Extra Ordinary Women Logo Linen Hall Library Logo
search icon

Explore our Collections

close icon

I Was There: Working-Class Women in Community Drama

“I was there/ I was there/ With my unpaid bills amounting/ I was there.”
(Theresa Donnelly, ‘I was There’ TPA/COM/BOX4(2))

The extraORDINARYwomen project at the Linen Hall Library has one fundamental goal: to celebrate the significance of ordinary women’s lives in Northern Ireland. This summer, as part of my PhD research, I have had the privilege of furthering this aim by exploring the Theatre and Performing Arts collections in the Linen Hall Library’s fantastic archives, looking specifically at materials relating to community arts. My own areas of interest in gender and working-class studies run alongside the aims of the project – my PhD seeks to understand how representations of gender and class have both created and resisted stereotypes in Northern Ireland – and the wealth of materials relating to community drama in the library showcase the extraordinary ways that working-class women have supported and contributed to their communities through and beyond the Troubles. The quote above from a poem by lesser-known writer Theresa Donnelly, a former mill worker and student of Father Des Wilson at Springhill Community Centre, sums up both the ethos of my project and my findings in the archive: working-class women have been an important part of our history and it is time that they were recognised.

My placement began with an exploration of Jo Egan’s recently donated collection, and it was exhilarating to know that I was the first person to be rifling through this little snippet of history. While there is no doubt that digitising archives is a necessary and valuable enterprise, especially in this Covid-19 era, nothing quite compares to the excitement and anticipation triggered by an archivist setting a box of unknown history in front of you (thanks Alistair!). Jo Egan came to Belfast in 1996 to work in community arts and her collection documents the impact that her work has had on the communities most affected by the Troubles. Materials relating to The Wedding Community Play (1999), perhaps the most significant piece of community theatre this province has ever seen, allow us to understand the huge collaborative effort that an enterprise like this entails. Not only can we appreciate the success garnered by Egan (in partnership with Martin Lynch, Marie Jones and others), but the number of women behind the scenes who came together to make this cross-community project possible. The materials selected to be included in this project are merely indicative of a collection that will deeply enrich our understanding of the politics of mixed marriage in twentieth century Northern Ireland.

The collectivity of women in working-class communities is a theme that runs through these archives. Rarely is there a ‘star’ in community theatre, and perhaps this might help to explain why we so rarely hear (or read) about the immense work that these women have put into the arts. The newsletters and magazines produced by the Community Arts Forum are testament to this and provide evidence of the wealth of activities that women have been involved in in the arts: facilitating workshops, writing, researching, fundraising and oftentimes lobbying for change. A good example of the latter here was following the cuts to arts funding by Stormont in 1999, when various groups under the umbrella of the Community Arts Forum came together to protest and voice their concerns; a photograph in “The Wee Can” shows this group at Stormont, while a letter to councillors signed by 32 community groups shows the reach and impact funding cuts have on local communities.

David Grant’s “Playing the Wild Card” report on community drama in 1993 highlights the dominance of women in leadership roles in the field and Grant estimates that 90% of participants in these theatre groups are made up of women. Yet, despite this, men’s work in the field has received far more critical attention. In no way should we detract from the substantial and admirable feats of men like Martin Lynch, Tom Magill or Father Des Wilson, but we should question why women like Geraldine Moriarty, Kate Muldoon and Theresa Donnelly have often been overlooked.

The plays produced in community theatre groups often seek to challenge stereotypical depictions of the areas in question or assert a kind of resistance to how working-class communities are represented. An interesting feature of these plays is the extent to which they attempt to record or come to terms with a community’s history. The Stone Chair community theatre group took their name from their dramatic representation of the Short Strand in The Stone Chair (1989), which spans a 300-year period and draws on the community’s memory of the Belfast Blitz, while Ballybeen Community Theatre’s play The Mourning Ring (1995), was an ambitious attempt to celebrate Protestant culture from plantation to the present. A vast amount of research and effort went into these plays and they testify to the power of drama to bring communities together. Somewhat more radically and approaching more controversial themes, JustUs’ depiction of West Belfast in Binlids (1997) and Forced Upon Us (1999) aimed to produce a counter-narrative to media depictions of the area, while members of Derry Frontline performed a dramatic protest to representations of Northern Ireland in Vincent Woods’ play ‘At the Black Pig’s Dyke’ (1993) by storming the stage in costume. These groups often seriously challenge any simplistic notions of women as passive supporters or peacemakers and testify to the radical potential of community theatre. But more on that in my thesis!

I’m really proud to have contributed to the selection of materials for the extraORDINARY women project and I hope that people are inspired by the women whose work is documented here.

Ciara McAllister, Queen's University Belfast