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Culture Watch

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

Irish Repertory Theater

132 W. 22d Street
New York, N.Y.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Great Britain’s rancid prisons were hopelessly overcrowded. The government turned down pleas to build newer, and better, penal facilities (too costly) and, instead decided to send a quarter or more of its convicts, tens of thousands of them, to far away Australia. The deal, simply put, was that you served seven years in Australia or hung in London. Prisoners quickly signed up for a trip Down Under.

Transport, the new musical with a book by Thomas Keneally and music by Larry Kirwan, is the story of one of those voyages. On the play’s ship were a contingent of colorful convict women from Ireland. They were terrified about what lay ahead for them in Australia, just recently ‘discovered’ by British Captain James Cook.

If you want to see a splendid musical about history, a show that simply soars, see Transport.

Playwright Keneally wrote a book about the history of the convicts and is more famously known as the author or Schindler’s List. This play is partially based on life of Keneally’s wife’s great grandmother. She was sent to Australia from Ireland for stealing bolt of cloth.

The play covers the voyage from Ireland to Australia and ends as the men and women spot Australia in the distance. It has one solid love story, between a ship’s surgeon and a convict woman named Bride Riordan, a poignant tale about a young woman prisoner who was traveling with her infant child and the saga of a radical minister who appears to have been a political prisoner.

You have to jump on the side of the embattled women right away, right from the first note of the first song when you learn what petty crimes brought them to the far side of the world. At times, Kirwan’s songs are slow and luscious and at other times rousing and rebellious. His songs help tell Keneally’s  story.

The long voyage is not easy. The ship sails through oppressive hot climates and battles its way through a turbulent ocean at the tip of Africa. Passengers hang on to the rails as the ship is pounded by twenty foot high waves. The women prisoners are held in the hold in 115 degree heat, kept there by an icy Captain who hates Irish women.

It is a story of tragedy, but it is a story of hope and triumph, too. The tough, determined women on this trip are like the pioneer women of America traveling west in wagon trains in the 1860s. They long for freedom, even though they will be trapped in the legal system in Australia for seven years. On deck, they sing and dance and laugh about snagging a good man in Botany Bay and starting families. You have to love them.

They conduct a failed mutiny in which one woman almost shoots the captain. The women howl bitterly at the ship’s officers, embrace each other, shout to God and anyone else who will listen.

Director Tony Walton has done a magnificent job of presenting the play on a small stage with a sparse set. There is a point during a storm at sea when you actually believe the desperate passengers and scurrying about the deck of a large vessel lurching through titanic waves.

The real history of convict transportation to Australia is fascinating. At first, England and Ireland emptied their prisons by sending convicts to America (over 50,000), but that ended with the American Revolution. Great Britain then turned to Australia. From 1788 to 1868, when convict transportation ended, Great Britain sent 166,000 convicts to the land Down Under. Most served seven year sentences and were then eligible to go home, but Great Britain passed laws to prevent that, stranding nearly all of them in Australia. Some prisoners served lengthy sentences at hell hole jails there.

The journey was difficult. On some ships, nearly half the convicts, men and women, perished. Others died in shipwrecks or from starvation. The voyage took about eight months and most of that time was spent in excessively hot weather. Once they reached Australia, most convicts were assigned to work details in homes and villages and spent little time in prisons (women spent far more time in factory/prisons than men). Upon release, they were assimilated into Australian society. They were joined by thousands of immigrant workers over the years, especially after a gold rush in the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the play, Keneally goes to great lengths to explain the terrible conditions in which the women convicts found themselves in Sydney. They were sent there, as the captain says, as “breeders.’ Everybody saw them as whores and treated them as such. Many of them were forced to work in oppressively hot factories when they arrived and live in overcrowded dormitories across the street. They were not allowed outside the factory grounds very often. Saturday nights were dance nights and local men came to dance with them – the Aussies version of our “singles bar.” There was little they could do about it, so, to show their true character, they raised great children.. Those great children, generations of them, made Australia the nation it is today.

The playwright should have mentioned that while the overwhelming number of convict women were young and single, some were married and some arrived with their husbands and children.

Some history should be explained more precisely. You get the impression that the women are being sent to Australia for some kind of unique punishment and the idea of emptying the British and Irish jails and sending them to Australia to both get rid of them and start a new colony is pretty much overlooked.

Transport is a sometimes tender and sometimes bawdy story about the convicts, men and women, who founded Australia and, through their hard work, toil and perseverance, created a great nation. The play shows the toughness and determination of the Irish, but the Brits sent there were resilient, too. Today, more than twenty per cent of all Australians are descended from convicts, including former Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007). They were ashamed it for most of that time, but today are quite proud of their heritage, which was nothing short of an historical miracle.

Director Walton gets fine performances from a skilled ensemble cast. Particularly good work is from Pearl Rhein as Bride Riordan, and Jessica Grove as Kate O’Hare. Other good performances are by Emily Skeggs, Terry Donnelly, Edward Watts, Mark Coffin, Patrick Cummings and Sean Gormley.

This is a great play about that great nation.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Irish Repertory Theater and 1407 Productions. Musical direction and Arrangements : John Bell, Choreography: Barry McNabb, Scenic Design: Tony Walton, Costumes: Linda Fisher, Lighting: Richard Pilbrow and Michael Gottlieb, Sound: Carl Casella.