Cork play celebrates Irish women’s successes

Aoife Byrne brings her play HerStory to the Cork Arts Theatre this month, which celebrates Ireland’s unsung heroines, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN
Cork play celebrates Irish women’s successes
 A.Tack Theatre present HerStory at Cork Arts Theatre,

UP-AND-COMING playwright, Aoife Byrne, has made quite a leap from being told at secondary school that she probably shouldn’t do higher level English in the Leaving Certificate.

The 24 year old graduate of theatre and drama studies from CIT Cork School of Music is delighted that her play, HerStory, is going to be staged at the Cork Arts Theatre as part of its Emerging Artist Programme, supported by the Arts Council.

That would be an achievement for anyone, but in Aoife’s case, it’s particularly noteworthy because she is dyslexic.

She was diagnosed with the condition before her Junior Certificate, but didn’t allow it to curtail her. Attending all Irish schools at primary and secondary level, Aoife didn’t look for the waiver to drop languages.

“It made me work harder. I really forced myself to work at every subject. Then, when I hit college, I was told I was going to get every aid. They gave me the encouragement to work and write. Before, I didn’t think I could write. But at college, I was told I’m actually really good but don’t believe in myself enough.”

Aoife’s play is being produced by A.Tack Theatre, a company she founded with Alison McCarthy, who is directing it. A two-hander, HerStory follows Fianna, a vivacious and outspoken 16- year-old as she delves into the lives and achievements of some of Ireland’s unsung heroines for a school project.

Fianna, not really enamoured of history, comes to realise that there’s more to Ireland’s story than the 1916 Rising and James Joyce.

Aoife Byrne of A.Tack Theatre
Aoife Byrne of A.Tack Theatre

It’s the fourth original play produced by the company since it was founded in 2015. The other works include Jacqueline, which was awarded a Fringe First at the Galway Fringe 2017. It’s about the impact of the housing crisis on students.

Locked Within used interviews to explore mental health issues. Puck And The Lovers was also produced. With a nod to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s a dementia inclusive play.

“Alison and myself started A.Tack when we were in second year at college. We felt it would be good to have the support of our college behind us. Lecturers helped us. Now that we’re out of college, we’re continuing the company.”

A.Tack deals with social issues.

It was when Aoife was reading a book entitled Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls, given to her by a cousin, that she became “a bit upset”.

She explains: “The book has all these famous women like Beyoncé. But there’s only two Irish women, a pirate and Sonia O’Sullivan. I knew there had to be a lot more. So I did research and wrote the play which is aimed at fourth year pupils up to college students.”

Aoife says the play “is not an anti-man thing”.

She added: “I’d consider myself an equalitist. Of course, women have had a rough time. There’s the MeToo movement and the lack of equal pay. But I think it’s been focused a lot on women and it’s kind of attacking men. I think there needs to be a balance.

“Men should be able to explore their emotions and women should be allowed to explore being stronger, working as bosses. It would make the world a little more equal in an ideal world. But it’s not going to happen today or tomorrow.”

HerStory features some women that audiences may not be familiar with. There’s Leonora Barry (1849-1923) who was born in Ireland and campaigned for labour equality for women in America. Aoife’s criterion was that the remarkable women she has written about in her play, had to be born in Ireland of Irish parents.

Alison McCarthy of A.Tack Theatre
Alison McCarthy of A.Tack Theatre

“There’s too many women and not enough space to include them all. I had to be pretty brutal. I only recently found out about Mary Elmes (who kept hundreds of children safe from the Nazis by smuggling them out of danger during World War II). She lived down the road from where I’m from in Ballintemple. She was amazing but I couldn’t put her into the play as it was written by the time I learned about her. I was upset and I might have to do a little programme about all the women I had to leave out.

“Even Mother Jones (Mary Harris from Cork) doesn’t get into the play. Because I felt everyone knew her name, I had to actively leave her out. I want people to learn about women they haven’t heard of.

“But I had to put in someone that people would know of. So Dr James Barry (Margaret Ann Bulkley) from Cork is there. She disguised herself as a man so she could practise as a doctor.

“Another woman who disguises herself as a man is Kit Cavanagh. She had many different names. She joined the British Army so that she could find her missing husband. (After 13 years, she found him but shunned her husband when she discovered he was cheating on her.)”

Another accomplished woman in the play is Catherine Hayes, from Limerick, who travelled the world as an opera singer in the 19th century.

Sinead Pollard plays Fianna while Shannon Hurley plays all the historical women in HerStory. There was a lot of research done by Aoife for the play. She read history books, went online and fact-checked everything.

Because she is dyslexic, “anyone who reads my plays can’t figure out what I’m saying for the first couple of months. I tend to deconstruct everything. I have the skeleton of the story first. Then I start building on top of that whereas most people write a play and then cut it down. With me, it’s like bullet points at the beginning. Then I build in the meat and the characters. I’ve found it to be the best way to write although people reading it at the beginning don’t think it’s going to work.”

Dyslexia, says Aoife, is different for everyone who has the condition.

“For me, if I’m reading a book, the words kind of sway as if I’m on a boat or something. That gives me a headache and makes me feel tired. Obviously, my writing and spelling is not entirely the best but I have a lot of help. I use spell check a lot. And the internet is amazing.”

Aoife is clearly a determined young writer, working in her own unique way.

HerStory is at the Cork Arts Theatre from May 9-11 and 16-18. Tickets: €15, €12 conc. See http://corkartstheatre.com

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