Tara Lynne O'Neill on new football play Rough Girls and the return of Derry Girls

David Roy chats to Tara Lynne O'Neill about her new play Rough Girls, which tells the story of Belfast's first ever women's football team. The Derry Girls star explains how the drama was inspired by real history and how it feels to finally bring it to the Lyric theatre in the wake of Covid delays...

Tara Lynne O'Neill

"SURE I'm working, isn't that something to be happy about?" exclaims Tara Lynne O'Neill when we call to find out how she's getting on with rehearsals for Rough Girls.

The Derry Girls star sounds like a lot of actors whose paranoia over job security spiralled during the Covid-enforced shut down of the entertainment sector. However, having been commissioned by Belfast's Lyric Theatre to pen this new women's football themed play in 2019, O'Neill was actually sitting on a finished version of Rough Girls throughout the pandemic – it was just a matter of when it would actually be allowed to open.

The lively Kimberley Sykes-directed musical drama – which takes its title from Oscar Wilde's quip about how "football is all very well as a game for rough girls, but it is hardly suitable for delicate boys" – finally debuts at the Lyric on September 9, marking the return of professional theatre to the Belfast stage.

It's another milestone in the gradual return of live entertainment amid the ongoing easing of pandemic-related restrictions.

Rough Girls: Ruby Campbell, Caroline Curran, Eloise Stephenson and Nicky Harley. Picture by Brian Morrison

"I'm actually sitting in the auditorium now, so it's very exciting," says the Derry Girls star.

"I was doing my one-woman show Shirley Valentine when everything shut down. I was actually the last show in here, so it's great to be coming back and opening the theatres with 11 women making a bit of history."

History runs right through the core of Rough Girls. Set between 1917 and 1921 and based on true events, the play is billed as "the untold story of Belfast's suffragettes of soccer". The music and choreography-packed show centres on the city's first ever women's football team, who defied patriarchal prejudices to raise thousands for those returning from the First World War.

Organised via the Ladies Football Guild, the women's game was immediately popular with local fans: 20,000 packed into Belfast's Grosvenor Park on December 26 1917 to watch the North of Ireland Ladies take on visitors Tyneside Ladies.

With men's football on hiatus due to the war, these women continued to attract huge crowds over the next couple of years until their blossoming sporting careers were dealt a powerful blow by the all-powerful English Football Association: in December 1921, it placed a ban on its clubs hosting women's games.

"They thought it was 'unsuitable for girls' and issued a letter of intent in which they claimed there was more money being spent on getting the girls to the matches than was going to charity," explains O'Neill of the abrupt clamp-down on women's football, a blatant attempt to re-focus public attention on the by-then resurgent men's game.

"But the women's games had a huge following here. They were family events at a time when, in 1920 and 1921, the men's games were becoming political battlegrounds for more than just football. There's no doubt that the numbers were bigger for the women's games at that time."

Tara Lynne O'Neill in rehearsals for Rough Girls. Picture by Brian Morrison

Happily, Rough Girls is opening at a time when women's football is once again enjoying huge popularity, not least due to the international success of the Northern Ireland senior women's team: captained by Cliftonville Ladies midfielder Marissa Callaghan, they recently secured their historic place in the finals of the Women's Euro 2022 competition under the guidance of manager Kenny Shiels, and are about to return to Windsor Park for the first time in over a decade for the upcoming Women's World Cup Qualifier against Latvia on September 21.

"It's wonderful to see and I cannot wait to see them play at Windsor Park – although I think I might actually be on-stage at the time," enthuses the writer and actor, a big supporter of the Northern Ireland women's team and who actually interviewed some of the players as part of her research for Rough Girls.

"It's great to see someone like Kenny getting behind them, as well as the IFA and the whole country – it's not often we have something so positive to send out to the world."

While she's previously penned Christmas shows for the MAC in Belfast, O'Neill admits that Rough Girls is the most ambitious piece of writing she's ever undertaken – and while she won't reveal if the finished show will include any actual balls being kicked, it seems that the on-going rehearsal process has been incredibly satisfying.

"Mia Hann, the famous women's footballer, said that every champion was once a beginner who didn't quit," she tells me.

"I'm a beginner, but I'm learning a lot and we've such a brilliant team – so I feel really supported and we have amazing actors too. Northern Ireland has the best talent and it's just great to see them all in the one room.

"We've got a really well-known percussionist, Emma King, who worked on Stomp! working with us, we've got Katie Richardson as our musical director, Dylan Quinn from Dylan Quinn Dance is doing choreography and then Kim is directing. So it's just been really exciting working with this massive team of people.

"That's what I love about theatre – it's not about one performer, it takes a whole team to make it happen. I'm sitting here watching the set being built and even that by itself is another 20 or 30 people. You forget that the arts actually employ so many people."

Tara Lynne O'Neill as Shirley Valentine at the Lyric. Picture by Johnny Frazer

As for what Rough Girls is actually about, the Belfast playwright and actor – who also has a part in the new production as 'She' – explains that, in this story, teamwork really does make the dream work.

"It's about coming together," enthuses O'Neill.

"It's the coming together and the things that we can achieve when we come together that we can't achieve on our own – that joy.

"It's less about football and more about what we can do when we join together – and how coming together to watch sport or theatre is essential for a community. That 'need' in us is the reason why theatre and football have existed for so long.

She adds: "I think it's actually very timely coming out, 'post-pandemic' – I don't know if you're even allowed to say that yet as we're not over it completely – but it's what we have missed. It's as much a play about theatre and women's place in theatre as it is about football."

With opening night fast approaching, the Derry Girls star is hopeful that audiences will be changed for the better by the message within it.

"I'm really excited about it," she enthuses.

"I just tried to write a story about women who've inspired me. I hope that, when people come to watch it, they feel inspired by those women as well. All I can is that people leave and think about supporting not only their local theatre but also their local women's football team – because we can't exist without you."

Tara Lynne O'Neill as 'Ma Mary' Quinn in Derry Girls

As for those other Girls she's involved with, O'Neill aka 'Ma Mary' assures us that work on the Covid-delayed series three of Lisa McGee's international hit sitcom is well in-hand.

"I don't know the exact dates but we're definitely filming before the end of the year," she tells us of Derry Girls's return.

"I cannot wait, so season three should be out early next year."

Rough Girls is at the Lyric from September 9 to 25, tickets and showtimes at Rough Girls is proudly supported by Electric Ireland

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