Friday, October 28, 2011

"Laundry" Performing The Story Of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries (Part 3)

My third and final account of experiencing the "Laundry" performance:

This is surely in total contrast to any confession box I've ever entered. The area is small and the light from the corner lamp guides my eyes to the smiling girl who begins to describe a dress which she seems very fond of. She explains in great detail, for example, the intricate stitching on the sleeve, that goes from the wrist all the way up to the shoulder and around and how soft the material is. I'm not sure what she's trying to tell me, perhaps she is a little disturbed. Unsure, I go along with her, telling her how beautiful it sounds.

She begins to whistle, saying how whistling makes Baby Jesus cry but that she doesn't mind. Again, I nod in agreement. Moving towards me and still smiling she begins to dance. She opens her arms as if inviting me to join her, I accept her invitation. Slowly we move around, she whistling a tune I know from way back, me humming along. For a brief few moments I forget the awful horror I witnessed earlier. As we finish our dance and the girl is once again describing her lovely dress the door opens and I'm shown out to a girl who leads me towards a room at the back of the church. While walking up the couple of alter steps leading to the door this young "Maggie" instructs me under her breath to "act natural".

Inside, bundles of crumpled sheets lie on the floor, a stark reminder of the building's line of business. The young "Maggie" tells me that the hardest thing for her to bear is the silence. I stare at the images of the actual laundry building imprinted on the red stain glass window, it sends a chill down my spine. This poor child wants out of here and begs me help her to escape. I whisper to her "OK, my life's nearing its end, yours is only beginning, let's go". I was by now so immersed in the story that I actually felt I would get into trouble if I was caught but I was willing to chance it. She suggests I pretend I'm helping her to bring out laundry and again whispers to me to "act natural".

Together we gather an armful of sheets each and head out the door, down the alter steps. Walking off the alter she whispers "genuflect" which we do together. As we turn to walk down the aisle "Matron" is coming towards us and asks where we're going. The girl tells her I'm just helping. We keep walking in silence. Again when we reach the front door she tells one of the girls standing nearby that she'll be back soon. The door closes behind us with a loud slam. Right outside a taxi is waiting, the girl bangs on the back door, it opens, I jump in, she hurriedly thanks me. I whisper "go" and she races across the road and disappears. I utter a silent "God be with you, child". The taximan asks where she's gone, I tell him she'll be back in a minute. He introduces himself as Den-den. We drive off, I've no idea where we're going.

Den-den takes me through unfamiliar streets. I'm in a state of shock from everything I've just experienced and this car ride is part of my nightmare. He points out the Foley Street area that was once Dublin's red light district known as, Monto. When the Government of the day closed this down, the women were taken into the Magdalene Laundries supposedly to be given shelter and to "repent" for their sins, hence they became known as "penitents". We arrive at the nearby Scrub-A-Dub Launderette where Den-den drops me off. Still carrying my bundle of sheets I enter this building.

Here I'm reunited with the other two "audience members", one is ironing, the other folding laundry. I'm told I can help with the folding. As we work, the couple in charge, Babs and Tony tell us how pregnant women who entered these laundries had their babies taken from them for adoption and never again heard a thing about them. Also they inform us about the non-profit, all-volunteer advocacy group, Justice For Magdalenes, who consistantly compaign for justice for survivors of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries. When our time is up we head back out across the road to where Den-den is waiting to return us to Sean McDermott Street. Just before we get out of the taxi, Den-den gives us each a souvenir of carbolic soap. The bar is wrapped in brown paper, tied with twine and has the Magdalene Laundry label on it complete with our hand-written names. While I normally love to receive a souvenir, this particular one leaves me feeling very uneasy indeed.

I sensed the three of us were in a very strange state of mind. We discussed our experiences for a little while then went our separate ways. Walking down a busy O'Connell Street I felt disorientated, like I almost needed to talk with somebody, anyone who would listen to my story of what it was like to move through the rooms and sense the horror of a Magdalene Laundry. Yet on the other hand I don't think I would have wanted to meet somebody I knew because I felt I just needed to be on my own. I headed up to the Irish Film Institute for a coffee and sat there for ages just thinking and writing.

My profound gratitude goes to Anu Productions and Director, Louise Lowe for opening up the Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin and inviting us in to witness in part, through the art of performance, what life was like for the thousands of innocent women and children who suffered in these hellholes where evil truly resided.

My greatest wish is that those responsible are severely punished. I'll repeat again what I wrote in a post days following the publication of the Ryan Report in May 2009 relating to child abuse in industrial schools: Ireland's Shame - Someone Should Have Spoken Out "Justice is what these people need in the form of acknowledgement of and apology for the wrong doings directly, where possible, by those personally responsible followed up by appropriate financial assistance from the religious orders concerned. The men and women who carried out these atrocious acts should be named, shamed and brought to justice regardless of their seniority". I remain resolute in that belief.

Girl Carrying Sheets Image: Anu Productions and © Pat Redmond.
Laundry Image taken by me prior to attending the performance.
Carbolic Soap Souvenir Image taken by me next day.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Laundry" Performing The Story Of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries (Part 2)

Continuing my chronicling of the "Laundry" vignettes:

Still holding the bucket of "breast-milk" I'm now ushered from the main hall-way into a bathroom.

I'm told to place the bucket on the floor a little ways inside the door then the lady in charge leaves. A "heavily pregnant" girl moves across the room and seats herself on a stool, her face totally without expression. My eyes move to the milky-white liquid in the bath which I take to be either disinfectant or carbolic soap, whichever it is the smell is almost overpowering. A movement to my left startles me.

She appears to be in a catatonic state, her movements slow yet deliberate. Turning, the girl then presses her slim white body against the wall, arms outstretched as if trying to move through the very brickwork itself in search of something. At this point my tears return, I desperately want to help her find whatever it is she's looking for. Once again I'm drawn into the nightmare. It's real, it's not real. It was once real, very real.

Facing me now she slowly walks towards me her enormous dark eyes fixed steadily on mine. I realise for the first time she is completely naked except for the bandage-like binding around her breasts. She begins to unwind this, holding out the end of it towards me. I automatically take it and she begins to twirl around until she is completely free. I struggle to control my sobs, for her sake. I then take the delicate white hand she holds out to help her step into the bath. Even in the water her body conveys a terrible sadness by its tormented movements. At one point she curls into the foetal position. What happens next explains everything in this room.

At the distant sound of a new-born infant's cries the girl in the bath stretches out her arm as if trying to comfort her child. I have never seen such pain in anyone's eyes. As a mother my heart broke for her and all the girls for whom this was a reality, so much so that now I cry without reservation. I am past self-consciousness. Still holding the bandage I help this unfortunate young girl step out of the sanitised water and as she twirls back into the binding I realise with absolute horror that this is possibly being used to surpress her milk. What God in Heaven put these nuns on this earth?

I'm so upset at believing this beautiful girl must now be perished with the cold I pick up one of the towels surrounding the bottom of the bath and place it around her shoulders. Continuing my attempts to comfort her I gently take some of her lovely long black wavy hair from beneath the towel, imagining this will make her feel less cold. Just then the door opens and I'm once again asked to leave. Walking out the doorway I give one final glance back at the poor soul grieving beyond belief the loss of her baby.

Emotionally drained I walk with the lady in charge to the next room praying for some respite here. There are many chairs in this room, most occupied, some at the back sit empty. "Matron", as I shall refer to her from hereon in, instructs me to be seated. Immediately I feel I've just arrived in a classroom where its occupants, hunched over on their knees on chairs, are seemingly reciting some sort of legal text about the protection of children and rights of citizens in a most monotonous tone. At the end of each line they appear to self-flagellate by slapping themselves on their backs. Very unsettling.

If that seems strange their next piece makes me feel even more uneasy. Rising from their scrunched up positions they then form a straight line where this time they begin to sing in yet again monotone fashion. Every so often they first turn in one direction then the other, each time leaning on each others' shoulders as if resting or taking comfort. I'm not at all sure what's happening here. This room is full of lighting, mainly red in colour giving an almost warm, cosy ambience. I'm sure that's not what it's meant to portray and it's just me not picking up on the theme. The beautiful high vaulted ceiling, the highly polished parquet flooring all convey a feeling that nothing bad could have happened in here. Somehow I sense I'm so wrong.

Once again my thoughts are interrupted and I'm moved out now to face a two-way mirror behind which a young girl, a "Maggie" as the inmates were also known as, beckons to me, again in that slow motion movement. I remain motionless. She disappears and my reflection stares back at me. When she reappears she is several steps closer to me than before, I continue watching in bewilderment. After this is repeated several times, each time she's moving closer, I have such a strong feeling of wanting to help her in some way but I don't know how. All I can do is place my hand on the glass in the hope that she takes comfort from it. I not prepared for the final time when she now stands right up against the mirror which almost causes me to jump back. She uses sign language to me, I struggle to understand the urgency in her request but gather she wants me to tell the outside world she's in here. Still with my hand on the glass, I nod, "yes".

I'm aware of a girl slowly leading me into the church. We stop at a magnificant stain glass window dipicting an image of the Virgin Mary with child in her arms. The young girl gazes up lovingly at the scene and several times says to me "Isn't he beautiful?" I respond "yes, he is". At this point I suspect she must have had a baby who was taken from her. I feel sad. She then leads me across to a wall which has a couple of holes in it. Her question startles me, "Did you hear him?" I respond, "no". My head is all over the place so I don't connect this question with the observation I'd just made a minute before. "They took him away". Still no connection. (Hours later it dawns on me, I feel so stupid!). We remain together a few moments longer then an older woman leads me right into the small church.

For the first time during these performances I feel a tremendous sense of peace. The brightness of this little building in contrast to the dark, austere outer rooms is a welcome pleasure to behold. My respite is brief because as I sit with this lovely lady I completely break down , constantly apologising through my tears. She reassures me it's OK, holds my hand then puts her arm around me. I feel guilty because I should be the one comforting her, not the other way around.

After handing me a tissue she proceeds to tell the the story of why she is still here. She did leave many years earlier and married but later in life when her husband died she could not cope with being on her own so chose to return to this place. It is beyond me why someone would choose this wretched life over lonliness. She seems very much at peace. We look at one of the stain glass windows portraying a beautiful image of the Virgin Mary, my comforting lady seems to like this one in particular. I finally stop crying. She gives me a lemon sweet which she says helps when you're distressed. I want to stay with this lady but it's time to move on.

We walk over to a confession box which she assures me is unlike any that I know. There I'm introduced to another young "Maggie" who's waiting for me in the warm glow of an amber lamp-light......

This vignette along with the remaining pieces will appear in the next and final part of this blog post.

Girl In Bath Image: Anu Productions and © Pat Redmond.
Other Images taken by me prior to attending the performance.


Monday, October 17, 2011

"Laundry" Performing The Story Of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries (Part 1)

I held off writing this post for over a week simply because, as it was still performing to audiences, I feared I might give away too much detail about Anu Productions' amazing piece of site-specific theatre, namely "Laundry". Directed by Louise Lowe it tells the story of Ireland's Magdalene Laundries where young girls and women were incarcerated, some for the remainder of their lives for sometimes nothing more than giving birth outside of marriage. It ran for over two weeks as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival. On Tuesday, 4th October, ticket in handbag, I headed off for the 12.30pm performance with no idea of what to expect.

Not having the usual security of knowing what theatre I'd be attending I was a bit apprehensive to say the least because this time I would be walking through an area in north inner city Dublin that sadly hasn't got the best of reputations. I did feel safe though as I strolled along in the mid-day sunshine. Turning off Lower Gardiner Street I now faced the long stretch of Sean McDermott Street, the Magdalene Laundry standing far down on the right-hand side. Approaching the building I saw what looked like a security man slowly pacing up and down, a white camper-van parked outside.

As I wasn't sure how or when I should enter the building I checked with the two women inside the van who very kindly allowed me to sit with them until it was time for the next performance. Just before 12.30pm one of the ladies then took myself and the other two audience members, both women (only three audience members permitted to each performance ) to the main hall door where she banged loudly on its peeling red paint.

For a moment nothing happens. The three of us exchange relaxed quizzical glances, the last time we would make eye contact for the duration of the performance. Suddenly the small grid in the hall door is pulled open from where a pair of angry eyes peer out, flitting backwards and forwards across our faces. Then comes the sound of bolts being roughly dragged open. Once inside, the three of us are immediately separated.

The first woman is ushered into the tiny annex to the left of the first small hallway (see top image). The other lady to the opposite annex. A steel bucket half full of disinfectant is thrust into my hands and I'm told to remain where I am. From this moment onwards I'm completely drawn into the nightmarish scenario, reality and performance periodically blurring into one. I am genuinely scared, I had not expected this. Screams from the left annex make me jump sky high and through the door's top plate glass pane I can see the outlines of two people struggling with each other. One voice male, the other female. Surely the woman who has just entered isn't been attacked? I'm frozen to the spot but then reality checks in and tells me this is part of the storyline....for a while anyway.

All this time a young girl, a "penitent" stands in the corner next to the hall door, our eyes meeting every so often. I notice her red raw hands. I hardly notice the young man arriving next to me who by now is becoming extremely agitated. He keeps shouting things like, "What are they doing in there?", "This is ridiculous!" while all the time moving very angrily. Referring to my bucket, he asks me what's in it, I tell him I think it is Dettol. Suddenly he loses it, bangs on the glass panel of the inner door then storms out. During all of this loud shouts in a male voice are coming from the right annex. Now I am alone with the girl in the corner still eyeing me every so often. Once or twice a young woman carrying a bundle of white sheets charges out of the building and back in again, slamming the doors as she goes.

The lady in charge arrives back out, moves the lady in the left annex over into the right then me into the left. I am ordered to sit on the chair in the corner of the tiny space. In front of me sits a man, beside me within a hair's breath is seated a young girl. She slowly holds out her hand to me, I'm not sure what to do. I take it. The beseeching look on her face, her large sad eyes penetrating mine makes me respond to her plight. Through facial expressions and hand stroking I convey to her my understanding of her situation. Suddenly she jumps up, shouting at the man who then tries to restrain her. An angry exchange of shouts continues until the two of them are on the floor. The man gathers the girl, moves himself into a seated position against the wall then infolds the distressed girl's head in his arms. She quietens. She returns to her seat, holds out her hand to me, I take it in both my hands. The door opens and I'm moved out.

The annex on the right is equally small. This time my only companion is an extremely angry young man. He moves with the agitation of a caged animal, at intervals thumping the wall and banging on the door. With each thump I nearly jump out of my skin. Trying to conceal my terror I use the odd calming word to try and subdue him, fearful that at any moment he could strike out. Then a split second of reality comes through, this is just a performance...but I am very much part of it.

For some reason during a moment in his quietness I run my finger along the paper rail to get a feel of the place. I'm searching for the negative energy in the wallpaper and deeper still in the bricks themselves. To my right on the ledge of the long thin window sits a framed notice with the address of the laundry. It reads: Gloucester St. Magdalene Asylum. To me the word Asylum congures up images of the old Lunatic Asylums. The state of mind I am in just then might well lead me to believe I'm in one such place. I am once again removed, leaving the agitated man to continue his ranting.

After the lady in charge moves the other two ladies to other rooms she then leads me into the large hallway. Immediately another young girl rushes towards me and hands me yet another steel bucket of white liquid. Her whisper is chilling - "Breast-milk". I'm almost certain that's what she said. Suddenly I'm aware of a voice reciting a litany of female names. This girl slowly paces up and down, sometimes looking at me but mostly moving in an almost hypnotic state while she continues with her narration. When it dawns on me that these are the names of the young girls and women who were imprisioned in this hellhole I begin to cry. Quiet sobs. She then says "Remember these four names". I repeat each one back to her. As the list becomes longer and longer the real sense of the terrible horror that took place in here hits me with the force of a wrecking ball. Tears roll down my cheeks as I am completely overcome with sadness.

Continuing her roll-call the girl walks over to a filing cabinet which I hadn't noticed just behind me. She pulls open the two top drawers then continues her pacing. While she is slightly out of sight I look into the top drawer. Horror grips me as I see the locks of hair pinned to pieces of cardboard. The lower drawer contains huge amounts of carbolic soap bars. I cry even more.

The next room that I'm shown into is the one that still haunts me two weeks later.......

Details of that vignette along with the remaining pieces will appear as continuous posts in order to prevent each post being too long.

Above images of the Magdalene Laundry taken by me prior to attending the performance.


Sunday, October 16, 2011

Suffer The Little Children - Irish Church Adoption Scandals

Ever since the time I was told I was adopted I've always longed to know my birth mother. (I will write about this in more detail at a later stage). I clearly remember that dark winter evening, the warm glow from the living-room fire grate softening the crushing words that were penetrating my small ears. I was not my Mammy and Daddy's little girl. They chose me from a small group of children being looked after in a home of some sort they said. My real Mammy had to give me up because I was "born out of wedlock" as it was always described, God's punishment to her for having me. That's what my little six year old brain had to try and take in that awful winter evening.

That story was repeated many times over in my lifetime while living with my adoptive parents, as if to firmly instil in me the sense of mortal sin associated with giving birth outside of marriage. Indeed, many's the time my father reminded me that if I ever came home pregnant I would be out the door with my suitcase before I could say Jack Robinson, whoever he is! When I asked where would I go he'd tell me, into one of the institutions they have for "people like that". I don't think my parents were much different from any others as that was the general thinking back in the 1950s, 60s and even 70s. Such sad times.

I was one of the lucky kiddies. Had I not been adopted at two and a half years of age I might well have ended up in one of the residential schools that were dotted all over the country. As it was, I spent some time in a north inner Dublin hostel for unmarried mothers in the Mother and Baby Unit with my birth mother before doing the rounds of foster families and spending five months with pancreatitis in St. Kevins, now St. James's Hospital. But as they say, it could have been so much worse.

So, this could just as well have been my own birth mother's heartbreaking story: "The Catholic Church Stole My Child" - see how lucky I am!

My next post will detail my reaction to attending Anu Productions' "Laundry" - a site-specific performance in the Magdalene Laundry at Lower Sean McDermott Street, Dublin.

Above image: Me, at around three years of age, shortly after my adoption.