Patricia Burke Brogan, whose play exposed brutality of Magdalene laundries, has died aged 90

The novice left the convent and wrote about what she had witnessed. She ‘changed everything’

Patricia Burke Brogan, playwright, poet, novelist, teacher and painter, has died aged 90. She was among the first people to draw large-scale attention to the shameful, brutal reality of the Magdalene laundries. Her 1992 play Eclipsed drew on her experiences as a 21-year-old novice with the Sisters of Mercy in Galway, working alongside residents in the former laundry at Forster Street in the city.

Patricia Burke Brogan died peacefully in a Galway nursing home on Monday.

In an interview with The Irish Times in 2013 she recalled “One theatre director wrote back and said: ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’.”

Her 2014 book, Memoir with Grykes and Turloughs, includes her period as a novice, and her decision against becoming a nun. She instead highlighted the plight of the women in the laundry through writing. President Michael D Higgins wrote the forward to the memoir, noting that her play had “changed everything”, and that its faithfulness to the characters and the hidden stories “could almost not have had another author”.

At its launch the president’s wife, Sabina Coyne Higgins, talked about the courage of a former nun taking a “principled stand” against the “dreadful denial of freedom and of human dignity” to the Magdalene laundry women. Eclipsed exposed a “complicity and conspiracy of silence”, Ms Higgins recalled.


Years later Burke Brogan recalled Michael D Higgins approaching her in the car park after Eclipsed’s opening in 1992, saying, “If you never did anything else with your life, you did that”.

Born in Kildysart, southwest Co Clare, she left with her family when she was aged two and her Garda sergeant father was transferred to Moylough, Co Galway. Burke Brogan grew up surrounded by books and music and began reading and “scribbling” at a young age. Her interest in art, music and writing was lifelong.

She joined the Sisters of Mercy to help the poor, but after working briefly in Galway’s Magdalene laundry she left the order, later writing about what she had witnessed there, first in a short story and then in the 1980s with a play, Eclipsed.

‘I felt that the walls were even sweating with them. It’s all about the stigma, really: that’s why it was covered up, that’s why nobody talked about it’

The play has had more than 61 productions on three continents and won many awards, including a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 1992, and the United States Moss Hart Award in 1994. But it was initially rejected by large theatre companies. In an interview with Dan Griffin of The Irish Times in 2013 she recalled “One theatre director wrote back and said: ‘Do you know what you’re saying?’.”

Eventually in 1992 a small Galway theatre company called Punchbag produced it, with a cast of eight women. Through the medium of theatre, written by someone who had witnessed it, it opened up the harsh imprisonment of women for breaking strict moral codes by having a baby without being married. They worked without pay in laundries, with the collusion of church, state and families. The play stirred up controversy and Burke Brogan received hate mail, but it attracted significant audiences. Coming in the middle of the X-Case, in which a 14-year-old child was prevented from going to England for an abortion, it was powerful and pivotal, and shocking for audiences who had been unaware of the laundries.

Talking to Griffin, Burke Brogan recalled her first day in the laundry. She was “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.

“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 recalled faces: one woman bent scrubbing more than a sink to get the grease out of men’s collars, others taking sheets from 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.”

Perhaps appropriately, Burke Brogan died the day before an Irish novelist of a younger generation, Claire Keegan, was Booker-shortlisted for her novel about Magdalene laundries.

At her conferral with an honorary degree by NUI Galway in 2014, the university’s Prof Patrick Lonergan said Patricia Burke Brogan was proof that “the lone individual can make a difference”.

Her archive — a remarkable collection of her literary papers, some personal letters and photos, her artworks, and ephemera from productions of her works — is University of Galway (which was previously NUI Galway).

Her other plays include Requiem of Love and Stained Glass at Samhain, and she has published a number of poetry collections, including Décollage New and Selected Poems in 2008. Her husband Eddie Brogan predeceased her, as did her sister Philomena and brother Brendan, a priest. She is survived by her family, including her sisters Claire and Teresa, nephew, grandnephews and grandnieces.

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times