Have you heard the story of the Vigilante Cannibal Nun? Here to set the record straight, Carol Murphy has come over from Belfast to VAULT Festival to tell the tale. Described as a 19th Century Irish Famine Folk Fable, The Body & Blood is a solo piece performed in verse – written, and performed by Murphy herself. We sat down with Carol to talk all things famine, fable, folk, cannibal, Christ and Connemara Whisky.
Catch The Body & Blood at VAULT Festival this weekend between the 4th and 5th February at 16:20. Tickets are available through the VAULT Festival Box Office.
Hi Carol! So you’re bringing the story of the Vigilante Cannibal Nun over to VAULT Festival from Belfast – tell us all about the show’s journey so far.
“Hi Jake! It has been an incredible journey. It started when my father was ill with cancer. He was obsessed with Irish history and The Famine and, strangely, he looked like a famine victim when he died. I started to read about The Famine. It was the first time I had a sense of the individual tragedy (and it can only be a sense) and the diabolical national tragedy of the phenomenon.”
“In short, it struck me like a wall as an utter horror show – impossible to consider; impossible to represent; a pre- photography and pre-modernity phenomenon; and in this sense, medieval. It’s intangible, unthinkable horror marked the minds of future generations of Irish people who internalised it with waves of fear, shame, depression, self-loathing, and darkness. I thought about cannibalism during The Famine. There are photographs of cannibals in Russia during the famines of the 1920s. What about in Ireland 70/80 years previously? I considered the idea of a cannibal nun. Over time, Maggie Murtagh, the central character, evolved as the folk famine anti-hero, a vigilante, seeking revenge in Ireland. But I wanted to use distanciation techniques within the writing.”
“I wanted to create a pantomime style character within a fable and think about The Irish Famine as a metaphor for madness, depression, and guilt. I wanted to attempt to deal with the problematic of representation this way. It was many years later, after my mother’s illness and death, and after a very long fallow period with my own work, that I decided to make The Body & Blood using what I had at my disposal – myself and my iPhone. I wanted to make it as something that was alive and accessible, not as a film script that would sit in my laptop.”
“Over lockdown I decided to bring a couple of pieces of work to a close, one being The Body & Blood. I watched Hip Hop Evolution and was blown away, once again, by the burgeoning beginnings of Hip Hop, especially by Black African American entrepreneurialism. Well, I thought, they didn’t stop and apply for funding in order to create what is now an ubiquitous genre, and indeed, no one is going to fund me for this Cannibal Nun shit. I’ll do it myself. I’ll tell Maggie’s story in verse – another distanciation technique. I will write it fast, and only if I have a blast writing it. With a heavy dose of nostalgia for a character who seems to have no existential angst, I went on this wild journey with Maggie, The Vigilante Cannibal Nun, and we broke every bally rule in the book, including the eating of the body and blood of Christ, by using the idea of Maggie eating the colonisers.”
“It was also important for me to create a character who did not indulge her victimhood. God knows, I had. I wanted to come away from the desire to make something clever. And I also wanted to embrace the idea of being a walking talking Irish cliché and to indulge the use of language, uber colloquialisms and the over pronunciation of words, as if every word was of a biblical proportion. Then, when it came to making The Body & Blood as a series of films to launch online, I told myself that I would put nothing into it that I wasn’t proud of. I wanted to look back at it and not cringe.”
“Now I look at it and say, “You got it going on, Maggie, darlin.” I never write my own story. Frankly, my life is as dull as dishwater or a dishwasher. But Maggie, The Vigilante Cannibal Nun, that is another story. Can we throw history on its head and have some fun with her, bedad? Can we renegotiate Irish female invisible histories and create a self-destructive, delusional megalomaniac who is on a dark path as she faces the ultimate end game?”
What inspired you to dig into a 19th Century Irish Famine Folk Fable and make a show out of it?
“As I said, it started with my dad and then my mother’s death. I wrote the story in verse over lockdown and then the following year I made a series of five 10-minute films on my iPhone, where I tell the story of Maggie Murtagh, The Vigilante Cannibal Nun, whilst I turn into her. The films are shot in contemporary domestic spaces, and I use anachronisms which make it obvious that this world is not real. This world is a mental landscape. This world is a metaphor. I developed looks that use aspects of gangsterism, the revolutionary, signs and symbols of Catholicism and Irish history; like a Dick Turpin Hat; a Red Coat; aspects of Robin Hood; a silk scarf under a Panama Hat; an applique sacred heart on a white fur Cossack hat; and gold gangster teeth. But I also thought about iconography in the creation of a mythological character.”
“I was inspired by music videos by pop stars who are icons, for instance Grace Jones’ I’ve Seen That Face Before (Libertango) and David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video. I worked with a design studio, Two Digs Studio, to create a website and I launched the films at the beginning of 2022 over social media. Once that was over, I continued to make more and more videos and several people suggested that I perform it on stage. I’m not an actor, so I wanted to do something very small.”
“I had a chat with Rachel Campbell-Palmer, the Director of The Black Box in Belfast at the time, about the possibility of performing part of Maggie’s story, say for instance 10 minutes. Then Rachel said, “Do the whole thing. What space do you want? The front or the back?” And that was that. I performed the whole thing live at The Black Box in May 2022. Then I heard about VAULT Festival. And here we are.”
The show is a storytelling piece, which you describe as an “unruly journey” – tell us a little about what the audience can expect going in.
“I wanted to have an unruly blast writing The Body & Blood. I also want the audience to have an unruly blast watching The Body & Blood. The central character is destroying her soul on the one hand, but boy is she entertaining in how she breaks every rule in the book, especially as a woman. This is a fable, after all, so we can have her do anything.”
“For instance, at one point in the story, she climbs over the wall of a Colonial Mansion; kills a landlord in the gardens; breaks into the Mansion House with his servant; shags him in the landlord’s bedroom after ransacking it; and whilst wearing all his wife’s jewels and diamonds, shoots her way out of the house; gets into a bloody fight where the servant gets killed and she ends up eating a bodyguard and getting away with the diamonds. What’s not to like in this tale of wish-fulfilment and guiltless action?”
“Maggie gets her just desserts, don’t worry about that, but what a dreadful yet entertaining riot! Perhaps the scale of The Vigilante Cannibal Nun makes the reality of the unheard and hopeless stories death in Ireland during The Famine so utterly devastating. Women prostituting themselves to survive; the voiceless; the end game; systematically dehumanised; systematically othered, then left to die. Where is the story in that? Where is the hero? There is no story. It is the end. Indeed, where am I in that? This is another reason why I muddy the waters and take a distance. It is an unruly, difficult journey.”
Tell us a little bit about the process of creating the show and what you have been up to ahead of the show landing at VAULT Festival.
“I keep the show simple because the story is rich and detailed and wild. It’s all in the telling. Let’s not let the truth get in the way of a good yarn, as they say. This is a one woman show, told in verse with song. I practice the show every day. Costumes are indulgent, like the language, if not dirty and worn and anachronistic.”
“The performance is OTT in that I want to exhaust myself in the telling. But there is only me putting the show on, so I keep things simple. I have had wonderful support from Matthew Parker on press and Isabel Dixon and Grace Chapman at Cup of Ambition on marketing and the team at VAULT Festival are incredible.”
“A friend of mine, the writer and script editor, Mary Kate O’Flanagan, described the theatre piece as being about learned trauma, which is incredible. I think about it as a fable, about the loss of self and the loss of agency, in the face of death. It is a story which shadow boxes the torment of grief and guilt. However, it is a wild ride, and one from which Maggie, The Vigilante Cannibal Nun, accepts that she will never return. At the end she says, if this is who I am, warts and all, so be it.”
“There are other aspects to this that I have not discussed namely Catholicism, “The Troubles” and class. But I will just tip my hat to them. They are for another discussion. Big thank you, Jake, and to Binge Fringe. It is a privilege to discuss this.”
Now that we’re gearing up for VAULT Festival 2023, what are you most excited for?
“The ride, hi. The utter craic factor of performing it and hopefully touching the hearts and minds of the audience. I am very excited to see how people and other Theatre makers respond to it. This is a learning curve for me, as I am from a fine art and film background and not Theatre. Also, what I am looking for is a way to get the work out. I want to build a life and a future for the work, and this is part of the process.”
“The difference between this and the online films is that it feels as if Maggie, The Vigilante Cannibal Nun, has been stalking the hills and an underworld for hundreds of years and that she is trapped within her story. The Waterloo Vaults are perfect for her.”
Fitting with the themes of our magazine, if your show was an alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverage (think cocktails, mocktails, shots, beers, be creative!) what would it be?
“A Connemara whisky injected neat into the veins.”