We should be recovering our Magdalen history, not burying it

CULTURE SHOCK: The striking thing about the Magdalen story is that its resurrection owes more to art than to politics or journalism…

CULTURE SHOCK:The striking thing about the Magdalen story is that its resurrection owes more to art than to politics or journalism

AT THE CORNER of Pennywell Road and Old Clare Street in Limerick, a memorial plaque marks the site of public executions in the 16th and 17th centuries. Right at that spot is a large, recently renovated Victorian building on its own grounds. It houses one of the State’s most important public cultural institutions, Limerick School of Art and Design. But there is nothing at all to say that the art college is in a building with an equally dark but much more recent history.

Irish culture is sedimentary. By this I mean that things don't get obliterated, they get buried. They are covered with a new layer of history but they are still down there, like bodies preserved in bogs. They surface in new forms, like holy wells and holy mountains as places of Christian pilgrimage. Or they emerge into wholly new contexts, like Fionn mac Cumhaill waking from his slumbers to find himself in two avant-garde 20th-century novels, James Joyce's Finnegans Wakeand Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. What Sigmund Freud called "the return of the repressed" is the very stuff of Irish art. It is haunted by ghosts and revenants. Nothing is ever really dead.

In Limerick the repressed who are returning are the Magdalen women incarcerated in the Good Shepherd Convent and Magdalen laundry on Clare Street between 1848 and 1990. The school of art took over the Magdalen laundry in 1994, and the building has since undergone two refurbishments that have virtually obliterated the traces of its former use. The college’s website has a brief history of the building that concentrates on its early period as a school for poor boys and mentions the laundry only in passing, telling us that the nuns “ran a Magdalen laundry at the site until it was sold to the regional technical college in 1994”. That’s it.

Evelyn Glynn, a postgraduate student at the college, has mounted a remarkable exhibition (now closed) and web project (magdalenelaundrylimerick.com) to try to recover the lost history of the building. In part, her work is a history of willed amnesia. The creation of the art college has involved the literal removal or covering up of the lives of the women who were locked up in Clare Street. The bodies of the nuns who ran the institution were dug up from the grounds and reburied off site. (The inmates were originally buried in a mass grave at Mount St Lawrence cemetery, and it was only in the past decade that names were added to the headstone.) Glynn notes that the only part of the building that remains as it was is an attic space that used to be part of the sleeping quarters for the inmates: “With every structural change that takes place in the building, the history of the Magdalen institution is put further out of reach.”

The architecture of incarceration and control (a crucial element in the history of architecture in modern Ireland) is being obliterated. For example, the old underground entrances and exits to the church that were used to keep the “penitents” of the laundry separate from their children in St George’s orphanage, on an adjacent site, have been filled in. “There was,” the architect told Glynn, “no reason to retain them.”

Glynn's response to this deliberate forgetting, Breaking the Rule of Silence, is a brilliant mixture of archival research, transcripts of oral history and her superb photographs. Her images of the convent church (now a lecture theatre), of the attic that is the last unchanged remnant of the women's lives, and of walls and stairways from the orphanage are like the signs and traces that old trackers used to hunt down a quarry.

The testimonies she has gathered are quietly heartbreaking. Here is John Kennedy, who frequently visited the Good Shepherd because his aunts were sisters in the convent: “Some of the women who worked in the laundry then would have had children in

St George’s school. The only time they could catch a glimpse of their children was at morning Mass, as they were not allowed any contact. Standing in the nave, facing the altar, the church was in the shape of a cross and the left-hand arm of the cross contained the women from the Class and the right-hand side of the church contained the children from

St George’s, and their mothers would have a crick in their necks, my aunt said, at communion to watch the children going up to the rails to see which one of them was their child.”

The striking thing about the Magdalen story is that its resurrection owes more to art than to politics or journalism. There has been excellent and honourable work by academics, journalists and campaigners, but the key interventions in forcing the story into public consciousness have been artistic ones, among them Patricia Burke Brogan's play Eclipsed, Peter Mullan's film The Magdalene Sisters, Joni Mitchell's song The Magdalene Laundries,Lizzie Mickery's TV drama Sinners, Mannix Flynn's Call Me by My Name: Requiem for Remains Unknown,and, at this year's Dublin Theatre Festival, Louise Lowe's Laundry.

This makes it all the more ironic that an artistic institution should be literally built on the occlusion of the Magdalens. These were real women: Glynn includes in her exhibition the 1911 census form for the laundry, with its roll call of young women, each listed as “laundress” and “single”, each with a blank in the space where they are supposed to list the number of children they have: Cissie Kennedy, Mary O’Mara, Sarah Conway . . .

And, of course, there are living women, the last survivors, vainly seeking a proper official acknowledgment of their enslavement. The least to be expected from any cultural institution is that it would be part of the recovery, not the burial, of their history.