Grace Dyas: The dirty secrets of a Dublin Magdalene laundry

Her new play deals with a search at a Magdalene laundry, but is also a metaphor for things we hope will never surface

I am digging here to find my baby.
I am digging to find out the truth.
But the sad thing is, as soon as I find out the truth, I will bury it again. Somehow.

Walking up Gardiner Street in Dublin's north inner city, towards Sean McDermott Street, you pass many budget hotels and guesthouses. If the agreed proposal for Dublin City Council to sell the last Magdalene laundry in public ownership to a Japanese chain goes ahead, there'll be one more budget hotel to add to them, but a piece of our grubby and shameful history will be buried forever, along with all our other secrets and lies.

Buried is the key word. On Sean McDermott Street, the Monastery of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge – known to Dubliners for years as the Gloucester Street laundry – is the setting for Grace Dyas's new play for social justice theatre collective THEATREclub, We Don't Know What's Buried Here.

It’s a two-hander in which the ghosts of two Magdalene women, Tina and Bernadette (played by Dyas and Doireann Coady), are digging a hole in a park in the shadow of the laundry. They’re searching to find their babies before they are covered by a hotel, but also to work – the notion that work will set you free, and of Leo Varadkar’s “people who get up early in the morning”, are central. But the dig brings to the surface many buried secrets.


Down the road a housing association is refurbishing a large block of council flats; across the road is the large Our Lady of Lourdes church with a sign proclaiming the shrine of the Venerable Matt Talbot, and next door is a shuttered council swimming pool.

I meet playwright and theatre producer Grace Dyas and director Barry John O'Connor (a familiar face as junior minister and cocaine pusher Tom Callaghan in TV3's Red Rock) behind the laundry, on Railway Street. Running parallel to Sean McDermott Street, this visually depressing street has been blighted by generations of deprivation and drug use. It was the epicentre of the heroin epidemic in the 1980s and, decades earlier, was part of Monto, the red light district when Dublin was a garrison town, and women and girls with few options ended up there. It's also James Joyce's Nighttown in Ulysses.

A group of young men are hanging around near a small green space, which looks to the casual observer like an open-air drugs pop-up.

“We did a work-in-progress of the play there,” says Dyas.

“Yeah,” says O’Connor, “in the park – we dug up a hole. The lads were just going about their . . . put them in suits, like. Ostensibly they’re working.”

“They were grand,” Dyas adds.

The whole of the other side of the street is a very high wall that tells stories. There are marks from burned-out cars. Three facades of Monto houses form part of it. The wall is long and dilapidated, with various sections, including a large double gate where the laundry delivery vans called, some large broken built-in fans, presumably for the laundry, and a number of large crosses embedded high up.

Ghost on the roof

It's pretty forbidding. Local Social Democrats councillor Gary Gannon grew up in the now-demolished Mountain View Court flats at the end of Rutland Street, which faces the laundry's fine, imposing brick front on Sean McDermott Street. Apparently some retired priests still live in the building, and a youth project has a small space there too. Otherwise it is unused and locked up. Rumour has it that there is a ghost on the roof; Gannon says he's never seen it.

He says that, growing up, “we knew nothing about what went on there. Especially the back of the building was terrifying. We still don’t talk about what happened there.”

But it was a constant shadow for children. “My Ma used to say, if you don’t stop doing that, the nuns will come and get ya. For my mother it was a very real threat in her life. It was a place where cruelty felt comfortable.”

The impressive brick facade has at least three entrances, one of them topped with a large white wrought-iron arch reading “Monastery of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge”. Refuge was far from the experience of many of the women who lived there over the years. At the height of its productivity 150 women worked in this laundry; records have not been released by the sisters, so much of its history is unknown or ad hoc.

The Gloucester Street laundry was built in 1887. By the 1930s and 1940s it admitted over 100 women a year. When the laundry closed in October 1996 (yes, as recently as 1996 a Magdalene home was still taking laundry on Sean McDermott Street), some 40 women, the eldest aged 79, remained living there. The building was given to the council by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity in exchange for a newly built convent and a 20-year lease on a hostel.

Magdalene laundries began as asylums for women, particularly prostitutes, and developed into institutions of confinement and unpaid labour for women and girls who were orphaned, “fallen women” who got pregnant outside marriage, alcoholics, or those deemed socially inadequate. Females who didn’t fit in or were unwanted were hidden away in harsh and degrading conditions, and forced to do backbreaking unpaid work in businesses run by religious orders, providing laundry services for State-run bodies, hospitals and hotels.

Along with mother and baby homes, industrial schools and psychiatric hospitals, they were for decades places of hardship and incarceration for “undesirables” of various sorts.

More than 10,000 women and girls are thought to have spent time in the laundries, which operated from the early 19th century until the 1990s, with the knowledge and blessing of an unholy trinity of family, Catholic church and State. In a society with little social welfare and a strict moral code, Magdalene homes were a way to control and exploit inconvenient, unwanted women.

Communal graves

Mortality rates were high and some who died were buried in communal graves, sometimes unmarked and unrecorded. During redevelopment of the former High Park laundry in Drumcondra in the early 1990s, the bodies of 155 women were found in a mass grave. There were death certificates for only 75.

O’Connor is horrified by the enormity of it. “The women were taken in, heads shaved, they got new names, and were put to work. They were imprisoned. This happened for about 100 years. Think about all the changes you would have seen in the State over that time, the generations.”

Last year, when she was working on the Treeline art project in the north inner city, Dyas walked around the area with her friend Gary Gannon. "He said he was campaigning to halt the sale of the site, because we don't know what's buried here. That line just stuck with me. I thought it was a useful metaphor for how we feel as a nation now, in light of what's happened – all the different scandals that are constantly being dug up and excavated and presented to us. You think you know . . . and then it gets worse and worse. After the Ryan report, then Catherine Corless discovers the babies buried in Tuam, and that wasn't even in the 20-volume Ryan report that people marched for.

“It’s like not knowing our history because there’s been so much kept secret and so much buried. I wanted to try to illustrate that somehow.”

In the script, the ghosts of the Magdalene women digging for their babies, having heard about the Tuam babies, expand their search to include all the buried secrets. They find all sorts of things, from broken delph to the Anglo tapes, from used syringes to “god knows what else, drug paraphernalia, a human shit, with pink toilet paper, soggy, left upon it, a human shit, it’s buried here too, pages and pages of reports, reports on the inner city, reports on poverty, exclusion, drugs, the church, the Magdalenes, the murders, the buildings, the traffic, the air, pollution, play facilities, community development . . .”

Dyas comments: “There has been a response where – it feels kind of Charlie Haughey-esque – we have a scandal, a massive thing has happened, and everyone is really angry, and they commission a report or a tribunal and they spend loads of time and taxpayers’ money on it, and good, clever people work on it, with good ideas, and they make this set of recommendations. And then, the pattern seems to be, they don’t do the things that are recommended.”

Following Mr Justice John Quirke's Magdalene Commission Report in 2013, "the redress went ahead but the more social things, like this laundry becoming a centre of remembrance, or women getting a helpline, those things didn't happen."

Touched a nerve

About the time Dyas was writing We Don't Know What's Buried Here, she also published a blog about her own experience with Michael Colgan, the former Gate Theatre director who was her colleague. The blog touched a nerve and opened up allegations from others about harassment and abuse of power at the theatre over many years; the allegations are currently the subject of an independent investigation.

Aside from the Gate-specific allegations, her blog also led to another outpouring of private pain from strangers. It sounds like she pricked the surface, and a pustule of horrible experience oozed out. Hundreds of people from all over Ireland made contact with Dyas about their own experiences, mainly of workplace harassment in arts, theatre and politics – ironically, she says, all areas dealing in some way with “telling the truth and finding new ways to express it”.

She supported people by putting them in contact with legal and therapeutic help, and with Dil Wickremasinghe set up an #IBelieveYou support group.

“It gave me experience of the difficulties with the truth coming out and how people don’t come forward, and how they are dealt with when they do.” Those who made contact felt their experiences “related to mine. They thought they could reach out to me and that I could provide them with some kind of support or help.”

In the play, the Magdalene secrets and brutal past become a metaphor for all that lies beneath. “We need to see everything that is buried. I hope that people will be able to see their own things that they have buried, and their own feelings about Ireland, projected onto what we’re looking for.”

THEATREclub in association with Civic Theatre present We Don't Know What's Buried Here by Grace Dyas. Civic Theatre, Tallaght February 15th - 17th; Axis Ballymun February 20th; Mermaid Arts Centre February 22nd

Justice for Magdalenes:

A valuable monument or yet another cut-price hotel?

There’s a campaign to halt the proposed sale of the Sean McDermott Street laundry to Japanese budget hotel chain Toyoko Inn for €14.4 million. Local Social Democrats councillor Gary Gannon is passionate about the rich and troubled history of the area where he grew up. Proponents of the plan to sell say it will rejuvenate the area, but Gannon counts roughly 24 hotels already within a one-mile radius of the laundry, which haven’t rejuvenated it. Also, “we need to give people something to see”, not just somewhere to stay.

Though the Quirke report was in May 2013, the redress is still being contested. And many of its other recommendations, such as a helpline and a memorial, never happened. Mr Justice John Quirke recommended that "the State should establish, fund, staff and accommodate a small dedicated unit" to provide services including a helpline, investigative and other help for Magdalene women, and suggested "the acquisition, maintenance and administration of any garden, museum or other form of memorial", pointing out that many submissions suggested the Sean McDermott Street laundry for this.

Gannon makes a convincing case for creating something more meaningful than a hotel on the two-acre site, both drawing on its location and bearing witness to the experience of Magdalene women over generations. Gannon points out the positive effect Kilmainham Jail has had in the south inner city.

It could be a centre for commemoration and understanding for women who spent time in all 10 Magdalenes in Ireland, he says. It could also commemorate and explore the experience of wider institutional incarceration.

“We are celebrating centenaries, and our independence. There were relatively few people in the GPO.” More families were impacted by these institutions, he says, and this could be a way of understanding an aspect of life after independence.

It's worth remembering the first recommendation in the 2009 Ryan Report into child abuse in institutions was for a memorial to be erected, "as a permanent public acknowledgement of their experiences".

Gannon suggests an imaginative use of the former laundry could also incorporate a social history museum, exploring Monto, the newsboys, the docks and other working-class industries of the area. The site is large enough to include social housing.

The proposed sale has to be approved by a majority of the 63 councillors. A local area council meeting in February will make a recommendation to the full council meeting in March.

Analysing where councillors stand on the issue, Gannon calculates the fate of the laundry lies in the hands of the 18 Sinn Féin councillors, who will vote in a bloc. So Sinn Féin is likely to decide if the last Magdalene laundry in public ownership is sold for private development as a budget hotel.

Grace Dyas says if they sell it, “this whole thing would be covered up. They’d knock it down and you couldn’t show someone a Magdalene laundry. Those women want to be able to say to their children, this is where I was imprisoned, I didn’t abandon you, I was taken here.”

Her script draws a parallel with the Nazis. “The Germans have actually handled the history way better. They have truthful, honest centres of remembrance, where people can go and bear witness to the reality of what has happened. In Ireland we can’t all agree on what actually happened, but then we want to move on and forget about it.

“Maybe we need to sit with it more.”