It’s the first day of March and the beginning of Reading Ireland Month 2023, which I am kicking off with a review of a work of comedy by Michelle Gallen originally published in 2022.
Women Writing Comedy
I was completely charmed by Big Girl, Small Town with its comic Northern Irish vernacular, so I was looking forward to this next novel which I picked up on seeing that she has again been shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize UK/Ireland.
She is a writer that makes me laugh out loud while reading, a rare quality indeed.
A Summer Job, Awaiting Results
Factory Girls is a story that takes place over the summer of 1994, while three friends, living in an unnamed northern Irish town, await their exam results and confirmed university placements, and therefore the trajectory of their future lives.
They have taken a job in a shirt factory, and two of the girls Maeve and Caroline have rented a small two bedroom apartment opposite. Maeve, who is the main protagonist of the novel, aspires to study journalism in London, Aoife has her sights on Cambridge and Caroline, Magee.
Maeve has studied hard to ensure she attains the results that will enable her to escape her suffocating home life, the empty bed and stifling sadness surrounding her sister’s premature death and the continued menace of simmering violence that pervades the divided community they live in.
Family Dynamics and Social Standing
Though they attended the same school, they each come from different family dynamics and these differences over the course of the summer begin to play into how they perceive and respond to the various situations that will arise.
They receive a different kind of education over the next two months as they enter a rare ‘mixed’ workplace, where Catholics and Protestants work side by side, despite the overhanging external threat of sectarian violence. The girls learn how to navigate an adult work environment, discover what they miss when living independently and witness how life plans can change drastically overnight.
“Maeve hated how women’s clothes came in extra small, small, medium and large
while men’s shirts came in medium, large and extra-large
– like there was no such thing as a small man.”
All three of the girls will be confronted with the need to adapt their expectations, in this humorous yet serious and insightful look at Northern Irish society on the cusp of peacetime.
Perpetuating the Divide
It is an interesting work that reads simply on the surface, but exposes various minute behaviours that contribute to creating a sense of the divide and how it is perpetuated by members of the community. For all that Maeve wishes to escape it, she views the ‘Prods‘ with suspicion, uncertainty and denial of her feelings. It makes for strange reading, as the separation between the groups feels illogical to a reader from outside. To her credit, Maeve has learned that the two sides do have a couple of things in common – they both got excited about payday and liked talking about the weather.
It reminded me of an episode in series 2 of Derry Girls – The Difference Between Protestants and Catholics when a group of Catholic school girls go on a supervised weekend retreat with a group of Protestant school boys and they were asked to brainstorm things the two groups had in common. All anyone could suggest were differences. At the end of the exercise one side of the blackboard was empty and the other full.
Literally, I was so intrigued, I rewound and put the screen on pause, so I could learn how they perceived themselves to be so different – because it is such a mystery to the outside world. The blackboard scene is already considered a television classic and the recreated blackboard went on display in the Ulster museum in Belfast. It also gave rise to the soundbite of the season, according to The Irish Times: ‘Protestants keep toasters in cupboards’.
In Factory Girls, there is language they use to describe each other, like ‘Prods‘ and ‘Taigs‘ and referring to the Republic of Ireland as the ‘Free State‘; there is Maeve’s suppression of the sexual chemistry between her and the English boss Andy, relationships let alone attraction to the other side is forbidden; the subtle labeling of venues, which are deemed okay for one side or the other, making it difficult when the boss wants to treat his employees to celebratory drinks after work – it seems there is no place where all can be comfortable.
Overall, an entertaining read that somehow manages to bring humour to a not very comical situation, something that the Irish excel at and Michelle Gallen most definitely. I can well imagine both her novels on the small screen and they both lend themselves to potential sequels!
Michelle Gallen, Author
Michelle Gallen was born in County Tyrone in the mid 70’s and grew up during the Troubles a few miles from the border between the ‘Free State’ and the ‘United Kingdom’.
“The border between these territories dominated all our lives. In the late 1960s, 19 roads criss-crossed Donegal and Tyrone in our local area. By the 1970s, just one ‘official’ road was left usable after the British Army blew up and barricaded the ‘unapproved’ roads and bridges. This campaign dramatically impacted communities on both sides of the border throughout my childhood and teens.”
Her debut, Big Girl Small Town was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, the Comedy Women In Print award, an Irish Book Award and the Kate O’Brien Award. Factory Girls has been shortlisted for the Comedy Women In Print award, the winner will be announced on 17 April 2023. She currently lives in Dublin with her husband and children.
You can discover her favourite books and reading influences here.