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The show that revived emotional memories for campaigners who challenged the Irish state by taking the 'contraceptive train' to Belfast

 

With her acclaimed production of The Train opening at Belfast's Mac theatre, Belfast-born Lynne Parker tells reporter Una Brankin how her famous playwright uncle Stewart Parker would have approved of the musical celebrating the 1971 women's protest against the former Irish ban on contraception.

Not many would relish getting on the wrong side of the Nell McCafferty, not least a director dramatising one of the most famous moments from her life of protest. So, Lynne Parker was mightily relieved when the campaigning author and journalist from the Bogside voiced her approval for The Train, a dynamic musical inspired by the 47 women, including Nell, who took a train from Dublin to Belfast in 1971 and returned with a stockpile of contraceptives forbidden by Irish law at the time.

"Nell sent me a lovely email - the alternative is too terrifying to contemplate," says Lynne, who runs the Rough Magic theatre company in Dublin.

"She'd been nervous about the production, worried we could have lampooned the women's protest. She wrote about how she enjoyed it and how emotional it was for her to see it. Nell came to the opening night, as did Mary Robinson, which made it really special. We got a huge standing ovation."

Rave reviews followed for The Train's world premiere at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2015. It has taken two years for the show - created by the popular actor/playwright Arthur O'Riordan and scored by Riverdance composer Bill Whelan - to pull into Belfast. And expectations are high for its run at the Mac theatre from tomorrow, Wednesday, April 19 to Sunday, April 23, following its current season at the Abbey. "When musical theatre hits the emotional hot spot, it has arrived at its destination," wrote the Irish Independent reviewer, describing the show as a triumph. The Sunday Independent hailed it as "a terrific show", while the Irish Times reviewer dubbed it "a ball of energy" which "reminds us how far women have come".

For Lynne, niece of the Belfast playwright Stewart Parker, the performance at the Mac completes an important step of the journey for this fictional celebration of a remarkable media coup, when those audacious women challenged the restrictive laws of the Irish State, four decades ago.

"It would be rude not to bring The Train to Belfast, to be honest," she says. "The whole point of the journey the women made was to get to Belfast, ironically, to access women's rights denied to them in the Republic, with its ridiculous laws on contraception.

"Married women weren't even permitted to work. To take The Train - literally - to Belfast is a hugely exciting prospect; it mirrors the original journey and gives us a tremendous platform to raise awareness of the issues in the piece.

"It was a time, as the women of '71 said, 'when the world turned on its axis'. We are living through such a time now and this history has real currency."

Stories abound of the women's antics on the day. Lynne was only 10 in 1971, and unaware of the protest or the restrictions on women in the Republic until she moved from Belfast to attend Trinity College in Dublin at 18.

Lynne says she was influenced greatly by her uncle Stewart, whose plays were famous for their combination of wit, politics and mischief. He was born in Sydenham, in east Belfast, to a Protestant working class family and contracted bone cancer in his teens and had a leg amputated.

His plays include Spokesong, a musical Kingdom Come, Catchpenny Twist, Nightshade, Pratt's Fall, Heavenly Bodies and Pentecost. Lynne joined the Trinity Players drama group and co-founded Rough Magic in 1984. Over the past 30 years the troupe has become one of Ireland's leading theatre companies, involving the likes of Pauline McLynn, Anne Enright and Arthur O'Riordan, who wrote The Train.

"Stewart would have loved it," Lynne says. "He always felt women should play a greater role in politics in Northern Ireland - though not Arlene's role.

"He felt there wasn't sufficient recognition given to women and that when the political steam has run out, it's up to artists to make a contribution."

Based in Phibsborough on the north side of Dublin, Lynne still sounds Northern Irish, but stands accused of having a Dublin accent by her family.

She still regards Northern Ireland as home and spends every Christmas with her parents here.

At 56, she has never married nor had children.

"I don't have daughters but my 18-year-old niece came to see The Train and she has become quite involved in student politics," she says.

"A lot of women brought their daughters, who were completely unaware of the restriction of women's rights back then and grew up taking them for granted.

"It's good to remind them how it was."

The 'Contraceptive Train', as it was referred to, dominated the world's media on that famous Saturday back in May 1971.

Contraception in the Republic of Ireland had been illegal since 1935, and while contraception was legal in Northern Ireland, the pill was restricted to prescription. The women bought condoms and spermicide jelly, and because they couldn't buy the pill they bought hundreds of packets of aspirin, as they realised that the majority of the Customs officials would not know what the pill would looked like. They were followed by television crews from America, Japan and Ireland.

Says Lynne: "It's still quite amusing that they went to Belfast as a destination of sexual freedom, when it wasn't like that at all. This was an eclectic, lively and volatile bunch of characters landing in a war zone crawling with the British Press, which regarded them as an amusing distraction on Great Victoria Street in the midst of all the squaddies and sirens.

"It was a very different place for them; very different cultures. They had their bags searched. They were a group of ordinary women standing up and making a point through a publicity stunt - quite a few of them were journalists.

"Back then it was quite a dangerous thing to do, in terms of the legal restrictions on bringing contraceptives into the Republic, not to mention the opposition of their families. It was quite a risqué thing to do."

On their arrival back at Connolly Station, the women were met by protesters. At Customs, they declared - loudly - what they had purchased and refused to hand over the contraceptives. Some women openly swallowed the aspirin in defiance of the law, pretending that they were taking the pill. Others waved the contraceptives in the air as they passed through the station.

This action was a landmark moment in the Irish women's movement: it helped break the taboo against discussing contraceptive practice and raised awareness of the issue surrounding women and contraception.

"Their protest was funny and effective - their actions shook up the Irish establishment, which led to the split between Church and State, towards a more progressive, secular society," Lynne says. "It showed a protest doesn't have to be disruptive or negative, and it showed the absurdity of the legislation in a fun and witty way.

"Unfortunately, the Troubles stopped feminism in its tracks and fractured the movement. The Celtic Tiger years damaged it, too; history got in the way." The collective story of the 49 women is told through the eyes of six fictitious characters, played by Irish actresses Clare Barrett, Danielle Galligan, Kate Gilmore, Darragh Kelly, Lisa Lambe, Karen McCartney and Sophie Jo Wasson, accompanied by a live band under the musical direction of Cathal Synnott.

Composer Bill Whelan says of the 2017 production: "When Arthur Riordan and I began working on The Train for Rough Magic some years ago, it seemed that the issues raised in 1971 were still startlingly relevant. Given recent political upheavals, it would now appear that the further we move from the actual historical event, the more relevant and urgent those issues have become."

Lynne agrees, emphasising the importance of gender equality in theatre and the continuing influence of the Catholic Church on Irish legislation, which forbids abortion.

"We still have the Eighth Amendment (the constitutional ban) in the Republic, so there's still some way to go for women's rights," she concludes. "And I do feel it's important to bring this show to Belfast to make the cultural connection between the Republic and Northern Ireland as strong as possible.

"Particularly in light of Brexit, it's important to keep the border porous."

The Train, The Mac, April 19-23, Weds-Sat, 7:45pm with matinees April 22 and 23, 3pm. Tickets cost £12.50-£25.00. To book go to www.themaclive.com

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