‘Emotional moment’ as laundry survivors view new exhibition

Women respond to artist’s interpretation of Ireland’s ‘shameful hidden truths’

Alison Lowry’s new exhibition "(A)dressing our Hidden Truths" in the National Museum, Collins Barracks is an artistic response to domestic violence, sexual violence against women, the Magdalene laundries, and mother and baby homes.

 

“It is an emotional moment. And I am not an emotional person.”

So spoke Magdalene laundry survivor Diane Croghan (78) as she surveyed artist Alison Lowry’s exhibition in the National Museum, Collins Barracks.

The exhibition, Dressing our Hidden Truths, is described as an artistic response to the legacy of mother and baby homes.

It uses fibreglass-style christening robes hanging in semi-darkness and glass scissors hanging over mounds of hair, among other recreated artefacts, to tell the stories of Ireland’s “shameful past that were hidden truths for many years”.

Ms Croghan was an adviser to the project, detailing her experience as a child in Summerhill laundry, run by the Mercy order of nuns in Wexford town.

She thinks she went there at about the age of nine, because her “good” hornpipe confirmation shoes still fitted her when the priest called to the house to collect her and deliver her to the nuns.

As she contemplated the exhibit of hair and hanging glass scissors, she recalled the last day she saw the hornpipe shoes. “They [the nuns] stripped me and put a uniform on me. We were not allowed to know the time, to know each others’ names, to speak. They used to cut your hair and put your head in a big basin of water and carbolic soap. Some of the girls would have lice, so if you were among the last to be cut there were lice floating in the water.

“They put the hair they cut in a separate bag,” she says, wondering aloud if the nuns got any value out of it for wigs or stuffing saddles.

‘Good and bad’

Ms Croghan said she conspired with another girl, whose name she did not know, by “whispering at night”.

They escaped in a laundry van. “We jumped out of the laundry van when they stopped at Whytes Hotel in Wexford. My friend ran one way, I never saw her again.”

She thinks she was nearly 13. “I got no education, I couldn’t read when I ran away,” she says.

“I am not bitter, I think those nuns and priests were. They were sent there by their families and they didn’t want to be there. They looked on us as illegitimate only that wasn’t the word, it was bastards. It would be wrong if I lost my belief in God or the church because of them,” she said.

Also present for the advance viewing was Connie Roberts, a former industrial school resident who is now adjunct professor of English at Hofstra University, New York.

Ms Roberts grew up the seventh child in a family of 15, most of whom were in industrial schools. “ I was in Mount Carmel near Moate until I was 17,” she says. “It was good and bad.”

Ms Roberts says she was sent to the home because her father was an alcoholic and some members of her family were taken from their mother at birth and put in care. She says she emigrated to the US when she got out and got a Morrison visa. “The first thing I did was to take my bachelor’s and then my master’s degrees.”