Domestic violence refuge planned for Magdalen convent in Galway

Patricia Burke Brogan says ‘memory of those who suffered’ in former laundry must ‘never be forgotten’

Patricia Burke Brogan didn't expect to be on any invitation list during the Taoiseach's speedy sprint around Galway 10 days ago. With school-opening, job-announcing and protest-dodging to choose from, she might have counted herself lucky to have been spared a piece of his packed itinerary.

Still, there were those who anticipated her presence at a very special occasion, when Enda Kenny took pause at 47 Forster Street to plant a silver birch tree. Just over 18 months earlier, he had apologised on behalf of the State for what had happened there and at other locations where young pregnant women and single mothers had led harrowing lives.

“And it’s still in the memory of that very earth,” Burke Brogan says of the suffering endured in the Magdalen laundry beside the Sisters of Mercy convent house, which is to be converted into a refuge for victims of domestic violence.

The Mercy order agreed last year to a 99-year lease on the Forster Street premises, and Kenny’s visit endorsed the Cope Galway agency’s plan for same.


Burke Brogan still remembers the “whiff of Eau de Parfum when, as a young novitiate in black habit, coif and veil, she was ordered to kiss the ruby-ringed hand of her mother superior before being assigned laundry duty.

It was a contrast to the very different smells that almost overwhelmed her when she arrived at Forster Street – the stenches of bleach fumes and dirty clothing and steam from “sweating” walls.

The young Clare woman, who had been based with the order across town, had been teaching up until then. The laundry was to be her summer job. As she has written in her recently published autobiography, Memoirs with Grykes and Turloughs, she was told that she was coming to “the richest branch house”.

An Evie Hone stained-glass depiction of Mary Magdalen and a tall chimney belching black smoke were images imprinted on Burke Brogan's memory as she arrived. She was led through a series of heavy doors with double locks and bolts to a room with prison bars where "elderly women, middle-aged women and young girls" merged with "the grey of womb-like washing machines".

Her subsequent experience is reflected in her award-winning play, Eclipsed, which she wrote after she left the convent. The laundry was demolished and was replaced by a building that housed Anglo-Irish Bank.

Thanks to Burke Brogan's lobbying, and that of several fellow residents, a sculpture by Mick Wilkins dedicated to the Magdalen women was unveiled on the site in 2009. She received threats to her personal safety for her efforts.

One nun who had been a novice with her crossed the street when she saw her coming. Yet Burke Brogan still has friends in the order and has distanced herself from attempts to demonise the nuns, given that, as she has pointed out, “families knew and the State let it all happen”.

That’s why she is delighted now about the Cope plan for the domestic violence refuge, as long as, she says, “the memory of those who suffered there” is “never forgotten”.

The homeless agency's chief executive Jacquie Horan had spent five years looking for a suitable premises when she eventually received the offer from the Mercy sisters. Cope's existing building at Waterside House in Galway is one of 19 refuges for women and children across the State, and it is the only one open on a 24-hour basis in the western region.

Since a fire at Waterside over three years ago, its six bedsit-type accommodation units have had no proper cooking facilities. Last year, it had to turn away 574 requests for emergency accommodation, due to lack of space.

“Domestic” and “violence” are two words that “don’t belong together”, Kenny said on his visit to Forster Street, where he welcomed Cope’s plan.

That plan aims to convert the religious premises into nine self-contained one-, two- and three-bedroom units, which can be shared if necessary. The new refuge will also include a childcare unit for a range of age groups, and indoor and outdoor play areas.

It is expected to cost €2.5 million, of which some €1.16 million is being provided by the Department of the Environment. The balance will have to be raised in a dedicated fundraising campaign. Appealing to the people of Galway for their support, Kenny remembered “all who have suffered injury, loss, hope, even life itself, because of violence committed behind closed doors”.

“You open doors to refuge, safety, essential services,” Kenny said, of Cope’s volunteers, “but above all, you offer, and give, and are, the refuge of the human heart.”

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times