How a summer job in a shirt factory led Michelle Gallen to an inspiring novel about hope, friendship and the NI social divide, writes Amy Cochrane
Northern Irish author Michelle Gallen’s latest release Factory Girls was based on what she was once told was an “embarrassing” stint of work experience during a summer home from university.
Little did she know back then that her two months working in a shirt factory in Castlederg would lead to one of her very first book ideas which has finally come to fruition.
While her award-winning debut Big Girl, Small Town released in 2020 was an instant hit, it is hoped Factory Girls will reach the same heady heights with audiences both from here and further afield, exploring the universal misconception among teenagers the world over about their hometowns — that anywhere else is better than here.
The story follows the smart-mouthed and filthy-minded Maeve Murray who feels like somewhat of an outsider in her small town in Northern Ireland.
She dreams of pursuing a career as a journalist in the bright lights of London and her new job in a shirt factory is just a way of saving up cash before she gets her exam results and “gets the f**k out of this sh***y town”.
Michelle said that the book helps to address the ongoing issue of “the Northern Ireland brain drain”.
“There are loads of young people waiting on their exam results after school eager to get away, and it’s so common here which is a huge issue,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s because we don’t have jobs here; I feel politics is a major problem in the north.
“If you’re living here and don’t have functioning government — with politicians fighting about things that do not matter to you as a person on the ground — it leaves you feeling a little hopeless, and this was certainly the case I feel back in the 1990s at the tail end of the Troubles.”
The author said that her own experience working in a shirt factory with a mixed religion workforce taught her — and indeed inspired her — much more than her time working in the world of publishing.
“My time in a Northern Irish shirt factory taught me much more about teamwork, optimisation, negotiation, bullying, tribalism, sexism and capitalism than the summer I’d spent photocopying and filing in a genteel Dublin publishing office,” she said.
After she was told to erase these two months working in the factory from her CV — as it was thought to be “embarrassing” by a former potential employer — her experience seemed to continue to crop up every now and again.
When Michelle finished her university degree in Dublin, she moved to London to work as a copywriter for a number of years before a brain injury meant her returning back to her hometown.
“I was off living my best postgraduate life and I remember my daddy picking me up from Dublin airport in a wheelchair,” she said.
Once she taught herself to write and type again, Michelle set off on making her dream writing career come true and hasn’t looked back since.
She has lived in Belfast, Derry, Dublin, London and even Paris over the years, but her home of west Tyrone is always where she ends up in through her writing.
“I lived in Tyrone for the first 18 years of my life — it was my landscape, my home, my family, my friends and it has been the measure of everything I have ever done since,” she said.
Just as her main protagonist in Factory Girls — Maeve — portrays a sense of hopelessness for the town she grew up in, so did Majella in her first novel Big Girl, Small Town.
Michelle said that she wanted to place her stories in these types of places is because she is fascinated by “crucibles — places where people cannot escape from each other — such as small towns where residents from all walks of life rub shoulders, and workplaces where humans from various backgrounds and ages are paid to work side by side.”
While the town in her first novel was given the fictional name of Aghybogey (but was hinted to be located somewhere on the border of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) the writer said that she purposely didn’t name the town in her latest book.
“Maeve is an 18-year-old girl who doesn’t get out of the town much. I mean, when you’re from a small town you never say, ‘Here, I’m heading into Castlederg for a bit!’ you say you’re heading into the town,” said Michelle.
“I wanted to place it on the border similar to Big Girl, Small Town as it could be placed really anywhere — north or south — there are any number of places across the island of Ireland that give off this claustrophobic feeling of being closed off from everywhere else.”
During her adolescence in the 1990s, the Tyrone native said that the house she lived in “felt stuffed to bursting point,” shared with her parents and five siblings.
“Each of us preoccupied with our own concerns — love, exam results, money worries, grief,” she said.
“I had no car and could not drive.
“Mobile phones and the internet were years away from penetrating the closely-knit community I lived in.
“But what fascinates me is that they are shaping the people that live there.”
Factory Girls is set in the summer of 1994, well before the Good Friday Agreement and shortly before the first IRA ceasefire.
Michelle said she deliberately placed the novel at this moment in time to put a spotlight on what living in a small town in Northern Ireland in a mixed, yet segregated, community was truly like.
When protagonist Maeve first starts at the shirt factory, she is introduced to Marilyn who, upon hearing her full name for the first time, makes the assumption that she’s “as Proddie as they come.”
Once they meet, she feels unnerved and admits how she had “no idea how to be natural with Prods.”
“Thanks to segregated housing estates, schools, churches, shops, pubs, takeaways and Christmas trees, she’d had limited exposure to the 1,500 Protestants who made up the other side of their town, despite living in it with them for over 18 years.”
Michelle relates to this feeling of being in a deeply divided town, and yet despite its small size, never much interacted with those living on the “other side”, much like Maeve in her latest book.
“We all went to different schools, shopped in different shops, drank in different pubs and worshipped in different churches, but my factory job threw me into a crucible unlike any I’d encountered. Protestants and Catholics worked side by side in a ‘neutral’ workplace in order to manufacture men’s shirts,” she explained.
“Yes, we had those cross-community excursions with the students from the Protestant school, but we still remained divided despite living in close proximity to these people who were genetically identical to us.
“To think of the fact some people never meet a Catholic or a Protestant until they start their first job or go to university is just startling when you think of it, so this is why I felt it was an important social interaction to include in the book.”
In the book, in between the daydreams of having an affair with ‘Handy’ Andy Strawbridge — her dubious factory boss — or about her fictional life in London, Maeve shares some more serious and poignant thoughts throughout the novel of the hopeless future her hometown could face.
When they were gifted a TV for their rented apartment, she watches footage of Harland and Wolff employees striking outside the gates in protest of the murder of one of their colleagues and contemplated if someone from the factory she worked in was killed, would they be as unified?
“Despite having seen movement after movement rise up and crash like waves on the shore, Maeve wished that one demonstration would work. That something would bring an end to the violence.”
But despite this moment of speculation and deep empathy for her home of Northern Ireland, she quickly erases those tears of emotion and remembers how she had learnt to ‘keep a lid on feelings like that’ and instead opted “to get the f**k out of town” as her only option.
Throughout the book the reader is kept guessing if Maeve truly gets what she has only ever dreamt of by creating a new life in London or does she settle for being a “lifer” at the factory.
“I don’t think Maeve realises at the time just how much this experience in the factory would impact her life,” said Michelle.
“I don’t think you ever know just how much small towns can put you in a place where you can learn more and see more about different types of people. This is the eternal story of someone from a small town who thinks they know what’s going on in the world until they get out.”
Factory Girls, John Murray Press, £16.99 is out now