Flowers for Magdalens Commemoration, 2018, New Ross
Reflections – Mary McAuliffe
Last year, 2017, marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the Magdalen Laundry in New Ross, and 2016, marked the 20th anniversary of the closure of the last Magdalen Laundry still operating, at Sean McDermot St in Dublin. 2016, of course, also marked the centenary of the Rising, and this year, 2018, marks the centenary of some Irish women finally achieving the vote. Since the beginning of the decades of centenaries in 2012 we, as a nation, have commemorated the centenaries of many formative moments in the journey towards the formation of this State. In 1912 there was the centenary of the passing of the 3rd Home Rule Bill, which seemed to indicate that Ireland would finally achieve a form of self-government, in 1913 we had the commemoration of the Lock-out Strike and the achievements of the trade union movement. In 2013 / 2014 we had the commemorations of the founding of the Irish Volunteers and Cumann na mBan, in 2015 the funeral of O’Donovan Rossa where Pearse made the resounding call of republicanism ‘the fool, the fools they have left us our Fenian dead and while Ireland holds these graves Ireland unfree shall never be at peace’.
Pearse making the speech at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa (Glasnevin Museum)
In 2016 we had all the national and local commemorations of the Rising, we had the army deliver the tricolour to every school in the country, we had the spectacular march down O’Connell St on April 24th, we had gardens, roads, roundabout renamed after signatories of the proclamation, after women in Cumann na mBan, we had even in 2013 had a bridge over the Liffey named after a young working class trade unionist and rebel, Rosie Hackett. We had museum exhibitions, we had a wonderful new purpose built permanent exhibition, finally, in the headquarters of the Rising, the GPO, we had the 77 women of Cumann na mBan and the Irish Citizen army, arrested after the Rising, commemorated in the re-purposed Richmond Barracks – we had an entire day in 2016, 8th March, International Women’s Day, given over to commemorating the more than 300 women who participated in the Rising, and all female guard of Honour, and speeches from the President, Michael D Higgins, and dignitaries as well the launch of the 77 women of 1916 book and quilt. It was an amazing day for all who attended, RTE even came and filmed the event.
As the radical generation of young women and men, inspired by what Countess Markievicz called the three-great movements, the women’s movement, the national movement and the labour movement were campaigning and planning and putting into action their fight for nation, gender and class freedoms, young girls and women were still being confined to Laundries. In 1913 when a young Jacobs factory girl and Irish Women’s Worker Union member, Mary Murphy, was arrested on the strike line and sent, in lieu of there being no borstal of girls, was sent to the Drumcondra Magdalen. There was general hue and cry about this, and many marches and meeting, at one of which the great socialist James Connolly stated that Mary Murphy had to be released, not simply because of her innocence but because of the type of institution she was in.
High Park Margalden Laundry, Drumcondra, after the fire which destroyed it.
In 1914 in Limerick, a group of Irish Volunteers presented their colour, a beautiful blue flag with a golden sunburst, to their nominal leader, the Irish Parliamentary Party Leader, John Redmond – on the flag we can see that it was made by the ‘girls’ in the Good Shepherd Laundry in Limerick.
The Limerick City Regiment Irish Volunteers Flag. ( Limerick Museum)
This beautiful flag was, wrote historian Liam Hogan, was ‘suitably representative of the Volunteer movement in 1914 – Nationalist and Patriarchal’.
These examples show that as the feminist, nationalist and socialists campaigned for their rights, a parallel and sometimes intersecting history was happening, a history of women and girls incarcerated for some perceived sins against societal norms. As the signatories, Connolly, Pearse, MacDiarmada and the others, signed the Proclamation which promised equality for men and women, did they also mean the women in the Laundries? As Markievicz, Skinnider, Rosie Hackett, Dr Kathleen Lynn and the others campaigned for the equality of women and the right to vote, did they include the women in the Laundry in their considerations? As all the women and men fought in 1916, and later in the War of Independence, did they include the women in the Laundries among those whose freedom they were fighting for? As the Constitution of the Irish Free State was signed in 1922, and which guaranteed equality to women, were the girls and women of the Laundries included in this?
We know the answer…. they were not! Even the most radical of revolutionaries of our revolutionary struggles, Connolly, the Sheehy Skeffingtons, Lynn, and the others did not bring the women of the Magdalen’s into their consideration. And in the State which did come into being, with many of the radicals dead or sidelined, the most conservative of governments combined with the power of the Catholic Church to accelerate the use of the Magdalen system, along with the other institutions of control, the Mother and Baby Homes, Industrial Schools etc.
Women from the Sean McDermott St Magdalen marching in a MayDay procession, 1950’s
As an historian of the women of the revolutionary period I am very proud of the work of the many women and feminist historians whose research and writing has recovered the activism, roles and contributions of women in the Revolutionary years and have made it an integral and essential part of that history. No-one can really write a proper history of this period without including the women. But I am, very often, reminded that not all the histories of women of that period have been written, considered, included or memorialised. Under the sink in my house I have a bar of soap I got when I went to the powerful site-specific play ‘Magdalen’, put on by Anú Productions, in the Sean McDermott St. Laundry.
It is carbolic soap and has a very distinctive smell – everything I smell it I remember – I remember that there are histories that remain hidden, that there are histories that remain lost, that there are histories that are still being deliberately kept from us. But I also know, despite, I would suggest, the sometimes deliberate attempts to make invisible the histories of women who experienced the Magdalen system, that there are ways, powerful ways, of getting around this. We may not have the records that the Orders hold, but we have these graves, and to paraphrase Pearse and his O’Donovan Rossa speech, while we hold and honour these graves, we, and Ireland, will never forget, we will always honour these women and girls.
We have the memories and oral histories of survivors, and we have buildings, buildings like the Sean McDermot St Magdalen, which should be a site of memory and conscience. We have these commemoration ceremonies, in ways, as powerful as a parade outside the GPO. And we have people, survivors, campaigners, activists, artists, writers, historians who will never allow this history to be forgotten; who will in time insist that it sit central to all the other narratives of Irish history. So today, and every day, remember these women, remember their lives, remember their histories and continue to fight for their memories, and for restorative justice.