Diarmaid Ferriter: There is a difference between history and memories

Mother and baby homes commission has struggled to reconcile the two in its report

Shoes left by protesters at a mother and baby homes protest in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in October 2020. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times

Shoes left by protesters at a mother and baby homes protest in Phoenix Park, Dublin, in October 2020. Photograph: Tom Honan for The Irish Times

In 2011, a site-specific performance, Laundry, directed by Louise Lowe for Anu Productions, took place in the convent building attached to the former Magdalene laundry in Gloucester Street, Dublin, and gave voice to hundreds of names, with each audience member asked to remember four names. The performance confronted the “rule of silence” with the staging of testimonies and recovered histories. It was interactive to counteract the women’s historic invisibility, presented their daily routine and included the “extremely pungent smell of carbolic soap”. Audience members were also directly challenged: “People said they didn’t know what was going on. Would you have done anything?”

Ten years on, to mark the report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, the Abbey Theatre began streaming Home: Part One, from a dark, empty stage, to amplify testimonies of women who experienced the homes. Reading the testimony of Philomena Lee, Liz Fitzgibbon describes the gut-wrenching pain of watching a child being driven away to a new adopted home and asks: “Can you imagine how I felt?”

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