The priest who filmed inside a Dublin Magdalene Laundry

Fr Jack Delaney made rare films depicting Irish life before the advent of television

For many years Fr Jack Delaney was the chaplain to the Magdalene Laundry in Gloucester Street – now Seán MacDermott Street – in Dublin.

He was also an amateur filmmaker of some accomplishment at a time when very few people had a camera.

Over four decades between the 1920s and the 1960s he shot scenes of ordinary life in Dublin before the advent of television.

Among the extraordinary footage he shot was some inside the Magdalene Laundry in Gloucester Street.


The film depicts not the deprivation nor the abuse suffered by women in the laundry, but their annual concert which was described by Christine Buckley, a survivor of Goldenbridge Industrial School, as the "one happy day" in such institutions that they had every year.

Fr Delaney brought his nieces and camera to the annual Magdalene concert which would take place in front of many of the clients of the laundry.

The footage shows women in handmade costumes smiling and laughing as they dance around.

Fr Delaney's footage was discovered by his niece Irene Devitt in 1996. She subsequently handed the reels over to the Irish Film Institute (IFI) for preservation and dissemination.

What he knew

Fr Delaney's collection will be the subject of a documentary entitled Father Delaney: Silent Witness narrated by Joe Duffy which will be broadcast on RTÉ One on Thursday night.

In the documentary Ms Devitt said she did not know how much her uncle really knew about what went on in the laundries.

“I can tell you that I had many a night’s bad sleep thinking how much did Fr Jack knew. I think he was just not aware. In those days you never overstepped what you were supposed to do. What he would have thought? I think about it often.”

Fr Delaney was born in 1906 and died in 1980. He served in some of the most deprived inner city parishes and many of them are depicted in his films. Children are seen playing amongst the rubble of Monto, the notorious brothel area, which was demolished in the 1920s.

There are footage of young girls making their first communion, children running barefoot in the street and other occasions of celebration.

Kassandra O'Connell, the head of the IFI archive, says priests were encouraged in the 1930s to have cameras to counteract what the Vatican saw was the immoral influence of Hollywood films on the general population.

‘Sense of power’

Some of the most memorable footage in the collection are shots of broadcaster Pat Kenny’s grandfather James who was the elephant-keeper in Dublin Zoo.

James Kenny was something of a showman and a visit to the elephant house was a highlight for every child visiting the zoo.

His grandson tells the documentary: “My grandfather created the showbizzy relationship with the public that my father really embraced because he loved meeting people and introducing the elephants to local children. He had no fear and the children had no fear.”

Film director Jim Sheridan said Fr Delaney had a good idea and was a technically accomplished cameraman who knew how to compose a shot.

“It’s amazing that 95 per cent are in focus and beautifully framed. There is a warmth towards people.”

His brother Peter adds: “He could have been a genius filmmaker with a bit of support. That’s the feeling I get. This guy had a real sense of the power of the image.”

Father Delaney, Silent Witness is broadcast on Thursday, October 24th at 10.15pm on RTÉ One

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times