Writer and actor Arthur Riordan tells the story behind his acclaimed new musical The Train, inspired by the most controversial train journey in Irish history, and returning to The Abbey this week. 

George Hook, of all people, did his bit to keep the memory of the contraceptive train alive lately, declaring that the country had first started to go to hell when "the women came down on the Belfast train waving contraceptives."

Karen McCartney, Lisa Lambe and Sophie Jo Wassonstar in Rough Magic's musical The Train

He was referring to the day in 1971, when forty-seven members of the newly founded Irish Women’s Liberation Movement took the train from Dublin to Belfast, bought contraceptives (which were outlawed in the Republic at the time), and on returning to Connolly Station, challenged Gardai and customs officers to arrest them, thus pointing up the hypocrisy of the Irish state,which sanctimoniously banned contraceptives in the full knowledge that anyone who wanted them could easily procure them across the border.

I was a rebel from the start,

I questioned what my mother said

Must've nearly broke her heart

When she saw the books I read

Marx and Chairman Mao

Workers of the world united,

Mammy coped somehow,

Hardly what you'd call delighted.

Days and years went by,

By now she's seen it all

Providing me with alibis whenever cops would call,

I wouldn't ask her to

She does it all the same

Now I think she knows each member of the Special Branch by name.

I wonder will I throw all that away

If my mother hears about today.

From If My Mother Hears The Train

Bill Whelan and I wrote a musical about that day, The Train, which Rough Magic produced for the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival, and is being revived next month at the Abbey Theatre, so naturally Hook’s curmudgeonly Blimp-ism caught my attention. He finished off with the inevitable punchline:

"It gave them ideas above their station".

I only mention this because it was probably via similar comments that I originally became aware of the train. I don’t remember hearing about it at the time – I was twelve – but over the years it gradually impinged on my consciousness via anecdotes and references to "Nell and Mary Kenny and the rest" – remarks uttered either in a tone of amused admiration, or some variation on Hook’s tongue-in-cheek outrage.

The episode has taken on a semi-mythical status over time, an unlikely, funny, slightly scandalous anomaly, standing out from the otherwise grim history of Ireland’s interminable socio-sexual battles. That’s what first attracted me to write a play about it – the conscious theatricality of it, and the fact that here was one of the few entirely successful rebellious gestures ever to come out of Ireland. The story of the Contraceptive Train is a story of wit and irreverence scoring a significant victory over an oppressive alliance of church and state.

I've got the Durex and the spermicide

And they won't take those from me

Look at the Gossamer, Fetherlite

Wanna see?

Got the offending articles in hand

In a plentiful supply

And if you want to seize my contraband

Let's see you try.

Now to perpetrate a grievous crime

Now is the time,

Now is the time,

We’ll see if the state has the balls to arrest us

Let the bishops say there’s hell to pay

We’ll be okay,

We’ll be okay,

We feminist demons have hides of asbestos.

- From Forbidden Fruit - The Train

It was only while researching the project, and talking to many of the women involved, that I came to appreciate how courageous an endeavour it was. This was a generation of women who, regardless of their rebellious energy and political commitment, had been brought up to regard sex, or anything even vaguely connected with sex, as something best never spoken of, let alone shouted about in a public demonstration. And there were the attitudes of family, friends and employers to be considered. Taking that train, the women ran the risk of being ostracised or even losing their jobs. And the outrage at the time was very real.

Thomas Ryan, then Bishop of Clonfert, said: "Never before, and certainly not since penal times, was the Catholic heritage of Ireland subjected to so many insidious onslaughts on the pretext of conscience, civil rights and women’s liberation".

This was one of the biggest challenges we faced in writing The Train: conveying, especially to a younger audience, how different Ireland was back then, not just in the deference routinely paid to the Catholic Church by our lawmakers, but in the way this was accepted without question by most of the populace. People who complain about political correctness being a stifling orthodoxy would do well to remember that some rather weightier orthodoxies prevailed here not so long ago.

Arthur Riordan wrote THE TRAIN with music by Bill Whelan. The Rough Magic production runs at the the Abbey Theatre Dublin from April 7-15 and The MAC, Belfast from April 19-23