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
Previously: The Last Laundry