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.



  1. Thanks for your very vivid post. The cold truth needs to be told. For far too long the disturbing facts regarding Magdalen Laundries and Industrial *schools* have have been kept secret. The outside world never wanted to know about the penitents, so they were left to the mercy of the merciless sisters. who played on their vulnerability.

    Some girls, who had spent their whole childhoods in industrial *schools* were sent directly to Magdalen laundries. For example - I went to visit Valerie, an ex-Goldenbridge inmate at this particular laundry, when I was a teenager. She was sent there after her incarceration period was up at the institution. She would have been very experienced at laundry work - having done it from a very young age at GB.

    Your post is very daunting and so well described, that it sent shivers down my spine. Fear. Fear. Fear. prevailed in Magdalen laundries and industrial *schools* all the time, and what you got was a taste of what it would have been like for the penitents and industrial *school* inmates

    {*Schools* was purely a euphemism for child-prisons].

  2. Thank you so much for your very personal comment. I wholeheartedly agree with you that the cold truth needs to be told.

    Everyone who played their part in causing and prolonging the suffering of these innocent women and children must be brought to justice, including the Government members of the day.

    I do hope Valerie has now found the happiness she deserves.

    Yes, I've been deeply affected by my visit to the laundry. It's almost like I could feel the intense sadness in the walls of the building itself.

    Words cannot describe the anger I feel towards these supposedly men and women of Christ.

    Thank you again and Best Wishes.

  3. Ann -Valerie died many years ago, not so very long after she got redress from the government/religious. Alas - she never got to enjoy it at all. Nonetheless, she lived to tell her story to the commission to inquire into child institutional abuse. I wrote a five page statement to the latter outlining the suffering and neglect that she endured whilst at Goldenbridge Gulag. Valerie, from birth, went directly into a feeder institution; Goldenbridge Industrial School; Sean McDermott St, Magdalen Laundry; Homelessness and finally for approximately the last decade of her life, a flat. Life was utterly cruel to her from beginning to end. Sadly - she never came to terms with the hardship that was meted out to her during her life.

    Mary Smith from Cork is another ex-Maggie who got a similar raw deal in life.

    I sincerely hope justice is seen to be done for those who were in Magdalen Laundries. The government cherry-picked institutions that went on the scheduled redress board list.

    It's very kind of you to think about Magdalen Laundry Survivors, They need all the support they can get.

    Regarding the religious who played a part in the suffering of children in industrial *schools*, they have basically got off the hook, as they were indemnified from the very outset of the setting up of the CICA.

  4. Marie-Therese, firstly I'm very sad to hear that Valerie died. What a dreadful existence she must have endured, I pray she is at peace now. Also I pray for Mary.

    Many years ago when I first learned of the Magdalene Laundries I was both deeply saddened and incensed by the horrific treatment of the innocent women and children by those torturers.

    I consider myself lucky. I spent some time in a Mother and Baby unit here in Dublin in the early 1950s, then on to several foster homes, a long stint in hospital and I'm still not sure where I ended up before being adopted.

    My greatest wish is that the surviving "religious" men and women responsible for the suffering they caused are each forced to confront their evil doings in whatever way possible.

    Best Wishes for now Marie-Therese, Ann