The 'contraceptive train’ spawns a musical

The women who went to Belfast in May 1971 to bring back illegal ‘French Letters’ are looking forward to seeing themselves on stage

'We'll see if any of the actors have northern-sounding accents," Derrywoman Nell McCafferty says of Rough Magic's latest venture, The Train.

This piece of “political, music theatre”, as director Lynne Parker calls it, will pull in to a platform in Limerick and Dublin very soon.

The Train will shine a spotlight on the exploits of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement and on the "contraceptive train", which left Connolly Station on May 22nd, 1971, to head to Belfast. There, the IWLM women would buy contraceptives, bringing armfuls of spermicidal jelly and condoms with them back to the Free State, where contraception was banned and sex was very costly indeed.

Still the most famous feminist in Ireland, although she says historian Margaret MacCurtain might take issue with that description, McCafferty says she is not averse to a bit of musical theatre. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers? Bring it on, she says.


“I think it’s great and I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before now. There were the makings in it of a play,” says McCafferty. The entire Rough Magic team can breathe out at this stage, providing they have captured what McCafferty calls “the spirit of the time and the illegality of contraception”.

Mairin­ Johnston thinks that as a woman in her mid-40s, she may have been the oldest person on the train. She is now 84 and has as many fingers in as many pies as she always did. Anyone thinking they can impose water charges or tamper with her free travel pass should move away now.

Johnston is looking forward to seeing the show. “I’ve no idea what it’s about, I just know it’s funny.”

The whole day was an adventure, she says. It was also her son Fergus’s birthday treat. He had been 14 the day before and, now his 50s, he is still proud that he was on the train, says Johnston.

Making a family-day-out of it, Johnston had taken her children and partner with her. Her six-year-old daughter, Aileen, was excited by the lure of Belfast’s legendary sweets. Belfast’s legendary contraceptives were not even in Aileen’s orbit, laughs Johnston.

Mairin Johnston had joined the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement the year before the infamous train journey. “It wasn’t anything to do with bra-burning. In fact, it has sweet f**k all to do with burning your bra,” says the women fresh from her Liberties history group meeting.

No bras burned

No bras were ever burned in the attempt to free Irish women from what Fine Gael politician Nuala Fennell called “the nightmare of unremitting pregnancy”, says McCafferty.

The 1935 Criminal Law Amendment Act had made contraception illegal in the Republic of Ireland so by 1971, the contraceptive train “was crucial”, says McCafferty. “We were touching a raw nerve. Women in Ireland wanted contraception. I mean, six children on average. Or maybe more,” says McCafferty, who talks of being a “social worker” to women in poverty and despair in disenfranchised communities in Dublin.

Johnston’s best friend at school was the 21st child in her family. Only 15 of the children lived. She had had enough.

Like the GPO in 1916, the number of people who are said to have been on the contraceptive train has grown with time, but Johnston thinks there were about 42 people on board.

Her claim to fame was that she was already pregnant when she got on board the contraceptive train. So, that train had well and truly pulled out of the station, it seems, and the whole endeavour thus took on an even more delicious irony, we agree. Gareth, who arrived half a year later, still appreciates the contradiction.

It was a journey into the unknown, says McCafferty. They were campaigning for contraception, but they hadn’t even seen a condom.

“I’d never seen one, I’d seen a used condom once in Queen’s. I remember that there was one in the street and the word went out and we all gathered around it to look at it – oh, disgusting – but I couldn’t see what this had to do with socialism. What did condoms have to do with socialism?”

Road to equality

She soon found out, she said, as the road to equality stretched out before her.

The idea for the train came to McCafferty who thought that travelling on “National Media Day” would be a win/win situation.

The contraceptive campaigners (and some ardent shoppers lured by the North’s cheaper goods) alighted in a turbulent Belfast that was only months away from seeing the introduction of internment.

The IWLM women left the station and McCafferty gave them the lowdown on where and where not to go. “We marched across the road to the chemist accompanied by a Japanese television crew and Gloria Hunniford, of all people,” she recalls, although her memory of Gloria is cloudy.

In a nearby chemist, McCafferty, unsurprisingly, took charge. “I said to the man: ‘We want contraceptives. And he said, what kind? And I said, the pill. And he asked, do you have a prescription? and I said, no.”

As she didn’t have a prescription for the coil or the “loop”, which she asked for next, McCafferty was flummoxed.

“In desperation, I called out the name of June Levine and she asked for things we could get over the counter.”

The women were nervous, McCafferty recalls. “Condoms mean penis. Penis meant sexual intercourse and we thought that was dirty and immoral and illegal.”

However, McCafferty realised that the Irish customs officers didn’t know what the pill looked like, “so I came up with a brainwave and ordered about 1,000 aspirins and we stripped them of their packets and put them in plastic bags.”

Job done. Some of the women went to the pictures, some (“who had done their homework”) went to family planning clinics. June Levine, who was a fashion correspondent, took Nell to buy a coat. McCafferty found the whole exercise torturous. (June probably did, too.)

They headed back to Dublin. They were in high spirits Johnston recalls, but had to sit separately. Tales of women blowing up comdoms seem unlikely, she says.

“I never saw any of us doing this and anyway, there were children there. They just wouldn’t have done that.”

Customs officers should have stopped the women in Dundalk, says McCafferty. "How silly. Then we wouldn't have made the papers." Or the Late Late Show, which Mary Kenny and Colette O'Neill would be on later that day.

Johnston was the first woman to go up to the customs desk when the train arrived in Dublin, says McCafferty.

Johnston had brought tubes of illegal spermicidal jelly over the border. “It’s mine, and you’re not getting it,” she told them.

Well-wishers and supporters waited outside the platform chanting, says Johnston. The women of the contraceptive train were home.

‘Bare-faced lie’

And no one took anything off any of them. The contraband remained with the women, even though the Dáil would be told on the Monday that all contraceptives had been confiscated. This was a “bare-faced lie”, says McCafferty.

So, no arrests. No actual contraceptive pills, only aspirin, and bags full of condoms – or “French Letters”, as the women knew them.

McCafferty is not worried by being immortalised in this show. She has never associated Rough Magic with “tits and teeth” musical theatre, and she thinks it’s about time someone put the contraceptive train on the stage – or on film.

Lynne Parker, who directs The Train, is conscious of the "irony of the women's story being told by a male writer". The Train has been written by Arthur Riordan and scored by Bill Whelan.

So a double whammy, then? Not at all says Parker, who is known for running Rough Magic as an egalitarian venture.

“The actual history was made by the women of the IWLM, so Arthur, Bill and the rest of us are here to serve and celebrate their achievement,” she says. “The aim is to convey the joy, and some of the complexities, as well as the seriousness of the campaign.”

As for The Train's "feminist credentials", Parker points out that the show is "directed by me, but more importantly it is produced by Rough Magic, a company that has always had feminist and egalitarian politics in its DNA".

Parker hopes the play will make a connection between “those young women who blazed such a vital trail in 1971, and the young people who just voted Yes in the marriage equality referendum, and who are their spiritual descendents”.

Like McCafferty, Johnston is going to see the show with an open heart.

“I will reserve my opinion until I’ve actually seen it, but it’s good that someone is doing something about that and keeping women’s history alive,” she says.

“Things like contraception had to be fought for. They didn’t just give it to us.”

The Train is at Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, Sept 29-Oct 3, and Project Arts Centre during Dublin Theatre Festival from Oct 6-17