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Time is right for an Irish reconciliation and memorial centre

The former laundry on Dublin’s Sean McDermott Street could be a new National Centre for Research and Remembrance

Given that Germany’s superpower is grappling with its past, I feared last November’s invitation would be a coals-to-Newcastle affair. I was one of three Irish people visiting Rudolstadt, a pretty town in eastern Germany, to explain how Ireland is coming to terms with its burdened Catholic past.

As the local audience listened patiently, I described the glory and shame of our Catholic legacy and contemporary Ireland’s struggle to move beyond an us-and-them narrative towards the church. I summed up with the wise words of German writer Siegfried Lenz: the past examines us in the present.

Irish photographer Ethna O’Regan was also invited to Rudolstadt to present images from After Magdalene 2006-2009, her series taken inside the former laundry complex on Dublin’s Seán McDermott Street a short time after the last women moved out. These are oppressive images of flowery, wallpapered rooms of abandoned objects and blocked-up fireplaces. Rudolstadt was the first exhibition of her images.

O’Regan had a few reasons why she thought people in Ireland were not ready to see them. Though such institutions had been covered widely in the media, perhaps not everyone was ready to reflect personally on what academic James Smith dubbed our “shame-containment” facilities.

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Rudolstadt’s third Irish visitor was Leipzig-based academic Fergal Lenehan. He gave the audience an overview of Ireland’s Catholic past before explaining his own family’s part in it.

Lenehan’s maternal grandfather was a builder and the Catholic Church was a dependable customer. His mother was born in Castlepollard while her father was building an extension to the Westmeath town’s mother and baby home.

When they moved to Galway, for his grandfather to work on the new cathedral, his mother worked in local hotels where the bed linen came from the local Magdalene laundry.

These family stories were never hidden, he said, but told in coded language common to families involved in Catholic Ireland’s everyday mass complicity.

Lenehan’s reflections were compellingly honest: there was complicity everywhere in Irish society, the price for not complying was grave and we need to see this now.

But how might this happen, given Ireland’s survival strategy and national superpower for decades has been not seeing?

Over three days last week Trinity College Dublin hosted the 10th European Remembrance Symposium, bringing together historians and researchers in the fields of restorative justice and reconciliation.

In a letter of welcome President Michael D Higgins noted the importance of remembering “in ways that do not darken the contemporary moment or deprive the future of hope and opportunity”.

“It is only when we release ourselves from bitterness, revenge or denunciation that we can move forward towards the light of new beginnings,” he said.

Perhaps, then, the time is right to transform Dublin’s former laundry on Seán McDermott Street, the last to close its doors in 1996, into a National Centre for Research and Remembrance.

A Government plan announced in March envisages the redeveloped site as a place of reflection and remembrance for all survivors of religious institutions. The site will include an exhibition space curated by the National Museum of Ireland and the National Archive will, it is hoped, operate a research and records depository related to institutional trauma.

It is a mammoth project, a minefield of competing interests and motivations towards our past.

This past includes Irish people as victims and perpetrators in the struggle for independence, the Civil War and what followed: the ruthless pursuit of an ideal Catholic state.

Everyone carries the scars of this past and is acting accordingly. Heterogeneous survivor groups are wary of projects with “official Ireland” status, given decades of conflict — in some cases ongoing — with church and State institutions over their suffering.

Religious orders are loath to hand over files if, with an eye on the maternity hospital drama, they will be set up as pantomime villains for all of Ireland’s past wrongs.

Meanwhile the Irish State, for all its apologies and real atonement efforts in recent years, has yet to submit to a far-reaching, independent look into official docility and clerical deference — and the consequences.

There is cause for hope for this new centre in the hands of a new generation of Irish politicians and civil servants who have transformed the country in the last decade.

The knotty question they must answer now is this: how can state institutions and officials set up and run, credibly, a reconciliation and memorial centre on the past when state institutions and officials were key perpetrators in that past?

A watertight legal mandate will be key, ensuring the centre’s statutory status but complete political independence. The mandate will also need to ensure that when survivors come forward to tell their stories, others cannot run to the courts to silence them.

Truth-telling is a painful business but, in today’s Ireland, truth-hindering remains a profitable business.

Ireland is at a tipping point towards its past and the National Centre for Research and Remembrance can become a space for conversations — such as the one in Rudolstadt — a national town square for what President Higgins calls “ethical memory”.

A long and winding road lies ahead but already the Royal Hibernian Academy is pointing the way forward. Its annual shows is exhibiting two photographs from O’Regan’s staggering Magdalene series.

The photographer asked poet Paula Meehan, who grew up next to Ireland’s last Magdalene laundry, to write a poem about it.

“I roam the rooms of the past where dust settles on the floors

the statues have tumbled down

and with them our foolish faith

in plaster and paint and stone.

I believe in this one truth

light sings to the breaking dark.”

Derek Scally is Berlin correspondent and author of The Best Catholics in the world, published by Penguin Sandycove