A teenage girl graduates from a Catholic school, in rural County Kerry. We learn of her endearing innocence: her delight at the discovery that men and women can share a joke together, and how much she enjoys the simple pleasures of her newly independent life. There’s the giggly advent of first love, and the flattering attentions of an older man. There’s an office party and a ride in the boss’s car. We know this won’t end well.
And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet is a one-woman retelling of the Kerry Babies case, a scandal which engulfed Ireland in the early 1980’s. The facts of the case are almost surreal: convinced that Hayes had killed her newborn child, An Garda Síochána – the Irish police – wilfully ignored a tragic piece of newly-discovered evidence, resorting instead to a ludicrous theory which kept their original conclusions alive. When their actions were uncovered and referred to a tribunal, the establishment closed ranks, and the full force of judicial disapproval settled on the grieving Hayes.
For anyone who imagines that this kind of victim-blaming cover-up is specific to Ireland, I have just one word: Hillsborough. But And The Rope Still Tugging Her Feet does a fine job of locating the story within its historical and cultural context, explaining the atmosphere of religious doctrine and at-times outright misogyny which fed the firestorm. We’re guided through the political complexities by a kind-of narrator – an impishly self-parodying “radical lesbian feminist” – and actor-playwright Caroline Burns Cooke steps into a number of other roles as well. Her fluid transitions between characters are subtle, but always clear.
There’s room for nuance too. Hayes’s childhood teacher Sister Maria, who symbolises the Catholic church, would be an easy target for blame; but instead she’s given time to explain herself, throwing light on the difficult relationship between well-meaning individuals and an inflexible society. Even the local policeman is a sympathetic character, not unkind, but hopelessly out of his league. The scene where he finds the tiny body is both sensitive and horrifying, and perhaps goes some way to explaining his later misplaced zeal.
I came away wanting to know a lot more about the Kerry Babies case – which means, of course, that the play has succeeded. Still, there were some moments when I doubted the dividing line between fact and fiction, and wondered just how much I could trust the detail of what I was being told. The all-important tribunal, in particular, is described from within Hayes’ half-delirious mind; I doubt that they really used words like “strumpet” and “tart” in the courtroom, but if they did, then that truth deserves to be unambiguous.
A comic diversion onto traditional Irish dancing also didn’t work for me, although I recognised the need for something to lighten the mood. But the play earns its fifth star for Cooke’s nuanced and compelling performance – which begins with youthful playfulness, carries us through tragedy, and builds towards a perfectly-judged, utterly-harrowing conclusion. Be under no illusion, this is a difficult play to watch at times... but it’s a compelling and eye-opening one.