'I wondered if I should just open the place and let them out'
Patricia Burke Brogan joined the Sisters of Mercy to help the poor, but after working briefly in Galway’s Magdalene laundry she decided to leave the order and write about what she had witnessed.
In doing so she became one of the first writers to tackle the subject, with a short story and then in the 1980s with a play. At the time most theatres rejected it as too controversial. “One theatre director wrote back and said: ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’,” she said.
She encountered the laundry on Forster Street as a 21-year-old novitiate doing substitute work. She remembers on her first day being “brought down this long, brown corridor and every time we went through doors they were locked behind”.
“I was brought into this huge space with these machines – the noise of the machines, the deafening noise – and then out of the haze I saw these women, young women, old women, and they looked at me like I was another of the people who’d locked them up . . . it was like I was in Dante’s inferno.”
She questioned why the women were incarcerated in the laundry but was also focused on “trying to be a good novice” and prepare for her vows.
“I was given the key, so that transferred the authority to me, and I wondered if I should just open the place and let them out. But most of them had no place to go . . . when I asked the superior why they weren’t let out, she said ‘Oh, if you let them out they’d be back here in no time, pregnant again’.”
She can still remember faces: one particular woman bent scrubbing over a sink trying to get the grease out of men’s collars, others taking sheets out of the machines and rolling them. “I felt that the walls were even sweating with them,” she said.
“It’s all about the stigma, really: that’s why it was covered up, that’s why nobody talked about it.”
On leaving the order, Burke Brogan wrote Sunflowers, which met with modest success, winning a competition in the Connacht Tribune. But it was years before her play, Eclipsed, reached the stage.
When a local Galway company eventually produced it in 1992, protests were threatened outside and she received hate mail. But people “were coming in buses from all over the west of Ireland to see it . . . I got the people into this dark place.”
After that first night she recalls Michael D Higgins approaching her in the car park and saying, “If you never did anything else with your life, you did that.”