‘Eclipsed’: Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries & Living History

Last week in Geneva, UN Rapporteur on Torture, Felice Gaer, suggested that the Irish government, “seems to be walking back from the famous apology by Enda Kenny.” It is not hard to see why Rapporteur Gaer would make such an observation. Despite Enda’s tears for the Magdalenes and the recent Tuam babies scandal, along with the myriad revelations stretching back to the 1990s, securing justice for citizens harmed by Ireland’s carceral-obsessed past continues at a glacial pace.

The public horror rightfully expressed whenever these histories are brought into the light is not matched at a governmental level by an urgency to address them. The danger is, of course, that longstanding inaction or insufficient action will lead to a ‘re-forgetting’ or a ‘re-silencing’, as victim’s voices slowly die away, public attention drifts elsewhere and the dark architecture of ‘homes’ and institutions is quietly erased from the landscape.

This point was poignantly and powerfully highlighted at Galway Arts Festival yesterday. In NUIG’s new O’Donoghue Centre, the all-female cast (save for one) from Punchbag Theatre’s original 1992 production performed a rehearsed reading of ‘Eclipsed’ by Patricia Burke Brogan. Set in 1963, ‘Eclipsed’ tells the story of Cathy, Brigit, Mandy and Nellie-Nora, who are imprisoned in a ‘penitent’ Laundry in the fictional Killmacha. The woman find joy in each other but they crave freedom and to be reunited with their children. Burke Brogan was moved to write the play by her experiences as a young novitiate. Disgusted by the Church’s treatment of so-called ‘fallen women’, she did not complete her training, becoming a writer instead.

When ‘Eclipsed’ debuted in 1992, Ireland was in the grip of the X case, skirting the brink of a series of revelations that would diminish the moral authority of the Catholic Church. In the after-show discussion, the cast recalled what it was like to perform the play at a liminal moment of social and political awakening, back when some Laundries were still operational. They spoke movingly of the audience reaction; how people waited to speak to them afterwards, to confide and share. They remembered the Magdalene women they had spoken to and the toll that institutionalization had on them.

Twenty-five years on, the points and reminiscences from the floor yesterday showed that the history ‘Eclipsed’ captures is a living one. Thousands of Irish citizens continue to be impacted by these events, struggling to uncover the truth, to process their experiences, to secure substantive justice. This is a problem that goes beyond our borders, as Rapporteur Gaer underscored last week, when, given the size of our diaspora, she queried how well the Magdalene laundries redress scheme has been promoted outside of Ireland.

Over the course of the twentieth century, many men and women who fell foul of Catholic orthodoxy and the suffocating conformity demanded by much-of Irish society, left the country. As one audience member put it, “People emigrated for economic reasons but also out of fear and rage.” Then there is the issue of the thousands of illegal out-of-country adoptions which continued to take place even after the introduction of the 1952 Adoption Act, alongside the extreme coercion faced by generations of vulnerable mothers to give up their babies.

One man in the audience, recalling his boyhood, described watching the women from the Magdalene Laundry on Galway city’s Forster Street being marched to mass every Sunday by the nuns, the only time they ever appeared in public. It made his father irate, he said, the way those women were ostracized. For all the advancements in Irish society, there remains far too many instances when outrage is a natural response – but it cannot be the only response. From Direct Provision to homelessness to the 8th Amendment and more besides, Irish state and society continues to fail those most in need of its protection. This is due, at least in part, to the  legacy of a bleak past not fully confronted. Without facing our history we cannot contextualize our present, nor can we reckon with the future. Without accountability and redress, there can be no justice, no healing.  

Bravo to the cast and crew of ‘Eclipsed’, and Patricia Burke Brogan, for helping to ensure we don’t dare to forget.