Derry’s rich and turbulent history was laid bare this week during a particularly novel Culture event – tours of the city hosted by some of the most colourful female characters in Derry’s history!
Led by lovable Suffragette Margaret Cousins, the dramatised walking tour rolled out over International Women’s Week and celebrated how women helped shape Derry. Already quite familiar with my local history, I didn’t expect ‘The Maidens’ City: A Herstory of the Walled City’ to be quite so interesting, exciting and skilfully played out.
Those portraying the women from Derry’s history were fantastic, with every role played by just three local professional actresses Abby Oliveira, Gemma Walker and Nicky Harley. Old-fashioned hats off to the trio too – they brought history’s women to life with exceptional ease and humour.
Over 30 people gathered in the rain for Wednesday’s tour. Despite the chill, we were all transfixed when a Suffragette in a long period gown suddenly swung up on a nearby podium and demanded our attentions. Brilliantly played by Abby Oliveira, the booming Margaret Cousins, who had attended boarding school here, gave rare insight into Derry’s own Suffragette movement 100 years earlier.
In mid-flow, Maureen was boldly interrupted by a rather vain, hilarious Amelia Earhart, who delights in telling us she is staying at the nearby Northern Counties Hotel and is very busy and important ‘signing autographs’. We also see women struggling to survive during the Siege of Derry and meet a frustrated mother campaigning for better housing as well as a shirt-factory worker and a civil rights activist – both played by Gemma Walker.
For the first time I also learned of Cathy Harkin, the visionary local woman who squatted in an old vacant building in Pump Street, intent on creating the city’s first refuge for women – today’s Women’s Aid. Impressive stuff.
The most harrowing of roles was surely that of Cecily Jackson - the young lady who was accused of infanticide in 1725 and burned at the stake just outside Bishop’s Gate. A convincingly distraught Nicky Harley played the role so powerfully that many had tears in our eyes!
We also meet union leader Eleanor Marx and infamous Suffragette Mrs Pankhurst, who Cousins invited to St Columb’s Hall in October 1910.
Written by filmmaker and UU lecturer Anne Crilly and produced by Patricia Byrne for Sole Purpose Productions, the tour attracted capacity numbers all week - and the feedback has been overwhelming. So much so, that there’s already talk of further Herstory Tours later in the year.
Writer Anne Crilly says: “This has been a creative collaboration between the Centre for Media Research at University of Ulster and Sole Purpose Theatre Productions. It’s a unique, fun and accessible way of bringing academic research to the public. It’s been fantastic.”
For a whirlwind lesson in our hidden history, join today and tomorrow’s tours, departing from Guildhall Square at 11am and 2pm.