Riverdance composer Bill Whelan on new historically inspired musical The Train

Inspired by a group of Dublin women who defied the law to purchase contraceptives in 1971, Riverdance composer Bill Whelan's hit musical The Train has arrived in Belfast. He explains to Joanne Sweeney why this is a story he wanted to tell

Musical The Train is at the MAC now
Joanne Sweeney

IN 1971, Riverdance composer Bill Whelan was a student in Dublin when 47 women of the Irish Women's Liberation Movement (IWLM) boarded a train to Belfast in defiance of the south's contraceptive ban.

Nearly 46 years later, Whelan wrote the score for the acclaimed musical The Train which tells the story of this historic journey to purchase forbidden contraceptives on May 22 1971.

First shown in the composer's home town of Limerick and then at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2015, the production is inspired by the IWLM's audacious media coup which saw those on the train north - including IWLM founding member, Bogside campaigner and journalist Nell McCafferty - welcomed to Belfast by local activists at Great Victoria Street, 

Surrounded by press, the group managed to buy condoms and spermicidal jelly - although they were unable to buy the contraceptive pill at a pharmacy as they didn't have a doctor's prescription.

Undeterred and determined to make their point, the IWLM women bought packets of aspirin to make it look like they had been successful to customs officers; some even swallowed them in front of the waiting press back at Connolly station.

Directed by Belfast-born Lynne Parker - niece of playwright Stewart Parker - from the Rough Magic production company, The Train pulled into Belfast for its debut at The MAC last night.

Having worked with the actor and playwright Arthur Riordan who wrote the book and the musical's song lyrics, Whelan has promised that The Train is more fun than its subject matter would suggest.

"This is not a po-faced serious piece of theatre," Whelan told the Irish News.

"We hope it's an uplifting, fun and humorous evening with a serious undertone."

Bill Whelan's seven-minute Riverdance score, performed during the interval ahead of the voting in the 1994 Eurovision final at the Point Theatre, Dublin, simultaneously made Irish dance and music exciting and sexy.

It also fast-forwarded him and co-producer Moya Doherty into creating the two-hour stage concert that has delighted audiences around the world ever since.

Having also worked with the likes of Van Morrison, Kate Bush and The Dubliners, Whelan is still very involved with Riverdance as it tours throughout the world and regularly auditions new musicians to play in the cast band.

He explains that he was drawn to The Train for a number of reasons.

In 1971, Whelan was regularly visiting his girlfriend and now wife Denise in the north. She was working as a social worker in the Rathcoole estate in Newtownabbey and living on the Antrim Road when the IWLM made its trip to Belfast.

It was this connection to Belfast and the fact that the future Riverdance composer was a student at University College Dublin just after one of the most progressive and political periods in Irish university history which made this event stick in his mind long afterwards.

"I was attracted to it as I remember the event very well as I was at college and it was the rather disruptive time with the universities after 1968's student protests," recalls Whelan.

"I was approached by Rough Magic who had done some work with Arthur Riordan before.

"He and I went off to work on some songs and that process lasted for four years and eventually grew into the show.

"One of the things that struck us in our research is that things began to appear that we weren't aware of. For example, I can't believe that I'd been through college and 1971 had passed, and we didn't let women onto juries in Ireland until 1976.

"And if a woman wanted to get a bank loan, they had to have approval by their husband, or if a woman wanted to travel outside the country, she had to get her husband to sign your passport.

"All these things that when we look at them now seem to be from another age, but actually they are not that long ago."

The five female actresses from The Train's original production are reprising their roles in Belfast, although there have been a few changes with the male lead and another new male part written in.

Whelan has also taken the opportunity to increase the size of the live band which performs the show's rousing songs.

He says that he resisted the urge to write the songs in the campaigning, folksy style of artists of the day such as Joan Baez.

"It's not pastiche 1970s," assures Whelan.

"Arthur Riordan writes often complex and interesting lyrics so I gave free rein completely in the composition of the music to match the text.

"The score has influences of jazz and it's highly rhythmic and contemporary."

The Train is at the MAC, Belfast from April 19 to 23. Tickets from

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