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Magdalene memorial: 'I grew up in the shadow of that laundry'

If we are truly committed to remembering those darkest parts of our history, then we should preserve the Sean McDermott Street building as a living monument, writes Gary Gannon.

Gary Gannon Social Democrats councillor with Dublin City Council

HOW WILL WE explain to our children and our grandchildren what occurred inside the Magdalene Laundries?

Will they believe us when we tell them that, for many decades after our independence from colonial rule, we incarcerated women in religious-controlled labour camps on the belief that, through the cleaning of other people’s laundry, through prayer and isolation, they could be cleansed of the sin and immorality that, they were told, was entrenched deep within their souls?

Will they think my generation also complicit in these injustices?

I grew up in the shadow of that laundry

I was already eight years old when the last Magdalene Laundry ceased its operations on 25 October 1996. I grew up in the shadow of that laundry that for decades loomed over my native Sean McDermott Street, in the heart of the inner city Dublin constituency that I would later represent.

I will be unable to tell my grandchildren anything about the individual women who were enslaved inside this imposing building: they were hidden behind enormous grey walls of both mortar and silence.

But I hope that through my words I can paint a picture in their minds of the austere, foreboding menace of this building.

It may help them to understand that this style of architecture was designed not merely to contain a captive workforce, but to act as a warning to the surrounding population that they must conform to the so-called moral standards set by the duopoly of church and state in post-independence Ireland.

Covering up abuses

If curiosity or conscience lead my grandchildren or yours to question their elders’ complicity in the continuation or cover-up of the abuses that befell an unknown amount of women in Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, then it might be a good idea to sit together and watch former Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s apology to the surviving women of the Magdalene Laundries who gathered in the Dáil chamber on a very cold February evening in 2013.

“The Magdalene women might have been told that they were washing away a wrong, or a sin, but we know now, and to our shame they were only ever scrubbing away our nation’s shadow,” he said.

Our Taoiseach’s words were extraordinarily beautiful that evening. I felt that he was apologising on my behalf. His tears were our tears; the emotion portrayed in his speech was an indication to me that we were finally coming to terms with the darkest episodes of our own past.

Yet it is from that time, and not from the foundation or closure of the laundries that my own – our own – true complicity dates.

Compensation for lives left in ruins

Enda Kenny’s cathartic apology coincided was shortly followed by a recommendation from Justice John Quirke’s Commission that the government should not only apologise to the surviving victims of the laundries, but – following the principle of restorative justice – offer them compensation for lives left in ruins.

To our shame as a nation, this recommendation has been implemented at best poorly, and often not at all.

Nor has there been any progress on another of Justice Quirke’s key recommendations, which called for a State memorial to honour and commemorate the Magdalene women past and present. Enda Kenny seemed to understand and acknowledge the importance of this to the survivors, referring in his State apology to a “permanent memorial established to remind us all of this dark part of our history”.

As the Sean McDermott Street building was the only former laundry site still in the possession of the State, it was suggested that this would be a suitable location for a museum, a beautiful remembrance garden or even a commemorative centre. Of utmost importance was that this memorial be designed in consultation with the surviving women themselves.

Preserve it as a living monument

If we are truly committed to remembering those darkest parts of our history, then we should preserve the Sean McDermott Street building as a living monument where future generations can touch the walls and understand the suffering which occurred inside these religious controlled laundries.

Yet today we are failing them again. Once more our collective indifference is adding further insult to those survivors and victims who want their suffering to be remembered.

Instead of moving to protect the site on Sean McDermott Street, Dublin City Council has decided to sell it on the private market. The council has already identified a preferred bidder for the site – the Japanese hotel group, Toyoko Inn, which has made an offer of just over €14 million.

There is nothing in the Japanese company’s plans that were accepted by the council that refers to a potential memorial to honour the Magdalene women both past and present.

Brendan Kenny, the deputy Chief Executive of Dublin City Council did make an appearance on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme earlier this week to assure us that “there will definitely be a memorial for the residents of the Magdalene home…. that will be stitched into the development agreement with the developer.”

While Kenny’s assurances are to be welcomed, I do hope that he can appreciate that the women who were incarcerated in this and indeed other Magdalene laundries throughout the State, deserve so much more than a plaque on a wall to memorialise the cruelty that was imposed upon them.

It was a particular source of indignation to me while reading the proposal for the sale of this site from DCC to the Toyoko Inn hotel group, that what was very firmly woven into the agreement was a commitment that the Sisters Of Charity religious order, would continue to hold six car parking spaces at the site after the sale.

A very suitable memorial to their greed

The Sisters of Charity are the religious order who for over one hundred years profited from the labour and the exploitation of the women imprisoned in this particular Magdalene Laundry. They hold a 999-year lease for six car parking spaces on the site in the centre of the city.

Their six car parking spaces on this lucrative spot in the centre of the city will act as a very suitable memorial to their greed, and will act as a lasting testament to how well the interest of religious orders have been protected by the State.

There has been no indication that Dublin City Council intend to consult in any meaningful manner with the Magdalene survivors, their relatives, or their representative groups regarding the sale of this only former Magdalene laundry to be the State’s possession, or how their experiences should be memorialised.

Nor does it now seem likely that there will be that commemorative centre, the museum that was recommended by Justice Quirke in 2013, or just a space where inquisitive grandchildren can in the future, touch the walls, and understand the enormity of what occurred here in this dark chapter of our past.

We are all now complicit

We are all now complicit. The sale of this former Magdalene Laundry represents the final stage of the cover-up of abuse, coercion and control of women in this country. The denial of their suitable memorial would be the final insult to a group of women who have already suffered so much at our hands.

Without deeds, our apologies are worthless.

Gary Gannon is a Social Democrats Councillor for Dublin’s North Inner City. He has started an online petition to halt the sale of the former Magdalene Laundry on Sean McDermott Street and to instead turn the site into a permanent commemorative centre in consultation with survivors’ groups. 

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About the author:

Gary Gannon  / Social Democrats councillor with Dublin City Council

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