The former ‘Gloucester Street’ Magdalene Laundry, Sean McDermott Street, Dublin 1
In the Dublin Inquirer.
Cónal Thomas writes:
Leaving Mullet’s Bar on Amiens Street one night in the late 1970s, Betty and Tony Dunleavy strolled home to their small flat. It was shortly after 12:30am.
Rounding the corner of Buckingham Street onto Sean McDermott Street, the young couple passed the looming red-brick structure on their left, the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, behind which the Magdalene laundry stood.
“On our way home, we’d always pass the convent,” says the now 69-year-old Tony, sat at the small kitchen table in his house on Champion’s Avenue, recalling the night that he and his late wife heard a cry in the dark.
Caught in the barbed wire wrapped around the convent’s front gate, a woman was trying to escape. As the couple passed by, she called for help.
From top: The former ‘Gloucester Street’ Magdalene Laundry, Sean McDermott Street, Dublin 1; the plans for a 351-bed hotel on the site by Japanese hotel chain Toyoko Inn; Gary Gannon
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” – George Orwell.
Dublin City Council has identified a preferred bidder for the Sean McDermott Street site that contains the last Magdalene Laundry to cease its operations, and the only former religious controlled laundry of its type that is currently in the possession of the State.
Last Tuesday, I was invited along with the seven other councillors who were elected to the North Inner City ward of Dublin City Council for an update on the proposed sale of the “Sean McDermott Convent Site”.
As I have been quite vocal about the importance of preserving this site as a centre of commemoration and remembrance to the victims and the survivors of not only this, but all religious controlled institutions of incarceration that have existed in this State since our foundation, I attended this meeting with some apprehension for what I was to be presented with.
I had anticipated being disappointed by any potential sale of a site of such enormous social and cultural importance to the shared memory of the Irish people, but in the week that has followed, my emotions upon remembering that meeting have been a heavy assortment of anger, sadness, and disbelief that such disregard could be shown to the suffering that occurred to Irish women on this site.
Dublin City Council’s preferred bidder for the site is the Japanese Hotel chain, Toyoko Inn. It is their intention to build a 351 bed hotel on this site.
They operate a type of no-frills business hotel model and have a reputation for almost exclusively hiring women with over 95% of their workforce being exclusively female. In 2015, the Toyoko Inn group purchased the Kinsealy Estate of former Taoiseach Charles Haughey.
In reporting on that sale, the Journal.ie quoted from an English language flyer for the hotel group which referred to the benefits of the unusual hiring practice:
“Beginning with the manager, the majority of our front desk and housekeeping staff are women,” it said. “Their dedicated efforts ensure a pleasant and comfortable stay for all our guests.”
I am very much open to being informed otherwise but it seems to be a cruel joke that given what occurred at this site for over one hundred years, where impoverished women were forced to clean the dirty bed-sheets of the major hotels in the city to generate huge profits for the religious institutions, that very shortly on this same site there will once again be people of low-income being paid relatively very little to clean and serve the needs of others in order to generate enormous wealth for a foreign institution.
The hotel group also intend to build a 140 bed student residence on the site. I have no problem at all with the emergence of student accommodation around the city but given that they come with no Part V conditions nor rent control for the students trying to access them, they are merely being used as means to exploit wealthier international students in their current form.
The proposal also includes ten residential units. I’ll repeat that because when I first heard it I couldn’t quite grasp what was being said to me. The proposal includes the plans for ten residential units. Ten. Four of which will be social units and six that will be sold privately.
That is ten units in the middle of the worst housing crisis in the history of the State in which people are dying on our streets and over 3000 homeless children are being crammed into family hubs and single room hotel accommodation.
There will be a cultural amenity on the site; a type of concert hall that will be built in what was previously the Church in the convent quarters of the former Magdalene Laundry. In normal circumstances I would be thrilled by such a development but it isn’t anticipated that this would be a public amenity but rather owned and operated by the purchaser.
This is of course their right as owners but this was once a place of communal gathering for the local community, and agnostic as I may be, I must admit that this particular church was one of beauty.
There are some retail units also planned and the welcome addition of a small community space for a youth drug rehabilitation project that currently operates out of the laundry. But what is not in the plans, is any reference at all to a memorial that was promised to the surviving women of the Magdalene Laundries.
This memorial to the victims was a recommendation made by Justice Quirke in 2013 and is something that many of the survivors and their representative groups hold very dear. I and other Councillors at this meeting did enquire as to the location of the memorial and it was suggested that it would be decided after the sale by the new owners of the site in consultation with DCC.
Quite literally, the memorial to the women incarcerated at this laundry and others will be an after-thought. That is both reprehensible and unforgivable.
To me, the sale of this former Magdalene laundry site represents the final stage of the cover up of abuse, coercion and control of women in this country. Only a fortnight after an ombudsman report found that many survivors were wrongfully denied redress, the deliberate attempts to forget and to airbrush our shameful past is almost complete.
You can stop this sale though. The final decision to dispose of council land is a reserved function of elected members to Dublin City Council.
I strongly encourage you to contact your local Councillors and inform them not to accept neither this sale, nor any other disposal of this property that doesn’t contain a suitable memorial that honours and commemorates the Magdalene women both past and present.
And most importantly, a memorial that is designed in consultation with the survivors themselves and the various different representative groups who have fought alongside them for many years.
Gary Gannon is a Social Democrats Councillor on Dublin City Counicil for Dublin’s North Inner City. Follow Gary on Twitter: @1garygannon
From top: The former ‘Gloucester Street’ Magdalene Laundry, Sean McDermott Street, Dublin 1; Gary Gannon
Today marks the 21st anniversary of the closure of Ireland’s last remaining Magdalene Laundry.
The building that was once known to generations of Dubliners as ‘The Gloucester Street laundry’ ceased its operations on October 25th, 1996, with 40 women, the eldest of which was 79 at the time, remaining in residence for many years thereafter.
How one might describe the current condition of the building will depend upon the vantage point from which it is viewed.
If you are to witness the building from the Sean McDermott Street side, you will find an almost pleasant looking, red-bricked façade that is defined only by its own inertia.
The front facing windows, of which there are close to fifty, are never broken, you will find absolutely no graffiti on the walls and should you pass it, as many people do on their way to, or from O’Connell Street which is less than a quarter of a mile away, you will find nothing particularly noteworthy in the aesthetics of that side of the structure.
Pope John Paul II himself was driven past the Gloucester laundry along that very route in 1979 on his way to address over one million people in the Phoenix Park.
My mother, who was reared just around the corner on Foley Street in the heart of Monto, stood just across the road on that day, among thousands of other locals who gathered around Lourdes Church in expectation that Pope John Paul would visit the shrine of Matt Talbot.
My mother talks about that day with such fondness in her voice. She laughs as she tells me that she placed herself right alongside a large handcrafted banner that read: “John Paul, don’t forget to visit Matt”, and although the Popemobile apparently sped down Sean McDermott St ‘faster than any joyrider ever had’, she still cites proudly the feeling of spiritual empowerment that she felt on that day.
I’ve always loved that memory and the manner in which my ma tells it but it is only in very recent times that I have started to wonder about the faces that must have peered out of those many windows of the Gloucester Laundry at the time and how they must have felt if they were able to see the banner that my mother stood close to.
What I have always understood to be the back of this laundry has an altogether different aesthetic to that which exists at the front. If you are familiar with Railway Street, you will surely understand it to be one of the most visually depressing streets in the State.
If you view the laundry from Railway Street, you will see that the walls that were built in 1887 to shield those who resided inside stand over twenty feet tall.
These walls represent more than mere tools of incarceration, though they certainly served as them too; these walls were built by the Church as offensive weapons in a war for moral purity and placed very purposefully in the heart of Europe’s largest and by all accounts most prosperous red light districts.
These walls are still there today and continue to cast a long shadow over the Inner City community that surrounds it. They are beyond any description that simply cites them as being grim or bleak. All of the windows that you can view from the back are broken.
Barbed wire adorns the tops of the structure and graffiti, of which includes a colourful representation of a scuba diver spray-painted by some talented randomer on to the jail-house like door that sits at the central base of the structure.
The scorch marks from the many stolen cars that have been burnt-out along the walls of the laundry extend almost to the height of the two crucifixes that stand at the top of the walls.
This is the location of my childhood nightmares. Around town, this is the place we knew our parent’s meant when our messing would annoy them enough to the point that they would warn us that ‘the nuns would come and get us’ if we didn’t start behaving better.
This is ground zero of the heroin epidemic that destroyed countless numbers of young working class lives since the early eighties. Open drug dealing still occurs at this location on a daily basis but of far more importance to me at this point, is that a conveyor belt of primarily working class young people will arrive here year after year to self-medicate for an inherited trauma that is as yet to be defined.
This is the location where just last week, a video went viral of some thug placing a firework into the hood of young woman whose screams in the face of such a terrifying experience, were the subject of an afternoon of radio show phone-ins. This is a place where cruelty feels comfortable.
This last operational Magdalene Laundry which closed its doors just two decades ago today has recently been placed up for sale by Dublin City Council.
It is the only Magdalene laundry of its kind that is currently in the possession of the State. Rumours abound that a “business hostel” or a hotel of some description will in the coming years occupy the site and that the local community will somehow benefit from this in a manner that many of us have yet to accept as a worthy trade-off for what we stand to lose once the sell-off is completed.
This is the site that was recommended by Justice Quirke in May of 2013 as a location considered suitable for a memorial that would ‘honour and commemorate the Magdalene women past and present’.
This promised memorial has yet to materialise in any form but where there was once talk of a museum, or a beautiful garden, that may have began to go some way to providing the space needed to truly reflect on what occurred not only here but throughout the State; unelected officials of Dublin City Council now respond that it is they who will ensure ‘that there is a suitable memorial to the residents of this convent building as part of any futureredevelopment’.
Let’s just stop this fallacy now. As a people, we are defined not only by what we choose to commemorate but also by how we choose commemorate it.
Only a small number of us had relatives who where actually in the GPO on Easter 1916, or had the fortune of asking a member of the Black and Tans to ‘come out and fight them like a man’, but there are few families amongst us whose very recent lineage was not impacted by the mass institutional incarceration that occurred at this site, or in the nine other Magdalene laundries; or in the Mother and Baby homes; or in the Industrial Schools, the orphanages, the mental institutions, or what ever other description was used to describe an institution in our State that served to prohibit the liberties and profit from the forced servitude of those innumerable amounts of people that were deemed morally impure, sexually promiscuous, or too impoverished for inclusion in the acceptable face of Irish society.
A post nationalist narrative of Irish identity will be one that comes to terms with the collusion that existed between Church, State, and the Irish people and how the consequences of those choices that were made consciously, or otherwise by this trinity, are still being felt to this day.
To my mind, there is no more visceral representation of what the author and Justice For Magdalene’s campaigner James Smith referred to as Ireland’s ‘Architecture of Containment’ than the former laundry site that sits in the heart of Dublin’s Inner City and closed twenty two years ago today.
Mass incarceration and the abuse that occurred within these institutions be that physical, sexual or the forced exploitation of labour is the unspoken stain that exists on the conscience of Irish society. We are not alone in this regard and many nations with whom we share values have chosen to confront the darkest chapters in their own histories.
In Germany, the phrase ‘Vergangenheitsbewåltigung’ which translates as ‘coping with the past’ has become a key concept since unification and has manifested in the form of memorials such as ‘The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ and the ‘Topography of Terror’, a museum built on the site of the former headquarters of the Gestapo and Nazi SS.
The importance of recognising tragedy has found further outlet in the recognition of the Cambodian genocide and the importance that the slaughter of My Lai currently holds in the collective memory of American veterans and the Vietnamese people.
The Irish people need a physical space where our future generations can touch the walls and understand that what happened here wasn’t exaggerated.
How else do we explain to our grandchildren that amongst many other deeds, that women in this country were for many decades after independence forced into religious controlled labour camps on the belief that they could cleanse themselves of some perceived immorality through constant labour, prayer and isolation.
How can posterity fully comprehend that it was the State itself who awarded profitable contracts to these same religious institutions and at times when the innocent inmates sought to flee from their daily penance of scrubbing the washing of Mountjoy prison inmates or the large hotels who operated within its vicinity.
That the Sisters of Charity would ring-out the bells of the convent to notify the authorities and the local community that they had escaped from their bonds and seek assistance in returning the women to within the walls that we now seek to sell off.
We could create something truly meaningful at that location. That beautiful garden that was spoken of in 2013 by Justice Quirke would be nice to begin with, then perhaps even a centre of commemoration and remembrance to both the victims and the survivors of the Magdalene Laundry’s or the many other institutions of moral repression that existed throughout the State since our foundation.
In time, the sheer scale of that building would permit the opportunity for some form of social history museum to evolve naturally that could breathed new life into the local area in a way that another soulless hotel simply couldn’t.
We really aren’t ready sell off this former ‘Gloucester Laundry’ which currently has two faces, is situated in the heart of our nations capital and ceased its operations a mere twenty three years ago today.
At a very minimum we need to excavate the site first- among the many possible things we could find there is a better understanding of who we are.
Gary Gannon is a Social Democrats Councillor on Dublin City Counicil for Dublin’s North Inner City. Follow Gary on Twitter: @1garygannon
The former Donnybrook laundry compound in Dublin 4 (top) is currently up for sale (centre) and is expected to sell for around €3million.
The Sisters of Charity ran the laundry from 1883 until 1992 when the order sold it to a private owner who, in turn, ran it as a commercial laundry until 2006.
A former resident, who didn’t wish to disclose her name, spoke to RTÉ journalist Brian O’Connell about the year she spent in the former Donnybrook magdalene laundry in the 1970s. Independent Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn was also interview.
The woman returned to the laundry with Mr O’Connell – her first time back at the laundry in around 40 years.
As they walked, she explained how she was in the Navan Road mother and baby home until she was two and a half, before living in several different Catholic-run institutions before eventually being sent to Donnybrook in her late teens.
After she left Donnybrook she didn’t really speak about the magdalene laundry until the Residential Institutions Redress Board got in contact with her.
“I wasn’t allowed in to talk to them [the redress board]. The solicitor talked to the redress board for me, which I was annoyed [about] because I wanted to go in and tell my story. And the way I was treated in the magdalene laundries, and in industrial schools, do you know what I mean? In the orphanage it was very bad, very bad. We were starving and we never got proper food to eat, not proper clothes. I never had proper jumpers, I used to darn all the jumpers.
“And my hair used to be shaved to the scalp. We used to rob the orchards, do you see, you know? And if you were caught robbing in the nun’s orchard, your hair would be shaved. I was locked into a press for three or four days without a bit to eat. That’s the truth, I wouldn’t tell you a lie.”
The woman was locked in the press because she robbed apples out of hunger.
She then described what life was like in the Donnybrook laundry.
“[It was] torture, torture. The work in there, we were so tired at night going to bed, do you know what I mean? And then up at six or half six in the morning to scrub the floors… and then marched in to church for prayers. And then down to work again. You might get bread and dripping or bread and Stork margarine or a cup of cocoa for breakfast in the morning….They ruined our lives. On my deathbed I’ll be thinking about it. I’ll never forgive them [the orders].”
“We were never allowed to talk to each other, even in the dorms at night, we were never allowed to talk. We had no education, they took away my childhood, I was just traumatised. I got electric shock [treatment], I went to commit suicide when I came out, over the convents. I took an overdose of tablets and everything. Thinking back on all this, what had happened me: why my mother left me?”
The woman is still looking for her mother.
“I asked nuns where’s my mother. ‘Who’d have the likes of you’ – that’s what I was told.”
A United Nations Committee has criticised what it calls “the continued refusal” by the four religious orders that ran the Magdalene laundries in Ireland to contribute to a redress fund for survivors of abuse.
The congregations are the Irish Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy.
They say they are helping in other ways, chiefly by continuing to provide residential care for about 130 former laundry workers.
1. The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.
2. 1° Freedom of conscience and the free profession and practice of religion are, subject to public order and morality, guaranteed to every citizen.
2° The State guarantees not to endow any religion.
3° The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious profession, belief or status.
4° Legislation providing State aid for schools shall not discriminate between schools under the management of different religious denominations, nor be such as to affect prejudicially the right of any child to attend a school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.
5° Every religious denomination shall have the right to manage its own affairs, own, acquire and administer property, movable and immovable, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.
6° The property of any religious denomination or any educational institution shall not be diverted save for necessary works of public utility and on payment of compensation.
This [The Magdalene survivors’ redress] is very clearly a matter relating to compensation. As far as I can see it’s there in black and white, the state doesn’t have to ask for the property at all, it’s false modesty…
We don’t know our bottom from our Bunreacht (see comments). Apologies.