"Advocating for unheard voices is my main concern" Read our Q&A with Aoibh Johnson
Aoibh Johnson is a theatre-maker, writer, and star of The Daughters of Róisín at the MAC on 21 & 22 September 2023.
She founded Wee Yarn Productions with her partner Cahal Clarke in 2019. They have toured The Daughters of Róisín across Australia, Ireland and the UK receiving numerous 5 star reviews.
What inspired you to write The Daughters of Róisín?
I studied a Master’s in Contemporary Performance Practice and specialised in Feminist Protest Theatre. It was during this time that I began deep research into the experience of women here in Ireland and how the church and state has impacted their world in a unique and at times, harrowing way. During this process, I discovered that my great grandmother, Kathleen Barry, was pregnant with my grandad in the early 1930s. She was unmarried, which of course, led to my grandfather being taken from her. My family began to research the story, and we discovered so much about her life and experience, including the fact that she lived in North Belfast. I was so moved by her story and the impact it has had on my own family, I just knew I had to write about it. Although the story is inspired by a personal event that occurred within my family, it really is written in solidarity with every woman, baby and family that have been impacted by this history. Advocating for unheard voices is my main concern and I feel honoured to write for these people.
The idea that my great grandmother walked the streets of Belfast, knew this area and called it home, made it even more poignant for me coming to Belfast to perform the show. I kept reminding myself, “Her blood runs through mine, and I’ve brought her home.” Except this time, she’s getting the chance to stand up, speak out and advocate for her rights. We first performed in North Belfast at The Duncairn Arts Centre, a few streets away from where her story happened, which was an incredible moment for us. It’s all quite surreal and I feel very grateful.
That is incredible and very moving that you have given her a voice that wasn't available to her all those years ago. The MAC is privileged to give you the space to continue telling this story - and to continue telling it in North Belfast!
The play has also reached audiences further afield including Australia in 2020. Have you found a difference between audience reactions in Australia and Ireland? In what way?
In some ways yes and in others no. So many women, babies and families left Ireland after they were impacted by this history, whether it was babies that were illegally adopted, women that fled Ireland or were forced to leave or families that were sent away by the church and state. The Irish diaspora in Australia is huge and we were always met with women and families after every show that could relate or had a story to share about how the show reflected their reality.
In Ireland, the same thing happens every time we perform this piece. We are so continuously moved by the audience members that come up to tell us that they too are "Daughters of Róisín" or that they were born in Magdalene laundries or Irish institutions. This piece is for them, so when audiences share that they felt represented and listened to, we feel like we’ve done the job we set out to do.
Give us a bit of context about the piece - where and when is it set?
This is a little tricky. The piece is technically set in 1930s Ireland and was written from the perspective of my grandmother in a room she can’t leave. However, it took a non-linear, experimental form once we brought it into the rehearsal room. I like to think that The Daughters of Róisín could reflect any time in Ireland during the last 100 years, with themes that are recognisable to women and families alive and well today. It’s a piece that focuses more on the feelings of these women, the injustice, the parallels between the wars they were fighting and the wars of the men around them. By using poetry, metaphor, song and storytelling, we’re trying to capture the experience of so many Irish women, through the eyes of one.
You wrote the piece and also star in it. How have you found working with Wee Yarn Productions and Sole Purpose Productions? How have they helped you bring The Daughters of Róisín to life?
Wee Yarn Productions was started by myself and my husband-to-be, Cahal Clarke, so when you ask what it’s like working with us, I have to tell you it’s wonderful!!
Joking aside, it really has been an incredible experience. Developing the piece and producing the piece independently has been entirely liberating and allowed us the chance to feel free to craft this show in the way that we wanted without limitation or restriction. Wee Yarn Productions is growing in strength as each year goes by and that’s due to the lessons and blessings that come with learning on the job.
As for Sole Purpose, we couldn’t be more grateful for their unwavering support and guidance. As a young company, we understand the value and gold in learning from those that have come before us and Sole Purpose are a company we truly admire with regard to their longevity, their focus on theatre for social change and their fair and resilient mode of working. It’s a very well-matched alliance and we’re proud to stand alongside them.
The performance on 21 September is sold out. Book your tickets for 22 September now at The Daughters of Róisín.