Wexford has long had an association with Australia. It began soon after the uprising of 1798 - when Lord Cornwallis declared an end to executions those rebels still in captivity were shipped off to the Botany Bay penal colony.
They took their grudges with them and in 1804 rose up again, only to be defeated on Rouse Hill thereafter rechristened Vinegar Hill in memory of the last battle of the Wexford rebellion.
In the 1950’s many more Wexfordians took advantage of the subsidized Ten Pound Boat Fares for those who promised to settle in Australia, perhaps lured by the visions of spending Christmas on a sweltering beach rather than freezing in our December dampness.
One other exodus was less known though often spoken about by my grandfather. It was an effort by successive English governments to seed their Australian colony by sentencing women to seven years penal servitude often for offences as trifling as stealing a pound of butter.
With no chance of returning home the hope was that the unfortunate women would breed with male convicts, their offspring eventually providing cheap labor in this far off outpost of the empire.
Thus when Tom Keneally invited me to collaborate on a musical concerning four of these exiled Irish women I was familiar with the situation. Tom, who wrote the novel, Schindler’s List, had a more personal connection. In 1838, his wife’s great-grandmother, had been sent from Cork to Sydney aboard the convict transport ship, Whisper for stealing a bolt of cloth.
It would take many years of writing and revision before Transport was deemed stage worthy. We began with a concert version at the Irish Arts Center, before heading to Sydney’s Sidetrack Theatre for a full workshop. Transport is currently receiving its world premiere production at New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre.
My job was to turn the penal voyage of the four women into music, hopefully of an uplifting nature. Oddly enough, this was less difficult than it might seem; for the English authorities, at a minimum, wished to deliver the convicts alive and kicking – dead ladies tend not to make good breeders.
A fiddler was provided to many ships – dancing, it was felt, would keep this valuable human cargo in good nick for the criminal suitors who awaited them.
Was there romance on board? Inevitably, when you cramp single men and women aboard an overcrowded, sweltering vessel for four months; not to mention that sailors were often allowed to share their berths with a “sea wife”.
Nonetheless, the misery could be profound – women had often been torn from husbands and children with no chance of reunion. Keneally’s genius is that you recognize the DNA of the modern Australian character in the four women he and director, Tony Walton bring to life at the Rep.
As the ship leaves the Northern hemisphere the ladies begin to turn the tables on their jailers - and their own destinies. For ironically, they are the lucky ones, escaping from a country teetering towards famine and starvation.
How to summon this scenario into music? It would have been easy to recreate an Australian Black 47 but the nautical setting demanded a different style. In the end I employed a mixture of Irish Traditional, British Music Hall and Show Tunes to capture both the tragedy and ultimate redemptive nature of the story.
Did Tom Keneally and I succeed? There are nights when I think we came close, others when I despair of ever transforming such a complex subject into a coherent musical. But the audiences have been solidly behind Transport with either full or sold-out houses the norm.
In the end, though, all that matters is that the story of these brave Irish women is finally being told. They were abandoned people – dead to those they were torn away from. Some entered second marriages in Australia and their descendants are only now communicating with distant cousins back in Ireland.
Perhaps, the most telling lyric in the show is delivered by Kate O’Hare, a young revolutionary, when she sings about her fiancée and the country she will never see again:
But I will go on
I will put this pain behind me
I will put this pain behind me
Now that you’re lost
Lost unto me…
Transport will continue at The Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd Street, NYC until April 6th For information on tickets go to www.irishrep.org or call 212-727-2737