Structure as witness
Deep in the heartland of Donnybrook, hidden in a crescent, surrounded by apartments, houses and leafy trees there sits, intact, a building which embodied part of our cruel social history. Known locally as the laundry or Donnybrook laundry, but more widely known in sub-cultures and State reports as the Magdalene laundry of the Sisters of Charity.
It is for sale now as in investment property at Donnybrook crescent. No mention in the brochure of its former use and its past. No mention of the many women who toiled there, scrubbing shirts, washing socks, endless ironing, endless starching, endless washing; no let up, just let down. No mention of the clients that came from the affluent families in the surrounding areas, nor that Áras an Úachtaráin was a client too. The basket that carried the laundry – pressed, starched, immaculate spotless – now lies discarded with a pile of others, rotting and abandoned.
What would the nuns think of such disrespect, of such irreverance for such an important basket. Back in the day these baskets were sacred. Revenue. Handle with care. These baskets, these boxes for laundry were very important. The people who worked, the women, the young girls, were never as important as these baskets.
Memory is something that fights an eternal battle with the passage of time and forgetfulness. Time is a great healer for those who can heal and those who are offered healing. There is no healing here. Time stands still like a festering wound in a well-to-do suburb as somebody attempts to erase a grave and mortal wrong. The McAleese report, the Justice for the Magdalenes, the hundreds of women still alive and their families should know of this place. Should be present here to witness what can only be witnessed by them. So that they can understand what’s lost, what cannot be given. What was taken from them for generations.
The world and its mother should be brought through these doors to see for themselves, to feel for themselves what it was like, that this actually happened. That this place exists. All around it the religious lands are being sold for development. Somebody somewhere pocketed the money for profit. The laundry is and its history is othered , cut off by walls, sliced away from the well-manicured, well -kept, well-preserved and well-managed convent that remains on the site in the heart of Donnybrook, respected, revered.
This is private property now and people use the local dry cleaners or their Zanussi washing machine or a launderette in town. The sound of hand scrubbed collars if you listen you can still hear it. The vast drums of the washing machines , the slushing of the water, the mangle of the manglers, the rinsing of the dirty laundry. Nobody in Donnybrook wore dirty clothes in those days, they all turned up spic and span spotless, scrubbed by ‘sinners’.
The chimney stack of the laundry is a defiant hand of a female inmate. Screaming out ‘we were here’, ‘we were treated badly’, ‘you wronged us’, ‘you took all from us’. The tall mast of RTE broadcasting strange half-truths to the Nation doesn’t hear this. The world passes by here unbeknownst. The presence of presence is something all of us should never miss. Our bones give us a sense of place, a sense of now. Like Caesar, like Brutus, like Marc Antony the good is in the bone, the memory is in the marrow, living.
The Magdalene laundry is still intact and this State and its people need to ensure it stays intact and all the paraphernalia there within, the ledgers, the industrial machines, the woven baskets, the statues, the cupboards, the stairways, the furniture, the windows the atmosphere remain intact. This place should not be turned into an artificial artefact. This is the real thing. If ever there was to be a monument, a memorial, a gesture, an acknowledgment – this is it. This is a place of anger and atonement. A place of rage and fury. A place of loss and maybe a place to be found.
Thousands upon thousands of women and young girls suffered in the Magdalene Laundry system. Thousands of children suffered in the Industrial school system, they were by and large the children of the poor. The children that this State regarded as surplus to need and that the Catholic Church and the religious congregations enslaved, exploited and abused as their sexual playthings.
The uniqueness of this site and this location is that its not separated from the surrounding community in their fine Victorian redbrick houses. Not separated entirely from their history. The Sisters of Charity have an obligation to preserve this building as a testament to their own past and as some sort of atonement to the many women who feel gravely wronged. It is also important to preserve it as an educational centre to inform future generations of just what way we treated those who were not strong.
All across the country from the Good Shepherds in Limerick to the wood turning college in Letterfrack, Connemara they are trying to erase this landscape, this memory by turning these sites into Art Colleges, hostels, homeless accommodation etc None of them have yet to be made or let be what they are – sites of anguish, sites of suffering, which form a vital part of our social, political and religious history.
With all we know about what happened to individuals in this country, with all we know about this State and the Irish Catholic Church and its congregations, with the continuous ongoing injustice to the Magdalene women and the Mother and Baby home (women and children) it would be an absolute disgrace and a further insult and injury if this site was not preserved, exactly as it is. In many ways, this site in my view, is as important as any of the battle sites of 1916 that are getting so much attention. Indeed, the men and women of 1916 laid down their lives for the women of the Magdalene laundries and the children of the institutions.
People of Donnybrook, people of Dublin lets do the right thing here and own our past. All of it. Let’s not try smooth it out with a bit of cash, a bit of compensation or an inappropriate architectural monument. We have the real thing and all its uncomfortability for us all. It is high time we stopped running from it. Stand still and face it.
These institutions and their memories are among us, were always among us, but we have chosen to deny them, to make them invisible, to make them secret to shove them into a past, into a history. But they are not done with us yet. Time to embrace our own unpalatable truth.
Kate O’Connell TD, Jim O Callaghan TD, Eoghan Murphy TD, Eamon Ryan TD make this your first task.
Please sign the petition and pass it on Protect Donnybrook Magdalene Laundry Petition
Hi Mannix I was just reading an article yesterday concerning Six Nations of the Grand River, the largest native reservation here in Canada, which is located near where I live. Similar to Ireland’s industrial schools, the residential school on this reserve operated from 1834-1970 with the primary mission ‘to beat the indian out of the child.’ Similar abuses happened in these schools which were government/church run, as in Ireland. After closing the school the government ‘gave’ or abandoned the school to the reserve. It is now known the Woodland Cultural Centre (www.woodland-centre.on.ca). In the article I read survivors were discussing the trauma and healing process experienced while dealing with the change of use of this building. Two sisters, Audrey and Roberta Hill, had been on the CBC Radio program ‘Unreserved’ which sparked my interest in their story. The Hill family are well known for the arts and creativity on this reserve. Kind regards Bonnie
Hi Mannix Great photos. It would be amazing if means could be found to preserve it. I did not mean to suggest this laundry should not be kept “as is.” Rather only to illustrate a compromise that has been made on this side of the pond in order to keep the evidence, honour the history, while generating revenue to maintain the building. Our government for the most part, as far as I know has not been interested in preserving history that makes them look less than honourable! Therefore, it was left to those who survived the residential schools and their offspring to find their own ways and means. This is not easy for a culture that was left in PTSD from the whole 140 year residential school experiment. I was dismayed that the National Park and the community organization that is involved in the industrial school site in Letterfrack has done so little to honour the boys who suffered and died on the land. A young German student spent time with me explaining his efforts to have the College do more. All the best with getting this preserved! ~Bonnie
Hi Bonnie, good to hear from you. I was sent that link to Woodland Centre a while ago, maybe by you? Not sure. Anyway I’ll have time after the weekend to reply to your other letter in relation to Letterfrack. Take care, Mannix
An excellent idea. Leave it in all its
Disgraceful glory as a true testament to
the inhumane treatment of poor and powerless young women. When people visit don’t shine up the truth with new & fancy accoutrements, but
Let them see the ice cold reality of what these women were condemned to and
let them imagine the wailing as children
were removed from their mothers and
My mothers sister was sent to one in
Cork – never got over the loss of her child & died young.
I live in Massachusetts, USA now & we
are still behind you over there as far as honesty or apologies. God bless you
for standing up for the poor and disenfranchised.
I’m reposting your email.
Mannix – who owns this – is it in NAMA’s hands?
its seems fitting that it should be used in someway to help house single parent families – with a ‘museum’ to remind us of these days. I still ask every cab i take to turn right by the magdalene laundry as i live on Eglinton road –
perhaps a petition?
Hi, Julie, it’s privately owned by a family who acquired it from the nuns in 1992 and ran it as the Donnybrook laundry before it closed in recent years. There is a petition if you wish to sign it and pass it on. Thanks Mannix
Hi Mannix, great post – thanks for highlighting this. School kids from all over Ireland should be brought on guided tours of this place to let them see how we treated those less fortunate than ourselves and also to show them how lucky they are themselves. While it is a shameful reflection on the Church it also says a lot about other institutions in Irish society who must have known what was going on but did nothing about it. You are right to ask the recently elected politicians to take this on now – it will be very interesting to see their response. Please let us know which of them engage with you on this.
Hi Mannix, great post – thanks for highlighting this. School kids from all over Ireland should be brought on guided tours of this place to let them see how we treated those less fortunate than ourselves and also to show them how lucky they are themselves. While it is a shameful reflection on the Church it also says a lot about other institutions in Irish society who must have known what was going on but did nothing about it. You are right to ask the recently elected politicians to take this on now – it will be very interesting to see their response. Please let us know which of the politicians engage with you on this.
Well done Mannix, I will raise this issue with other activists in Ringsend. This building should be preserved as a monument to the hidden social history of Ireland, and the still to be independently investigated collusion of church, state and judiciary in their treatment of women and girls up till the 1990s. Best Wishes, Tom.
Thanks Tom, much appreciated. See you soon Mannix
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I have looked at the pictures and read this.
I am not shocked, I am delighted that someone had the guts to bring this to public view and out to public view another piece of our history that involved the exploitation and blighting of innocent women for the profit and comfort that accrued to others.
No doubt some of these others never washed a pair of socks or their dirty under ware, why would they, instead they ate the best food, sent their children to fee paying schools, planted them in the best jobs, drank the best champagne and drove big cars, holidayed in the sun, sat in the front seats when the pope was in the Phoenix Park, boosted of their exploits and looked down their noses at others while they went on their way.
Blessed are the women who filled those boxes for Aras An Uachtaran, washed and ironed the shirts of De Valera, Childers, Hillary, the banks and the likes in my eyes and not those who exploited their plight and used their bringing into this world to live a lie and ill think that they were the chosen ones.
Alas history will tell the truth but it will be too late for those women.
However by the this small message I salute and applaud them.
I’m a young female who has just moved to Dublin. I care deeply about sharing important stories, and in this case, preserving the buildings that tell them. I’m a writer and a photographer that would like to render my services as well as my signature. Would you be able to give me access to photograph the place? I could do a piece on it and get signatures from my international readers.
Recent photos and words can be found here: http://www.morwithless.com
I can be reached here: email@example.com
Thanks for this post. How did you get access to the building? I circumnavigated it today, along with the Sisters of Charity. While I know the one site was sold, it was interesting how clearly separate the two were.
Hi Mannix, could you get in contact with me to discuss something very personal. Thank you.
I’m curious where this stands. Especially in light of the recent discoveries in Galway. Any luck getting the sale halted – and/or – access to the facility for more photographs/possible filming?
Please is there any way I can talk to you more about this. I had the privilege of seeing this place in the flesh last year and it has effected me the same way it has you. Its an absolute sin that it is for sale, i am so disheartened. Please email me firstname.lastname@example.org