- 03 Apr 19
An evening at the ‘Borders’ show provides a stirring reminder of Derry’s proud social and political history.
Don’t make a grown man cry,” was blithely sexist Jagger’s plea all those better times ago.
I watch the ‘Factory Girls’ video every now and again and it doesn’t make me cry, usually.
The factory girls used to parade up our street on their way home from work, hundreds and hundreds of them in lines across the road – there was hardly any traffic back then – sashaying along, arms linked, laughing and talking nineteen to the dozen.
Even back then, I was vaguely aware that you’d never see a crowd of men as comfortably together as that.
‘Factory Girls’ projected onto the big screen brought the Conor Mason/Roe/Elma Orkestra/Ryan Vail gig (I missed Aul Boy. Sorry) at the Guildhall a couple of weeks ago to a close. I bumped into one-time Derry News rock-meister Mark Burns on the way out. “What’s the problem?” I enquired, seeing as how tears seemed brimming to sting his eyes.
“I’m just so proud that Derry could put on a show like that.”
True enough, we’d just been at the best gig on anywhere that night. Like – ANYwhere.
Mark’s partner, Aisling, agreed via a toss of glistening curls that this measure of communal joy was clear objective truth, and she should know, being Soak’s mum, which she hates being introduced as. (If I were Soak’s mum, I wouldn’t allow anybody to introduce me by reference to anything else.)
Conor Mason, confessional voice of a troubled angel, sturdy tunes freighted with lyrics that aren’t as light as first you’d thought, emotion up front, all understatedly eloquent. Roe, wild, swathed in synth, voice dipping and rising in pitch and tone, a stick of some sort slung at her hip for battering out a beat, all the while taking pleasure in the supple athleticism of her own presentation. She had rushed home after supporting Snow Patrol at a packed Wembley SSE the night before. From a roaring throng of 12,500 to a (relatively) small but perfectly formed selection of Derry’s crème de la crème. I’m sure she preferred the Guildhall and us.
Eoin O’Callaghan (Elma Orkestra, AKA Best Boy Grip) and Ryan Vail offered a symphony of classical sounds and electronica of such percussive power, it shuddered the ground to a thousand feet down, even as it soared the spirit up into the high criss-cross of dark-oak Tudor rafters. Lights and lasers and globules of glitter swirled and danced. If you sat or stood or slouched at the back with eyes closed, head tilted just so, to catch the prevailing reverberation, you’d feel transported to somewhere ominous and beautiful. The piece is called ‘Borders’. Eoin and Ryan will be taking it on tour as soon as logistics are sorted.
Both live along the border, as we all do in this vicinity. The jiggery-pokery at Westminster about future constitutional arrangements means less here than nipping over to Bridgend to post a letter to Dublin. The ‘Borders’ project calls to mind and emotion the interplay between the natural sameness and imposed difference between Derry and Donegal. It is timely, politically relevant, powerfully challenging and hugely ambitious.
‘The Factory Girls’ completes and encapsulates ‘Borders’. Crackly, sweet Derry-accented voice of a woman rich in years singing with stoical good humour that, “The best of them all, I’m bound to recall, are the factory girls of Londonderry”.
It’s shot on 16mm, in soft black and white, put together from found footage half-a-century ago. One scene shows workers splurging out from Tillie and Henderson’s – the factory cited by Marx in Das Kapital as exemplifying the shift from home work to factory production in the emergence of capitalism.
Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, arrived in Derry in 1881 and was escorted in a horse-drawn carriage by hundreds of women and men from the Waterside Station to St. Columb’s Hall where an overflow audience – 2,000 strong according to local ‘papers – heard her appeal to Derry workers to join a trades union and fight for the right. She urged the formation of a Derry Trades Union Council – of which I have been a member for many a year. Strange as it might seem, Mr. Tillie of Tillie and Henderson’s didn’t fight to stop trades unionism in its tracks. He was a liberal Home Ruler by conviction. Come 1912, and the Ulster Covenant campaign, he refused personally to attest to loyalism or to hoist the Union flag above the factory, out of deference to the sensibilities of the majority of his workers, women from Creggan, the Moor and the Bog.
I spend a bit of time most weeks at the Void gallery on Patrick Street, on the ground floor of the old City Factory. The London artist Helen Cammock came across last year and created a film, The Long Note, exploring the unacknowledged significance of women in the early civil rights movement, hitting the streets at a moment’s notice to protest brutality or oppose arrests, or just to defy efforts to deny us the right to march. Bernadette McAliskey did the honours at the opening. It struck me as she lilted on (and on) that there was a better connection to be made here than I had previously imagined. Car factories make cars. Shoe factories make shoes. Sometimes, City factories make cities.
That’s what made Derry. The shirt factories and the women who worked in them.