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'It was like a jail': What should become of Ireland's last Magdalene Laundry?

It was the last laundry in the State to close in 1996 and has become a focal point for potential memorialisation.

download Our Lady of Lourdes convent on Sean McDermott Street. Source: GoogleMaps

TWO YEARS AFTER Councillors rejected plans for a hotel at Ireland’s last Magdalene Laundry, focus has once again turned to the site on Dublin’s Sean McDermott Street.

It was the last laundry in the State to close in 1996 and has become a focal point for potential memorialisation. 

Dublin City Council – which owns the site – is currently working on possible options for the future of the former convent and surrounding lands, according to a spokesperson. 

It is also still in informal discussion with The National College of Ireland with a view to using part of the former convent for educational purposes. 

The Government also has plans for the site.

It is understood that Government officials are also in contact with Dublin City Council in relation to its future use. 

The Government’s preference is for a memorial or archival centre for commemoration. It is also expected that housing on the site will feature should plans progress, one source said. 

Meanwhile, Open Heart City, a voluntary collective of survivor groups, historians and architects, has been working since last summer to map out how best to create a ‘Site of Conscience’ at the former convent. 

Sites of Conscience have been set up worldwide. They are museums and memorials that highlight history, and in the process try to promote justice and human rights.

Examples include the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, and the Perm-36 Gulag Museum in Perm, in Russia, and the Maison des Esclaves – or House of Slaves – on Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal.

The Open Heart City collective has engaged with survivors and the local community to set out how this might be achieved. 

“The strongest motivation [behind the project] is that survivors, not just of Magdalene Laundries, whenever they’ve been consulted…want public education and, particularly, education on the national curriculum about what happened,” says Katherine O’Donnell, History of Ideas, UCD School of Philosophy, and a member of Justice for Magdalenes Research.

“And it seems that this site uniquely allows for that. It’s in public ownership, it’s a large site, and it’s right in the heart of our Capital City.”

‘Memorial’

The questions arising from the Open Heart initiative and the Government’s interest in the site have previously been explored by TheJournal.ie here.

How best to create a national archive of records related to institutional trauma in Ireland in the 20th century and ensure that all survivors and stakeholders are consulted?

These issues will continue to be explored and debated over the coming months as parties try to reach a consensus on the future use of the former convent, which was run by The Sisters of Charity from 1887. 

What is clear is that Government has now committed to memorials to both Magdalene Laundries and Mother & Baby Homes but delivered neither. 

In 2013, Justice John Quirke recommended that the former laundry site on Sean McDermott Street should be used for a memorial. 

In the Dáil that year, Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave a State apology to Magdalene survivors and said the Government would finance a memorial. 

“I am also conscious that many of the women I met last week want to see a permanent memorial established to remind us all of this dark part of our history,” said Kenny.

I agree that this should be done and intend to engage directly with the representative groups and of as many of the women as possible to agree on the creation of an appropriate memorial to be financed by the Government separately from the funds that are being set aside for the direct assistance for the women.

In October 2020, Minister Roderic O’Gorman said that €500,000 had been set aside for a memorial at the former High Park Laundry in Drumcondra and that his Department planned to set up a Steering Committee to progress a memorial. 

A spokesperson for The Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth said that this Steering Group has been set up by Respond Housing Agency to consider the issue of a suitable memorial at the High Park site.

“The Department is represented on this group and a further meeting is expected to be arranged in the coming weeks to advance this project further.”

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Following publication of The Commission of Investigation’s Report into Mother & Baby Homes, Government again committed to delivering a National Memorial and Records Centre related to institutional trauma in Ireland in the 20th century.

It also committed to developing an all-Ireland memorial in consultation with former residents and other key stakeholders as well as local memorials. 

‘A Jail’

Deirdre Cadwell was raised in the Good Shepherd Convent in Co. Waterford.

As a teenager, she was sent to Dublin, and was moved back and forth between High Park in Drumcondra and Sean McDermott Street laundry from 1978 to 1982.

She was brought to Sean McDermott Street, she says, “as punishment”. 

There the nuns put her to work from 7am to 6pm. “It was basically a jail,” recalls Cadwell. 

Forty years on, she wants the Sean McDermott Street site preserved for educational purposes and social housing. 

“I still feel that this piece of property should be remembered for what it was. But a part of it should go back to the people of the area,” said Cadwell.

“I think part of that land should go towards social housing, for the elderly. I’d also like to see a memorial, or interactive museum. 

“It’s history and it should be a place that children can go with their school to see it,” said Cadwell. 

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She adds that there should be a memorial garden under any redevelopment. “So when we want to go there, we can go there. Other than just going to the cemetery.”

‘Potential’

O’Donnell of Open Heart City says the collective is committed to working alongside local community organisations regarding the long-promised restoration of the nearby Rutland Street School. 

Consultations with local stakeholders and survivors have been ongoing for more than six months. 

It is planned that a ‘Vision Document’ and plans for a temporary pavilion at the site will be finalised in the coming months. 

O’Donnell says if the Sean McDermott Street site is redeveloped with survivors in mind, it could provide a framework for other memorials to institutional abuse around the country. 

“If we get this right, or even half-right, it could show the potential for what these sites can do,” she said. 

The Council, meanwhile, said Councillors are debating what the various options may be for the site and are working on developing a set of guiding principles to assist in their consultations with stakeholders.

“The City Council has not formally entered into negotiations with any parties until Elected Members and management can devise a new brief for the site that offers opportunities for the local community while delivering on a fitting memorial,” a spokesperson said. 

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