Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen

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

Irish Literature Comedy Women in PrintFactory 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’.

The Difference Between Protestants and Catholics

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 Big Girl Small Town Irish Fiction

Photo: Brideen Baxter & Deci Gallen/Simpletapestry.com

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.

Irish Literature Classic Contemporary Nonfiction

Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen

Northern Irish Vernacular

I liked the idea of reading a Northern Irish novel that used more of the phonetic vernacular as encountered in  Milkman by Anna Burns. Years ago on my first visit there, I bought a slim volume on some of the words used in the North but out of the context of a story or novel they made little sense and in the course of travels there wasn’t enough exposure to it to immerse in. So this seemed like a perfect opportunity.

I got so into it, I started writing to a friend about weans and oul wans an shite. She thought I was typing too fast and not using spellcheck.  And from the comments I’ve read on twitter by those who would know, it’s been deemed an authentic rendition.

The vernacular dialogue in this is absolutely perfect. Captures the patter, the understatement, the colour, the wry knowingness of the exchanges. Rónán Hession

Big Girl, Small Town takes place during a week in the life of socially awkward but inwardly clear-eyed 27-year-old Majella who from the opening page we learn has a list of stuff in her head she isn’t keen on, a top ten that hasn’t changed in seven years. Things like gossip, physical contact, noise, bright lights, scented stuff, sweating, jokes and make-up.

Sometimes Majella thought that she should condense her whole list of things she wasn’t keen on into a single item:  – Other People.

The list of things she does see the point in is shorter and includes eating, Dallas (except for the 1985-86 season), her da, her granny, Smithwicks (the most consumed Irish ale in Ireland), painkillers, cleaning and sex.

She lives with her alcoholic mother in a fictional border town, her father disappeared years before, presumed not to be living, though no one knows that for sure. They have just heard news of the death of her 85-year-old Granny, suspected as murder.

A Unique Narrative Structure

Each chapter begins with a time of day and an item from the list, such as:

Monday
4.04 p.m.
Item 12.2 Conversation: Rhetorical questions

and the story is narrated through her regular, unchangeable routine and manifestations of these items as she encounters them, like here where she shares one of her pet dislikes, her mother’s rhetorical questions.

Majella? D’ye not have work tae go til this evening?
Majella had work to go to, just as she had done every Monday for the past nine years. And Majella knew that her Ma knew that, because her work schedule and weekly Mass were the only routines their lives revolved around.

Donegal McCleans Malin

Outside a pub & grocery store in Malin, Donegal

Majella works in a local fish and chip shop with her colleague Marty and each evening we meet local characters and encounter more items; 3.3 Noise: Shutters in work and item 3.4: Noise: Shite singing, item 1: Small talk, bullshit and gossip, item 8.4: Jokes: Repeated jokes.

There’s routine and repetition and although it might seem uninteresting to follow along day after in this quotidian recital, even the chip counter conversations and order placements I enjoy, triggering as they do a recent (Oct 2019) humorous encounter of our own in a chipper (chip shop) in Northern Ireland.

Digression – A Personal Experience of Linguistic Nuance

I now understand better having finished the book, why the man at the chipper in Newcastle looked aghast at my son when in response to his question ‘Do you wan sauce onit?’ he replied ‘Yes please, Moutarde, I mean Mustard’. This was after my son had looked at me and said, ‘I can’t understand what he’s saying’, when the man asked him following his request for a chicken burger, ‘Wud ya likit S’thrn fried or Batter’d?’. I said ‘I’m not going to explain what battered is, so just take Southern Fried’. Who’d have thought a takeaway shop could provide such an entertaining, cross-cultural experience.

In Majella’s chipper, no one ever asks for mustard. Some of them ask for things that go beyond the everyday boundaries of pleasantries, the banter of some replays itself each visit, like an old record on repeat. Majella is clearly intelligent but hasn’t been in an environment that has encouraged to pursue that elsewhere, so instead she has found a role that suits her character (in a town with the highest unemployment rate in the country) and despite everything, it is clear that she is unlikely to become trapped by the same vices that capture most who’ve given up on their dreams.

It’s entertaining, it’s kind of sad, it’s funny and also confrontational. You read it and feel like you’re really in the skin of this character and though we might want more for her, it’s clear she’s ok and if watching Dallas reruns sounds a bit odd, it provides a bit of a cliffhanger of an ending as she reflects on the lessons of that Machiavellian character J.R. Ewing.  While most probably only saw what she was on the outside, beneath it all she was totally in charge of herself and about to become even more empowered than she had ever been.

The Author Michelle Gallen

Michelle Gallen Big Girl Small Town

Her debut novel,  Big Girl, Small Town has been nominated for the CWIP Prize (Comedy Women in Print) 2020, the UK and Ireland’s first comedy literary prize. In the podcast below she discusses why it has taken so long for this type of women’s writing to appear, suggesting that in the North there has been a sea-change, a cultural change that has finally enabled different voices to come in that allows women to write bawdy, irreverent, darkly humourous content that addresses sex in a very frank way.

Michelle Gallen – who grew up in the most bombed small town in Europe post World War II and went to school in an area with the highest unemployment rate in the industrially developed world – when interviewed, said of her motivation:

“I wrote Big Girl Small Town to shine a spotlight on the consequences of the British-Irish border on a family in a deeply divided community over decades of peace and ruthless violence. It tells the story from the dark heart of the community, revealing the human growth and resilience of a proudly ungovernable community on the very edge of Britain.”

She admits that Majella might be happier if she’d watched less Dallas and read more books. Asked how she thought Majella would have coped with corona virus, she said:

“I think that while Majella would welcome the social distancing aspect of managing Covid-19, she would – like most people – be intensely worried for the virus’s effect on those who are vulnerable: the sick, the infirm and the elderly.”

And on what she might find comfort in reading:

“She would find a kindred soul in the narrator of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata. She’d have a real laugh reading Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. And I can see her finding comfort in the lovely Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession.” Michelle Gallen

Comedy Women in Print Literary Prize 2020

Further Reading & Listening

Irish Times Article – Post troubles tale of a damaged woman 

Irish News Interview – Tyrone author’s debut novel delves into our troubled past with a helping of chips and Dallas on repeat

Irish Times The Woman’s Podcast, Episode 396 starts at 27.50 : Listen to three of Ireland’s newest authors Michelle Gallen, Niamh Campbell and Rachel Donohue join Róisín Ingle to speak about their debut novels and the inspiration behind them.

Audio Extract: Listen to 2 minutes from the beginning of the novel, read by Nicola Coughlin