Throwing light on crumbling institutions

Mon, Feb 18, 2013, 00:00

Having spent her teens in residential care, photographer Kellie Greene wanted to document a disappearing part of our past in this haunting series of images

Over the course of two years, photographer Kellie Greene picked her way through the remains of Ireland’s crumbling institutions.

She visited Magdalene laundries, industrial schools, mother and baby homes, all part of the State’s “culture of containment” which resulted in tens of thousands of people being segregated from society.

The result is a series of haunting images of disintegrating buildings and overgrown structures that hint at what happened behind the high walls.

Traces of hidden lives are still visible through the poignant, tell-tale remains.

There is the faded children’s graffiti scrawled on the wall of an industrial school; bottles of starch in an old Magdalene laundry; a sink worn through its enamel; large “soiled linen” envelopes used to store clothes.

Greene (40), who grew up in Ireland but is now based in Australia, felt the need to document these landmarks, which were not only disappearing from the landscape but also from the public consciousness.

“It’s very important that we record these buildings for future reference, and not just let them be cast aside,” she says.

Easily forgotten

“I went to the site of a children’s residential home in Dublin to find it had completely disappeared. I remember asking a woman of my age what happened and she didn’t know anything about it. She never knew it was there. It was a reminder that these places can easily disappear and be forgotten.”

Greene knows all too well about the often grim reality of life in institutional care.

After her parents separated, she was admitted into State care at the age of 13, along with her younger brother. She spent her teenage years in residential homes for children.

At one home – Cualann, near Kill o’ the Grange in Dublin, run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity – she witnessed the sexual abuse of another child in the late 1980s. The home was closed down and the children were distributed to other centres. She was separated from her brother.

Following a Garda investigation, it emerged that three children had been abused. A man was charged, but later absconded. He was not brought to trial.

Greene experienced first hand the culture of secrecy. She says she was warned that if she spoke out about it, support for her secondary school education would cease. Details of the abuse only came to light several years after the events. “I was always haunted by the fact that there was no justice.”

She and her brother later pursued a civil case, which ran into a brick wall. Frustrated and determined to make a fresh start, she emigrated to Australia where she studied photography. When she won a scholarship to do a PhD in visual communications, she knew what she wanted to focus on.

‘Silenced in care’

“I began my candidacy in 2009, the year the Ryan report came out. Knowing how you can be silenced in care, I wanted to assert my voice through photography. There is all this written stuff: commission reports, statutory inquiries. I wanted to portray something more tangible, direct and visceral.”

During two visits over two years, she visited dozens of institutions around the country. Many buildings were due to be knocked down or in the process of being demolished, but work had stopped suddenly in the aftermath of the property crash.

“I felt a real impetus and urgency to photograph these places before we lost them. It was a way, I suppose, of responding to a lack of justice I felt we received at Cualann. We’re losing a lot of this heritage, which is a real tragedy. I found things hidden in rubbish which are extremely valuable and need to be preserved and kept.”

Greene feels divided loyalties to her home country. She loves visiting, has many friends here and is still close to her brother, but she cannot see herself living here any time soon.

She has watched with interest the reaction to the Magdalene laundries report. Society, she feels, is finally coming to terms with what happened. However she warns against complacency: “I think we can fall into the trap and assume that we have our house in order.”