We ventured back and forth between Galway’s New Coach Station and our Eyre Square Townhouse hotel several times during our one-week stay in Galway. On one day we exited the bus station after our trip to the Cliffs of Moher (see here) and Dunguaire Castle (see here) and decided to see what that statue kitty korner to the coach station, sitting among a couple of trees on the corner of Forster Street and Bothar Brendain Ui Eithir, was all about. It was a statue of a woman holding up a bed sheet behind her and underneath her are the words “In memory of the Magdalen Women.” We learned later that the building just across the street was built in the 1990s to house a branch of the Anglo Irish Bank. The bank building replaced a building that housed the local Magdalen Laundry, the site of Galway’s involvement in one of two great Irish religious scandals that surfaced in the last 50 years.
Click on any photo to see a larger version of that photo.
The first Magdalen Laundry, also known as Magdalene Asylum, was founded in England in 1758 and was operated by Protestants and for Protestants only. These institutions soon spread to Ireland and to other countries including Sweden, Australia and the United States. By the 1850s most of the laundries in Ireland were run by Catholics. Since 1922 there have been ten laundries scattered throughout Ireland and they were run by one of four religious institutions: the Sisters of Charity, The Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, and the Sisters of Mercy. Galway’s Magdalen Laundry was run by the Sisters of Mercy. These institutions were originally meant for housing prostitutes but eventually any unwed mother could be sent to a laundry. In fact, a girl could simply be flirtatious or beautiful and her family could have her committed where she could possibly be incarcerated for the rest of her life.
By the 1990s word was getting out about these prisons and the torture and abuse going on inside them. The lid was blown wide open when a mass grave of more than 150 individuals was discovered in Dublin in 1993. The last Magdalen Laundry in Ireland closed down in 1996 but most of the records are still secretive. It is thought that the number of women incarcerated in Ireland in the 20th century is about 10,000.
There was a lot of uproar pointed primarily at the nuns and how they ran their laundries but it should be pointed out that this whole national operation was organized and condoned by both the Catholic Church and the government of Ireland. The blame for allowing these crimes to go on for more than two hundred years should be equally assigned to the parish priest and his boss the Bishop of the diocese, to the local policeman and to the laws established by the federal government in Dublin, to parents who turned their own children in to the asylums, and of course to the nuns who ran the operations.
In 2013 Enda Kenny, then Ireland’s Taoiseach, issued a formal state apology for the government’s role in the scandal. About 600 of the laundry victims (they call themselves “Maggies”) were still alive in 2014.
There have been many books and reports about the Magdalen Laundries in the last 20 years. And a few movies. In 2002 Peter Mullan directed a film entitled The Magdalene Sisters and it was received with world-wide acclaim. The movie Philomena, starring Judi Dench, came out in 2013. It is a true story of a laundry survivor who searched for 50 years to find her son who was taken from her and sold to a wealthy American couple for adoption.
Patricia Burke Brogan, poet and playwright
Patricia Burke Brogan was a novice for the Sisters of Mercy back in 1963 where she taught in a Catholic school in Galway. During the summer of that year she was transferred to the Magdalene Laundry on Forster Street to supervise the women incarcerated there. She was horrified with the working conditions and abuse she witnessed there and she quit the order and decided to become an artist and writer.
Her first play she called Eclipsed was performed in 1992 at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre Festival where it won the Fringe First award. It is a story that takes place in a fictional Magdalene Laundry in a fictional Irish city but is based on her experience with the laundry in Galway. The play has won several awards including the USA Moss Hart award in 1994 and has been produced more than 100 times on three continents.
Ms Brogan has also published two book of her poems: Above the Waves Calligraphy and Decollage New and Selected Poems (which includes Make Visible the Tree) and has written three other plays: Requiem of Love, Clarenda’s Mirror and Stained Glass of Samhain. This last play is a sequel to Eclipsed and picks up at the same Magdalene Laundry ten years later. She has also written an autobiography called Memoirs with Grykes and Turloughs and is an accomplished printmaker and graphics artist.
Mick Wilkins, sculptor
Mick Wilkins was born in County Cork in 1959 and has been sculpting in stone since 1985. For several years his workshop was located in Spiddal, Galway and his works can be found all over Galway. He recently moved back to Cork and is presently working at the National Sculpture Factory in Cork City. See here for his portfolio.
The next day we went to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands. Stay tuned.
Irish Music Bonus — Magdalen Laundry by Frances Black
There are a few songs about the Magdalene Laundries of Ireland. Canadian singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell wrote Magdalene Laundries back in the 90s. Don Mescall of County Limerick wrote his version, called Magdalen Laundry, some years later and Frances Black, Mary’s younger sister, recorded it in 2003.
Frances was a member of The Black Family musical group in the 1980s with her sister Mary and brothers Shay, Michael and Martin and then she joined the Irish music band Arcady in 1988 but for most of her successful singing career she has been singing solo. She is the founder of the Rise Foundation, an organization that supports family members of people addicted to alcohol, drugs or gambling. In 2016 she was elected senator to Seanad Eirann and for the last three years she has been an outspoken supporter of Palestinian rights and a foe of the Israeli government’s policy of building settlements on Palestinian land. Her proposed Occupied Territories Bill would if enacted ban trade between Ireland and the illegal settlements of the West Bank which includes East Jerusalem.