Saturday, July 22, 2017
‘We’re not as far from Magdalene days as we’d like to believe’
‘Eclipsed’ tackled abuse in laundries in 1992. The original cast are set to read it at Galway
“Dear Ellen, I see where you are looking for some information about the Magdalene laundry. I was in the Magdalene laundry for a good many years and I live out in the country now. But I never will forget it to my dying day. The cruelty we got. Slaved like blacks. Some of the girls were dragged by the hair of their heads and more, their hair was cut off simply if they gave the least back answer or were too slow at their work.”
I’m listening to Julian Vignoles RTÉ radio documentary which first aired in 1992.
He explains; “A letter with no name and no address. It was written last summer in response to a newspaper advertisement. For nearly 100 years single women who became pregnant, women who weren’t wanted, were banished, by their families, to the Mary Magdalene Home Laundry in Galway City. It was one of many such institutions in Ireland. Their detention was legally dubious. Some women spent the rest of their lives there. This year, a play and a song brought the memory back in Galway . . .”
The play Vignoles talks about is called Eclipsed. Written by a former postulant nun, Patricia Burke Brogan, the first I heard of it was in December 1991 when a friend of mine told me a fledgling theatre company in Galway, Punchbag, was auditioning for a new play set in a Magdalene laundry. I had just finished a two-year acting course and was willing to try out for it. It was my first audition and I landed the part of Mandy, described in the script as one of the “penitent women” signed into a fictional Magdalene laundry for the sin of getting pregnant “outside marriage”. There were eight of us in the cast. Eight women! A record number in what was, and still is, a male-dominated theatre world.
The play itself had never been performed, nor published, nor even finished as a complete piece. It had been workshopped as part of Punchbag’s Month of Sundays project where they took new Irish plays and spent a week working on them with writer, director and actors. They would then be put before an audience at the end of the week, followed by their “constructive criticism”.
It was decided that Eclipsed had the potential to go into full production and as none of the other main theatre companies that Burke-Brogan had sent it to were interested, Punchbag was determined to do it – and its subject matter – justice. I moved down to Galway at the beginning of January 1992 and so began a year which I will always remember as being historically pivotal, in my own life, and also in the life of attitudes to women in Ireland.
We started each morning in rehearsal as we dissected scenes; adding and removing lines, conversations, trying to make the dialogue as tight and real as possible. In our free time we researched our characters. Despite the fact that there were still Magdalene laundries open and operating in Ireland at that time, we knew embarrassingly little about what went on in them. The national conversation on what occurred there was yet to happen. We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.
Because it soon emerged that putting on the play at this time in Ireland – smack in the middle of the X-Case where a 14-year-old girl was prevented from going to England for an abortion – was going to be a powerfully raw experience. There was an angry yet tragic sense of innocence lost, of the sweetness of life cynically denied, which only revealed itself when we began to inhabit our characters. I don’t think I’m being nostalgic when I say that what happened in that small venue in the west of Ireland with this particular group of women transcended theatre. Or perhaps this is what the best sort of theatre was supposed to do.
I played Mandy Prenderville, a young girl who would probably be described – in the language of the day – as being a wee bit “simple”. She is childlike, funny and kind, and describes herself when she finds lipstick to put on, as “gorgeous”. Mandy is a devoted Elvis fan, a girl who loves film star gossip, lipstick and lace and the “lovely velvety seats” of her Richard’s car. “But when I told him about the baby he never spoke to me again. Ever!” she says, still mystified about the injustice of it all. Mandy’s baby died in childbirth, but she will end her days in a mental institution. All of our women had their own stories, each more tragic and unjust than the next. As we increasingly grew to inhabit their worlds, it became difficult to suppress the emotions working on this play produced. I would wake up feeling trapped and depressed and wonder which of my feelings belonged to me and which belonged to Mandy.
Harsh and cruel
When we began to rehearse the play, it seemed automatic somehow to blame the brutal Magdalene regime on a harsh and cruel Catholic Church. But soon we found out that wasn’t the whole story. In the majority of cases the women had been signed in by their own families and official Ireland didn’t just collude in what was, in many cases, illegal imprisonment, it actively supported it by lending the sisters the services of the local gardaí anytime some poor soul would try to make a break for freedom.
And it wasn’t just single pregnant women who were signed in; women who were deemed too “fast” or a little bit “slow” or those who were an unnecessary encumbrance on a brother who had inherited the farm, were also incarcerated. The Magdalene laundries were places to put women who didn’t fit the confined, constrictive, choking respectability of Catholic Ireland. They were women who were surplus to requirements, women who didn’t know their place in a ruthless Catholic hierarchy. As the raging character of Brigit (played by Orla McGovern) roars at my sweet-natured Mandy: “Nobody wants you Mandy! Nobody wants any of us!!”