies, the Cork women who were ahead of their time in running a family and a business

A new play delves into the lives of the shawlies, the Cork women who were ahead of their time in running a family and a business, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

When Charles the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles were on their recent high-profile Irish visit, they were graced with an encounter with the descendants of the famous shawlies of Cork’s Coal Quay.

Sitting in the snug of a city centre bar, Breda Scanlon recounts the tale: “We said ‘Hello Charles, how are ya?’ And we explained to him the difference between the English Market and the Irish Market, where the shawlies used to sell. Then we said to him, ‘Did you ever know where the dealers kept their money?’ And he said no. We all had our money down our stockings, so we all pulled up the skirts and he nearly fell over. And Suzanna told him if he was short of money, he could always come to the shawlies for a loan.”

A whoop of laughter goes up around the table. Scanlon and her fellow shawlies, the descendants of the Coal Quay’s indomitable black-shawled female traders, are here on business, though: clad in their shawls, some of which are 120 years old, they’re attending a read-through of Shawlies, the play that pays its respects to their ancestry.

Shawlies, directed by Marion Wyatt, enjoyed a of lunch and supper performances at the Cork Arts Theatre (CAT Club) last summer and is now headed for the larger stage of the Everyman, and so the cast have assembled once again. Present are the actors, headed up by Antoinette

Hilliard, who plays the lead role of shawlie Lena Baxter, choreographer Dane O’Sullivan and musical director Orla Daly, as well as the Cork Coal Quay Shawlie group, who formed to preserve the memory of their predecessors and who also feature in the play. Breda Scanlon is the group’s leader. “Me and my sisters are fifth generation shawlies,” she says. “Our mother never did, but our grandmother wore the shawl and sold

herrings on the Coal Quay.”

Most denizens of the second city have a story about the shawlies, but for those not in the know, the working-class women who eked out a living for generations selling everything from fish to second-hand clothes along Cornmarket Street wore distinctive black shawls for their tough, all-weather work, and were a common sight on Leeside into the 1970s.

It was a tough life, and these women were often supporting large families. “Looking back at the dealers that we knew, you could see in their face how hard it was,”

Scanlon says. “But every one of the dealers was known by their maiden name, not their married name. They made sure there was food on the table and they were before their time, really, when you think about it.”

It’s a culture and way of life that Scanlon and her group are keen to preserve. She remembers the banter and unique sense of humour the shawlies had, with nicknames for regular customers and sales pitches that were colourful, to say the least. “One woman used to call: ‘Mackerel, fresh mackerel. They’re all dead and their eyes wide open!’” Scanlon says.

Then there’s ways to tie the shawl so your baby will be safe. They might have had a perambulator, but they used keep the stuff they were selling in that. And they’d have a little drop of porter in there too — they weren’t saints!

Against this backdrop, Shawlies the play tells the multi-generational story of Lena Baxter, who hides the earnings from her market stall in shoes, to be discovered after her death by her family.

Making use of both professional and amateur actors, as well as a supporting community cast including the Shawlie group, the play is the work of Creative Collective Cork, and has been written and produced in a fashion similar to director Wyatt’s 2007 play Sunbeam Girls, which collaborated with former workers at the Sunbeam textiles factory in Blackpool to tell their stories.

“We wrote The Sunbeam Girls as a group and the paradigm worked for us, even though it was a headache and there were about 36 drafts of the script,” Wyatt explains. “So five of us wrote this script.”

“The Shawlies group are special guests who do front of house and give authenticity to the work: they’re really our backdrop, the physical manifestation of what we’re trying to portray in the script.”

Antoinette Hilliard, who plays the lead role of Lena, says she feels she’s part of preserving an important and often overlooked legacy — a female one — in donning the shawl for her role.

“We’re great for the history in this country, but all our history is men going to wars,” Hilliard says. “I think that now women are starting to come forward, we’re getting to see more of the social history and I think that’s really important for young people. We might all know about Brian Boru and Cú Chulainn and the Rising and all the rest of it, but nobody knows the Shawlies were involved with the Rising, with the British Army. It’s a more three-dimensional look at history. It’s an oral tradition, passed down by the Shawlies.”

Elaine Lombard plays Lena’s granddaughter, Rita. She says working on the play has given her new-found depths of respect for the women who once formed part of the backdrop in Cork society,

“Cork needs to really see the strength of these women and what they achieved,” Lombard says. “Their story is amazing: we might call it feminism now, but there was no name on it back then.”

“You’re struck by how incredibly skilled and resourceful these women were. They were down the Coal Quay on their stalls, out in all weathers, even pregnant and with their small babies, crocheting, making paper flowers and selling their wares. That’s true woman-power.”

Shawlies: Tell No One Nothing! Runs from Monday October the 1st to Friday October the 5th in The Everyman, MacCurtain St, Cork. Tickets:

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