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Theatre star Clare Barrett talks 'bravery' on The Train

By Jackie Bell

In 1971, a group from the Irish Women's Liberation Movement boarded a train at Dublin's Connolly Station heading to Belfast - knowing they could very well be arrested when they made their return journey.

The reason for this was because the 47 women were travelling to Northern Ireland to buy oral contraception, which was illegal in the Republic of Ireland at the time.

Bringing them back into the country could have resulted in prosecution, but for these women their reproductive rights was an issue that could no longer be ignored.

Their train journey marked a watershed moment for women's rights in the Republic and it is now being portrayed in the musical The Train, directed by Lynne Parker.

Speaking from aboard a train from Dublin to Belfast, Irish actress Clare Barrett says the actions of these women began a "proper conversation" with the Irish State about allowing women their reproductive rights.

She explains: "The play is about this band of women and what they were trying to do at the time. Unfortunately, when they got to Belfast they discovered that they had no prescription and couldn't obtain oral contraception, so they bought condoms and whatever they could get without a prescription and they brought those back.

"They didn't know what would happen to them when they returned."

Clare takes on the role of Aoife, a character described as the Irish 'everywoman' who is becoming more involved in the fight for women's rights.

"I'm a lady that happens to be married to a porter from Connolly Station and she's starting to hear about feminism, it's filtering into her life, but she's not quite sure what to do with it.

"She's a woman at home with two kids and she's processing this information and new feminism literature that's coming from America, as well as what she has been brought up to believe.

"It's a very serious subject but the play is actually really funny - these women are very witty, intelligent ladies and that is seen the whole way through."

Reproductive and women's rights is a very emotive subject matter, and Clare says The Train manages to bring the fun and laughs to the story without watering down the issues.

She continues: "We haven't shied away from the poignant or the sad, or even the darkness of it. But these women were eternal optimists and they went against everything - their mothers, their families - to get on that train that day.

"They took a stand and the bravery comes through in the play."

For Clare, winning the approval of former President of Ireland Mary Robinson was a particular highlight, as she herself was associated with the women in 1971.

"She wasn't on the train herself as she was training to be a solicitor at the time and couldn't be seen to be involved in these illegal activities," says Clare. "But she was very much involved with them and gave them information about their rights.

"She came to see the show and she said, 'I was wondering what a musical would do to the story, but actually now that I've seen it, it feels like the only way possible'.

"She said everyone's experience of that day was different but that we managed to capture the feeling of the time within the show - the  naivety, the hope for change and the excitement of doing something so different from the norm."

The Train has previously enjoyed a successful run at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin as well as various venues around Ireland - allowing for a wide range of reaction from the audience.

"We've had full houses and standing ovations every night," says Clare. "We've met younger people who can't believe that that's the way it was back then, and we've met so many people who have come to us and said 'I was there on that day.'"

It was during the show's run in Limerick that a man came forward to say he was actually working as a customs officer at Connolly Station that day - it was his first day on the job.

Clare said: "He was 19 and the poor man was told he had to search the handbags of the ladies as they were coming back -  he had to tell his superiors 'but I don't know what a condom looks like'.

"They told him to simply 'act intelligent'.

"He lasted at Connolly Station for about a week and was then send to the airport for the rest of his working life."

As audiences get ready to see The Train in Belfast this week, Clare says she is hopeful she will meet people from the city who were also present when the train arrived and departed from Belfast.

"This is the other side of the story - the show does take place both in Dublin and Belfast so it will be lovely to get the story from the other side.

"It's very much a tale of two cities and we are very excited to be able to perform in both."

She adds: "Arthur Riordan's script is phenomenal, it's just so clever and witty and it's lovely to get my acting chops around it.

"Despite the issues and the subject matter, it's quite a feel-good play - they did achieve a brave and fantastic feat that day."

The Train runs at The Mac in Belfast from Wednesday April 19 to Sunday April 23.

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