A HEART-RENDING play about the notorious Magdalene laundries, opened this week and stars two Cork actresses and is directed by a Cork woman.
Eclipsed, which opened at the Mill Theatrein Dundrum Town Centre on Tuesday and runs until Saturday, February 8, may come to Cork later this year.
The play premiered 28 years ago when the scandal of Ireland’s Magdalene laundries was only just beginning to emerge.
Now, the play, written by a former novice and teacher, Patricia Burke Brogan, is on the Leaving Certificate syllabus.
It was inspired by octogenarian Patricia’s experience as a young novitiate at a Magdalene Laundry in Galway’s Forster Street. She was there to supervise so-called fallen girls and women but was so shocked by what she witnessed at the laundry that it influenced her decision to leave the nuns’ order. She has remained an active member of the Catholic Church but never forgot what she saw, describing being there as “like I was in Dante’s inferno.”
Directed by Kate Canning, originally from Fermoy and an arts graduate of UCC with a masters in drama and theatre studies from the university, the play is an important testimony to a shameful period in our history, she says.
“I had been trying to get the rights for this play for a while,” says Kate. She and her colleagues at the Mill Theatre are interested in attracting young audiences.
“Because the play is on the curriculum, I am able to do it because I can get audiences from schools as well as a public audience. I’ve hired professional actors and a creative team.”
The production has been aided by a friend of Kate’s, Cork-born Dr Sarah Anne Buckley from NUI Galway. She is the historical advisor, giving the cast an idea of the context of the play.
Kate points out that “there needs to be a bit of time before the arts can have a response to a traumatic event. That was the case with the Holocaust”.
Sarah feels that we have a long journey ahead of us before all the truth comes out about the laundries.
The all-female cast of eight includes Rachel O’Connell, who has been in The Young Offenders as a teacher and will be making a comeback in the Cork-based hit-comedy drama this year. Rachel is from Mayfield and attended the drama course at Colaiste Stiofán Naofa where the former head of the course, Marion Wyatt, gave her plenty of opportunities.
Rachel has appeared on the stage of the Everyman. Now living in Dublin for the past two years after five years living and acting in New Zealand as well as a few months in India where she trained as a yoga teacher, Rachel started her stage activities with the Montforts as a child.
She plays a character called Brigit in Eclipsed.
“My character is one of the young women in the laundry, mourning having had to give up her daughter, Rosa, for adoption. She is bitter and angry about what is happening to her and she really detests the Catholic Church for what it has done. The play isn’t anti-church. We’re not making the nuns all evil. It’s the whole institution and society that had a problem.”
Aged 34, Rachel says that growing up she “vaguely heard stuff about the laundries. Reading the play, you get quite angry at the injustice of it. It’s so recent (the last Magdalene Laundry closed down in Waterford in 1996) that it’s crazy.
“Around the world, it has always been women that are institutionalised, more than men. What about the men? They got off free.”
Martha Dunlea, 28, from Fermoy originally, attended UCC where she studied occupational therapy.
“I’ve always loved acting but I never really thought of it as a career,” she says.
“When it came to applying for OT jobs, I realised that it wasn’t for me so I started thinking about drama school and got into the Gaiety School of Acting. I haven’t looked back since.”
Martha is playing a character called Cathy.
“She gave birth to twin girls but hasn’t been able to be a mother to them. She has been in the laundry for six years and is absolutely heartbroken. Her children are in an orphanage and she has never seen them. She is always trying to escape from the laundry. When the audience first sees her, she is being brought back to the laundry by Mother Victoria after getting a beating for trying to escape.”
Martha feels that the younger generation needs to know about the laundries.
“With everything that’s going on at the minute regarding women and their rights to their bodies, it’s really important that people are aware of what went on in the past. It’s great to see this play on the syllabus. It’s not something that will be forgotten about.”
Patricia’s writing has been described “as a stark reminder of the brutal intolerance of ‘female deviance’ in our country’s not so distant past, while also being a finely crafted journey of friendship, love, hope and survival.”
Patricia has said of her time at the Galway laundry: “I was given the key, so that transferred the authority to me, and I wondered if I should just open the place and let them out. But most of them had no place to go... when I asked the superior why they weren’t let out, she said: ‘Oh, if you let them out, they’d be back here in no time, pregnant again.”
The play runs at the Mill Theatre, Dundrum Town Centre until this Saturday.