“Dear Ellen, I see where you are looking for some information about the Magdalene laundry. I was in the Magdalene laundry for a good many years and I live out in the country now. But I never will forget it to my dying day. The cruelty we got. Slaved like blacks. Some of the girls were dragged by the hair of their heads and more, their hair was cut off simply if they gave the least back answer or were too slow at their work.”
I’m listening to Julian Vignoles RTÉ radio documentary which first aired in 1992.
He explains; “A letter with no name and no address. It was written last summer in response to a newspaper advertisement. For nearly 100 years single women who became pregnant, women who weren’t wanted, were banished, by their families, to the Mary Magdalene Home Laundry in Galway City. It was one of many such institutions in Ireland. Their detention was legally dubious. Some women spent the rest of their lives there. This year, a play and a song brought the memory back in Galway . . .”
The play Vignoles talks about is called Eclipsed. Written by a former postulant nun, Patricia Burke Brogan, the first I heard of it was in December 1991 when a friend of mine told me a fledgling theatre company in Galway, Punchbag, was auditioning for a new play set in a Magdalene laundry. I had just finished a two-year acting course and was willing to try out for it. It was my first audition and I landed the part of Mandy, described in the script as one of the "penitent women" signed into a fictional Magdalene laundry for the sin of getting pregnant "outside marriage". There were eight of us in the cast. Eight women! A record number in what was, and still is, a male-dominated theatre world.
The play itself had never been performed, nor published, nor even finished as a complete piece. It had been workshopped as part of Punchbag’s Month of Sundays project where they took new Irish plays and spent a week working on them with writer, director and actors. They would then be put before an audience at the end of the week, followed by their “constructive criticism”.
It was decided that Eclipsed had the potential to go into full production and as none of the other main theatre companies that Burke-Brogan had sent it to were interested, Punchbag was determined to do it – and its subject matter – justice. I moved down to Galway at the beginning of January 1992 and so began a year which I will always remember as being historically pivotal, in my own life, and also in the life of attitudes to women in Ireland.
We started each morning in rehearsal as we dissected scenes; adding and removing lines, conversations, trying to make the dialogue as tight and real as possible. In our free time we researched our characters. Despite the fact that there were still Magdalene laundries open and operating in Ireland at that time, we knew embarrassingly little about what went on in them. The national conversation on what occurred there was yet to happen. We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.
Because it soon emerged that putting on the play at this time in Ireland – smack in the middle of the X-Case where a 14-year-old girl was prevented from going to England for an abortion – was going to be a powerfully raw experience. There was an angry yet tragic sense of innocence lost, of the sweetness of life cynically denied, which only revealed itself when we began to inhabit our characters. I don’t think I’m being nostalgic when I say that what happened in that small venue in the west of Ireland with this particular group of women transcended theatre. Or perhaps this is what the best sort of theatre was supposed to do.
I played Mandy Prenderville, a young girl who would probably be described – in the language of the day – as being a wee bit “simple”. She is childlike, funny and kind, and describes herself when she finds lipstick to put on, as “gorgeous”. Mandy is a devoted Elvis fan, a girl who loves film star gossip, lipstick and lace and the “lovely velvety seats” of her Richard’s car. “But when I told him about the baby he never spoke to me again. Ever!” she says, still mystified about the injustice of it all. Mandy’s baby died in childbirth, but she will end her days in a mental institution. All of our women had their own stories, each more tragic and unjust than the next. As we increasingly grew to inhabit their worlds, it became difficult to suppress the emotions working on this play produced. I would wake up feeling trapped and depressed and wonder which of my feelings belonged to me and which belonged to Mandy.
Harsh and cruel
When we began to rehearse the play, it seemed automatic somehow to blame the brutal Magdalene regime on a harsh and cruel Catholic Church. But soon we found out that wasn’t the whole story. In the majority of cases the women had been signed in by their own families and official Ireland didn’t just collude in what was, in many cases, illegal imprisonment, it actively supported it by lending the sisters the services of the local gardaí anytime some poor soul would try to make a break for freedom.
And it wasn’t just single pregnant women who were signed in; women who were deemed too “fast” or a little bit “slow” or those who were an unnecessary encumbrance on a brother who had inherited the farm, were also incarcerated. The Magdalene laundries were places to put women who didn’t fit the confined, constrictive, choking respectability of Catholic Ireland. They were women who were surplus to requirements, women who didn’t know their place in a ruthless Catholic hierarchy. As the raging character of Brigit (played by Orla McGovern) roars at my sweet-natured Mandy: “Nobody wants you Mandy! Nobody wants any of us!!”
We needed a set of bishops’ robes as props during the first act of the play. A tailor’s dummy was to be dressed in them and it would be alluded to when young Juliet from the orphanage asked if anyone knew who the mystery father of Cathy’s twins was.
The answer, "maybe he's married" was quickly followed by a sarcastic "or a bishop" from Brigit. What irony. As the local bishop of Galway and the patron of Punchbag Theatre Company, Eamonn Casey had very kindly donated an old set of robes for our use. The Irish Times were already in possession of information that our bishop did indeed have a love child by Annie Murphy, who now lived in the US.
This newspaper had not released the information yet, as it wasn’t deemed to be “in the public interest”. But once the paper discovered that Casey had used Diocesan funds to send to the USA for the care of his son, they printed the story. However, this wouldn’t be for another four months and, in the meantime, the flamboyant bishop was only delighted to support a play about women locked away for becoming pregnant by married men or indeed bishops.
When the play opened in Galway in February 1992 the “bishop” line would get a great laugh. The very idea. But by May, following the resignation of a disgraced Casey, it was received with a groan by his mortified Galway parishioners.
We opened in Dublin and Gerry Ryan devoted an item on his radio show to the topic. But as wave upon wave of former Magdalene women called him to recount their stories – stories which many of them had never told anyone before – he extended it to a full week. The genie was out of the bottle.
By August we were headed to Edinburgh, ready to present it at the famous festival, where it won a Fringe First award. It was a challenging endeavour for a theatre company run on a shoestring and a bit of spit. All the food we needed for our time there was donated by the people of Galway and we brought it with us in a van. Bus Éireann sponsored our travel tickets. Beds were shared and treats were rare. On one of our first days there I passed a newspaper seller and did a double-take. Plastered all over his stand were posters shouting “Love-Child Bishop Backs Fringe Play”. The story about Eamonn Casey and his son had got out and the irony of him being our patron was too juicy a tale to be ignored by the media.
We toured the play for the rest of the year and Eclipsed has been staged since a few times, both in Ireland and abroad. But the original production was special. Emotions constantly ran high. We were young, innocent women, thrown into the desperately sad lives of other young, innocent women, who did not have the advantages, or the luck, we had. We more than identified with them. On some nights we became them. It couldn't last.
After a year of full houses, astonishing stories and shared experiences, tears and tantrums and numerous theatrical awards, we called it a day. Mentally, we felt it would be just too debilitating to continue working on such an emotionally exhausting play. We had given all we could.
Twenty-five years later, we hear about the death of our old patron, Eamonn Casey. Some of the cast and crew reminisced about the time of Eclipsed on Facebook. An RTÉ clip of the play was posted and our producer, Sean Evers, suggested a rehearsed reading of the play, with as many of the original cast as we could get, at this year's Galway Arts Festival. It seemed horribly timely.
In 1992 we had thought that nothing could surpass the cruelty and stomach-churning hypocrisy of a society that sent women to Magdalene laundries or the fact that many of the children of these women had been sold – trafficked, to be correct – to wealthy Catholic families in the US. But that was before local historian Catherine Corless revealed what had been going on in Tuam; hundreds of babies and children buried in a septic tank, by nuns who were well-paid by the State to care for them. It became a national humiliation. But how many other “Tuams” are still out there? Will we ever know?
On a more optimistic note, we could half-console ourselves that women are no longer incarcerated for the crime of being pregnant. Or so we thought. Recent reports by journalists such as Kitty Holland, Ciara Kelly and Ellen Coyne have revealed that some young women, who are pregnant and suicidal, are being denied life-saving abortions they are entitled to under the law.
Instead, putting these girls away until they can deliver their babies – locking them up effectively – is considered by some medical people and others, to be a perfectly reasonable “solution” to their predicament. As far as many people are concerned – and this includes the State – women are still reproductive vessels first and human beings with rights second. History may not exactly repeat itself, but it often rhymes.
In 1992 when we first performed Eclipsed, an Irish Times columnist Michael Finlan, wrote an opinion piece stating that "every TD in the Dáil should be frog-marched in to see it". Twenty five years later, there are many in our national parliament who are still in denial about women's reproductive rights.
And so, we reprinted our scripts, got the band back together and met for present-day photos with a photographer at the Magdalene Bench in St Stephen’s Green. Afterwards we reminisced about what had been a historic year for us and many others. Michael D Higgins had come to the opening night of the play and led the standing ovation that followed, Was Eamonn Casey there? Director David Quinn believed so, but none of the rest of us could remember.
Eclipsed was a play that made us, the cast who played those characters – and many others who saw it – very angry at how women were treated in Ireland not so long ago. Rereading it today, I recall that recently a young girl, pregnant and suicidal, travelled to Dublin in the belief that she was getting a life-saving abortion, only to be told she was being incarcerated until she could give birth.
I think of the refusal of many of our politicians to support the overwhelming conclusion of the Citizen’s Assembly that Irish women have the right to access abortion in their own country.
And I have to conclude that we’re not as far away from the days of the Magdalene laundries as we’d like to believe.
Eclipsed is part of the First Thought Talks at this year's Galway International Arts Festival which features a series of conversations on power with academics, activists, architects, artists and authors. A rehearsed reading and post-show talk with the original Punchbag cast will take place at O'Donoghue Theatre, NUI Galway, on Saturday, July 29th, 2.30pm and 6pm. Tickets €7. All proceeds to Barnardos