‘Eve started it’: the Magdalene morass

The injustices of the laundries are still startling, as this impassioned revival of Patricia Burke Brogan’s 1992 drama proves

Margaret O’Sullivan and Zita Monahan in Eclipsed. Photograph: Hugh Quigley

Margaret O’Sullivan and Zita Monahan in Eclipsed. Photograph: Hugh Quigley


Town Hall Theatre, Galway

Very early in this affecting drama of sexuality, shame and injustice, set in a Magdalene laundry in 1963, we hear about one woman’s attempted escape. That Cathy (Liz Quinn), an unmarried mother long separated from her twin girls, quickly returns to St Paul’s Home for Penitent Women would be poignant enough – but it is also her birthday. Without labouring the irony, a fellow inmate gives her a holy medal, and she gratefully accepts the gift. With it, any real chance of escape is snuffed out.

Mephisto’s impassioned and considered new production of Patricia Burke Brogan’s 1992 play makes us witnesses to a history of cruelty while also recognising the living consequences of inculcated shame. “We protect them from their passions,” a tyrannical Mother Superior (Caroline Lynch) tells a conscientious novice (Catherine Denning). Throughout, Burke Brogan repeatedly exposes the numbing misogyny and double standards of the church, where passion is always a crime and women forever its instigators: “Eve started it.”

The substance of the play closely resembles a prison drama, featuring an ensemble of inmates, wardens either sympathetic or malevolent, and – in its most theatrical conceit – desire for freedom expressed through performance.

When Emma O’Grady’s coiled Brigid, angry and vengeful, parodies the local bishop (“God bless you, my scrubbers”), or the uncomplicated Mandy (Siobhán Donnellan) enacts a wedding with her beloved Elvis Presley (“Now you can have as many babies as you want”), it suggests imaginative escape as a survival mechanism while simultaneously reinforcing every moral shackle.

Burke Brogan, who was herself briefly a novice in Galway’s Magdalene Asylum, writes to honour real experiences, and though the production’s dominant tone is one of sensitive realism, director Niall Cleary carefully allows its actions to distend into fiery fantasies of rebellion or, most memorably, a cleaning chore that breaks into a ferocious, purging dance.

It is an absorbing experience, more humane than browbeating, yet it is chilling to remember that Burke Brogan’s play met the world four years before the last laundry had closed.

The decades of slow exposure since haven’t diminished this play’s impact or its clear-sighted political indignation. If anything, in a year of government reports and apologies, it seems more urgent – making the play’s narrative bookends, in which an American woman seeks records of her mother, seem superfluous. In the late, striking stage picture – artfully redolent of religious statuary and passionate protest – we don’t need to find a way in to this sad legacy. By acknowledging it, instead we may begin to find a way out. Ends tomorrow