The Train, a musical written by Arthur Riordan, is a force of energy, a celebration of the women involved in the contraceptive train, a damnation of the interwoven nature of church and state and a clear message of support for the repeal of the 8th amendment.
Developed with women who were on the train, the show is careful to portray all the nuances within the women’s movement – the socialists, the nationalists, the women active on other issues such as housing and anti-apartheid, the homophobia present at that time in some women, and the unmarried mothers, one of whom takes the stage and speaks at the inaugural meeting of the IWLM, changing the attitudes of those who saw unmarried mothers as charity cases.
We also have a second storyline about a married couple, Adam and Aoife, who give us a brilliantly comedic view of a “good” married women becoming “possessed” by feminism and “tempted” by the popular liberal feminist writers at the time, such as Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.
This couple show the attitudes of women who were brought up to believe in a conservative Ireland, and their personal struggle as they begin to question the role of the church and their husbands – at one point, a priest gets into the bed next to Aoife, asking why would she be bothered with him watching what she does there when God can see it all anyway.
Originally uncomfortable with going against the church and her husband, Aoife asks the audience questions like “what’s wrong with needing your husband? Except for his signature, I’d like not to need that when I’m opening a bank account or something” She eventually goes to Connolly station to greet the train, defying her Husband – a Garda – and chants “let them through”
From 1971 to 2017
Parallels to the repeal movement are clear as the women speak on the issues faced in their movement, such as how it might be trivialised by the media or that they would be called extreme, just like the tone police describe Repeal activists now, for taking such an action. Adam is even shut down by Aoife when he tries to “Mansplain” to her.
As well as this, the women mention Mary Robinson, who is going the “patient, legislative route” while the activists want contraception immediately, echoes Katherine Zappone, who was elected promising a referendum for repeal, but instead goes along with the establishment, while women are out in the streets and taking action to get abortion pills into the South from Northern Ireland, and the characters point out that it’s only those who can afford to go to the north to get contraception that do.
While the characters are limited in diversity in the very white Ireland of the 70s, the play does show the importance of overcoming intersectional differences to stand in solidarity and fight together.
Throughout the show, while the majority of the characters are on the stage floor, there are platforms placed where the priests, the nuns and the politicians all stand high above the rest, discussing women’s reproductive rights without them.
Two clergy tell Adam about the war against progress the church will face in the coming years, and encourage him to protect the establishment, telling us and him about the conservative action against liberalism in the 80s, up to the present day where the womb will be their last major battleground, and if some girl dies alone giving birth in a field “them’s the breaks”.
This also echoes the Waking the Feminists Movement, which was sparked after the Abbey was called out for the lack of women directing and writing shows in its 2016 programme, to which the Abbey Director responded on Twitter with “them’s the breaks”
In the last musical number, we see the women off the train, singing with the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement banner behind them, and after the Waking The Feminists banner is unfurled on stage, they take off their 70s attire to reveal REPEAL style jumpers, reading not only “REPEAL”, but also “DIVERSITY”, “OCCUPY”, and “RESIST”.
This show is colourful, fun, powerful and urgent not only in its portrayal of the contraceptive train, but for the resonance it has for anyone involved in the repeal movement now.
After Maser’s Repeal Mural on Project Arts Centre’s wall, having this show on the national stage feels like a massive two fingers to the Irish state and church’s hypocritical and conservative nature.
Along with tying the contraceptive train in with the repeal movement of today on the stage, the audience, who cheered, stomped, cried and gave a standing ovation, was mainly women, many with their mothers and grandmothers, emphasising further how long women have been struggling to kick the church out of their reproductive decisions.
The tongue in cheek humour is uproarious and everything from the music to the performances is energising; urging young women today fighting for Repeal and the separation of church and state to keep on going until they’ve won.